Sikkim, China and a vexing Tibetan lama
By Julian Gearing
It is said that the Black Hat of the Karmapas is the physical representation of
a "spiritual crown" woven from the hair of 100,000 female deities and that when
the Karmapa places it on his head, he has to hold it down with his hand to
prevent it flying away. A gift to the Fifth Karmapa from the Chinese Ming
Dynasty Emperor Tai Ming Chen in the 15th century, today the crown of this high
Tibetan Buddhist lama is locked away in the hillside monastery of Rumtek
in Sikkim, an Indian state bordering Tibet. For many Himalayan people, he who
sits in this monastery and wears this crown is the Karmapa.
It was in a quest for the fabled Black Hat that the young 17th Karmapa Urgyen
Trinley is said to have fled Chinese government oppression in Tibet in 2000,
aiming to reach the Sikkim monastery that his predecessor, the 16th Karmapa,
built after he fled from Tibet in 1959. Now, in a major blow to the
second-best-known lama after the Dalai Lama, a decision by the Indian Supreme
Court has in effect blocked him and his supporters from claiming the monastery
and its crown. Through the ruling on July 5 his right to enter the monastery
was said to have been "irrevocably" rescinded.
The court decision solves a
difficult problem for the Indian government at a time when it wants to put
relations with old rival China on a better footing. Sikkim has been a point of
contention between India and China for many years. The controversy over Rumtek
Monastery caused unrest in Sikkim. Now China appears to have tacitly accepted
India's control over the state.
Further, as far as this Tibetan lama is concerned, it opens the way for a legal
process that could put the property of the Sikkim monastery into the hands of a
rival Karmapa, Thaye Dorje. While this "competing" Buddhist lama is far less
well known internationally, he also has hundreds of thousands of followers in
the region and around the world.
The decision is the most dramatic development for Urgyen Trinley since he fled
Tibet. It has wider implications for the Karmapa's badly split Karma Kagyu
Buddhist school and it has geostrategic implications for China and India. It
also impacts the Dalai Lama himself and Tibetan Buddhism's sometimes difficult
entry into the modern world.
While the young lama's flight from Tibet in 2000 caused a media splash at that
time, today there has been a silence from the international press about the
Indian Supreme Court verdict. The court ruled that the Tsurphu Labrang, an
entity set up by Urgyen Trinley's followers, does not have any legal standing
in its claim to Rumtek Monastery and its assets in Sikkim. In the words of the
verdict of the highest court in the land, their appeal was "dismissed".
The decision has crucial implications. While Urgyen Trinley was being feted and
received much media attention, a quiet and bitter legal battle had been going
on for control of the monastery. Now the most important legal decision is in.
Karmapa Urgyen Trinley is said to be "irrevocably" blocked from entering
This means the only party that has legal standing to claim Rumtek is the
Karmapa Charitable Trust. The Trust, a body set up by the late 16th Karmapa,
supports rival Karmapa, Thaye Dorje, 21, a young lama with no links to China.
China rejects Tibetan autonomy
Despite the cries of Tibetan nationalists, Beijing says Tibet has always been
an inalienable part of China and it rejects any talk of greater autonomy for
the strategic, mineral-rich region on the "roof of the world".
Karmapa Urgyen Trinley's close circle reportedly is demoralized, and the young
lama is under virtual house arrest by the Indian authorities in Gyuto Monastery
just a few kilometers from the Dalai Lama's headquarters in the hill town of
Dharamsala, according to Tibetan exile sources. The few followers of the young
lama worldwide who even know of the court decision are said to be struggling to
come to terms with this dramatic setback.
Thierry Dodin, director of the Tibet Information Office in London, says that if
the Karmapa Charitable Trust were to win the monastery it "would be a bitter
defeat" for Urgyen Trinley.
"On a personal level, he is likely to be more than disappointed, because he has
not been particularly happy since he reached India," said Dodin, referring to
the young lama's frustration over the Indian government's limits on his
movements and its unwillingness to allow him to go to Rumtek. "The local
authorities there mistrust him. There are people in India who think he is a
Chinese spy. This of course is sheer nonsense." said Dodin.
In contrast, the supporters of the rival Karmapa, Thaye Dorje, are quietly
euphoric. Shamar Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama who recognized Thaye Dorje and
claims he is the real 17th Karmapa, says the court decision is "welcome news".
But he notes that local court actions in Sikkim are needed before the
monastery, violently taken over in 1993 by followers of Urgyen Trinley, is
returned to the trust. Shamar says the trust must petition the High Court in
Gangtok in Sikkim to turn the monastery over, carry out an inventory, and evict
the monks. "These monks cannot be trusted to stay there for fear of any
reprisals; they may again take the property as they have done in the past," he
told Asia Times Online.
