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Why the Karmapa issue could hurt Indo-China ties

By B Raman
February 01, 2011 15:17 IST
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The controversy is a sensitive issue which could have an impact on relations with China and could hurt the feelings and sensitivities of the followers of the Karmapa, say B Raman.

The Karmapa is the head of what is known as the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It is claimed that the institution of Karmapa is more than 200 years older than the institution of Dalai Lama, who is the head of all Tibetan Buddhists, wherever they may be living.

There has been a controversy regarding the present 17th Karmapa ever since the death of the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, in 1981. Claims were made on behalf of the following two persons that they were the real incarnation of the deceased 16th Karmapa -- Ogyen Trinley Dorje (also spelt Urgyen Trinley Dorje) and Trinley Thaye Dorje.

Both were enthroned by their respective followers as the 17th Karmapa, and both independently started performing ceremonial duties as the Karmapa. The majority of the monasteries and lamas of this sect recognised Urgyen Trinley Dorje as the Karmapa. However, a small number of monasteries and lamas of the sect including Shamar Rinpoche, who plays an important role in the selection process, did not allegedly recognise his claim. The Chinese recognised his claim as the 17th Karmapa.

Urgyen Trinley Dorje enjoys considerable support -- though not total support -- among the followers of what is considered the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism. His support for the process for the selection of the successor to the Dalai Lama could, in Chinese calculation, lend credibility to the child projected by the Chinese as the incarnation of the present Dalai Lama after his death.

Normally, the Chinese would have used the Panchen Lama for this purpose, but the institution of Panchen Lama has got into a controversy since the death of the 10th Panchen Lama in 1989. There are two 11th Panchen Lamas -- one (Gedhun Choekyi Nyima) recognised by the Dalai Lama and the majority of the Tibetan Buddhists as the real incarnation of the previous Panchen Lama, who was arrested by the Chinese authorities in 1995, and one (Gyaltsen Norbu) recognised and installed by the Chinese as the real incarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama and hence the legitimate 11th Panchen Lama.

Despite the best efforts of China to promote the person selected by it as the legitimate 11th Panchen Lama, his legitimacy has not been accepted by an overwhelming majority of Tibetan Buddhists, particularly by those living in exile in India and other countries of the world. They look upon him as an impostor and have been demanding the release of the person recognised by the Dalai Lama. They refer sarcastically to Gyaltsen Norbu as Panchen Zuma (false Panchen).

As this controversy over the Panchen Zuma was picking up momentum in the late 1990s, the 17th Karmapa, who himself is a controversial figure, landed by a taxi in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives, on January 5, 2000. He claimed that he had given the slip to the Chinese and clandestinely fled to India via Nepal because he was unhappy in Tibet and was not able to get his spiritual education completed in Tibet since most of the senior religious scholars of his sect were living in India.

Questions arose regarding the genuineness of his claim. Did he really escape clandestinely after giving a slip to the Chinese as claimed by him or was it a choreographed escape organised by the Chinese intelligence to create a split among the followers of the Dalai Lama, undermine his authority and project the Karmapa as the interim head of the Tibetan Buddhists after the death of the Dalai Lama till a successor is chosen by the Chinese by stage-managing the identification of the child who is his incarnation.

The scepticism regarding the genuineness of the Karmapa's escape has since subsided, but not completely. Some -- including this writer -- suspect that his escape to India was probably under a long-term Chinese intelligence operation to use him to influence events relating to Tibet after the death of the Dalai Lama. It would not be correct to call him a Chinese spy meant to collect intelligence about the Dalai Lama and his followers. The suspicion is that he could be a planted Chinese "agent of influence" to influence future events after the Dalai Lama's death.

The government of India has allowed him to travel periodically within India to perform his religious tasks and obligations. He was also allowed to visit the US in 2008 to meet his followers there.

The scepticism regarding him has revived following the alleged seizure of currencies of different countries -- including Chinese -- amounting to $1.5 million (about Rs 6.9 crore) from his office and from persons associated with him in Dharamsala in recent days. An investigation has been started as to how he got this money and for what purpose.

The Karmapa himself and his principal aides have been questioned. They are reported to have claimed that this amount represented the cash offerings of his followers visiting Dharamsala to seek his blessings and by his followers in other parts of India and abroad during his travels. This explanation sounds plausible.

Home Minister P Chidambaram told the media on January 31 that since the matter was under investigation, he was not in a position to come to any conclusions till the investigation was completed. The Dalai Lama has supported the investigation without saying anything further.

Sections of the media as usual have gone to town with allegations of the Karmapa being a Chinese spy. China has strongly refuted these allegations.

This is a sensitive issue which could have an impact on relations with China and could hurt the feelings and sensitivities of the followers of the Karmapa. We should carry out a vigorous investigation, keeping the Dalai Lama in the picture, and await the results of the investigation as suggested by the home minister. We should avoid speculation that could prove counter-productive.

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B Raman