The Karmapa's Dance of Politics

May 30, 2005

Category: Book Reviews

The Karmapa's Dance of Politics

It is over five years since a 14-year-old Tibetan monk made a dramatic escape over the Himalayas to India, travelling over 1,500 kilometres from his monastery in Tibet, evading Chinese border troops and risking death by exposure to the cold.

The monk was the 17th Karmapa, one of Tibet's most important religious leaders.

Every year, more than a thousand Tibetans continue to risk their lives, defying Chinese- imposed restrictions on travel by secretly making the arduous and dangerous Himalayan crossing into Nepal and India.

On Oct 7, 1950, as United Nations troops under the command of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur crossed the 38th parallel in Korea, 40,000 Chinese soldiers invaded Tibet following a military plan laid down by Deng Xiaoping. Thus began the death of a nation, with the 14th Dalai Lama himself escaping to India in 1959.

However, the Karmapa's escape on Dec. 28, 1999 was different. He was communist China's most prized stooge in Tibet, the highest reincarnate lama under Beijing's control to have the Dalai Lama's official recognition. The Karmapa is also the head of the Karma Kagyu school, one of the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and by tradition the third most important lama in Tibet's religious hierarchy - after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

The Karmapas were the first lamas to establish the practice of identifiable reincarnation - some 400 years before the advent of the Dalai Lamas. And the young boy represented an unbroken line of succession dating back to the 12th century.

British journalist Mick Brown, fascinated by this charismatic young monk travels to Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile in the Himalayan foothills of northern India, to try to score an interview.

Nonetheless, the interviewee soon becomes the subject of a book.

But Brown's 'The Dance of 17 Lives' is more than just the life of the 17th Karmapa. It's also about intrigue surrounding the selection of the 17th incarnation, interlaced with stories of miracles and rumours of murder, political conspiracy and the settling of centuries-old scores.

As 'The Dance of 17 Lives' points out, due to a controversy the identity of the current 17th Karmapa is actively disputed. There are two claimants - Ogyen Trinley and Thaye Dorje - each supported by a number of important lamas from the Kagyu lineage; however, the majority of the main Karma Kagyu lamas, the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetans, inside and outside of Tibet, have supported Ogyen Trinley.

The current feud began in a Chicago cancer ward, with the 1981 death of a man named Ranjung Rigpe Dorje. After the 1950 occupation of Tibet by China, Ranjung Rigpe, the 16th Karmapa, had established a thriving exile community and engineered the Kagyu school's current Western popularity. Yet he appeared to have left one task undone: leaving proper instructions for finding the traditional poem, penned by him, that would help his followers find his reincarnated self -- and thus the next Karmapa.

Before Ogyen Trinley was found, the Dalai Lama, writes Brown, had a vision in which he saw green mountains covered with meadows and two streams, where the name 'Karmapa' - 'movement of karma' in Sanskrit -- resounded in the air.

Later, when the search party came to Barkor, the community where the boy was born on Jun. 26, 1985, this is exactly what they found: Green meadowed mountains in an area sparsely populated with two rivers on each side of the valley.

In Tibet, great births come accompanied with great legends.

Three days after the birth of Ogyen Trinley, then known as Apo Gaga or 'happy brother', ''the sound of a conch shell - an omen of a great birth - resonated across the valley, astonishing all who heard it, for no one could be found blowing such a shell, and no conch shell could sound as loudly as this one,'' writes Brown.

But the drama behind the second claimant to the throne of the 17th Karmapa centres on Shamar Rinpoche, from the Sharmapa clan and one of the four 'heart sons' of the 16th Karmapa.

The prize is a crown, about 20 centimetres high, said to be woven from the hair of holy women. The stakes: assets worth 1.2 billion U.S. dollars in the 16th Karmapa's monastery in Rumtek, Sikkim, and the reverence of up to a million followers.

In September 1992 Ogyen Thinley was officially enthroned as the 17th Karmapa in Tibet's Tsurphu Monastery.

But in March 1994 in New Delhi, a defiant Shamar Rinpoche also enthroned his own choice for the job: a bespectacled 10-year-old named Tenzin Chentse, whose parents he said were Tibetan refugees. The boy was later named Thaye Dorje.

Shamar Rinpoche's welcoming ceremony for the new contender, however, turned into a melee, and the boy spent the next few weeks under the guard of 300 monks.

Brown's 'The Dance of 17 Lives' is frank about the centuries-old conflict between the Shamarpas and the dominant Gelugpa yellow-hat sect led by the Dalai Lama.

In 1791, the 10th Shamarpa incited King Prithi Narayanan Shah of Nepal to invade Tibet in order to secure a large quantity of gold from the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigaste.

The Chinese who had long considered Tibet as their 'protectorate' decided to intervene.

Early in 1792, the Chinese emperor despatched 13,000 troops to join the 10,000 Tibetans already amassed against the Gurkha invaders. Together with the Tibetans, the Chinese managed to drive the Gurkhas across the border into Nepal.

The 10th Shamar Rinpoche then committed suicide. As a punishment for the betrayal, the ruling Gelugpa sect forbade any Shamar incarnations. The Shamar's red crown was buried under the steps of the courthouse in Lhasa as a mark of disgrace.

It was not until 1963 that the line of the Shamarpa was finally reinstated by the current Dalai Lama's government-in-exile in Dharamsala - a regrettable move that would cause irreparable damage to the Kagyu school.

The return of the 17th Karmapa Orgyen Trinley, who is currently staying in Dharamsala, to the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim depends entirely on India. New Delhi, so far, has tried to avoid the issue, preferring the Karmapa to remain in the Gyuto monastery near the seat of the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile so that the Indian government would be able to keep an eye on both.

Politics is cruel and even Tibetan Buddhism is not free from it.

As Brown writes towards the end, ''I had been aware of a nagging doubt growing in my mind; the talk of politics, of disputation that somehow made me momentarily forget the essence of the Buddhist practice. It had dented my faith.''

BANGKOK, May 28 2005, ARTS WEEKLY/BOOKS-TIBET: Sonny Inbaraj



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