February 7, 2001


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Claude Arpi

Claude Arpi on why the Karmapa is not permitted to go to Sikkim The Graded Path to Rumtek

Next month the Dalai Lama is going to impart a very special teaching to his followers: the Lamrin or teaching on the 'Graded Path to Enlightenment.'

It is not yet clear if his famous young neighbour in Dharamsala, Urgyen Trinley Dorjee, the seventeenth Karmapa will attend the ceremony, but for the past one year, it has been for him, the Graded Way to Rumtek, the seat of his predecessor in the Himalayan union territory of Sikkim.

Everyone remembers when 13 months ago, the 15-year old Karmapa in a Bollywood-type escape reached Dharamsala after crossing the highest Himalayan passes in the midst of the winter and the hesitations of the Indian government to grant him refugee status. At that time, many believed that he had been 'planted' by the Chinese to create confusion in Sikkim.

But good news came for the Tibetans last Friday. Kalon Tashi Wangdi, the minister of religion and cultural affairs in the Central Tibetan Administration announced to the press in Dharamsala that he had received word: "The Government of India has formally communicated to us that the XVII Gyalwa Karmapa Ugyen Thinley Dorji has been granted refugee status in India."

When asked if the Karmapa would be allowed to travel without any restrictions in India, he remained rather vague. He remarked that the Karmapa "is now allowed to stay in India as any other Tibetan refugee, we have no restrictions imposed by the Indian government."

However, when pressed to say if he could go to the Rumtek monastery, he could only answer: "Our first concern was to seek for a formal regularisation of his stay in India. We would like to take this matter step by step." Obviously the Tibetan administration had been told by the Indian authorities not to press the matter of a visit to Sikkim immediately.

Perhaps with the view of not antagonising the Indian government, the Tibetan minister spoke about the wishes of the young Karmapa to visit the holy Buddhist sites in Varanasi, Bodh Gaya etc. He added, "He has no plans at present to visit the Rumtek monastery" though he admitted that "…Rumtek monastery is the most important seat of the Karmapa after Tsurphu monastery in Tibet. So it is natural for the present Karmapa to go there, and we hope and wish that this will come about soon."

This regularisation of the situation of the Karmapa follows a personal appeal by the Dalai Lama. Last September he had called on Union Home Minister L K Advani in Delhi and gave his personal guarantee. A letter from the young Lama was also delivered to the Indian authorities seeking "permission to embark on religious tours and visit Buddhist monasteries and holy places all over India and address religious meetings."

To comprehend the complex situation surrounding the Karmapa's arrival in India, one should take a closer look at the stakes. First of all, who is the Karmapa Lama?

There is a belief amongst Tibetans that the Black Hat of the Karmapa Lama is made out of the hair of lakhs of Dakinis (some sort of Apsaras protecting the teachings of the Buddha). When a Karmapa Lama performs the Black Hat puja he has to hold it down very tight to prevent the hat from flying in the air. I remember seeing old movies showing the unforgettable immobile face of the previous Karmapa in Rumtek, Sikkim, plunged for hours into a sort of deep 'conscious' trance. Such an unforgettable sight! For generations the Black Hat has been the emblem of the head of the Kagyupa school of Tibetan Buddhism.

When 13 months ago, the young reincarnation of the Lama of Rumtek escaped from Tibet, he left a letter addressed to the Chinese authorities saying he was going to collect 'religious artefacts' (his flying hat) from India and that he would soon be back. Of course, he was not planning to return, he was only trying to protect his parents and monks left in his Tsurphu monastery in Tibet.

On his way to India, he may have dreamt that once he would reach his destination, he would be able to return to his predecessor's seat in Sikkim and consecrate all his energies on his Buddhist studies. It was not to be so. The problem was not so simple.

Did he foresee that hundreds of Indian and foreign press people would be chasing him around for weeks? He probably did not understand the intricacies and complexities of the Sino-Indian relations either.

