At the end of a cold Himalayan December in 1999, a 14-year old monk made a phenomenal escape from a monastery in Tibet where his every move was patrolled by the Chinese. Fleeing by car, on foot and by horseback, he crossed some of Nepal’s most forbidding terrain and found his way to India, where he settled at the feet of the Dalai Lama, seeking teaching.
Since then, he has been under virtual house arrest by the Indian government, circumscribed in his movements, and now banned from travel to the West, where he has a large following—and to the seat of his Tibetan sect in Sikkim, a once-independent Tibetan Buddhist kingdom that India undermined and incorporated in 1975. The reason for India’s denial of the monk’s freedom of movement seems plain. In a word: it’s China.
The travel ban follows a thinly veiled warning by India’s foreign secretary to the Dalai Lama last week not to say anything provocative on a visit to Ladakh, near the Tibetan border. According to Indian media reports, the Dalai Lama was told that ongoing talks between China and India on a range of subjects could be jeopardized by angering China. The situation echoes China’s annoyance when an American president meets the Dalai Lama.
In the case of the young monk, he is no ordinary refugee in exile. The young lama being grounded by India, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, is the 17th Karmapa, believed by Buddhists in Tibet and China to be the reincarnated leader of the Karma Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, with many followers in the United States and Europe. In Woodstock, New York, an American home was waiting for him: the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Center, which the young monk’s predecessor, the 16th Karmapa, had visited frequently. The 17th Karmapa Lama was allowed one brief visit to Woodstock in 2008 and was pleased to see its authentic Tibetan art and practice. In Tibetan Buddhism, the words lama and monk are often used interchangeably. Leaders of orders who carry the title of lama—the Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama or Karmapa Lama are the heads of formal monastic orders; not all lamas are ordained monks.
Last week, just before another long-planned two-week trip to Woodstock and other US venues, the Karmapa was told by the Indian government that he would not be permitted to leave India. No reason was given by authorities. In May a European trip was also cancelled abruptly without explanation.
"We don’t understand it," said Thomas Schmidt, external affairs director at the Woodstock Buddhist center, known more manageably as KTD. He said that the center had always "tried to keep things in the religious realm" and not get in involved in the international politics of Tibet. Aware of India’s skittishness, Woodstock had not advertised the Karmapa’s proposed trip, as it would normally do in Buddhist publications.
What has happened in recent years is that the young Karmapa, now 25, has come into world focus as a strong personality with a charismatic style whom the Dalai Lama, now in his 70s, seems to be grooming as a successor as leader of the Tibetan diaspora. The two belong to different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, but that does not seem to be a concern. The Dalai Lama has been the cultural, religious and political voice of most exiled Tibetans, a role that transcends sectarianism. A master politician, he has effectively renounced any intention of seeking independence for Tibet, but has argued for autonomy and the preservation of Tibetan culture, now under severe threat from the large-scale movement of ethnic Han Chinese into Tibet and traditional Tibetan areas of China proper. Beijing, labeling him a "splittist" anyway, has refused to meet him.
In the case of the Karmapa, the problem for China is that before he fled Tibet into the exile opposition, the young man was recognized as an incarnate leader of his order by both the Chinese and the Dalai Lama. The Chinese cannot derail this legitimacy easily, as Beijing did with the Panchen Lama—or lamas, since there are now two, one recognized by Tibetans and the other backed by China a rival as leader. The boy the Tibetans recognize disappeared into Chinese custody 15 years ago with his family and has not been seen since.
The Panchen Lama—a title transferred to succeeding reincarnates—was once considered the second-highest ranking Tibetan Buddhist leader after the Dalai Lama. But China’s manufactured rival candidate to the monk recognized by the Dalai Lama would not now be acceptable at any level by most Tibetans, who still back the original reincarnate. That leaves the field for second place open to the 17th Karmapa, and he seems to hold the promise of being a formidable voice. Young and strong, he already has a wide audience among Tibetans as a protégé of the Dalai Lama and could, however unwittingly, inspire Tibetan youth to revive their dreams of stronger resistance to the Chinese, a course the Dalai Lama has told them repeatedly would be suicidal. More important, the Karmapa is rapidly becoming a fresh new face for Tibetan Buddhism internationally.
For the time being, India, which preaches religious freedom and a special relationship with Buddhism, seems to be doing Beijing’s will at keeping the Karmapa out of global view. At Woodstock, the Buddhists are perplexed. "People are getting fed up with this now," Schmidt said. "We have no idea why they are restricting his travel. We are disappointed."