Waiting for the Karmapa

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The second-most important Tibetan spiritual leader went to the US last year. Will he ever return to India?

FOR MUCH OF this and the last year, conversation within the Tibetan community of Dharamshala has turned to the Karmapa Lama. Or, more specifically, to whether he will return to India. The Karmapa Lama, arguably the second-most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism currently—tipped by some to lead the exiled Tibetan community in the post-Dalai Lama world—hasn’t returned to India from the US since May last year. This is the longest he has been in a country other than Tibet, where he was born, and India, to which he escaped in 2000.

Earlier this year in May, he appeared in a video message at the Kagyu Monlam prayer festival and explained that he had to prolong his US stay because of the hospitalisation of a close attendant and concerns over his own health. According to a member of the Central Tibet Administration (CTA), the parliament-in-exile of the community, he probably made it a point to address this issue because of rumours of his seeking asylum in the US doing the rounds in Dharamshala. But such talk has not only persisted, it seems to have strengthened over the past few weeks, as several Indian newspapers have reported Indian intelligence agencies expressing some concern over how he disappeared from their radar last year, before being traced to Europe and later to the US. He apparently promised to return by June this year; but he has dodged that deadline. One such official told The Tribune that the Karmapa might extend his stay “indefinitely or even seek asylum in the US… [He was under surveillance in India] but in the US, he will be free to travel and to meet anybody, even those coming from China”.

The current Karmapa Lama, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, 32, is the 17th in a line of reincarnations going back to the 12th century. He is an influential monk, belonging to the oldest of reincarnated lineages, predating the current Dalai Lama’s lineage by over two centuries. He is also the head of the Kagyu sect, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s four major sects that had intermittently been at odds with the others for political control. That was until the 17th century, when the Dalai Lama’s Gelug sect established control across Tibet.

There exists a Tibetan government-in- exile, of course, led by a democratically elected Sikyong (president), to which the Dalai Lama has devolved much of his temporal powers. But it is often assumed that the current Karmapa will come to play an important role in the coming years. There might be no further Dalai Lama reincarnations, as the current one has occasionally hinted. There could also be rival Dalai Lamas propped up by the Chinese, and by the Tibetans and probably supported by India. There are already two Panchen Lamas, the other powerful monk within the Gelug sect: one recognised by exiled Tibetans (missing along with his family since his recognition, perhaps abducted by Beijing) and the other pushed by the Chinese government. There is usually a large age gap between the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, and each one of them helps anoint the other and serves as either a teacher or student to the other, depending on who is older. The fact that Beijing has its own Panchen Lama, and—strangely for a communist state —it has begun to control the process of finding reincarnated lamas through its ‘living Buddha’ programme, providing a list of state-approved reincarnated monks, has led many to believe that it will appoint a future Dalai Lama of its own. In such a scenario, the Karmapa—young, growing in stature, with a large global following and recognised both by Beijing and the Dalai Lama—is seen as someone who might replicate the charismatic appeal of the Dalai Lama and lead the Tibetan community. Having some leverage or influence over him is thus considered desirable.

His seeking of asylum in the US, if true, is a significant development. It means that about 18 years after he chose to flee to India, where he hoped to set up base and manage the future of his sect unencumbered, he has now decided to move on. Politically for India, it means a very powerful monk has slipped through.

“OH, THAT’S ALL rubbish. He has not gone out of radar,” Kunzang Chungyalpa says. Chungyalpa is the Delhi- based director of the Tsurphu Labrang, the Karmapa’s office. “His Holiness Karmapa’s travel, including his overseas travel, is cleared with the Government of India.” According to her, his travel to Europe, Canada and the US last year, as well as his extension of stay in the US, was with the knowledge of New Delhi.

A few weeks ago, in an interview with Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan language service, the Karmapa admitted that he was in discussions with the Indian Government and that he hoped to return to India by November, when a meeting of the various heads of Tibetan Buddhist traditions is to take place in Dharamshala. “I have no doubt or question that my return to India is absolutely certain,” he said. But he did add the hint of a rider. “So I wanted to clarify these things by having constructive talks with the Indian Government, and we are going ahead with discussions now. If things turn out well, I am ready to return…. When I first arrived in India, I faced many difficulties, including accusations that I was a Chinese agent…. But now we have an opportunity to meet with higher-level Indian leaders to explain my situation, which has made a huge difference.”

The Karmapa has had an uneasy relationship with India. Ever since he reached India as a 14-year-old in 2000, he has been viewed with some suspicion. He had been approved not just by the Dalai Lama, but also by Beijing. And the fact that he successfully managed to dodge Beijing despite being such a high lama, travelling some 1,400 km across the Himalayas in the dead of winter, has worried India if he isn’t actually a Chinese agent in the garb of a monk. The seizure of a large amount of money, some of it in Chinese yuan, that was traced back to his monastery in 2011, was a case in point, drumming up old fears of his being an agent and using the money to buy influence in Tibetan monasteries in India, especially those in sensitive regions like Sikkim. The money was meant to purchase land for a monastery, and the charge was later withdrawn.