One of the problems is that even today China has not accepted that Sikkim and Arunachal are part of India. One still remembers that in 1997, Gegong Apang, then the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, had asked for a Chinese visa to go to Kunming in the Yunnan province of China to attend a conference on biodiversity. He was refused the visa by the Chinese embassy in Delhi: Arunachal being 'disputed,' he did not need a visa to go to China!

Eventually, his trip had to be cancelled.

The government has been treading carefully with Chinese susceptibilities while trying to normalise relations between the two Asian giants. It was most probably felt it was minimum courtesy to wait for Li Peng's departure to grant the Karmapa asylum, especially after India had just fired a new Agni II missile.

Another problem, with serious consequences is the dissensions within the Karmapa sect. The Sixteenth Karmapa was certainly one of the greatest Lamas of his generation. He was a great yogi and a realised being. All those who approached him, whether Tibetan or Indian, were greatly impressed by his profound wisdom and the strength and the peace emanating from his being. He was respected by all, but when he passed away in 1981, he left his monastery of Rumtek in Sikkim as well as hundreds of centres in India and abroad in the hands of four regents who were supposed to provide spiritual guidance to his followers during his absence.

Unfortunately, after one of the regents, Situ Rinpoche discovered a letter of prediction said to have been written by the old Karmapa prophesising his rebirth in eastern Tibet and giving his time of birth and the name of his parents, a dispute erupted between Situ and another Regent, Shamar Rinpoche who did not approve of Urgyen Dorjee's selection.

This was no ordinary dispute, the two Lamas have been fighting lives after lives in their successive reincarnations. In fact, Shamar has often been on the wrong side of the fence. It turned so bad that at the end of the eighteenth century, the Tibetan government had to ban the reincarnation of Shamar. He was accused of high treason in a war against the Gorkhas. It is only the previous Karmapa who again re-started the process of recognising the lineage of the Shamar Lama.

In Rumtek, bitterness grew between the regents. It took an ugly turn in 1992-93, when law and order problems occurred on a few occasions and a petition was filed in the Sikkim high court praying for an injunction to stop the recognition of the 17th Karmapa. More infighting was reported from Delhi in 1994 when Shamar enthroned his own Karmapa, Thagye Dorjee who is presently living in France.

In the meantime, after conducting the necessary tests, the Dalai Lama gave his seal of approval to Urgyen Dorjee. About the same time, in Beijing, the Chinese thought they were playing safe with the boy in their hands and decided to recognise him. It was for the first time in the history of a Communist regime that a reincarnation was officially recognised. Poor Karl Marx, he must have been shaken in his grave!

The Karmapa's escape to India last year was clearly a slap on Beijing's face. The boy said that he had no alternative but to leave Tibet, as there was no religious freedom there. At that time, Delhi refrained from scoring a point and rubbing salt in the Chinese wound and the matter of granting refugee status to the young boy was kept pending. The question has finally been solved with the recent announcement in Dharamsala.

Now, why is the young Karmapa not permitted to go to Sikkim?

It appears that Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling, due to internal politics, is reluctant to receive him. He also fears law and order problems.

The chief minister seems to change his mind often on the subject. In the early weeks, after the Karmapa had reached Dharamsala, he had approached the central government on behalf of the people of Sikkim to request New Delhi to 'install the Karmapa in Rumtek.' However, under the pressure of Shamar Rinpoche's group whose followers mainly live abroad, he later declared that the situation has 'now changed' and it has 'become a sensitive matter.'

When L K Advani visited Sikkim last April, he received a delegation of monks from Rumtek who requested him to allow the Karmapa to take back his seat. He assured them that the central government 'respects the sentiments of the people of Sikkim, but a lot of thoughts and considerations would have to be given to the matter.' He added that 'above all the Dalai Lama would have to be consulted:' At that time he refused to give a time frame for the installation of the Karmapa.

The Tibetan Buddhists as well as the people of Sikkim will celebrate their new year at the end of February. We can only hope that during the course of the Iron-Snake year they will be able to see, in Rumtek, the Karmapa holding his black hat tightly so that it is not taken away by the Dakinis.

Claude Arpi is author of The Fate of Tibet (HarAnand), which has also been translated into French.


The Flight of the Lama

Design: Dominic Xavier

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