The importance of being the Karmapa

The flight of Urgyen Trinley Dorje in early January from the Tsurphu monastery outside Lhasa, dodging Chinese border guards and braving the icy Himalayan winter was nothing short of miraculous. But neither Chinese nor Indian officials are impressed by the feat. After all the defection by the 17th incarnation of the Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the ´red- hatted´ Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, was the most important one since the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959.

India´s trepidation at the sudden appearance of the Karmapa at Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, headquarters of the Dalai Lama´s government-in-exile is understandable, given that the refuge given to the Tibetan religious leader and hundreds of thousands of his followers has always been a sore point in relations between Beijing and New Delhi. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi are yet to mend fully after the 1962 war, and in recent times they have been bedeviled by India´s belief that Beijing has materially supported Pakistan´s nuclear and missile programmes. And just when relations begun to warm up, in 1998, had come Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes' claim that China was India's prime potential enemy.

Beijing, obviously embarrassed by the defection of the lama they had nurtured, first reacted by saying hopefully that the 14-year-old Urgyen Trinley had gone to India to collect musical instruments and black hats left behind by his previous incarnation. But after Trinley indicated that he preferred to stay on in India, China issued veiled warnings against allowing the Karmapa from being allowed to engage in political activity. The Indian government has so far maintained a studied silence on the Karmapa and committed itself to nothing.

There is thus, so far, no saying if the Karmapa will be accorded refugee status, or if he will be given travel papers. Or, most important, whether he will be allowed to travel to the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, the Kagyupa headquarters established in 1962, and claim the "flying crown" and other fabulous accoutrements of the sect.

These are questions Indian officials feel they need not answer. For one thing the Karmapa cannot formally assume the crown until he comes of age (which is necessary to complete his assumption of the leadership of the Kagyupa); is another four years away. For another, there is a rival claimant to the ancient Karmapa incarnation–Trinley Thaye Dorje.

The pretender, Thaye Dorje, who lives in West Bengal hill town of Kalimpong, not very far from Rumtek, is backed by the Shamarpa Rinpo che, one of the four incarnate regents traditionally charged with finding and recognising each Karmapa. Of the four regents the current Shamarpa is the oldest and now running in his 13th incarnation. Additionally, he also happens to be the nephew of the 1 6th Karmapa (who died in 1981 but did not leave behind any letters predicting his reincarnation as is the general practice, leading to the delay in finding his successor and consequent controversy of the two Karmapas).

The lineages of two other regents, Gyaltsab Rinpoche and Tai Situ are almost as impressive–both being in their 12th incarnations, and they support Urgyen Trinley. At stake is control over the vast wealth of the Karmapas which include a string of 200 monasteries around the world, including Rumtek. Indeed, the Kagyupa is known to be the most successful in spreading the Tibetan Buddhist 'word', helping it achieve unprecendented popularity today in the West.

The Shamarpa line had suffered a break in the 18th century when an incumbent was accused of political interference and instigating a war with Nepal. His ceremonial red hat was ordered buried in the Shamarpa monastery in Lhasa and th e temple itself converted into a court house as an ultimate dishonour to the lineage.

The line was revived by the current Dalai Lama–an act that he may now be regretting. Because the present Shamarpa has questioned the right of the Dalai Lama to recognise the Karmapa–as he has done in favour of Urgyen Trinley rather than his own candidate. According to the Sharmapa the Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelugpa sect and cannot decide on the leadership of the Kagyupa.

Till recently, the Shamarpa and his candidate had the support of the Indian establishment. K. Sreedhar, former chief secretary of Sikkim and once a high official in the union home ministry, had argued as recently as in 1997 in a secret report to the government of India, that India´s interests lie with the Thaye Dorji rather than with the ´Chinese´ Karmapa.

Where Gyaltsab Rinpoche and Tai Situ pulled off a coup was in getting both the Dalai Lama and Beijing to recognise Urgyen Trinley as the 17th Karmapa in 1992 and who was duly enthroned that same year. Shamarpa is said to have objected to the idea of Ur gyen Trinley being crowned in Tsurphu by Chinese authorities rather than at Rumtek. In 1994, he had Thaye Dorji crowned as the Karmapa at a ceremony conducted in New Delhi at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute.

At present, Urgyen Trinley not only enjoys the recognition of the Dalai Lama and Beijing but he also happens to be in India. Which means that sooner or later the Indian government will have to follow suit. For the Kagyu sect has millions of followers across the Himalayan Buddhist belt stretching from Ladakh through Himachal Pradesh and Nepal to Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh and this alone will act as a pressure on New Delhi.

The Shamarpa´s new tune is that Urgyen Trinley has come to India only to collect his fabulous flying crown and r eturn with it to Tibet. The flying crown was the gift of a grateful Chinese emperor to the fifth Karmapa (1384-1415). Said to be woven out of the hair of angels the wearer always holds it down with his right hand lest it fly away. The Shamarpa has warned that Urgyen Trinley´s arrival was stage-managed by the Chinese. But Dharamsala has indicated that Urgyen Trinley fled Tibet because of the continuing persecution of monks by Chinese authorities.

"It would appear that the Tai Situ Rinpoche group had wittingly or unwittingly played into the hands of the Chinese," Sreedhar had said in his report, in which Indian interests are clearly outlined. "Given the fact that Sikkim occupies a strategic position it would be undesirable to have a situation where a Tibetan reincarnation who is basically a Chinese national recognised by the Chinese, formally occupies a position in a monastery in Sikkim."

Sreedhar had also cautioned the Indian government of the "clear intention of the Chinese to expand their influence on the religious consciousness of not only the Tibetans but also of the population in the entire Himalayan region." Sreedhar believes that the recognition of Urgyen Trinley was Beijing´s way of preparing for the post-Dalai Lama scenario. Sreedhar´s theory is impor tant given that the Dalai Lama has announced that he would be the last of his line.

The second most important Tibetan religious figure is the Panchen Lama. Here, too, there is controversy over an incarnation installed by China and one chosen by the Dalai Lama, the latter having disappeared after being taken into "protective custody" by the Chinese in 1995. In any case, both Panchen Lama 'reincarnations' are too young to be political players, which is why the importance of the Karmapa, who ranks third in terms of importance, to both the Chinese and the Dalai Lama. The leadership of Himalayan Buddhism could well be in the hands of Urgyen Trinley.

Here is too young and anyway most Tibetans see him as a puppet installed by Beijing. No one knows the fate of the Panchen Lama recognised by the Dalai Lama since he was taken into "protective custody" a couple of years ago [?]. That could leave spiritual leadership of the Tibetans to Urgyen Trinley.

Beyond the modern version of the Great Game that is being played out th ere is the true spiritual dimension to the whole Karmapa tangle. There are those who would argue that since the Karmapa incarnations trace their lineage to the Bengali saint Tilopa (988-1069) they are more Indian than anything else. In a sense, Urgyen Trinley may have simply come home to India…

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