For a long time, the current Karmapa was forbidden to travel to Sikkim, especially to the Rumtek monastery

For most of these18 years the Karmapa has spent in India, he has been confined to the top floor of a monastery (Gyuto Monastery) in Dharamshala. His access to Indian authorities has been limited to lower-level officials in Himachal. And his movement within and outside India has been tightly controlled and restricted. Several foreign trips—to Europe and the US—have had to be cancelled in the past because India has without explanation refused him permission to leave. And he is always surrounded by a ring of armed security. “They say the security is for his protection,” says a member of the CTA’s parliament, mentioned earlier, requesting anonymity. “But we often joke that it looks like the security is meant to keep an eye on him.”

The Karmapa himself has usually sidestepped speaking on these matters. But in his video message earlier this year, he was fairly forthcoming about his disappointment over his lack of freedom in India. “I never really felt that I had any freedom of my own [in Tibet]. And then I came to India…. So I’d hoped that once I arrived, I could do what I wanted,” he said. “When I first got to India, none of us had any knowledge about India. And at that time, the people who advised me… they didn’t know how things were done…. So when we first began discussions with the Indian Government, there was disharmony and disagreement… and this probably caused some suspicions… I’ve spent 18 years in India. And during this time, I have had continually difficulties and hassles, as you all know. They said that I was sent by the Chinese or that I was a Chinese spy.”

According to Chungyalpa, however, in the last few years things have begun to improve. “There were a lot of restrictions on His Holiness’ travel earlier on,” she says. “[But] the situation has become much better in recent years.” She points to the lifting of the restriction on his travel to Sikkim earlier this year as an example.

Sikkim is home to the Rumtek Monastery, the seat of the Karmapa Lama in exile. Rumtek is estimated to be over 250 years old as a monastery, although rebuilt by the current Karmapa’s previous incarnation, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, after he fled to India in 1959. The original seat in Tibet, the Tsurphu Monastery, was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but has been rebuilt in later years.

For a long time, the current Karmapa was forbidden to travel to Sikkim, especially to the Rumtek Monastery. The fact that there are two other claimants to the Karmapa title—one of whom, Trinley Thaye Dorje, has a substantial number of lamas and monasteries backing him— and the matter of who is the correct Karmapa is currently in court has helped New Delhi mask its anxiety of allowing him to visit the sensitive region of Sikkim.

The ban was lifted earlier this year after years of demands by politicians in Sikkim to have it revoked, although he is still barred from actually entering the monastery. The push to get the ban lifted took on a new urgency in the last two years, with a number of large demonstrations and protests in Sikkim, and a number of delegations to New Delhi. Sonam Lama, a monk who came to power in the Sikkim Legislative Assembly in 2014 on the promise of getting the Karmapa to visit Sikkim, says, “In Sikkim, people have been very unhappy for many years with the way the Karmapa Lama has been treated [by the Indian Government]. For him to be in India, and to not be allowed into Sikkim, has been terrible.” Sonam Lama played an instrumental role in leading the demonstrations, even organising a 704-day-long relay hunger strike, where a set of monks replaced an earlier set of striking monks, until the ban was withdrawn. “We were very sure,” he says, “that come what may, we were going to get the ban lifted.” According to Sonam Lama, the Karmapa will visit Sikkim upon his return to India, and hopefully, once the issue of the correct Karmapa is decided, he will step into Rumtek in the future.

But apart from the current Karmapa, several senior lamas within his sect also face restrictions. There is Tai Situ Rinpoche, a high-ranking lama within the Kagyu sect—and a monk instrumental in identifying Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the Karmapa—who is also suspected of being close to Beijing and whose travel plans both within and outside India are often tightly controlled.

What is usually overlooked during discussions around the Karmapa is the person behind the exalted title. In the past, various media outlets have spoken of his charm and good looks (he was once even introduced at a US event, according to the Time magazine, as ‘His Hotness’). But in reality, he has been a quiet figure, mostly focused on the spiritual side of things. He does not give frequent media interviews. His teaching sessions, like the Dalai Lama’s, tend to draw thousands, but he is neither someone given to making jokes nor one sought out by celebrities.

Earlier this year, during the video message at the Kagyu Monlam prayer festival, he was also exceptionally frank about many things—from how he had felt pressured to play a political role to doubts about his own self. “For me, I don’t have any reasons or any basis to say that I am the reincarnation of any great lama…. But no matter how much effort I make, it is never enough, it is never okay. It never really reaches a level where it is sufficient. And for one side, this is because people have such high, limitless hopes in me.” He also revealed how he had never had a complete Dharma education, and how he’d been trying to reconcile with the rival Karmapa camp through talks. “Sometimes I think it would be better to just live as an ordinary person, an ordinary Dharma practitioner,” he went on, “I sometimes think that and especially recently I felt this strongly.”

These comments about the pressure he feels to play a political role—perhaps become a pawn in a larger political game between rival countries—and his own doubts about himself and his capabilities unsurprisingly created a buzz in the Tibetan community. “He speaks openly about what he feels,” says a person close to him. “[It’s] better this way. Instead of, say, a Karmapa who says something and means something else.”

Much of his anxiety and the difficulty he feels over fulfilling the role of his title, according to this source, is because of the schism within the Kagyu sect around the two Karmapa claimants.

But despite his own doubts and other pressures, this source is certain the Karmapa will have to set them aside to take on a bigger role. “Whatever he might say, he is no ordinary monk. He has great responsibilities. He will have to set aside personal likes and dislikes, and he will have to carry out those responsibilities,” the source says. “He has no other option.”