Lama drama and intrigue

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — The police seizure of large sums of Chinese currency from the Indian monastery of the China-anointed, but now India-based, Karmapa Lama — one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism — has revived old suspicions about his continuing links with China and forced him to deny that he is an “agent of Beijing.”

The Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama and Karmapa Lama are the three highest figures in Tibetan Buddhism, representing parallel institutions that have intermittently been at odds with each other in history. China, seeking to tighten its grip on Tibet, has worked to control the traditional process of finding the reincarnation of any senior lama who passes away.

In 1992, Beijing helped select and install the 7-year-old Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa Lama. He became the first reincarnated “living Buddha” recognized and ratified by Communist China. But in 1999, Dorje made a stunning escape to India via Nepal. This attracted the world’s attention, but the apparent ease with which he and his entourage managed to flee also caused deep suspicion.

In 1995, China installed its own marionette as the Panchen Lama after its security agencies abducted the Tibetans’ 6-year-old appointee. The official Panchen Lama has simply disappeared.

Beijing is waiting for the current Dalai Lama — who is over 75 and has had bouts of ill health — to pass away so that it can anoint his successor. The Dalai Lama, however, wants his successor to come from the “free world.” This has set the stage for the emergence of two rival Dalai Lamas — one chosen by Beijing, and the other by the Tibetan exile movement.

In fact, there are already two rival Karmapa Lamas — the Chinese- appointed one who lives in the Dalai Lama’s shadow in the Indian mountain resort of Dharamsala, while the other has set up shop in New Delhi. The Indian government has sought to maintain peace by barring both contenders from the sacred Rumtek monastery in the Indian Himalayan state of Sikkim.

In that light, the discovery of 1.1 million yuan and large sums of other foreign currency has ignited a fresh controversy over Dorje. While his supporters have staged protests against the police raid and questioning of their leader, Indian officials have expressed apprehension that China may be funding Dorje as part of a plan to influence the Karmapa’s Kagyu sect, which controls important monasteries along the Indo-Tibetan border.

But according to a Chinese Communist Party official, the allegation that “the Karmapa [may be] a Chinese agent or spy shows that India is keeping its mistrustful attitude toward China.” The official, Xu Zhitao, is with the party Central Committee’s “United Front Work Department,” whose Tibet division is tasked with overseeing monastic institutions, inculcating “patriotic” norms among monks and nuns, including through re-education when necessary, and infiltrating the Tibetan resistance movement and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries on both sides of the Indo-Tibetan frontier.

Himalayan communities have historically been closely integrated. But with Tibet locked behind an iron curtain since the 1951 Chinese annexation, local Himalayan economies and cultures have weakened. Tibetan Buddhism, however, still serves as the common link, with the Karmapa’s Kagyu sect a powerful influence on the Indian side.

The cash haul has reopened a question that arose in 1999: Was Dorje’s flight to India stage-managed by Beijing, or was he a genuine defector who simply got fed up with living in a gilded Chinese cage?

China had several possible incentives to stage his “escape.” One reason could have been to strengthen his claim to the title at a time when the rival contender (backed by important interests in India, Bhutan and Taiwan) appeared to be gaining ground.

A more potent reason was the fact that the Kagyu school’s holiest institution is the very old Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, where the sect’s all-powerful “black hat” is located. The hat, believed to have been woven from the hairs of female deities, is the symbolic crown of the Karmapa. Had Dorje remained in Tibet, he could have lost out to his rival.

Beijing would also have drawn comfort from the fact that in the murky world of intra-Tibetan politics, Karmapa, oddly, had the Dalai Lama’s backing. The Dalai Lama belongs to the contending Gelug school and, according to Tibetan tradition, has no role in selecting or endorsing a Karmapa. Yet, driven by purely political calculations, the Dalai Lama gave his approval.

Historically, the Dalai Lamas and Karmapa Lamas had vied with each other for influence until the Gelug school gained ascendancy over the Kagyu order. The last Karmapa died in 1981, and the raging controversy over the successor also epitomizes a struggle for control of the $1.5 billion in assets of the Kagyu order, the richest in Tibetan Buddhism. Indian security agencies were supposed to have kept Dorje under close surveillance, yet today they suspect him of receiving funds illicitly from China.

In stark contrast to its increasingly vituperative attacks on the Dalai Lama, China, tellingly, has not denounced (or derecognized) its Karmapa, although his flight to India signaled its failure to retain the loyalty of a supposed puppet.

Even as the Mandarin-speaking Dorje has occasionally criticized the Chinese government — accusing it, for example, of wanting “to create this ethnic conflict” in Tibet — Beijing has refrained from attacking him, making clear it wants him to eventually return.

The cash haul, of course, has been greeted by the rival Karmapa as “exposing” his challenger. Control of the Rumtek monastery is now embroiled in rival lawsuits.

The Karmapa-centered puzzle, shadowy politics and intrigue are just a forerunner of what is likely to come when two dueling Dalai Lamas emerge after the present incumbent passes from the scene.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan” (HarperCollins, 2010) and “Water: Asia’s New Battlefield” (Georgetown University Press, forthcoming).