Struggle for Tibet's Soul

Oct 20, 2000

Category: Urgyen Trinley Dorje

As Tibetan exiles fight over the true incarnation of a top lama, Beijing is putting its stamp on the process. Will the Chinese choose the next Dalai Lama?

By JULIAN GEARING Lhasa and Dharamsala

Urgyen Trinley can still manage a smile, but his patience is wearing thin. The earlier whirlwind of media attention has given way to boredom as he waits, the days drifting into months. Under gilded-cage captivity at the Gyuto Monastery down the hill from the Dalai Lama's residence in exile in Dharamsala, the 15-year-old Karmapa Lama offers fleeting audiences to Buddhist pilgrims, accepting prayer scarves and handing out red ribbons. An enigma, Urgyen Trinley is guarded by soldiers and barred from giving interviews. His fate is largely in the hands of Indian authorities, who must decide whether to risk China's wrath by allowing him to assume the Karmapa's exile throne at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim. They were surprised and embarrassed by his sudden arrival on Indian soil nine months ago.

Back then, the Tibetan exile community and international journalists had listened excitedly to the tale of the tall, handsome Karmapa Lama braving snowbound mountain passes and border guards to flee his Chinese-controlled homeland. The young lama's flight echoed that of the Dalai Lama himself in 1959. Many people have since wondered: Could this charismatic boy succeed the aging 14th Dalai Lama as leader of the Tibetan diaspora? The question takes on added urgency as overseas Tibetans are increasingly troubled by internal rifts as well as a lack of progress in efforts to open a dialogue with Beijing about the future of Tibet.

But who is Urgyen Trinley? And is he the real 17th Karmapa Lama, Tibet's No. 3 spiritual leader after the Dalai and Panchen lamas? Plucked from a nomad's tent at age seven, he was installed - with Beijing's blessing - in Tibet's Tsurphu Monastery as head of the 900-year-old Karma Kagyu school, one of the region's four main Buddhist sects. But serious allegations of fraud and political skullduggery on the part of his supporters have since hung over his recognition, resulting in the emergence of a rival Karmapa in 1994. Since Urgyen Trinley's arrival in Dharamsala, seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the controversy has intensified. His exit from China has not only widened the divisions within his Karma Kagyu sect, but also focuses attention on the thinly veiled feud between it and the Dalai Lama's dominant Geluk sect.

More important, the Karmapa controversy has highlighted Beijing's growing involvement in the selection of top Tibetan lamas. If the Chinese can determine who gets recognized as the next Dalai, Panchen and Karmapa lamas, their control over Tibet will be sealed as the top lamas are revered by their deeply pious people. For Tibetan exiles, that is an increasingly vivid nightmare. The Dalai Lama, widely regarded as the only figure with the authority to hold the Tibetan exile movement together, is now 65. "When he dies, there will be danger here," says Thupten Rikey, editor of the Dharamsala-based Tibet Journal. Fears about the Dalai Lama's mortality have been heightened by a recent car crash. "If he dies and Beijing can influence or name his reincarnation, the exiles will really be in trouble," says a Tibet specialist in Hong Kong. "Much could depend on how the Karmapa affair plays out."

The man responsible for Urgyen Trinley's recognition and enthronement is Tai Situ Rinpoche, 45. One of four regents charged with safeguarding the Karma Kagyu lineage, he commands reverence from Tibetan and Western followers alike. From Taipei to New York, hundreds of thousands laud his efforts to spread Buddhist dharma, or teachings. They also put their faith in his judgment on key matters, such as recognition of the Karmapa Lama. /Sitting in his spacious new monastery at Sherabling, a two-hour drive away from his charge, Tai Situ is soft-spoken and affable. Urgyen Trinley, he insists, is the true reincarnation of the late, much-respected 16th Karmapa Lama. "There is no such thing as proving, it is proved already," the regent told Asiaweek. "The Karmapa is the Karmapa, Buddha is Buddha, the Dalai Lama is the Dalai Lama. We are believers. That's it."

The short, bespectacled monk has influence, power, certainly money. As a group of Western followers wait patiently for a blessing, Bhutanese artists put the final touches to a huge Buddha statue in the main prayer hall of this modern monastery set in 47 acres of wooded hillside. One of 200 monks cleans and polishes the large photograph of Urgyen Trinley placed on the main throne. With its efficient reception, outdoor cafE and four-wheel-drive vehicles parked out front, the establishment is a far cry from the dark, rat-infested chambers of Tibet's medieval monasteries. Western pop music plays on a ghetto-blaster in one of the monks' bright living quarters. Only the cavernous prayer hall is reminiscent of traditional Tibet.

