India’s Karmapa conundrum

Lobsang Wangyal

Lobsang Wangyal

By Lobsang Wangyal

NEW YORK CITY, US, 30 August 2018

India should have been relieved to see a spy leave the country — but no, India wants its “Chinese spy” back.

For 18 years India held the view that the Karmapa Lama Ogyen Trinley Dorje was a spy sent by China. His every move was watched, and he had to have police permission for even short travels within the locality.

He has now been in the United States for more than a year, and India realises it needs him as part of its political equations with China — and it’s asking him to come back.

Who is the Karmapa?

The Karmapa Lama is one of the top lamas of Tibetan Buddhism. Kagyu, one of the four schools of Tibetan buddhism, has four sub-schools. One of those sub-schools, the Karma Kagyu lineage, is headed by the Karmapa Lama. Others are headed by their own head lama.

After the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and the Sakya Lama, the Karmapa Lama is likely next in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy. The 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje was born Apo Gaga in Kham region in eastern Tibet in 1985. He was recognised as the 17th Karmapa by lamas from Kagyu, and was endorsed by the Dalai Lama, as well as by the Chinese government. Then in January 2000 he made a daring escape to India.

Tibetans were overjoyed by the Karmapa’s arrival in exile. However others did not feel the same. The Chinese authorities were quite embarrassed, as it laid bare the untruths of their propaganda. India was put into total confusion. They thought the Karmapa could not have succeeded in such a difficult escape on his own, and that China must have sent him as a spy. But they had no proof at all to substantiate this idea, and all accounts of his escape were corroborated as made by himself with help from his people.

The international media congregated in McLeod Ganj days after the news went out about the Karmapa’s arrival. Then only 14 years old, the Karmapa addressed a large international press, and said he was forced to escape as the Chinese authorities were preparing him to speak against the Dalai Lama. Even though born and raised under China’s propaganda, because of his Buddhist education and faith he could not do this.

He was temporarily sheltered at Gyuto Monastery in the suburbs of Dharamshala, 10 kilometres away from McLeod Ganj, where the Dalai Lama lives. His predecessor, the 16th Karmapa had set up his exile seat in Rumtek in Sikkim. (The traditional seat of the Karmapa is in Tsurphu near Lhasa in Tibet.)

Another Kagyu lama had imposed a rival claimant to the title of 17th Karmapa. The lama behind this rival filed a case in the Supreme Court of India seeking sanctions against possession of Rumtek monastery by Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The case started in 1998 and is still pending. So the Government of India denied Ogyen Trinley Dorje the right to ownership of Rumtek Monastery. Recently the rival claimant, Thinley Thaye Dorje, lost grounds to claim the title after he disrobed to marry his childhood friend, on 25 March 2017. This was seen as a loss of moral authority on his part to be a lama at all.

Apart from studying and painting, the Karmapa has a busy schedule. He meets devotees from around the world — and a large number of them are Chinese.

Money matters

In 2011, the Karmapa got entangled in a cash seizure at his office. The Himachal state police confiscated cash of one crore (10 million) rupees (approx 150,000 US dollars) from his staff members while they were enroute to Dharamshala from Delhi. Following this seizure, police raided his office, where they found currencies of 25 countries, including China, amounting to 6.5 crore (65,000,000) Indian rupees (approx 915,000 US dollars). Chinese Yuan constituted the largest amount, to the tune of 11 lakh (1,100,000). This was followed by 6 lakh (600,000) US dollars and 30 lakh (3,000,000) Indian rupees. Because the largest amount was in Chinese yuan, investigators inferred that the Karmapa might have links with Chinese authorities

It would seem that India thinks China would send spies with Chinese yuan — but this seems an unlikely thing for a sophisticated government like China to do. Does India send spies to China with Indian rupees?

Although currencies of 25 countries were found, the Karmapa was charged with being an agent of only one country: China. For some reason this thinking was not extended to the currencies of the other countries — by the same “logic” Wouldn’t he have ties with those countries as well?

It is a fact that the Karmapa, just like other Lamas, receives cash from his devotees, who come to him in large numbers wherever he goes. It is a strong part of Buddhist tradition to donate to lamas, to demonstrate their faith and to gain merit. Money kept coming to him. He in turn used the money for various social and environmental projects. He contributed one million US dollars to a Tibetan College in Bangalore a few years ago.