The monastery and the Black Hat are important, according to Michael den Hoet,
spokesman for the German Buddhist Association. But he said followers of Thaye
Dorje feel that what is much more important is that Urgyen Trinley's followers
cannot continue to claim both Rumtek and the Karmapa title for their candidate
without proving the legitimacy of their claims. "If the court decision really
turns out to be what it seems to be, this judgment is a victory for common
sense, critical examination, openness and justice," he told ATol.
The Karmapa controversy blew up in 1992 when the Karma Kagyu lamas Tai Situ
Rinpoche and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche pushed forward the nomination of their
Karmapa candidate through the use of an allegedly fake "letter of recognition".
Since then the legitimacy of the recognition of Urgyen Trinley as the "true"
reincarnation of the late 16th Karmapa, who died in 1981, has been in question.
Critics claim it was wrong to involve not only the Dalai Lama but also the
Tibetan government in exile and the communist Chinese authorities, who made a
fuss over him as their "Living Buddha". None of them in the past had been
involved in the internal spiritual matters of the independent Karma Kagyu
school. Compounding the wrong, they say, violence was used to take over Rumtek.
Ruling affects China-India ties
But the court decision has implications beyond the spat between supporters of
two lamas of one of the four main Tibetan Buddhist schools. The plight of this
one lama may affect Sino-Indian relations and the Chinese government's plan to
tackle what it views as the Tibet problem and its relations with the Dalai
Lama, who seeks greater autonomy for Tibet. China opposes further autonomy of
what it calls the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Barry Sautman, professor of political science at the Hong Kong University of
Science and Technology, says the Chinese government - which still claims a hold
on Urgyen Trinley despite his flight from Tibet - would now seem to have
nothing to gain from his enhanced prestige in exile. It has been alleged that
the Chinese planned to install the "Chinese Karmapa" in Sikkim. "It is more
difficult to say whether the government of the People's Republic of China
estimates its position might be benefited or harmed if Urgyen Trinley were to
go on and play a role in post-Dalai Lama exile politics," Sautman said,
referring to speculation that the young lama could stand in as the Tibetans'
spiritual leader after the Dalai Lama dies.
Given the upset, will the young lama return to his monastery in Tibet? Tomek
Lehnert, a Polish author of a book on the Karmapa and supporter of Thaye Dorje,
says the Chinese government will call on Urgyen Trinley to fulfill his
duty to the Tibetan people and return to the motherland. "They may try to use
Urgyen Trinley's people to force his hand to go back to Tibet," he said.
India remains key. "Ultimately, the whole development flowing from the decision
will depend on how the government of India reacts to it," said Tibetan Review
editor Pema Thinley in New Delhi. "I think it will do its best to maintain the
Improving Sino-Indian relations are at stake. "Whether Urgyen Trinley goes to
Rumtek Monastery is ultimately a question to be decided by the executive branch
of the Indian government, in light of its relations with China," said Tibet
watcher Sautman. "The Indian intelligence agencies' suspicions that Urgyen
Trinley's exit from Tibet was staged with Chinese government approval - based
on the unlikelihood that he would not have been apprehended in his flight -
have not been completely allayed. While the local Sikkim government wants him
in Sikkim, the national government doesn't agree."
The Indian judiciary, independent of the Indian government, has made a ruling
that lets the government off the hook. And the government has treated Urgyen
Trinley as an unwelcome guest. According to one Tibetan source who backs his
"challenger", the Indian government must be relieved that a judicial decision
puts the monastery under the control of Thaye Dorje, "who is not directly or
indirectly aligned with the Chinese government". The decision helps India
tighten its grip on Sikkim.
Tough times for Tibetan exiles
This is a difficult time for the Tibetan exile community. Beijing continues to
block a solution to the Tibet issue that is "acceptable" to the community. More
than 45 years since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, there are concerns about how
much longer the 69-year-old Tibetan leader will be around.
On the surface, though, there are few ripples. This decision of an Indian court
would appear to have had little affect on the Tibetan exile community, which is
mostly settled in India and Nepal, according to Tibetan Review editor Thinley.
He said this was a "legal decision" with "no major implications" for the Karma
But as Lehnert puts it, "The Tibetan community in exile is split. The Karmapa
controversy and the Shugden affair [a serious split over the worship of a deity
within the Dalai Lama's own Gelukpa sect] have brought the division to a
boiling point. There is considerable opposition to the Dalai Lama within the
Lehnert says the Indian Supreme Court decision will further widen the divide.