The search for the Karmapa, says Tai Situ, "was conducted according to the previous Karmapa's instructions," which came in the form of a letter he says was written by Urgyen Trinley's predecessor. The Karma Kagyu sect started the Tibetan practice of finding reincarnated high lamas nine centuries ago. Tibetans believe that advanced lamas can use letters, dreams, meditation and signs to identify tulku, or enlightened beings. Tai Situ is a tulku.

But to his critics, the regent has another side. They accuse him of forgery, violence, intimidation, hoodwinking the Dalai Lama and doing deals with Beijing - all in a bid to assume control of the Karma Kagyu. Also concerned about Tai Situ is the Indian government, which last month received a warning from China against granting Urgyen Trinley asylum in Sikkim. The regent, banned from India in 1994-98 for alleged anti-India and "criminal" activities, is currently prohibited from entering Sikkim. The Indians also worry about law and order, following brawls between Tai Situ's monks and followers of rival Karma Kagyu regent Sharmapa Rinpoche. Sharmapa has produced a competing claimant, Thaye Dorje, to the Karmapa throne.

While Urgyen Trinley is stuck in Dharamsala, the 17-year-old Thaye Dorje - quietly spirited out of Tibet six years ago - is free to roam the world giving teachings. "People should be reassured about him being the Karmapa because he has been recognized according to the Karma Kagyu's traditions," the gruff-faced Sharmapa told Asiaweek. Six years ago, he relied on a dream, meditation and auspicious signs to find Thaye Dorje, then living in Lhasa's Jokhang Temple. "The 16th Karmapa reaffirmed my position as the Sharmapa, the second-highest rank in our sect," he adds. "The Sharmapa has historically been empowered to identify and recognize Karmapas."

The deadlock means that both claimants are in limbo, awaiting official enthronement and the donning of the sacred Black Hat, a ceremony supposed to take place on the Karmapa's 21st birthday. Never has there been such a crisis in the history of Tibetan spiritual succession. Competing candidates, yes, but with only one recognized. Now there are two recognized Karmapas.

Tai Situ is dismissive of his rivals. "We feel sad that something like this has happened," he says. "There are a lot of people who don't know the name of Buddha, who misrepresent Buddhism. We can't get stressed by these things." Sitting on a throne in his guest room, Tai Situ does not look stressed. He holds the high ground in the propaganda war for a simple reason: The Dalai Lama backs Urgyen Trinley. That means so do most Tibetans. Tai Situ has even been able to win over the normally skeptical international press. Urgyen Trinley is the Karmapa, journalists write. No question.

Even so, now that the search for the reincarnations of high lamas has come out of the closed ramparts of the Himalaya, more questions are being asked. Given the growing international appeal of Tibetan Buddhism - even Hollywood stars like Richard Gere and Pierce Brosnan are admirers - the issue is drawing more attention than ever. It is the subject of independent investigations, books and even debates on the Internet. Has the unique process been subject to abuse? Indeed, are its keepers making a mockery of it in personal bids for power and wealth?

The answers are rooted in the recent vicissitudes of a medieval religion. At 18 months, Tai Situ was recognized as the 12th reincarnation in a line of spiritual teachers who had worked alongside the Karmapa Lama. But he was living in an occupied land. Four years before, the Chinese army had completed its "peaceful liberation" of Tibet. The act was sealed by the 17-Point Agreement, signed between Beijing and Tibetan representative Ngabo Ngawang Jigme. Among Tibetans, Ngabo is reviled to this day for the move.

When the 16th Karmapa Lama fled Tibet on the eve of the 1959 revolt against Beijing, Tai Situ followed him. The Dalai Lama left soon afterward. Chinese depredations in Tibet climaxed during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, which saw the devastation of over 6,000 monasteries and the killing, imprisonment and dispersal of tens of thousand of monks and nuns. When Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late 1970s, he tried to repair some of the damage. Beijing allowed some monasteries to be rebuilt and limited religious practice. But having failed to crush Tibetan opposition by force, Communist authorities were looking for the chance to influence the selection of top lamas. The opportunity was not long in coming.

