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India's Lama Dilemmas

4:24 PM, Feb 11, 2011 • By KELLEY CURRIE
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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.

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