His Trust, the Tsurphu Labrang, has been unable to obtain the Foreign Contribution Regulations Act (FCRA) certificate from the Ministry of Home, Government of India, despite multiple requests. FCRA regulates foreign contribution (especially monetary donations) provided by individuals or associations to Trusts and NGOs within India. Without the FCRA certificate, Indian banks don’t allow foreign currencies to be deposited in an account. What the Karmapa or his Trust should do with the cash without the FCRA certificate is anybody’s guess. The question of why the Government of India is not issuing a FCRA certificate is not a worthwhile point to raise at all — as there will be no answer.

Although the Karmapa’s name was cleared of any criminal charges in the “unaccounted cash” case by the court, the money seized was never returned — and FCRA has still not been issued.

Not after money

The Karmapa is not wanting for money, and by his position and also his personal character, he is above mundane affairs. It is common knowledge that Rumtek is holding some ancient relics that belonged to the previous Karmapas, but the Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje is not after occupying Rumtek, nor is he trying to build a palatial residence for himself. He was not allowed to buy land by the Government of India to build his own centre. He owns estates outside India, and the one in Woodstock in New York state — Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, Inc — alone is worth millions of dollars. He could easily become a billionaire in matter of days, if he so wanted. Some really seemed to miss the point.

Then, the Government of India adopted a policy to not recognise Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa India seemed to have become completely lost on the idea of who to believe to be the real lama. Once a Tibetan lama gets endorsement from the Tibetan figurehead, the Dalai Lama (although he does not necessarily have the authority, and the tradition, to recognise and endorse the lamas of the other schools), and the support from the Central Tibetan Administration, after following the traditions of finding reincarnation of the respective lama’s lineage, a Tibetan lama becomes the undisputed reincarnation of his predecessor. There’s no question of any dispute thereafter. It is not clear now if India is still considering Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa or not. By not recognising Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa, India is only showing its naivete and misunderstanding of Tibetan affairs.

Despite the problems, for many years Ogyen Trinley Dorje tried to live with what little there was for him in India. This is because, as a Buddhist monk, he surely would prefer to be in what Tibetans call the “holy land of India”, and among his masters and the noble ones. As a Tibetan, he surely would choose to remain close to the heart of the Tibetan freedom struggle, which is in India. But after 18 years his endurance thinned because of being kept in a virtual prison — his every move needing to have permission from the local police chief, and the tag of “Chinese spy” never being lifted.

In May 2017 he left for the United States for a “health check-up”, and that’s where the real game starts.

As the Karmapa prolonged his stay in the US, staff from the Indian consulate in New York City kept enquiring about his return to India. He is now planning to go back to India to attend a three-day Tibetan religious leaders’ conference from 29 November in Dharamshala. It is convened by the Dalai Lama, and is held regularly every three years. All the high lamas of the Tibetan Buddhism and Bon religion attend the meeting. The Dalai Lama’s future and his next reincarnation are expected to be the main agenda of the meeting. As such, the Karmapa cannot stay away from this conference.

Twist in the politics

Everybody seems to be in a rush to see the Dalai Lama leave the stage. Some Indian media even made out that the Dalai Lama was in the critical stages of prostrate cancer. But the facts are that he is in great health, travelling the world, and is repeatedly certified as healthy by his doctors. His health is so good that he says that he will remain another 10 to 15 years — or may be even till the ripe old age of 113, that has been prophesied by some past masters. He is 83 now.

Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama will pass away one day. Indian “experts” and the security agencies are now guessing that the Karmapa will be the next Dalai Lama, and that he will take the Dalai Lama’s place. How much more misunderstanding could India get?

The Dalai Lama has advised the Karmapa to take responsibility. This doesn’t mean that the Karmapa would become the Dalai Lama. Apart from being a high lama, the Karmapa also assumes a special place in Tibetan society as someone who escaped the Chinese authorities, catching them completely off-guard, and busting the Chinese propaganda. He, therefore, will have an important role in searching for the next Dalai Lama. But the Ling Lama, one of the highest from the Gelugpa sect, will have an equal or even bigger role in that, considering the fact that a big majority are followers of Gelugpa, to which the Dalai Lama belongs.