With the death of the 16th Karmapa Lama in 1981 at the age of 56, a daunting challenge faced Tai Situ, Sharmapa, Gyaltsab Rinpoche and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, the young regents entrusted with the search for their master's reincarnation. The 16th Karmapa had proved a gifted, charismatic leader. From his seat in exile at Rumtek, he had built a spiritual and worldly empire with millions of followers and extensive assets. He had also long been at odds with the Dalai Lama, his Sikkim monastery an alternative power base to the latter's government-in-exile in Dharamsala.

Leading the search for the next Karmapa Lama was a task that traditionally alternated between the contemporary incarnations of Tai Situ and Sharmapa. The Sharmapa had been banished for 200 years by previous Dalai Lamas, but was reinstated by the 14th in 1963 in a bid to unite Tibetans. But in the feudal Karma Kagyu hierarchy, Sharmapa's reinstatement as No. 2 behind the Karmapa shunted Tai Situ and his followers down a rung. The scene was set for trouble.

The bad blood helped stall the search for the 17th Karmapa Lama. At the same time, the regents saw opportunity in the growing vista of popular and lucrative dharma centers being set up in Asia and the West. Tai Situ began teaching tours abroad, which grew into a lucrative circuit that would see him dubbed "The Last Emperor" in Hong Kong because of his penchant for expensive hotel suites. In Scotland, he befriended Akong Tulku Rinpoche, who helped found the Samye Ling Buddhist center. It was Akong who saw the opportunity offered by China's new open-door policy.

In an attempt to woo back some Tibetan exiles, Beijing began allowing exile government "fact-finding" missions and private visits. After trips to both Tibet and China's capital, Akong launched a series of humanitarian projects under his charity, Rokpa (Service). He also became Tai Situ's representative to the Chinese government. The regent himself got clearance for a four-month visit to Tibet, during which he proposed measures for education and health care as well as the preservation and propagation of Buddhist culture. "From the Dalai Lama down to every Tibetan in exile, we try to work with everybody in Tibet, that is our duty," says Tai Situ. Like other exiled lamas, he and Akong were ostensibly trying to help their people and rebuilding the damaged religious infrastructure. For that, Beijing declared Akong a "Living Buddha."

The delay in finding the 17th Karmapa Lama led to recriminations. Tai Situ's supporters started a campaign of letters and faxes, blaming Sharmapa. They launched - and lost - a court case claiming he tried to steal the Karmapa's assets. On March 19, 1992, Tai Situ showed his three fellow regents an A4-sized letter, purportedly written by the 16th Karmapa, directing them to where his reincarnation would be found. Sharmapa was shocked. "The letter was obviously fake," he says. "I examined it word for word, and realized the handwriting was not the 16th Karmapa's, but seemed more like Tai Situ's. But Tai Situ steadfastly refused to have the letter tested forensically."

Tai Situ then faxed a copy of the missive to the Dalai Lama and told him that all the regents had agreed on its authenticity (though Sharmapa had not). On that basis, the Dalai Lama accepted the findings. It was a political coup for Tai Situ. He had manipulated the Dalai Lama's intervention in the most important affair of another Buddhist sect. Sharmapa was appalled. "It was not the Dalai Lama's role to get involved," he says. "All past Karmapas have been recognized within the Karma Kagyu lineage."

Urgyen Trinley was said to have been identified from instructions laid out in the letter. But Tai Situ's critics allege that even before securing the Dalai Lama's acceptance, the regent had been to Tibet, found his Karmapa and cleared his choice with Beijing. In 1991, Tai Situ purportedly gave Urgyen Trinley a Buddhist empowerment in Tibet. The same year, says a Chinese government source, Beijing issued an internal directive allowing the monks at Tsurphu monastery to start searching for the new Karmapa "on the basis on the 16th Karmapa's will." Notes a Tibetan source: "This indicates Tai Situ was likely involved with the Chinese since only he had the prediction letter." (The regent's response echoes the words of his friend, Akong Rinpoche: "We try to work with everyone inside Tibet. That is our duty.") In a lavish 1992 ceremony attended by thousands, Urgyen Trinley, dubbed "the Chinese Karmapa," was installed in Tibet's Tsurphu Monastery. The episode marked the first time Chinese Communist authorities had participated in the recognition of a top Tibetan Lama.

Sectarian conflicts worsened among the Tibetan exiles. In 1993, Tai Situ's followers violently ousted Sharmapa and his supporters from the Rumtek Monastery. The next year, Urgyen Trinley was invited to Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. He was congratulated by Chinese President Jiang Zemin and told to work for the good of the motherland and the Communist Party.

