The baby-faced Buddha

Apr 24, 1999

Category: Urgyen Trinley Dorje

THE KARMAPA OF TIBET IS THE FIRST monk China's atheist rulers have ever I recognized as a newly reincarnated "living Buddha." So he gets special respect, even if he is only 11 and a bit unpolished. When be was presented to Chinese President Jiang Zemin, the Karmapa allegedly blurted out: "Who is this man?" Chinese officials chose to ignore the remark, and last year they invited the Karmapa to tour China. Along the way they lavished the boy with publicity and gifts, including color TV sets, bolts of cloth and agate incense burners. Lest the boy's guardians miss the point of this largesse, Jiang expressed his hope that the, Karmapa will grow up strong, healthy and patriotic." By "patriotic," he means loyal to China-and Tibetans know it.

Beijng's overtures to the boy lama are seen as a Chinese ploy to subdue their national independence movement. Long ago, Chinese emperors routinely attempted to buy the loyalty of Tibet's theocratic rulers. The emperors saw it as a long-term investment, since the senior lamas are believed to hold their offices in perpetuity, through reincarnation. At first the communists didn't play this game. But in 1992, Beijing officially "approved" a boy named Ugen Thinley Dorjee as the 17th Karmapa-one of the living Buddhas" and the third-highest-ranking lama in the Tibetan hierarchy. Since then, Chinese officials have worked to promote the Karmapa as an alternative to the Dalai Lama, Tibet's foremost spiritual leader. The reason: communist leaders seem to figure that the young Karmapa will be more malleable than the Dalai Lama, who has guided Tibet's nonviolent campaign for autonomy since fleeing to exile in India in 1959.

China's maneuvering has triggered a quiet struggle with Tibetan monks for the allegiance of this sharp-eyed boy. The child is genuinely revered in Tibet, in part because the Dalai Lama has confirmed him over his rival as the real 17th Karmapa. Several monks have returned from exile to help train him at the Tsurphu monastery, high in the mountains outside Lhasa. They are fighting to prevent Beijing from turning the Karmapa into a Chinese puppet. A mini-riot broke out at Tsurphu earlier this year after reports that Chinese officials had made derogatory remarks about the Dalai Lama to the Karmapa. When a Chinese official in Lhasa was sent to calm things down, monks stoned his vehicle and smashed its windows. Five o the monks are now in prison, sources at Tsurphu say.

Born into a poor shepherd's family, the 17th Karmapa is leader of the Karma Kagyu, one of Tibetan Buddhism's four main sects. His fame is growing, which seems to make China uneasy. The Karmapa was the subject of a recent German movie, "Living Buddha. " One of his tutors in Tsurphu, Tuden Sambo, says the Karmapa's spends seven hours a studying Tibetan scriptures" and may eventually study English and travel to India though "not just now." In 1993, Beijing denied the Karmapa an exit permit to visit India, prompting international protests an an inquiry from the U. S. government. "Keep in mind that this is a little kid who can't really think for himself yet," says a U.S. official familiar with the case. "It became some thing of a joke among us afterward. "

In Tibet, youth does not diminish the Karmapa's status as the reborn "lord of Tsurphu," even if he does like to play with remote-controlled toy cars on the monastery roof. China also considers the living Buddhas" a real political force-and rightly so. The lamas have traditionally authority. Though Beijing officials say they have allowed Tibet full religious freedom, Tibetans say the authorities set a limit it on the number of monks and nuns that each Tibetan monastery can admit. The communists also ban the sale of photographs of the Dalai Lama, according to the Tibetans, and limit on the size of prayer gatherings, which have occasionally erupted into pro-independence riots in recent years.

Successor search: Tibetans say Chinese authorities have also intervened in the current search for a successor to Tibet's second-ranking religious figure, the 10th Panchen Lama, died in 1989. The succession has yet to be resolved, with loyalists of Beijing, of the late Panchen Lama and of the Dalai Lama afl hoping to gain credit for discovering the new leader.

The Karmapa himself came to power out of an even more bitter struggle following his predecessor's death in 1981. When a rival pretender to the throne materialized in India, there was a split in the sect that led to violent demonstrations. Even the Dalai Lama's endorsement of Tsurphu did not settle the matter: there was an apparent assassination attempt on the Karmapa last year. As a result, the Tsurphu monastery has beefed up security. Burly guards in flowing robes frisk all visitors, who must check all bags, knives and cameras. Few of them are allowed to meet the Karmapa outside a group setting. Behind these walls, the Karmapa appears well protected, at least from internal rivals. But he's still getting those blandishments from Beijing.



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