The ruling puts one segment of the Tibetan community in India - those who back
Urgyen Trinley - in direct opposition to the Indian authorities. He said, "It
paves the way for the Indian authorities to bring criminal charges against
certain high Tibetan lamas, who may now be seen to have broken the law,"
because of the use of violence by its supporters at Rumtek and the alleged
theft of religious artifacts. He warns there may be confrontation staged by
Urgyen Trinley's supporters with the Indian authorities that in general will
harm the Tibetan cause in India.
Not that it is all bad for Urgyen Trinley. His supporters hold the upper hand
in terms of media coverage - not least three new books out on the young lama
over the past 12 months. However, said a European supporter of Thaye Dorje, "If
they lose Rumtek, it will be much more difficult for them to keep a lid on this
can of worms. My hunch is that international supporters of Urgyen Trinley are
not very well informed about the issue. Most of them have only heard that the
Dalai Lama supports their candidate and that the other side are troublemakers.
So losing Rumtek could come as a nasty surprise, especially as there has been
little if any coverage of the court issues on their part. However, Urgyen
Trinley's side will find a way of explaining things, so only a few of his
Western supporters will really start digging into the details."
Darker political side to Tibetan spiritual affairs
Many Western followers may soon have to come to terms with the fact that
Tibetan spiritual affairs at times have their darker political side.
"One reason that Buddhism is pretty popular in the West is that some of its
principles match so well with important Western values, such as stress on
common sense, critical examination, openness and justice," said German Buddhist
Association spokesman den Hoet. "Thus it was no surprise that most of the
Western Karma Kagyu Buddhists have always been very critical about the way
certain lamas tried to promote Urgyen Trinley as the 17th holder of the Karmapa
There is a question as to whether the Dalai Lama, who endorsed the young lama's
recognition, will gain or lose from this legal battle and its implications.
Tibetan critics say that while the court decision will not directly affect the
Tibetan spiritual leader, his image may be slightly tarnished because the court
has decided that individuals he has backed have no authority over Rumtek
But the case may affect the Dalai Lama in another subtle way. For years the
Gelukpa sect leader has tried to exert his authority over the independent
Sakya, Nyingma and Karma Kagyu sects, including recognizing the reincarnate
heads of those sects, the most prominent being Urgyen Trinley. The Indian
Supreme Court in no way ruled about the legitimacy of one Karmapa over another.
Yet the court decision demonstrates that the procedures to regain control of
the Karmapa's main seat outside Tibet, followed by Lama Tai Situ and others who
were indirectly sanctioned by the Dalai Lama, were not legitimate.
Therefore it would appear the Dalai Lama's plan to gain control over the
Tibetan Buddhist schools, at least over the Karma Kagyu sect, has hit a bump in
the road, not necessarily a roadblock, according to critics.
Western observers indicate that the court decision puts the Dalai Lama at odds
with the Indian authorities. There is said to be resentment in Delhi against
the Dalai Lama's political involvement that hurts Indian interests. While the
Dalai Lama enjoyed a certain amount of backing from the former Bharatiya Janata
Party, with the Congress party now in power, the support is gone and the court
decision puts pressure on the Dalai Lama to withdraw completely from the
Karmapa conflict. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile may become
less vocal in their appeals for Urgyen Trinley to return to Rumtek.
An upside for the Dalai Lama?
But there may be an upside for the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan leader has embraced
Urgyen Trinley since his arrival from Tibet and he is now in effect under the
Dalai Lama's control. In contrast, the late 16th Karmapa was a thorn in the
side of the Dalai Lama and his exile government, as he challenged their control
over the Tibetan exile community. There are even allegations the exile
government put a murder contract out on the 16th Karmapa. Some older Karma
Kagyu followers still suspect the Dalai Lama of using black magic to kill the
16th Karmapa, who died of cancer. Such extreme views, however, are not held by
the majority of Tibetans.
For now, more court hearings are being lined up. And more demonstrations and
violence by Urgyen Trinley's supporters are a possibility in their now futile
fight over Rumtek, according to Tibetan sources. Tibetan Review editor Thinley
expects implementing the court decisions will mean "upheaval".
Who is the "real" Karmapa? It's a matter of belief. As one well-informed
Western follower of Urgyen Trinley put it, "Whatever material setbacks occur,
the true spirituality of the Karmapa will show itself more and more as time
goes by. The young lama is a teacher and a friend to the whole world. Rumtek is
just one monastery."
Just one monastery - but it would appear to be much more important to Karmapa
Urgyen Trinley than his challenger.
Julian Gearing has covered conflicts and religion in Asia for more than
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