Fears of a crackdown in Tibet after the Lama's escape

Jan 7, 2000

Category: Urgyen Trinley Dorje

The escape of a teenage boy regarded as the third highest ranking Lama of Tibet has come as a surprise to thousands of his followers across the world.

The flight of the Karmapa Lama, the 14-year-old head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, has also complicated an already delicate political situation for China in Tibet.

His arrival in India to join Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama , is equally sensitive for the Tibetan Government-in-exile in the north Indian town of Dharamasala.

They have given a guarded reaction to his escape and have refused to release any details, beyond saying that the Karmapa is exhausted after his week-long trek across the Himalayas, and that he has met the Dalai Lama.

China maintains the boy left with a group of monks to retrieve religious artefacts his predecessor had left in India.

Beijing says the Karmapa left a note behind saying he did not mean to betray the state or the leadership.


Born to a nomadic family in eastern Tibet, the Karmapa was officially recognised as the 17th reincarnation of the previous Karmapa by both Beijing and the Dalai Lama in 1992.

Tibetans therefore consider him the most significant person to leave Chinese-ruled Tibet since the current Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959.

The Chinese authorities groomed the boy as a patriotic servant of the state.

But the Tibetan Government-in-exile have accused Beijing of using him as a puppet to gain more credibility among Tibetan people.

The fact that he had Beijing's seal of approval, and has now decided he needed to leave Tibet, will certainly cause China considerable embarrassment.

Reports say that the Karmapa fled because he was denied access to higher studies and the possibility of meeting his masters in India.

His supporters say this was despite previous assurances by the Chinese that he would be free to do so.


The Kagyu lineage has been the most successful among the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

It has established hundreds of religious centres in the West and has a huge following, largely due to the work of the previous (16th) Karmapa who died 15 years ago in America.

The lineage traces its origins to the Buddha through Marpa, the Great Translator who travelled to India to bring authentic Buddhist teachings back to Tibet.

The Kagyu lineage has been headed by a succession of reincarnations of the Gyalwa Karmapa. The line of Karmapas is said to be self-announced, because each incarnation leaves a letter predicting his next rebirth.

The Karmapa's arrival in India follows persistent reports of Chinese repression of Buddhism in Tibet.

The Tibetan Government-in-exile says that thousands of Tibetans attempt the hazardous journey over the Himalayas to reach freedom in India.

The arrival of the Karmapa will inevitably draw Western attention to another Tibetan boy, the Panchen Lama.


He is also revered by many in Tibet as second only to the Dalai Lama, who has personally recognised him.

His whereabouts are currently unknown: China says that a different child is in fact the Panchen Lama.

The guarded response from both Beijing and Dharamsala to Karmapa's arrival from Tibet could indicate there is room for the two sides to resolve their differences through dialogue.

However, some analysts fear that his escape to India may result in a security crackdown in Tibet.



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