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India, 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 Through the ruling on July 5 his right to enter the monastery was said to have been "irrevocably" rescinded.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 Rumtek.

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 status quo."

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 Kagyu school.

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 Tibetan community."

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 title."

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 Monastery.

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 20 years.

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Jul 21, 2004

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