Cheered by their successful intervention in installing a Karmapa Lama, the Chinese moved again before long. The 10th Panchen Lama had died in 1989 and no reincarnation had been recognized. At a secret 1993 meeting between senior Chinese and Tibetan officials, a plan was hatched to wrest control over the recognition of Tibet's spiritual leaders from the Dalai Lama. When the Dalai announced in 1995 his discovery of 5-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the new Panchen Lama, the Chinese arrested the boy. They feted Gyaltsen Norbu, the 5-year-old son of a Communist cadre, as the 11th Panchen Lama. That had distressing implications for the Dalai Lama. As he and the Panchen both belong to the Geluk sect, the latter can recognize his reincarnation. And the Chinese had their hands on both Panchens.

Within the exile community, the Dalai Lama's troubles grew. He was criticized for "prematurely" announcing his acceptance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, resulting in the boy's capture. His banning in 1996 of the worship of the Geluk sect's traditional Shugden deity created more tensions. Such worship, explains the Dalai Lama, "is detrimental to the Tibetan government and people." The proscription sparked protests by Geluk members against him in India and the West. "The Dalai Lama is denying us our religious practice, our human rights," complains Geshe Kalsang Gyatso, who heads Britain's cult-like Manjushri Center. The bloody murder of Lobsang Gyatso, a respected Dalai associate, and two of his students in 1997 raised fears about a bid on the Dalai Lama's life. It all made good fodder for Beijing's propaganda machine. The Chinese were also said to be funding anti-Dalai groups.

Long-uneasy relations between the Geluk and Karma Kagyu sects were further strained by the Dalai Lama's intervention in the recognition of the Karmapa Lama. It revived bitter memories of the 1960s, when the Dalai's brother Gyalo Thondup tried to bring all Tibetan sects under Geluk control - by force if necessary. When 14 exile settlements united to fight his plan, unrest erupted within the community. In March 1977, settlements leader Gungthang Tsultrim was shot several times at point-blank range. The murderer said he received 300,000 rupees from the Tibetan government-in-exile. He claimed it offered to pay him even more to kill the 16th Karmapa Lama.

When the Dalai Lama embraced Urgyen Trinley after his flight from Tibet in January this year, hopes grew of a reconciliation between the Geluk and Karma Kagyu. That the fugitive went to Dharamsala rather than the Karmapa's traditional seat at Rumtek in Sikkim suggested he was coming under the protection of the Geluk. That squared with the sect's ambitions to unite the exile spiritual lineages under its umbrella.

It also helped boost Geluk morale, given the sect's raft of anxieties. With the Dalai Lama's advancing age and inability to open a dialogue with Beijing, demands are growing louder for a more radical, possibly violent approach to Tibet's future. Fearing chaos and the rise of "an angrier form of Tibetan nationalism," Dharamsala recently urged the Chinese to negotiate with the Dalai Lama. Without his "moderating influence," said the government-in-exile in a 45-page report, "different factions would start taking different actions."

Urgyen Trinley's arrival helped Tai Situ as well. The regent had slipped up. Putting the Karmapa in Chinese hands had backfired. Once Beijing had its "Living Buddha," Tai Situ was no longer needed. He watched in dismay as Thaye Dorje was installed as a rival Karmapa. At the 1994 enthronement ceremony in Delhi's Karmapa International Buddhist Institute, Tai Situ's followers hurled rocks and abuse, shouting: "The Karmapa is a fake, a political choice!" Windows were broken and dozens injured in the hour-long melEe before Indian police restored order. And as Urgyen Trinley languished in Tibet, his sponsor despaired as Thaye Dorje kept winning converts and donations on the international teaching circuit. Says a Karma Kagyu follower in Munich: "Tai Situ saw the crowds Thaye Dorje attracted when he came to Germany, and the similar response in Taiwan. It was undermining his influence. He had to act, to get Urgyen Trinley out of Tibet in order to compete."

How do the rival Karmapas measure up? In August, Thaye Dorje seemed in his element as he gave teachings and blessings to a 1,000-strong gathering of followers in the Dordogne hills in France. His responses to their theological questions show that he is no dunce. He is versed not only in Buddhist scriptures, but also in more earthly matters such as cricket, computers, the Internet and the music of the Spice Girls. Thaye Dorje also likes Hawaiian pizza, computer games and the Star Wars video. "Time will tell how this [Karmapa rivalry] works out," he told Asiaweek. And what if he were to meet Urgyen Trinley? "That would be fine," says Thaye Dorje. "It would be interesting."

