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NEW DELHI — Even as the Dalai Lama has softened his attitude toward China — which annexed Tibet in 1950 and drove him to an Indian exile nine years later — the spiritual leader of his people, who was honored with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, now finds himself facing dissent within his own community.

He has indicated his willingness to buy peace with China under terms of autonomy — not quite independence — provided Tibetan culture is preserved.

One of the two important Tibetan leaders opposing the Dalai Lama is Lobsang Yeshi Jampel Gyatso, or the 13th Kundeling Tagtsha Jetung Rimpoche.

Furious at being denied the right to worship the popular Tibetan deity of Dorje Shugden by a decree from the Dalai Lama’s headquarters in India, Dharmasala, Kundeling Rimpoche says that this is the first time that there has been an open expression of discord against the Dalai Lama.

Although some of the Tibetans living in India have not seen eye to eye with him on his religious and, more recently, political policies, the exiles’ murmurs have been silenced by Dharmasala with a kind of autocratic authority usually associated with that exercised by Beijing in Tibet.

What makes Kundeling Rimpoche particularly sad is Dharmasala’s persecution of and propaganda against the renowned masters of the Dorje Shugden spiritual practice.

The Dorje Shugden tradition is part of the Gelugpa religious lineage, and is embraced by the Dalai Lama himself. That he subjected the followers of this system to cruelty is now a proven fact, having been extensively documented in the world media. Violence against the followers, and even death threats have been captured by German and Swiss television.

The men of the Dorje Shugden sect are also angry that the Dalai Lama has gone against the wishes of thousands of people whose only dream has been a free Tibet. “We want complete freedom, not autonomy,” a Tibetan student pursuing higher education in Madras said.

India’s ruling national party, Bharatiya Janata Party, has of course played the Dalai Lama card to the hilt in the hope of gaining a few extra miles in New Delhi’s quest for concessions from Beijing.

But India’s moves could have well been unwise: Notes of dissent against the Dalai Lama have begun to be heard not just from Kundeling Rimpoche but also from the 14-year-old Karmapa, who escaped made a dramatic escape from Lhasa, Tibet, last January.

Seen by many as a virtual prisoner at Dharmasala, the 17th Karmapa, the spiritual leader of the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, recently wrote a letter to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee urging that he be allowed to go to Rumtek, his seat in exile in Sikkim in northeast India.

Rumtek is the headquarters of the Karmapa in India, and the monastery there contains Kagyu’s holy relics.

The Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, has a rival claimant, who is not recognized by either Beijing or the Dalai Lama. Both have said that the teenager is the rightful head.

There is little doubt that China and the Dalai Lama find the boy, given his inexperience, suitable for their maneuvers and reconciliation.

Although some Tibetans in India believe that the Vajpayee government is deeply suspicious of the Karmapa’s escape (has he been planted by China?), the truth is that all the three players in the Tibetan game — Beijing, New Delhi and the Dalai Lama — would find it extremely inconvenient if the move for a free Tibet, as against the one for an autonomous Tibet, gains a greater momentum at this juncture.

An unrestricted Karmapa would probably made that demand, disturbing the apple-cart carefully laid out by the Dalai Lama and his band of trusted lieutenants who have made India their home for four decades.

The latest outburst by Kundeling Rimpoche is seen as a setback to the China-India-Dalai Lama line of thinking.

What worries Dharmasala even more is the fact that Kundeling Rimpoche might have already emboldened the Dalai Lama’s critics to voice their resentment against the spiritual leader, on top of their opposition to anything less than total independence for Tibet.

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