The Buddha Cries by Anil Maheshwari

Feb 8, 2004

Category: Book Reviews

The Buddha Cries by Anil Maheshwari; Reviewed By Baljit Singh, The Sunday Tribune

THE author, a senior journalist with The Hindustan Times, describes his book as a "chronicle of rogues in robes..... a racy potboiler depicting the seamy" struggles of venerated Tibetan reincarnations, spiritual gurus who trace their roots far back in antiquity to the Buddha and even earlier.

And he lives up to the claim. The account is littered with tales of monks smuggling gold on diplomatic passports, indulging in drunken orgies, conspiring in forgeries and assassinations. There is even a guru’s steamy affairs with his disciple, another accused by male lovers of infecting them with AIDS, culminating in the final ignominy of the senior Regent actually dying of AIDS.

A sordid if forgettable confirmation of the rot in the lamaistic establishment were it not for the fact that the lamas are the here and now of contemporary India, and their machinations often pit the world’s two most populous nations against each other. Nuclear powers locked in an intractable territorial dispute flowing from the land of the lamas.

The holy grail in the present case is the institution of the Karmapa, a 12th century Tibetan guru now in his 17th reincarnation. Unfortunately for the Chinese, the Karmapa sought refuge in India in 1959 in the wake of the 16th Chinese occupation of Tibet. But unlike other, mostly Tibet-specific Buddhist orders, his Karma branch of the Kagyu order already had a wide following in the Indian Himalayas to build on. Even a ready-made base in its monastery in Rumtek.

Given this and the Karmapa’s efforts, the order flourished and before the death in 1982 he was head of a world-wide organisation with some 200 centres and an estimated six million disciples, surpassing even the Dalai Lama’s Gelug sect in terms of reach. A legacy worth fighting for. And once the exiled Karmapa died, the Chinese were back in the fight.

For should the Chinese, who have a long history of taking in the reincarnation "game" be able to steal a ‘‘patriotic’’ candidate past as the Karmapa’s reincarnation, it would allow them greater control over Tibet’s restive Buddhist population. Especially once the ageing Dalai Lama, the symbol of Tibet’s old theological order, died over the next decade or so.

Should their "candidate" also get control over the 16th Karmapa’s seat in Rumtek, allowing them to tweak the ears of their interfering neighbour by perhaps recruiting the Karma Kagyu as a fifth column in the service of the "motherland", it would be two birds with a single stone. As for the Kagyu’s many officers and its fabulous wealth stashed away in the western world, it is welcome icing on the Kagyu cake.

With such high stakes, it is obvious that Communist China should pull out all stops. Even shed its avowed distaste for religion in the race to ensure that its lama gets into the saddle at Tsurphu, the Karmapa’s headquarters in Tibet. And at an opportune moment "escape" to India, where the Kagyu faithful would propel him into Rumtek, as an unassailable Chinese mole in the Himalayas.

But the Chinese plan had one fatal weakness — its Karmapa candidate would have to be endorsed by Kagyu regents, the Tibetan monk officials entrusted with looking for him, the very lamas China had hounded out a quarter century earlier. Which is where the gilded lamas come into the picture.

Fortunately for China, the Kagyu lamas have been split down the middle ever since the Karmapa’s death. There is even a serious division within the Kagyu establishment itself over who is the seniormost and hence deciding regent in case of any dispute, and the 16th Karmapa left no clear public testament about his reincarnation. A vacuum which gave the regents a carte blanche to manoeuvre for control over Rumtek, the Karmapa’s most valuable legacy.

Indeed for most of the 10 next years after his death they would do little else, shrugging off even their primary responsibility of finding the new Karmapa. Whenever the prodding of the Kagyu faithful got too insistent, they would be brushed off with vague and enigmatic pronouncements of the time not being ripe.

The Chinese were probably despairing when one of the Kagyu regents, thwarted in his quest for control of Rumtek, decided to play the Karmapa hand. On March 19, 1992, Situ Rinpoche, one of the four regents, publicly proclaimed that he had the 16th Karmapa’s secret testament. Predictably, the other regents smelt fraud and one of them, Shamar Rimpoche, said as much.

