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Tibetan chants

Published : Mar 11, 2011 00:00 IST

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UGYEN TRINLEY DORJE, the 17th Karmapa and Tibetan Buddhism's third most important leader, at the Gyuto monastery in Dharamsala on February 2.-TSERING TOPGYAL/AP

UGYEN TRINLEY DORJE, the 17th Karmapa and Tibetan Buddhism's third most important leader, at the Gyuto monastery in Dharamsala on February 2.-TSERING TOPGYAL/AP

The charge of money laundering against Karmapa Ugyen Trinley Dorje brings the politics of the Tibetan community in exile into the spotlight.

THE questioning of the Tibetan spiritual leader Ugyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa Lama, by the Himachal Pradesh Police in the last week of January and the arrest of seven of his close aides on alleged money laundering charges have brought the politics of the Tibetan community in exile back into the media spotlight. It took the Indian authorities more than two weeks to absolve the Karmapa Lama finally from the more serious charges levelled against him. In the first week of February, there were reports in the Indian media that the Central government was contemplating the arrest of the Karmapa.

On February 11, the Himachal Pradesh government ruled out the possibility of arresting the Karmapa in connection with the seizure of foreign currency from his Gyuto monastery, located near Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile. But the Himachal Pradesh authorities have not withdrawn the case under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act against his aides.

The State government took the step after the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) submitted reports to the Union Home Ministry absolving the Karmapa of the charges. However, Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister P.K. Dhumal clarified the next day that the State government had not given a clean chit to the Karmapa as a probe by the Central government was still on. Usually, it is the high-profile Dalai Lama, the supreme spiritual leader of Tibetans, who is in the limelight, feted as he is by both Indian and Western leaders. The Karmapa, on the other hand, has been keeping a low profile in recent years, though he is accorded the third highest status in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

The 16th Karmapa had fled to India along with the Dalai Lama in 1959. After his death, his reincarnation, the 17th Karmapa, surfaced in Dharamsala in January 2000 under dramatic circumstances as a 14-year-old. The Karmapa had then said that he had escaped along with his sister and four close aides from the Tsurphu monastery in Tibet.

The young spiritual leader was initially hailed in the Indian media and government circles as a courageous fighter for Tibetan independence who had escaped from the tutelage of his Chinese masters. But within a short period, the Karmapa began to be viewed with suspicion by Indian intelligence agencies. Now they claim they always had serious doubts about the antecedents of the Karmapa and his ties with the Chinese government.

Indian intelligence agencies believe that it was virtually impossible for a Tibetan spiritual leader of his stature to escape from the high security zone his monastery in Tibet was located in. They suspect that the Karmapa's sole purpose in coming to India was to establish control of the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, which was built by the 16th Karmapa after he came to India, and in the process split the Tibetan exile movement. Indian officials also claim that the Karmapa never criticises China's Tibet policy in the style that the Dalai Lama frequently does.

The Black Hat

The Black Hat, which belongs to the line of Karmapa, is in the Rumtek monastery. The 16th Karmapa had fled to Rumtek with the Black Hat and other important regalia and treasures. It is said to possess magical powers and is worn on ceremonial occasions. The Karmapa's intention, according to Indian intelligence officials, was to reclaim the Black Hat legacy that the rivals in his sect, having the confidence of the Indian authorities, have been denying him.

The Chinese government explained the Karmapa's absence to the faithful in Tibet by putting up a notice in the Tsurphu monastery which said that their spiritual leader had gone to collect his hat.

The Indian authorities, besides preventing the Karmapa from visiting the Rumtek monastery, have generally kept him on a tight leash, rarely giving him permission to travel abroad. In fact, in recent years he has been barred from venturing beyond 15 km of his residence near Dharamsala. He was denied permission to visit the United States in 2010. There are large numbers of Tibetans settled in North America and Europe who look to him for spiritual guidance. The Karmapa was given a rousing reception by his followers when he was allowed to visit the U.S. in 2008.

In the raid conducted on his monastery, the police said they found Chinese currency worth around Rs.11 lakh along with other foreign currency. Evidently, the Karmapa was intent on investing in real estate on which he planned to build a monastery befitting his status. According to reports, the monastery would have rivalled the monastery in Rumtek, which the Karmapa is barred from visiting. The Karmapa said the money was from his devotees. The renminbi that was seized, he said, were donations by Tibetans and Chinese pilgrims to his monastery.

