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The Karmapa Lama Issue: A Round-up

Posted on February 10, 2011 in Specials

By Aditya Mani:

For as long as I can remember, an average day in my life comprises of the following — an involuntary expulsion from the bed initiated by the matriarch/patriarch, dousing the 32 off-whites in a fluoride paste, a pathetic and excessively lethargic attempt at physical exercise, daily ablutions, indulgence in what is universally accepted as the most important meal of the day (though I sleep through it on most occasions) and finally perusing through the comics and sports sections in black and white, before embarking on a pointless 16 hours after which I can continue the aforementioned cycle again.

However, with time this routine has been subject to minor alterations. The screaming parent has been replaced by the grossly neglected alarm clock and the funnies have been joined by the blaring headlines on the front pages of the same newspaper. These sentences that are intended to catch eyeballs from 40 feet away vary from Indian cricket team’s last minute heroics to the more melancholic issues like bomb blasts and natural disasters. In a country like India, if there’s one newsworthy subject that finds its place in print then it’s controversy. The common man is regaled and entertained without any shame round the clock by either some starlet’s inappropriate merriment or by some corporate bigwig’s misdemeanors.

If you are just like me, you have learnt to phase out such bulletins, but in the process also become completely ignorant to relevant socioeconomic and political matters that, in a less refined language, screwing India. One such very significant and very recent concern is the Karmapa issue. Assuming you have never come across this term before, let us start from the very beginning.

Tibetan Buddhism is followed rampantly in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and the most of the north eastern parts of India. It comprises of four schools of which, Kagyupa is further divided into four sub-schools. Karma Kagyu is the largest of these sub-schools and is headed by a figure known as The Karmapa. The Karmapa is a revered religious head all over the world and is third in the Chinese Buddhism hierarchy only after The Dalai Lama and another spiritual head called the Panchen Lama. In fact, the Karmapa lineage outdates the Dalai Lama lineage by almost 3 centuries.

The Karmapa is widely believed to be the reincarnation of Lord Buddha, and each Karmapa predicts the birth of his successor through a letter written by him in the form of a riddle. When the 16th Karmapa passed away in 1981, Tai Situ, the 3rd ranking Lama in the school, claimed he had the letter of prediction and finally nominated Urgyen Trinley as the 17th Karmapa in 1992. However, the Shamar (2nd ranking Lama who has the power to nominate new Karmapa) questioned the authenticity of the letter and in 1994, officially proclaimed Thaye Dorje as the 17th Karmapa. While the latter was traditionally supposed to be recognized as the Karmapa, the former was supported by the Chinese Government and The Dalai Lama. Hence, Tibet was divided into 2 factions.

Unfortunately, the controversy doesn’t end there. On the 5th January 2000, Urgyen Trinley landed in Dharamshala, India and sought exile in the Gyuto monastery near The Dalai Lama’s base. Now, it is a well known fact that The Dalai Lama fled from China in 1959 and sought exile in India and ever since then, both parties have disagreed on many topics including the Tibetan issue. Urgyen Trinley claims that he fled China for two reasons. Firstly, he wanted to further pursue his spiritual training which would only be possible in India where his seniors have taken refuge and secondly, because he was forced to denounce The Dalai Lama and support the Panchen Lama. Since this entire episode was extremely clandestine, suspicions arose that China had in fact sent the Karmapa to exert influence in the Tibetan regions after the death of The Dalai Lama.

More recently, January 2011 to be precise, the Indian government seized cash worth US$1.6 million from the Gyuto monastery and its affiliates in various currencies including the Chinese yen. Speculations have again arisen that The Karmapa is indeed a Chinese spy and that China is funding him to buy influence in the Tibetan monasteries in the region. However, he denies the allegations and asserts that the money is merely the result of generous donations from his followers from all over the world. What this controversy has managed to do is to flare up the old topic regarding the authenticity of the Karmapa.

New evidences and investigations suggest that The Karmapa’s medical records of when he landed in India have gone missing and that he may actually be older than what his records claimed. If these accusations are correct, The Karmapa would have been too old to be a reincarnation and thus be stripped of his title. Also, evidence of Tai Situ’sshady‘ past has surfaced who has more than 4 different passports with him. The fact that the Karma Kagyu has property and assets worth more than US$1.6 billion all over the world, maybe a reason for the conflict of the Karmapa.

In addition to the heavy duty currencies, the police also found documents regarding land deals for Tibetans. Bear in mind, the Tibetans in exile aren’t allowed to purchase any land in India. This has also added to the headache of the Himachal Pradesh police.

In light of all these recent and not-so-recent episodes, the Indian government has questioned and interrogated The Karmapa several times but has not gotten a satisfactory answer. The CBI is also probing into all the monetary assets and land acquisition deals that have been taken into custody. The thousands of followers of The Karmapa have not taken this insult to their revered one well and have staged protests in Dharamshala and in Delhi. Even the Chinese Government has expressed its strong condemnation and disappointment at the allegations thrown at them.

In a nutshell, India is accusing China of sending spies in the form of well renowned spiritual leaders and China and along with the followers are mortified at the very thought.

With one eye on future development and relations with China, India has to deal with extra sensitive issue with great ease and finesse so that nobody gets hurt in the process or the aftermath.

Till then, educated youths like you and me can only read about such issues in papers and carry on with our lives and hope for a brighter and more interesting tomorrow.

Image courtesy.