But the three other regents failure to come up with a testament, even a suspect one, in a decade, and the impatience of the Kagyu following their failure, gave Situ Rimpoche a clear edge. Except now he would have to deliver, launch a search for the candidate in Tibet.

It was the perfect setting for the Chinese to step in, especially since any search would require Chinese permission if not actual cooperation to allow the search parties to roam Tibet for likely candidates. Once the Chinese came into the picture events proceeded at lightning speed. On April 8 a search party from Tsurphu left for eastern Tibet, an area the size of South India, to begin the search. A fortnight later, on April 24, it found and photographed its candidate for confirmation by Tsurphu. On June 15 the seven-year-old Ugyen Trinley was in Tsurphu. On June 29, before the two other regents, shocked into stupor by the accidental death of a third regent, could react, Beijing and the Dalai Lama and recognised Ugyen Trinley as the Karmapa.

Riding the crest of his audacious success, just over a year later, in August, 1993, Situ’s Rinpoche’s faction seized effective control of the Karmapa’s seat, Rumtek, in a monastery coup. If it was a China-inspired plot, Beijing had got it right to the dot. Still, what is a pot-boiler without its good guys. The reclusive Shamar Rimpoche, hitherto content with protecting his status as senior regent and in charge of Rumtek, now suddenly jumps centre-stage. It turns out that he, rather than "Chinese-agent" Situ Rinpoche, has been the inheritor of the Karmapa’s testament all along, a secret message conveyed through Chogbye Tri Rinpoche, a Sakya monk, back in 1986. A dream complete with an accompanying photograph of the three-year old Karmapa. The only problem is that while the "impostor" is in Tsurphu the real Karmapa is in Lhasa, Tibet, a no-go area for the "pro-India" Shamarpa.

Desperate situations demand desperate remedies, even taking life-threatening risks. So Shamar Rinpoche, disguised as a businessman, flies to Lhasa (no dates are mentioned). But he is unable to contact the reincarnation. Still, some sort of contact seems to have been made for in January, 1994, the real Karmapa, Trinley Thaye, arrives in Kathmandu along with his family, then moves on the Shamar Rinpoche’s base in Delhi. On March 17, 1994, Trinley Thaye is ordained as Karmapa in Delhi.

Shamar Rinpoche has called the Chinese bluff. They can keep the Tsurphu Lama, he says, the Kagyu empire will be inherited by the Karmapa in India. But Situ Rinpoche hasn’t been sitting idle either. Realising he has been outwitted, he hectors China and the Kagyu establishment to send Ugyen Trinley to Rumtek "for studies". His fraternising" with China catches India’s eye and in August, 1994, Situ Rinpoche is banned from India. Buoyed by their success, the good guys are ready to deliver the coup de grace. On August 8, 1995, Shamar Rinpoche’s monks march peacefully on Rumtek in a bid to regain their "rightful place".

As one would expect of the bad guys, the monks are met with violence, denied entry and Shamar Rinpoche excluded from Sikkim. But the worst is yet to come. In August, 1998, the BJP government lifts the ban on Situ Rinpoche. A little over a year later, in January, 2000, his Karmapa candidate walks over the Tibet border into India, and a credulous Dharamsala. Despite Shamar’s pleading, he is permitted to stay. As a fitting postscript, a conference of top Kagyu officials from around the world meets in Dharamsala on August 18 and resolves that the Tsurphu Karmapa, now in Dharamsala, be sent to Rumtek for studies. Only the last act, that of getting the "Chinese" Karmapa into Rumtek, now remains.

Though not quite so direct in its chronology this is the essence of Maheshwari’s potboiler. If despite his superpower brew, the plot doesn’t quite boil over, it is because the author is not quite able to carry off the inherent contradictions in his story. His evident reliance on monk Shamar Rimpoche’s testimony, to denounce other monks for instance. His manifest ambivalence about his subject — cynical disbelief of lamaism’s current practitioners combined with a credulous faith in the fantastic accounts of lamaism’s originators — does not help.

Add poor chronology, and odds and ends of information that just seem to hang in space and "The Buddha Cries" becomes just another crying tale to cash in on the Karmapa conundrum. Still if you are seriously into the gold-digging or boiling religious pots business, this slim volume, 145 pages, has enough meat to keep you flipping.



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