According to Tibetan Buddhist custom, envelopes of cash or gifts are usually left behind after an audience with the Karmapa. In Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama in India, the dollar seems to be the currency of choice. The rich and the famous from all over the world come here to visit the Dalai Lama.

All religious organisations in India receive huge donations. It's irrational to conclude that the Karmapa is a Chinese spy on the basis of the Chinese currency seized from his residence, said an article in the Chinese newspaper People's Daily.

Power struggle

The whole issue involving the Karmapa may be related to the shadowy power struggle that is going on in the Tibetan community in exile as it prepares to look for a successor to the ageing Dalai Lama. The Karmapa is popular among young Tibetans and is viewed as a future leader of the Tibetan movement.

In September last year, 30,000 people participated in a rally organised by a Joint Action Committee in Sikkim demanding that the Karmapa be allowed to visit the Rumtek monastery. It has been described as the biggest rally witnessed in the State.

Interesting times are ahead as the Dalai Lama has predicted that his reincarnation will be from outside China. This could lead to two competing Dalai Lamas in the near future as the Tibetans in China will no doubt find their own reincarnated Dalai Lama. Two Panchen Lamas are also currently competing for legitimacy among Tibetans, one having the support of the Dalai Lama and the community in exile in India and the other having the support of Tibetan Buddhists supporting the government in Beijing.

A section of the Kagyu sect the Black Hat sect led by one of the Regents, Shamar Rimpoche, has not recognised Ugyen Trinley Dorje as the Karmapa. It has accepted another young Tibetan, Trinley Thaye Dorji, as the Karmapa. He is based in Delhi. The Indian authorities have prevented both Karmapas from going to the Rumtek monastery.

Karmapa Ugyen Trinley Dorje's Kagyu order in Tibetan Buddhism is the richest one. The Dalai Lama, who belongs to the Gelug sect, has no role in selecting the Karmapa, but he has thrown his moral weight behind the young Karmapa who is in the news nowadays. The Government of China, too, has recognised Ugyen Trinley Dorje as the Karmapa.

Independent player

There are indications that the Dalai Lama would prefer the Karmapa to take over the mantle of leadership after his death until a successor is anointed following the identification of his reincarnation. Ugyen Trinley Dorje cannot aspire to be the Dalai Lama as he belongs to a rival sect of Tibetan Buddhism. But he is the only reincarnation recognised both by the Dalai Lama and the Chinese authorities. This puts the Karmapa in a favourable position in providing a healing touch to the frosty relations between the Tibetan community in exile and the Chinese government. He could prove to be an independent player, outside the influence of both the West and the Indian government.

Tibetans in India and abroad have rallied behind the Karmapa. Tibetans have staged protests in Delhi against the Indian government's moves against their spiritual leader. The Dalai Lama has blamed the Karmapa's associates for faulty bookkeeping and described the incident as not serious.

The Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile, Samdhong Rimpoche, said the allegations that the Karmapa was an agent of the Chinese government were all baseless.

The Karmapa himself has expressed the hope that the controversy would be cleared up quickly once all the facts of the case come to light. And as if to underline his anti-Beijing credentials with New Delhi, he said he was confident of being vindicated as India was a democratic country, based on the rule of law, in contrast to Communist China.

The Chinese government, in a statement issued in the first week of February, denied that the Karmapa was its spy and said that such allegations showed the Indian side's mistrustful attitude towards Beijing. The Karmapa, in an interview to Newsweek magazine last year, had denied that he was in contact with Beijing. He, however, told the magazine that Beijing had conveyed via interlocutors in New Delhi that he should desist from getting involved in politics and confine himself purely to a spiritual role.

The incident involving the Karmapa comes at a time when Sino-Indian relations are poised delicately. Beijing is angry with New Delhi for continuously playing the Tibet card. In response, the Chinese government started issuing stapled visas for residents of Indian territories like Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh who were to visit that country. China considers parts of the two States as disputed territories.

The Indian authorities have started accusing China of renewing its support for separatist armed groups operating along the country's eastern borders. New Delhi is also upset at what it views as Chinese attempts to neutralise India's influence in Nepal through the auspices of the Maoists. Before bilateral relations took a frosty turn, China had tacitly conceded that many of the neighbouring South Asian countries were under India's zone of influence. In recent years, China has become more diplomatically active in South Asia to counter what it perceives as coordinated moves by the U.S. and India to isolate it in the region.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 11, 2011.)

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