The intense, six-foot Urgyen Trinley is harder to fathom. Asiaweek had an audience but was unable to interview him, such is the paranoia surrounding the "bird in a cage," as an aide has grumbled. Indian guards were doubled last month when intelligence agents got whiff of an attempt to escape, possibly to Rumtek Monastery, the coveted Karmapa seat. The Dalai Lama talks of an exquisite poem the young lama is said to have written for him. "I see great potential regarding his spirituality," he says. "Spectacular," is how one Western follower describes Urgyen Trinley. Yet others speak of temper tantrums and low I.Q.

Politics will decide who eventually sits on the Karmapa's throne. In the past two months, Urgyen Trinley's supporters have stepped up pressure on India to allow him to take the Karmapa's seat in the Rumtek Monastery. From around the world, hundreds of them descended on Dharamsala in August to hold a conference on the issue. Their e-mails speculate on impending asylum status. But New Delhi is wary. "The Indian government, in effect, has given recognition to Thaye Dorje by hosting him in Delhi," says a Western Karma Kagyu member. "And it has long recognized Sharmapa Rinpoche as the paramount regent of our lineage."

Rightly or wrongly, New Delhi also fears that Beijing may be playing a double game. China is unlikely, as some Indian officials suggest, to have actually engineered Urgyen Trinley's escape from Tibet (most sources believe Dharamsala, and perhaps Tai Situ, had a role). But the Chinese may benefit if they were able, in the future, to hold negotiations with him as a representative of the Tibetan exile community.

That is why the question of whether Urgyen Trinley might succeed the 14th Dalai Lama as Tibetans' top leader is crucial. The scenario is "not possible," insists Sonam Topgyal, cabinet chairman of the government-in-exile. "The Karmapa will be like any other lama, giving teachings." But others disagree, noting that while the Geluk sect is now dominant, other factions - including the Karma Kagyu - had ruled in the past. "A lot of people have it fixed in their minds that the Dalai Lama rules, but that is not necessary," Akong Rinpoche told Asiaweek. "Another school could step in." Even Sonam acknowledges: "There are many other lamas [than the Dalai]. The Tibetans may even decide to elect a non-religious person."

For its part, Beijing is waiting for the Dalai Lama to die. It believes that would signal the end of the five-decade-old "Tibet question." But some Tibetans argue it could be just when Beijing's real troubles begin. "When the Dalai Lama dies, there will be chaos," secretary general Pema Lhundup of the Tibetan Youth Congress told Asiaweek in July. "The pent-up frustration against the Chinese occupation is barely being held in check by His Holiness. His demise could be the spark that ignites an uprising." (Lhundup's words could prove eerily on the mark. The outspoken political player died weeks after the interview, having fallen from a building in what Indian police say was an accident.) An uprising would not drive Chinese soldiers out of Tibet and would probably be violently suppressed. But it would be a colossal headache for Beijing, just when it is striving to open its economy wider and improve its image internationally.

In Tibet itself, Chinese authorities seem to have tightened up. "Perhaps for the first time since the Cultural Revolution, even simple acts of religious observance place a person under suspicion," says Ronald Schwartz, author of Circle of Protest, a book on Tibetan politics. "This goes beyond the Dalai Lama and perceives Tibetan Buddhism itself as potentially threatening to Chinese rule. It is not inconceivable it will be treated the same way as Falungong and other so-called cults that challenge Communist Party power."

To avoid the more violent scenarios, Beijing hopes to win the battle for Tibet by controlling the reincarnation of top lamas. The Dalai Lama's death will almost certainly see the China-anointed Panchen Lama recognizing the Dalai's successor. The Chinese announced last year that the next Dalai Lama would be born in Tibet - and thus under their control. They discount the Dalai's own assertion that he would be reborn in exile, quipping if he did that he would return as a blue-eyed Westerner. Never mind that most Tibetans will reject China's choice. If having two Karmapa Lamas has already produced such stress within the Tibetan diaspora, dueling Dalais would create even more tensions. "The Chinese see our splits over religion and ideology and seek to exploit them to destroy the exile community," says Dharamsala's Sonam.

That is why the Karmapa saga has been so devastating for the Tibetans. It has paralyzed a powerful sect, the Karma Kagyu, and it opened the door to Chinese involvement in Tibet's politics of reincarnation. Whoever prevails in the race for the Karmapa Lama's throne and lifts the sacred Black Hat onto his head will find a lineage torn apart. The winner will need to hang on extra-tight to his hat. The loser could be Tibet and the Tibetan people.



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