The Karmapa’s journey

Jan 31, 2011

Category: Police Raid Jan 2011

Ugyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, has intrigued Indian authorities ever since he arrived as a teenager in the winter of 1999-2000. The reasons include a seemingly incredible escape from Tibet’s closely guarded Tsurphu Monastery and a controversy surrounding his recognition as the Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Now, the seizure of 1.1 million yuan (among currency from 24 countries) from Gyuto University, his monastery at Sidhbari near Dharamsala, has triggered a controversy that has led to the Karmapa denying he has any links with China.

A look at his background, from his recognition as the Karmapa to the current controversy:

Born in 1985 to a nomadic family in eastern Tibet, he was formally enthroned at Tsurphu Monastery at the age of seven. It was not a unanimous choice. Following the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981, three followers — Tai Situ Rinpoche, Shamar Rinpoche and Gyltsab Rinpoche — had started a search for a successor and one of them did not go with this choice.

Tai Situ Rinpoche proposed Ugyen Trinley Dorje as the successor, while Shamar Rinpoche put forward the name of Trinley Thaye Dorje. Both have been enthroned as the 17th Karmapa and are performing their ceremonial duties independently, one from India and the other from Tibet. China has recognised Ugyen Trinley Dorje as the Karmapa.

From Tsurphu Monastery to Dharamsala, it was a five-day journey the Karmapa himself has described as daring. Then 14, he reportedly travelled for days on foot and in various other ways including horseback, helicopter, train and taxi to reach Dharamsala on January 5, 2000. Disbelief had surrounded his claims at the time; some even doubted his age. He was given refugee status by India in 2001.

Tai Situ Rinpoche, the Karmapa’s mentor, has remained under the scanner for allegedly building an “empire”. The latest seizure has led to the arrest of the monastery’s treasurer Shakti Lama, with whom the Karmapa is close.

Sources said leaders in the monastery trust have been trying to build an empire locally because legal tangles have virtually ended any hope of a return to Rumtek Monastery, the seat of the 16th Karmapa.

Another controversy around the monastery concerns a move to buy 25 acres in Kangra district. Under the state’s laws, an “outsider” can buy land only with government permission, but the trust reportedly made benaami deals, allegedly with foreign funding, to buy land for two palatial complexes for the Karmapa.

Before the state police’s latest raids, there had been another controversial cash recovery, one of Rs 1 crore. The money was being brought to Himachal Pradesh from Manju-ka-Tila, apparently to clear dues for a land deal of Rs 5 crore.

Intelligence officials, the Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax authorities are probing if last week’s recovery is part of a Chinese plan to fund Indian monasteries in Jammu & Kashmir and other states, sources said.

The Karmapa denies any Chinese connection, while the office of the Dalai Lama has vouched for the fact that the Karmapa has nothing to do with the financial dealings of the monastery. “There are others handling such affairs,” says the spokesman for the Tibetan government-in-exile. Penpa Tsering, Speaker of the government-in-exile, says, “The Karmapa is a respected Buddhist monk and cannot be a Chinese agent.”

The Karmapa has to take permission from the Government of India if he wants to move out of the monastery. Sources in the Tibetan parliament-in-exile said clearance must also be taken from the Office of the Dalai Lama if the Karmapa wants to leave the monastery.

The Karmapa was allowed to travel to the United States in 2008. That trip was closely monitored by the Indian authorities. Last year, the Centre denied him permission to visit the US. It also reduced his security cover last year. He has not been allowed to go to Rumtek either. Last month, the Karmapa held a Kagyu annual prayer function at Bodhgaya monastery; followers from all over the world attended.

In spite of the constant monitoring, the Karmapa has grown in stature over the years, and so has his influence among followers of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism across the world. These include Hollywood stars such as Richard Gere and Tom Cruise; when in India, they visit the Dalai Lama as well as the Karmapa. There is, however, a growing feeling that the latest seizure could dent the institution’s reputation.

The Dalai Lama and the Karmapa both work in Dharamsala but rarely meet. The Kagyu sect headed by the Karmapa is one of four, the others being Nyingma, Sakya and Gelug. The Dalai Lama is the overall head of all four sects, an MP of the government-in-exile says.

Only at certain programmes and special occasions do the two leaders meet. Tsering, the Speaker of the government-in-exile, says, “Yes, the Dalai Lama and Karmapa do not meet too often... they follow different schools of thought, but that does not mean there is any disagreement between them.”



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