Over the past week, India's lively (and often wildly irresponsible) media has been flogging a sensational story about a tax raid on the monastery housing a prominent Tibetan lama who is presently exiled in India. The stories concern a 25-year-old Tibetan named Ogyen Trinley Dorje. He is also known as His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, holder of one of Tibetan Buddhism's oldest and most significant lineages in the Karma Kagyu school. Dorje was born in Tibet and identified as the reincarnation of the Karmapa as a young child, but left in 2000 in a daring escape worthy of a Hollywood film treatment.
The significance of the Dorje’s exile was magnified by the fact that, although he was one of the few prominent reincarnations upon which the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama had both conferred their blessing, up to the time of his escape, Beijing had considered him a 'patriotic' lama – one they could depend on to help manage the fractious Tibetans living under their often oppressive rule. Other than his repeated, always denied, requests to visit teachers outside Tibet to receive vital religious instructions, the Karmapa had given the Chinese authorities little indication that he was unhappy with his situation. When he showed up in India, the Chinese first denied he had even escaped, then concocted a story – which they maintain to this day – that he was only in India to retrieve some religious relics (notably a ceremonial "black hat" worn by the Karmapas) that was housed in a monastery in Sikkim, a Himalayan state within the borders of present-day India (whose sovereignty over it is disputed by Beijing).
While the Chinese were befuddled and embarrassed by his escape, the Indians were mostly suspicious. Not only did his escape strike them as improbable, but India's security apparatus was mindful that there was at least one other Karmapa claimant, including one in India with powerful local backers, and that the Karmapa's lineage was one of the wealthiest in Tibetan Buddhism by virtue of the 16th Karmapa's early outreach to the West. As a result of the Indian authorities' suspicions and the general controversy surrounding him, Dorje has been closely watched by India's intelligence service since his arrival, and has largely been confined to the monastery in Dharamsala where he lives. Despite the short leash the Indian government has kept him on and his own sensible reticence to speak on all things political, the Karmapa has emerged as a leading contender to take up the mantle of Tibetan political leadership among both exile Tibetans and others who watch this community.
It was therefore quite upsetting for Tibetans when an English-language Indian daily ran an editorial last week containing wholly unsupported allegations that the Karmapa was a Chinese spy. These allegations were based on the results of the aforementioned tax raid on his monastery, during which the authorities reportedly found approximately $1 million in various currencies, including Chinese yuan. The Karmapa's office attempted to control damage by admitting they had failed to follow adequately India's Byzantine banking and foreign exchange laws, and explaining that the funds were donations from followers around the world to build a new monastery. (The Karmapa's office has reportedly been waiting several years for the Indian government to give them permission to open a bank account that can accept foreign exchange, not an uncommon situation for exiled Tibetans – even prominent ones.) The Dalai Lama himself became involved, publicly vouching for the young lama's character while also gently chiding him for not managing his affairs in a manner that was above reproach. The Tibetan community in India reacted with outrage to the Indian media's slander, while several more responsible elements of the Indian establishment have come forward with more balanced stories on the episode. The Chinese, for their part, denied immediately that the Karmapa was their agent (all the while, one imagines, gleefully rubbing their hands at the spectacle of the entire scene).
In the interest of full disclosure, I have met the Karmapa on several occasions at the monastery where he currently lives in Dharamsala, India. In order to meet with him, one must undergo several layers of Indian security, and endure the presence of a member of India's intelligence services in one’s meeting with the Karmapa. We went through passport checks, bag checks, and full-body pat-downs that would make the TSA blush. Even a visit to the restroom featured an armed escort. It was intense – far more so than Indian security around the Dalai Lama. Every time I was at the Karmapa's monastery, there were Chinese devotees waiting for audiences, and his staff informed me that more come every day. It therefore came as no surprise to me that there were Chinese RMB in his donation box – put there by both Chinese and Tibetans. There were probably a fair number of New Taiwan Dollars and Hong Kong Dollars in there as well.
The Karmapa himself is a magnetic figure: tall, handsome and imposing physically, even when seated in the lotus position on a floor cushion. He seemed to have an intense, barely-contained energy under an outwardly placid exterior. Upon meeting him, it becomes obvious why so many Tibetans are putting their faith in him as a potential successor to the Dalai Lama as their political leader. In my first meeting with him, he was reluctant to speak, even off the record as we were, about his views on China, the situation in Tibet, his Indian hosts or any other matter. In subsequent encounters, he loosened up a bit, but was always very careful with his words, limiting his criticisms largely to his frustration with the lack of freedom of religion in Tibet, including his own inability to receive important religious teachings required in his position. The Indian government has taken a mercurial approach to his foreign travel, allowing him to come to the United States in late 2008, but subsequently canceling a planned European tour. Likewise, within India, his travel has been constrained and he has yet to visit the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim that is considered the 'home' monastery for the Karmapa lineage.
Despite having responded to several press inquiries on the story over the past week, I was still surprised to see this story break out of the Indian/Chinese/Tibetan press orbit and onto the front page of the New York Times. It is a measure of the various interests implicated in this story that what would otherwise be an obscure local news story in Northeast India has become an object of international media attention: Sino-Indian relations; the future of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism after the death of the Dalai Lama; India's role as a host of over 100,000 Tibetan refugees; and, not least, the relatively large sums of money a popular, international religious figure can accrue. The Times article largely dismisses the allegations of espionage, and also does an admirable job of highlighting the convergence of these heavily weighted interests in the case of the Karmapa. The role of Tibet in general, and Tibetan Buddhism specifically, in the complex relationship between India and China is generally underreported in the West, and poorly understood as a result. Even within American and European policymaking and think tank circles, Tibet is often derided as a boutique issue and cause célèbre that is not especially relevant to big picture strategy. In Indian strategic thinking about China, however, Tibet and the so-called Himalayan belt is a close second to Pakistan as a consideration, and is of growing concern.
As this story has continued to unfold in the Indian press, both Tibetan and Indian voices have come forward to call for calm and reserved judgment in this case. The Karmapa and his followers have stated that they believe when the facts come out and the law is applied, they will be fully exonerated of the espionage charges. As the Karmapa places his faith in India's democratic character and the rule of law as his best defense against the trial by media that he's presently enduring, one hopes that not only will Tibetans' faith in the Karmapa turn out to be justified, but that the Karmapa's faith in Indian democracy will as well.