India's Lama Dilemmas
4:24 PM, Feb 11, 2011 • By KELLEY CURRIE
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).