British Columbia

Woman who claims 'marriage-like relationship' with Buddhist holy figure can sue for support

A Richmond, B.C., woman has been given the green light to sue one of Buddhism's holiest figures for spousal support in a claim that appears certain to tread new legal ground.

Alleges she got pregnant after the Karmapa Lama sexually assaulted her in New York

Ogyen Trinley Dorje, known as the Karmapa Lama, blesses the Peace Monument at the Imperial War Museum in London, England, in May 2017. Dorje is facing a lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court from a woman who claims he got her pregnant after sexually assaulting her. (Neil Hall/Reuters)

A British Columbia woman has been given a green light to sue one of Buddhism's holiest figures for spousal support in a claim that appears certain to tread new legal ground.

According to a B.C. Supreme Court ruling posted Tuesday, Vikki Hui Xin Han claims that even though they have only met in-person four times, she was in a marriage-like relationship with Ogyen Trinley Dorje — known to his millions of followers as His Holiness, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, or simply the Karmapa Lama.

Han, who wanted to be a Buddhist nun, claims she got pregnant when Dorje sexually assaulted her at a New York monastery in 2017 but that what "began as a non-consensual sexual encounter evolved into a loving and affectionate relationship," playing out over text messages through which Dorje gave her hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Karmapa Lama denies any romantic relationship with Han and says any emotional and financial support he provided to her "was for the benefit of the child [she] told him was his daughter."

Han initially sued for just child support, but she asked the court to permit her to amend her claim to include spousal support when the case goes to trial in April 2022.

A 'novel' question

Master Bruce Elwood, the Supreme Court official who granted Han's application, said the case raised a "novel" question: "Can a secret relationship that began online and never moved into the physical world be like a marriage?

"Ms. Han's claim is novel. It may even be weak. Almost all of the traditional factors are missing," Elwood wrote.

"However, the traditional factors are not a mandatory check-list that confines the 'elastic' concept of a marriage-like relationship. And if the COVID pandemic has taught us nothing else, it is that real relationships can form, blossom and end in virtual worlds."

Mountain peaks of the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas glisten in the afternoon sun after heavy rainfall in Dharmsala, India, in this file photo. The Karmapa Lama made international headlines in 1999 when he escaped Chinese-controlled Tibet across these mountains. (Ashwini Bhatia/The Associated Press)

Dorje, who is seen as a successor to the Dalai Lama as a leader of the world's Tibetan Buddhists, was recognized as the 17th reincarnation of the Karmapa Lama by a search party in 1992, when he was seven years old.

He made international headlines in 1999 after fleeing Chinese-controlled Tibet for the Dalai Lama's compound in India when he was 14. The incident strained relationships between China and India.

Dorje is one of two claimants to the title of Karmapa, in one of Buddhism's great controversies. In 2018, the two men met for the first time in an effort to heal divisions between their followers.

While not a judge, Elwood is one of 15 Supreme Court masters who make decisions about pre-trial motions and procedural orders. He said he meant no disrespect in referring to the Karmapa Lama by his last name.

Elwood described Dorje's lifestyle as "monastic and nomadic."

"His true home is Tibet, but he currently resides in India. He receives followers from around the world at the Gyuto Monastery in India," Elwood wrote.

"He also travels the world teaching Tibetan Buddhist Dharma and hosting pujas, ceremonies at which Buddhists express their gratitude and devotion to the Buddha."

'Taking care of her and you are my duty for life'

Han claims she decided to become a nun after meeting Dorje at one such ceremony in 2014.

She started a three-year residence at the U.S. monastery in 2016 and claims she saw Dorje twice more — including October 2017, when she claims he sexually assaulted her.

"After she learned that she was pregnant, Ms. Han requested a private audience with Mr. Dorje," Elwood wrote.

Exiled Tibetans pray in a ceremony in India organized by Buddhist nuns from international nunneries in this file photo. A B.C. woman claims she abandoned her plans to become a Buddhist nun after being sexually assaulted at a monastery in New York. (Ashwini Bhatia/The Associated Press)

"Mr. Dorje initially denied responsibility; however, he provided Ms. Han with his email address and a cellphone number, and, according to Ms. Han, said he would 'prepare some money' for her."

Han abandoned her plan to become a nun and returned to Canada. But as the baby's due date neared, the two remained in contact through instant messaging, email and the telephone.

"The parties appear to have expressed care and affection for one another in these communications," Elwood wrote.

"The parties wrote in a private shorthand, sharing jokes, emojis, cartoon portraits and 'hugs' or 'kisses.'"

Han claimed she believed Dorje was in love with her and that they lived in a "conjugal relationship" by 2018.

In the months leading up to the child's birth in June 2018, Dorje allegedly transferred $420,000 US and $350,000 Cdn to Han, including money for a home and a wedding ring.

In the months that followed, he allegedly wrote: "Taking care of her and you are my duty for life."

According to the decision, Han claimed they had what was in essence a spousal relationship but could not be together because Dorje "is forbidden by his station and religious beliefs from intimate relationships or marriage."

The pair lost contact in January 2019, and Han sued the following June.

'What exactly is a 'marriage-like relationship?'

The situation may be the first to involve an internationally renowned spiritual leader, but it's not the first time the court has been asked to weigh in on the ever-changing nature of what constitutes a "marriage-like relationship."

Elwood refers to a list of 22 factors grouped into seven categories as part of a 1980 case that attempted to come up with an answer. The categories include shelter, sexual behaviour, services inside the marriage, social and societal activities, economic support and children.

A B.C. Supreme Court trial will be held in 2022 to determine if one of Buddhism's revered holy leaders should have to pay child and spousal support to a B.C. woman. (David Horemans/CBC)

On almost every count, Elwood said, the case of the would-be nun and the nomadic lama missed the mark.

They never lived under the same roof, they never had consensual sex, they told no one about the relationship with the exception of Han's mother, they didn't assist each other in domestic chores and they didn't intend to have a child.

But Elwood said the judge who will ultimately decide the case may attach significance to Dorje's financial support.

He said the texts show genuine care and affection.

"They appear to have discussed marriage, trust, honesty, finances, mutual obligations and acquiring family property. These are not matters one would expect Mr. Dorje to discuss with a friend or a follower, or even with the mother of his child, without a marriage-like element of the relationship," Elwood wrote.

"A trial judge may find on the facts alleged by Ms. Han that the parties loved one another and would have lived together, but were unable to do so because of Mr. Dorje's religious duties and nomadic lifestyle."

The decision means Han has 21 days to amend her claim and provide particulars of the marriage-like relationship.

Han's lawyer declined to comment, while Dorje's lawyer has not responded to a request for comment.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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