The Mystery of the Karmapa Lama

Feb 8, 2011

Category: Police Raid Jan 2011

NEW DELHI – The seizure by police of large sums of Chinese currency from the Indian monastery of the Karmapa Lama – one of the most-important figures in Tibetan Buddhism – has revived old suspicions about his continuing links with China and forced him to deny that he is an “agent of Beijing.”

The Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and the Karmapa Lama are the three highest figures in Tibetan Buddhism, representing parallel institutions that have intermittently been at odds with each other throughout their history. And China, seeking to tighten its grip on Tibet, has worked to control the traditional process of finding the reincarnation of any senior lama that passes away.

Thus, in 1992, China helped select the seven-year-old Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa Lama, installing him at Tibet’s Tsurphu monastery – the Karmapas’ ancestral abode, which was almost destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. He became the first reincarnated “living Buddha” to be recognized and ratified by Communist China.

But then, in 1999, Dorje staged a stunning escape to India via Nepal, attracting the world’s attention, but also deep suspicion because of the apparent ease with which he and his entourage managed to flee. The Dalai Lama has hosted him at the Gyuto monastery in Dharamsala, India, ever since.

Earlier, in 1995, China installed its own Panchen Lama after its security services abducted the Tibetans’ six-year-old appointee, who has simply disappeared, along with his family.

Now, China is waiting for the current Dalai Lama – who is over 75 and has had bouts of ill health in recent years – to pass away, so that it can anoint his successor, too. But the Dalai Lama, the charismatic face of the Tibetan movement, has made it clear that his successor will come from the “free world,” thereby excluding Chinese-ruled Tibet. This has set the stage for the emergence of two rival Dalai Lamas, one chosen by China and the other by the Tibetan exile movement.

In fact, the Chinese-appointed Karmapa Lama has a doppelgänger Karmapa, who has set up shop in New Delhi. With both the Karmapas in India, the Indian government has sought to maintain peace by barring the contenders from the sacred Rumtek monastery in the Indian Himalayan state of Sikkim.

Against this background, the discovery of 1.1 million renminbi and large sums of other foreign currency has ignited a fresh controversy over Dorje. While his supporters have staged protests against the police raid and interrogation of their leader, Indian officials have expressed apprehension that China may be funding Ogyen Trinley Dorje as part of a plan to influence the Karmapa’s Kagyu sect, which controls important monasteries along the militarized Indo-Tibetan border.

According to Xu Zhitao, an official at the Chinese Communist Party central committee’s United Front Work Department, the allegation that “the Karmapa [may be] a Chinese agent or spy shows that India is keeping its mistrustful attitude toward China.” But such an attitude seems warranted: Xu’s Tibet division is tasked with overseeing monastic institutions, inculcating “patriotic” norms among monks and nuns – through reeducation when necessary – and infiltrating the Tibetan resistance movement and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries on both sides of the Indo-Tibetan frontier.

Communities in the Himalayan region have historically been closely integrated. But, with Tibet locked behind an iron curtain since the 1951 Chinese annexation, the economies and cultures of the entire Himalayan region have weakened. Tibetan Buddhism, however, still serves as the common link, with the Karmapa’s Kagyu sect a powerful force on the Indian side.

The cash haul has reopened the question that arose in 1999: Was China behind Dorje’s flight to India, or is he a genuine defector who simply got fed up with living in a gilded Chinese cage?

China had several possible motives for staging his “escape,” including a desire to strengthen his claim to the title at a time when the rival contender (backed by important interests in India, Bhutan, and Taiwan) appeared to be gaining ground. Had Dorje remained in Tibet, he could have lost out to his rival, because the 280-year-old Rumtek monastery, the Kagyu school’s holiest institution, is where the sect’s all-powerful “black hat,” the symbolic crown of the Karmapa – believed to be woven from the hair of female deities – is located.

China would also have drawn comfort from the fact that, within the murky world of intra-Tibetan politics, its anointed Karmapa, oddly, had the Dalai Lama’s backing. Historically, the Dalai Lamas and Karmapa Lamas vied with each other for influence until the Dalai Lama’s Gelug school gained ascendancy over the Kagyu order. According to Tibetan tradition, however, the Dalai Lama has no role in selecting or endorsing a Karmapa. The Dalai Lama in this case gave his approval for purely political reasons.

The previous Karmapa Lama died in 1981, and the controversy over his successor that has raged ever since also epitomizes a struggle for control of the $1.5 billion in assets held by the Kagyu order, the richest in Tibetan Buddhism. With control of the Rumtek monastery embroiled in rival lawsuits, the New Delhi-based Karmapa has, not surprisingly, greeted the recent cash seizure as “exposing” his Chinese-appointed rival.

Significantly, in contrast to its increasingly vituperative attacks on the Dalai Lama, China has not denounced (or derecognized) its Karmapa, although his flight to India signaled its failure to retain the loyalty of a supposed puppet. The Mandarin-speaking Ogyen Trinley Dorje, now 25, occasionally criticizes the Chinese government, including for its efforts “to create this ethnic conflict” in Tibet. Nevertheless, China has refrained from attacking him, making clear that it wants him to return eventually.

And the ongoing Karmapa saga, with its shadowy politics and intrigue, could turn out to be only the opening act – a foretaste of what may come when two dueling Dalai Lamas emerge after the incumbent passes from the scene.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan and of Water: Asia’s New Battlefield.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.



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