The Dalai Lama has suggested a new system to choose his successor, similar to that used to choose the Catholic Pope. However there is really nobody that can take his position, and it is doubtful that this method would be accepted by anybody. It is more than likely that at the November religious leader’s meeting, many of the attendees will suggest to choose the next Dalai Lama in the traditional way.

The Ling Lama is a high lama from the Gelugpa sect. His previous incarnation, who died in 1984 had been the Dalai Lama’s teacher. The Ling Lama will likely play a bigger role in searching for the next Dalai Lama.

After the new Dalai Lama is found as a young child, a Regent will take responsibilities in the interim period until the new Dalai Lama becomes old enough. If the current Sakya Lama, third in the hierarchy, is not around or (being of advanced age) is in a feeble state at the time of passing of the Dalai Lama, the Ling Lama is most likely be nominated as Regent,

But this is in no way suggesting that the Karmapa will be subordinate to the Ling Lama. Neither of these Lamas have any political ambitions, but they both have been entrusted with equal responsibilities by the Dalai Lama in the eventuality of his death. The Karmapa Lama would work in tandem with the Ling Lama, who are both 33 years of age, and who have good and friendly relations between them.

In the meantime, China of course will pick their own next 15th Dalai Lama with the help of their imposed Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama chosen by the Dalai Lama (and actually followed by Tibetans) still remains in captivity under the Chinese authorities. Considering the status of the Chinese-nominated Panchen Lama, the Chinese version of the Dalai Lama will not have any international recognition or legitimacy, as the Dalai Lama has always been a Tibetan Lama and a Tibetan affair, not a Chinese one.

No obligation to remain in India

Ever since McLeod Ganj in northern India became the exile seat of the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration, this small Himalayan village has became a globally known tourist spot. Gyuto Monastery in the suburbs, which temporarily houses the Karmapa, has become a hub of Karmapa’s devotees. Visitors from around the world flock to the monastery every day. How much his presence has added to the local economy is common knowledge. His other activities, such as teachings and other projects bring huge international followers to India. All these bring no less benefit to India than to the Tibetans.

Ogyen Trinley Dorje receives many donations, and will have cash from many countries at his office, even more than what the investigators seized. Instead of giving excuses and causing complications, his office should be granted the FCRA for smooth functioning of his activities. The cash that was seized should be returned. The so-called “Chinese spy” belief should be put to rest. He should be allowed to set up his centre according his liking, rather than the Governemnt of India deciding for him. There should be no unnecessary restrictions such as asking police permission for him to move around.

It is certain that he will go back to live in India, as that’s where the noble ones like him (Aryas) belong. It is India that has given everything Tibetans needed to continue with their freedom struggle. The Karmapa cannot stay away from or betray the land where this seed has been nurtured.

How it could occur to anyone’s wildest imagination, that a person of the Karmapa’s stature and character would commit treason against India, is a mystery. And he is a religious person and moves in the world of religion, not of politics or government. What benefit could China have possibly offered him to spy for them? And remember he was only 14 years old when he came to India — not really old enough to be an effective spy. And what is there for the Karmapa to spy on? What files or information could he get that he would dispatch to Beijing? It would make more sense to keep an eye on the people working in the PMO, and the defence establishments, and the rest of the insiders.

Without doubt, the Karmapa will play an important role in the post-Dalai Lama scenario. There could be a temporary setback to the Tibetan movement in both India and internationally. But the Tibetan movement will remain intact because of the futuristic system laid out by the Dalai Lama, and with the Ling Lama and the Karmapa Lama taking substantial roles. Let there be no restrictions around Karmapa so that he could play it right in India. He has no obligations to remain in India, and he doesn’t have to worry about a piece of land or any other needs to set up a centre anywhere the grass is greener.

What is needed is a better understanding of Tibetan affairs by the Government of India, so as to have a robust Tibetan community and movement which can be a strong card for India to play.

About the author

Lobsang Wangyal lives in McLeod Ganj, and edits the Tibet Sun website.

More articles by Lobsang Wangyal on Tibet Sun.

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