KARMAPA

No Sting in the Monk’s Tale

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
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How a blundering shoot-first-think-later accusation by Indian authorities nearly made an enemy of a very influential Tibetan

When I was leaving Tibet, you must appreciate I was leaving everything behind… India was the land of the Buddha, a place where wishes were fulfilled. I told the people who came with me, as we turned to India, that even if we are caught and killed after taking just three steps towards India I would not have an iota of remorse, that was the amount of faith and hope and affection I had for India. After 11 years here this should now be clear. Yet such an unwarranted accusation has been a source of tremendous hurt, it is difficult to forget it in my lifetime.

Words of dismay, but understandably so. For any Tibetan to be called a Chinese spy would always be a source of consternation, but the young man speaking at the press conference in Delhi was no ordinary Tibetan. On any other day his anguish would have made headlines, but it was also the day Osama’s death became public. In the ensuing frenzy, the story of the quiet withdrawal of a bizarre charge has not received the attention it deserves.

As spy stories go, it was always a difficult sell. Thanks to some imaginative leaks by senior Himachal policemen, the seizure of Rs 1 crore traced back to a monastery in Dharamshala became the source of allegations against the young man who is by far the most widely accepted claimant to the title of the Karmapa, head of the Kagyu sect.

But even to make sense of what the young man was doing in Dharamshala, and why the charges mattered, requires relating an old story.

Buddhism reached Tibet in the eighth century directly from India. But as the Dhamma declined in India, it gained strength in Tibet. Perhaps, the most important Tibetan innovation was the idea of the reincarnate lama, a teacher who could predict his rebirth so that he could continue to guide others on the path of enlightenment life after life. The first incarnate lama was the first Karmapa; the 26-year-old addressing the press conference is 17th in the line of reincarnations that date back to the first Karmapa born in AD 1110.

Each Karmapa, his disciples believe, has left a message foretelling where he would be reborn, and senior lamas of the Kagyu sect (one of the four important schools of Tibetan Buddhism including the Dalai Lama’s Gelug school that attained political power in Tibet in the 17th century with some help from the Mongols) have set out in search every time a Karmapa has died. The 16th Karmapa, who was largely responsible for bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West, died in 1981. In 1992, one of his close disciples and a senior lama in the sect, Situ Rinpoche, opened an amulet he had been given by the Karmapa. It read:

From here to the north (in) the east of (the land of) snow / Is a country where divine thunder spontaneously blazes. / (In) a beautiful nomad’s place with the sign of a cow,/ The method is Dondrub and the wisdom is Lloga./ (Born in) the year of the one used for the earth / (With) the miraculous, far-reaching sound of the white one:/ (This) is the one known as the Karmapa.

The message was endorsed at a meeting of the four senior Kagyu Tulkus (the term for reincarnate lamas), but one of them, Shamar Rinpoche, subsequently changed his mind and found another candidate who he still backs as the real Karmapa. A search party based on this message went looking for a nomad family in eastern Tibet (land of snow) in the region of Lhathok (Lhat: divine; thog: thunder). They found a seven-year-old boy, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, born to Dondrub Tashi and Loga (a form of Lolaga). He was taken from his life in a yak hair nomad tent to a monastery in central Tibet. At his enthronement, unusually, a delegation of 40 Chinese government officials came to acknowledge him as the true reincarnation of the Karmapa, and some of his subsequent troubles date back to that very moment.

For sceptics such as me, the system and its easy belief in reincarnation is perplexing. Even though reincarnation is hardly an alien idea in India, it is not easy to enter a world where it is taken for granted, where everyone behaves and acts with the easy knowledge that most of the important lamas are the 10th or 12th reincarnation in a lineage.

At the Vajra Vidya Kendra in Sarnath, adjacent the deer park where the Buddha first preached his message, Dzogchan Ponlop tells me, his eyes twinkling with laughter, “My masters and the old monks would teach me daily. They would tell me stories of previous incarnations. I don’t remember anything of previous births. I don’t know whether I believe I am number seven of so and so. I take this as being anointed the seventh CEO of a firm where I have had six predecessors.’’

He is one of the men who was close to the 16th Karmapa and continues to be close to his successor. Everyone has laughingly cautioned me to take his words with a pinch of salt. It is no coincidence that he is also the author of a book titled Rebel Buddha. In his case, his parents in Sikkim, where most people in the state are adherents of the Kagyu sect, told him that his birth had been foretold by the 16th Karmapa, “I went through a 10-year training that started with basic education and reading, that widened to literature, history and then to philosophy and logic. We followed much the same curriculum as students at Nalanda University must once have.”

“We would start at 4 am with morning chants and then break off for the classroom, which consisted of 20 to 40 students. During meditation in the course of the day, we would sit facing the walls for 45 minutes, and then there would be the Tibetan debate class. The debate could be one on one, one against three or in a bigger debate the whole class would be involved. We would debate issues such as—Is there really a creator? We would take opposing positions, it sharpens your wisdom.’’ The twinkle is back in his eyes, as he says, “I was very sharp back then.’’

His scepticism stops, though, at the Karmapa, “He reveals things to me or my friends that only the previous Karmapa could have known. When I see him, it is like the literal embodiment of enlightenment, it is as if I am in front of the Buddha.’’ In the Karmapa’s case, he says, while the training was similar to most other monks’, the outcome was different.

It is a sentiment echoed by the Karmapa’s tutor, Trangpu Rinpoche, for whom it is difficult to use terms less than venerable: “The really big difference between an ordinary monk and a Tulku is that when you teach Tulkus, they learn things much more easily. They carry a lot more knowledge from their previous reincarnation. And where His Holiness is concerned, the difference is immense.”

It was his education that led the young Karmapa to India. In his press statement, he said, “All the gurus of my lineage were in India. The Chinese government would not allow them to visit me in Tibet. I could not live up to the high expectations of my position without their spiritual guidance. If I had stayed in Tibet, I strongly believe I would have had to denounce His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.”

The escape was daring, so daring that it is cited as evidence that a 14-year-old could not have made the journey to India without Chinese acquiescence. What is certain is that the Dalai Lama, whose acceptance of Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the Karmapa has ensured the vast majority of Tibetans see the dispute as settled, was aware of the escape, and if so it is difficult to believe the Indian authorities had no knowledge of it. 

Michele Martin has set out the story of the escape in her book on the Karmapa, Music in the Sky. She relates that after announcing he was going on a 21-day retreat at his monastery, he made his way out of the monastery accompanied by a handful of men. The cook continued to go in and out of his room as if he was still there, a lama continued to play musical instruments in his room at certain times of the day as he normally would. Starting off in a jeep on the morning of 28 December 1998, he reached Dharamshala on 5 January, after walking through the snow in Tibet, a helicopter ride from Nepal and a train journey in India.

The attention the escape attracted placed the young boy under intense scrutiny. It was clear to the media and Chinese and Indian authorities that the boy would be key to how the Tibetan movement would unfold. The question then, as now, was: after the Dalai Lama who? The answer has always been evident—the Karmapa.

While it is true that the Tibetan government in exile now has an elected prime minister and the Dalai Lama has sought to renounce his secular role, he is still the heart of the movement, which derives a moral force from his presence. After his death, the process of finding a reincarnation, if at all it is set in motion, will be messy and it will be decades before that young man can take centrestage. In this vacuum, there is just one candidate for the role—the Karmapa. His self-possession is already evident, and for disciples of Tibetan Buddhism, he carries much the same aura as the Dalai Lama. Given this, the bizarre accusation by Indian authorities seems like a self-goal.

It wasn’t meant to be one. The money seized on 26 January this year was clearly meant for purchase of land for a monastery in Dharamshala. Given the land laws in Himachal, such a purchase always involves taking some liberties with the law. The tip-off was in all likelihood from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) to the local police and had more to do with the IB’s worry about the influence on the Karmapa of a senior lama in the Kagyu sect, Tai Setu Rinpoche, than any actual worry about the Karmapa himself.

Shortly after the arrest, the Himachal DGP was quoted by The Times of India as having said that the Government of India, vide its letter of 4 August 1998 to the chief secretaries of J&K, Sikkim, Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, specifically mentioned that his (Tai Setu’s) entry be barred into their states… He went on to comment that, “Incidentally, though Tai Setu is Tibetan, he travels all over on a diplomatic passport issued by the government of Bhutan. How he got it is anybody’s guess.”

The DGP was saying far more than he should have. The bar on Tai Setu was subsequently removed through the intervention of senior members of the NDA Government, but Indian intelligence agencies remain suspicious of his ability to maintain contact with the Chinese. His recent bids to forge close links with Indian Members of Parliament (MPs) along the entire Himalayan belt have also come in for scrutiny.

But the IB had little idea of where the Himachal police would take the whole issue. A few SIM cards made in China and some Chinese currency was all it took for the vaguest of charges to stick. The foreign currency found at the monastery was only a technical violation, given that the Government had repeatedly turned down requests for FCRA clearance. By the same token, the Karmapa could have been accused of spying for any of a dozen countries. It was soon clear to the Central Government that they had a PR disaster on their hands. Since then, a series of leaks seeking to affirm the Karmapa’s innocence have been planted in the media.  

Inadvertently, though—and it was not the IB’s intention—the sequence of events has led the Karmapa to take positions on issues he has never commented on in public. In his press release he stated, “Tibet is under Communist China’s totalitarian regime. Unlike democratic India, there is no religious freedom there.” These are not words wasted on India, but they also hold significance for Tibetans. When the time comes, he will indeed be ready for the Dalai Lama’s mantle.