Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Is the Karmapa Lama an agent of Beijing or a political scapegoat?

February 18, 2011

Chinese cash seized from the monastery of one of the most important
figures in Tibetan Buddhism has stirred fresh intrigue

o Brahma Chellaney
o, Thursday 10 February 2011 15.27 GMT

The Karmapa Lama at his monastery in Dharamsala, India, where large sums
of Chinese cash were seized in a police raid. Photograph: Reuters

The seizure by police of large sums of Chinese currency from the Indian
monastery of the 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, the Panchen Lama, and the Karmapa Lama are the three
highest figures in Tibetan Buddhism, representing parallel institutions
that have intermittently been at odds with each other throughout their
history. And China, seeking to tighten its grip on Tibet, has worked to
control the traditional process of finding the reincarnation of any
senior lama that passes away.

Thus, in 1992, China helped select the seven-year-old Ogyen Trinley
Dorje as the 17th Karmapa Lama, installing him at Tibet's Tsurphu
monastery – the Karmapas' ancestral abode, which was almost destroyed
during the cultural revolution. He became the first reincarnated "living
Buddha" to be recognised and ratified by Communist China.

But then, in 1999, Dorje staged a stunning escape to India via Nepal,
attracting the world's attention, but also deep suspicion, because of
the apparent ease with which he and his entourage managed to flee. The
Dalai Lama has hosted him at the Gyuto monastery in Dharamsala, India,
ever since.

Earlier, in 1995, China installed its own Panchen Lama after its
security services abducted the Tibetans' six-year-old appointee, who has
simply disappeared, along with his family.

Now, China is waiting for the current Dalai Lama – who is over 75 and
has had bouts of ill health in recent years – to pass away, so that it
can anoint his successor, too. But the Dalai Lama, the charismatic face
of the Tibetan movement, has made it clear that his successor will come
from the "free world", thereby excluding Chinese-ruled Tibet. This has
set the stage for the emergence of two rival Dalai Lamas, one chosen by
China and the other by the Tibetan exile movement.

In fact, the Chinese-appointed Karmapa Lama has a doppelganger Karmapa,
who has set up shop in New Delhi. With both the Karmapas in India, the
Indian government has sought to maintain peace by barring the contenders
from the sacred Rumtek monastery in the Indian Himalayan state of Sikkim.

Against this background, the discovery of large sums of Chinese and
other foreign currency has ignited a fresh controversy over Dorje. While
his supporters have staged protests against the police raid and
interrogation 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 militarised Indo-Tibetan border.

According to Xu Zhitao, an official at the Chinese Communist party
central committee's united front work department, the allegation that
"the Karmapa [may be] a Chinese agent or spy shows that India is keeping
its mistrustful attitude toward China". But such an attitude seems
warranted: Xu's Tibet division is tasked with overseeing monastic
institutions, inculcating "patriotic" norms among monks and nuns –
through re-education when necessary – and infiltrating the Tibetan
resistance movement and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries on both sides of
the Indo-Tibetan frontier.

Communities in the Himalayan region have historically been closely
integrated. But, with Tibet locked behind an iron curtain since the 1951
Chinese annexation, the economies and cultures of the entire Himalayan
region have weakened. Tibetan Buddhism, however, still serves as the
common link, with the Karmapa's Kagyu sect a powerful force on the
Indian side.

The cash haul has reopened the question that arose in 1999: Was China
behind Dorje's flight to India, or is he a genuine defector who simply
got fed up with living in a gilded Chinese cage?

China had several possible motives for staging his "escape", including a
desire 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. Had Dorje remained in Tibet, he could
have lost out to his rival, because the 280-year-old Rumtek monastery,
the Kagyu school's holiest institution, is where the sect's all-powerful
"black hat", the symbolic crown of the Karmapa – believed to be woven
from the hair of female deities – is located.

China would also have drawn comfort from the fact that, within the murky
world of intra-Tibetan politics, its anointed Karmapa, oddly, had the
Dalai Lama's backing. Historically, the Dalai Lamas and Karmapa Lamas
vied with each other for influence until the Dalai Lama's Gelug school
gained ascendancy over the Kagyu order. According to Tibetan tradition,
however, the Dalai Lama has no role in selecting or endorsing a Karmapa.
The Dalai Lama in this case gave his approval for purely political reasons.

The previous Karmapa Lama died in 1981, and the controversy over his
successor that has raged ever since also epitomises a struggle for
control of the $1.5bn in assets held by the Kagyu order, the richest in
Tibetan Buddhism. With control of the Rumtek monastery embroiled in
rival lawsuits, the New Delhi-based Karmapa has, not surprisingly,
greeted the recent cash seizure as "exposing" his Chinese-appointed rival.

Significantly, in contrast to its increasingly vituperative attacks on
the Dalai Lama, China has not denounced (or de-recognised) its Karmapa,
despite his flight to India signalling its failure to retain the loyalty
of a supposed puppet. The Mandarin-speaking Ogyen Trinley Dorje, now 25,
occasionally criticises the Chinese government, including its efforts
"to create this ethnic conflict" in Tibet. Nevertheless, China has
refrained from attacking him, making clear that it wants him to return

And the ongoing Karmapa saga, with its shadowy politics and intrigue,
could turn out to be only the opening act – a foretaste of what may come
when two duelling Dalai Lamas emerge after the incumbent passes from the
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank