The flight of the 17th Karmapa Rinpoche from Tibet into India last week has trigerred a fresh controversy in Buddhist circles, but in the Rumtek monastery near Sikkim's capital Gangtok, the dispute over who has the right to head the Karma Kagyu school of Buddhism has been in existence since the early 1990s.
The serene surroundings of Sikkim's Rumtek monastery belie the tensions that exist beneath the calm exterior. A lone armed Sikkim policeman does his rounds of the monastery's premises. His presence come across as an oddity, but the lamas (Buddhist monks) and their disciples go about their daily chores without any apparent hint of knowledge about the controversy that this ancient Buddhist centre of learning has been embroiled in since 1992.
Rumtek, the headquarters of the Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, has been without a Karmapa -- head of the monastery -- since 1981 after the death of the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa. Under Buddhist tradition, the incumbent Karmapa nominates his successor and leaves behind his identity in the form of a hidden letter. This letter serves as the clue for the Karmapa's followers to locate the reincarnation of the head of the monastery. When he died in 1981, the 16th Karmapa apparently did not leave behind such a letter, making it difficult for his followers to find his successor.
In 1992, four monks -- Shamar Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Jamgonkotrul Rinpoche and Tsurpu Gyalstab Rinpoche -- who were running the monastery since 1981, even while making attempts to locate the young successor, split into two groups. One group, led by Tai Situ Rinpoche and Tsurpu Gyalstab Rinpoche claimed they had found a letter among the late Karmapa's belongings which indicated that a young boy named Ogyen Thinley Dorjee in Tibet was the reincarnation. The rival group led by Samar Rinpoche, however, pressed the claim of a Kalimpong-born boy, Thinley Thai Dorjee, for the post.
As tensions rose, the dispute took an ugly turn with supporters of the opposing factions coming to blows at the serene monastery. The Sikkim administration intervened and posted armed police at the monastery.
As Gyame Tsultring, Tai Situ Rinpoche's representative, told this correspondent: "It was a very embarrassing moment for us at the monastery. Never in its long history did this place see a weapon being brandished here. Unfortunately, the group which was opposing our claim resorted to physical violence." Tsultring, who has been looking after the monastery's day to day administration ever since the heads of the two rival groups were barred from entering Sikkim, is, however, hopeful that a solution will be found to resolve the dispute.
Even as the government took steps to restore peace, the Dalai Lama approved the choice of the Tibetan boy, Ogygen Thinley Dorjee as the next Karmapa, further angering the Shamar Rinpoche group.
In 1994, a concerted campaign by the anti-Tai Situ group resulted in the monk being expelled from the country for "anti-Indian" activities. In August last year, the notification issued by India's Intelligence Bureau restricting Tai Situ Rinpoche's entry into India was withdrawn and the monk was allowed to enter the country. But he is barred from visiting Sikkim and the northeast.
Meanwhile, following the Dalai Lama's blessings, the boy in Tibet was taken under the wings of the monks who are currently training him at the Tsurphu monastery in Tibet to become the next head of the historic monastery.
Not one to give up easily, Shamar Rinpoche filed a court case. A petition in a Delhi court accused the Dalai Lama and six others -- former Sikkim chief minister and Sikkim Sangram Parishad chief Nar Bahadur Bhandari, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Gyalstab Rinpoche, Gyalo Thondup, Kunsang Sherab and Sonam Topden -- of conspiring to dismember Sikkim and align it with the Tibetan Autonomous region of China.
"The seven people named in the petition are misusing religion for subversive Chinese propaganda," says a Shamar Rinpoche supporter. Another Shamar Rinpoche follower, who does not wish to be named, says: "Tai Situ and his group has influenced the Dalai Lama unfairly. And the Dalai Lama, without properly enquiring into the matter, has taken sides, which is not expected of a person of his stature."
The case, many analysts in Sikkim feel, is the result of the latest development where Tai Situ Rinpoche's stand is seen to have been vindicated.
Why is Rumtek embroiled in such murky affairs? As a senior journalist based in Gangtok, not wishing to be identified, says: "It has got nothing to do with religion. Rather, like many other disputes, the current controversy has more to do with money and power."
Located 24 km away from Gangtok, on a 74 acre plot of land donated by former Sikkim ruler Chogyal Tashi Namgyal, Rumtek is believed to be one of India's wealthiest monasteries. Although its real worth is hard to estimate, knowledgeable sources say Rumtek's management committee, which runs several hundred monasteries inside the neighbouring Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, controls vast tracts of precious real estate worth at least Rs 1 billion (Rs 100 crore). Moreover, many wealthy followers of the sect regularly donate large sums of money, making Rumtek a very wealthy seat of Buddhist learning.
The four-storey monastery, designed to embody the ancient artistic tradition of Tibetan architecture, has been built with modern construction material such as steel and concrete. Its walls and interiors have a mix of ancient paintings and modern design. The main monastery is surrounded by monks's quarters and a spacious courtyard where the famous sacred ritual lama dance takes place. The pillar at the centre of the courtyard is inscribed with the history of the monastery written in Tibetan.
Inside the main monastery, the golden stupa is 13 feet high. It contains the precious relics and holy remains of the XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa. Gold-plated and bejewelled with ancient turquoise and coral, it is intended to serve as one of the most precious relics of the lineage which traces its origin to the 12th century AD. Today, over 130 monks train in the monastery while another 80 learn Buddhist philosophy at the Karmae Shri Nalanda Institute for higher Buddhist studies located behind the main monastery.