By Claude Arpi
Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, has been denied permission to leave on a two-week religious tour to the US later this month.
"The Karmapa was scheduled to attend prayer sessions being organised by Karma Triyana Dharamchakra centre in Woodstock in New York, but Indian authorities refused to grant him permission to visit there," said the Karmapa's secretary Gompo Tsering. "We fail to understand that why restrictions were imposed on his movement as the tour was purely a religious one."
Earlier this year, the young Karmapa was denied permission to attend a series of religious teachings in nine European countries.
What could be the reason for the Government's refusal? Particularly given that the head of the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, who lives in the Gyuto Tantric Monastery, near Dharamsala, had earlier been granted permission by the Government of India to visit the United States in May 2008?
Everyone remembers how the 15-year old Karmapa, in a Bollywood-type escape reached Dharamsala in January 2001 after crossing the highest Himalayan passes in the midst of winter, and the initial reluctance of the Indian government to grant him refugee status.
At that time, some believed that he had been 'planted' by the Chinese to create confusion with the Sikkim issue (Beijing recognized the Indian State as a part of India only two years later).
Further a dispute had erupted with 'another Karmapa' claiming the throne of Rumtek monastery in Sikkim.
The previous Karmapa, the 16th of the lineage, was one of the greatest Lamas of his generation. A powerful Yogi, he impressed all those who approached him, whether Tibetan, Indian or Western, with his profound wisdom and his aura of strength and peace.
When he passed away in 1981, he left his monastery of Rumtek in Sikkim as well as hundreds of Dharma Centres in India and abroad in the hands of four regents who were supposed to provide spiritual guidance to his followers during his absence.
When Situ Rinpoche, one of the regents, discovered a letter of prediction said to have been written by the old Karmapa prophesying his rebirth in eastern Tibet and giving the time of birth and the name of his parents, a dispute erupted between Situ and another regent, Shamar Rinpoche who did not approve of Ogyen Trinley Dorjee's selection.
The bitterness between the Rumtek regents took an ugly turn in 1992-93, when serious law and order problems occurred on a few occasions and a petition was filed in the Sikkim High Court praying for an injunction to stop the recognition of the 17th Karmapa. More infighting was reported in 1994 when Shamar enthroned his own Karmapa, Thaye Dorjee who is presently living in Europe.
In the meantime, after conducting the necessary tests, the Dalai Lama gave his seal of approval to Ogyen Trinley Dorjee. About the same time in Beijing, the Chinese leadership --who then had the boy in their hands – also decided to recognize him as the 17th Karmapa.
It was the first time in the history of a Communist regime that a 'reincarnation' (they call these boys 'Living Buddhas') was officially recognized. Poor Karl Marx must have turned in his grave!
The present Karmapa thus has the unique privilege of having been been acknowledged by both the Communist authorities in Beijing and the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.
So why did New Delhi refuse to clear his US trip?
Was the denial linked with Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao's visit to Dharamsala last week? It is probable that she broke the news to the Dalai Lama's Administration, but it does not explain the decision.
From the day the Karmapa arrived incognito in Dharamsala in 2001, many Indian officials have been convinced that he had been 'planted' by the Chinese intelligence to create some mischief in India, more particularly in Sikkim.
This theory however does not explain why last year's US visit was cleared and not this one. Is there a new security factor?
Another possibility is pressure from the 'other' Karmapa's camp. Dharma Centers are big business in the West. In the past, the Shamar group has been very well connected with several senior officials in the Indian Government. Has Shamar pressurized some officials in Delhi to cancel the visit of the Karmapa?
Yet another possibility is that the government received information that some Chinese agents or supporters of Shamarpa's Karmapa could have infiltrated one or several of the Dharma Centers to be visited by the Karmapa. For the Chinese, a foreign tour would be the easiest way to get rid of a purported successor to the Dalai Lama.
Let us not forget that Beijing is betting on its own Panchen Lama to succeed the Dalai Lama. Beijing's Panchen Lama has recently been 'promoted' as a delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and has extensively toured Tibet.
A petition originating from some Dharma Center in the US was circulated in April this year. Addressed to Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, it said: "We believe the Indian government's actions in this situation are inequitable and unjustified. The broader issue, which we address, is one of the Karmapa's basic human rights. The Karmapa is not a criminal, why is he treated as such? …The unreasonable and inconsiderate practice of confining him in India is a violation of his human rights and a blatant abuse of his freedom for religious expression." It requests the Government of India "to address the unlawful confinement of the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa."
But can such a petition have the desired effect? Fortunately, the Office of the Karmapa later rectified the wrong impression given by theses Western disciples.
Another disturbing factor, which may not be directly linked to the denial of the exit visa, is the fact that the media projects the young Lama as the Dalai Lama's successor, without clarifying whether they mean a political or a spiritual successor.
From the religious angle, only the next Dalai Lama can be the successor to the present one. Further, there are several Lamas in exile having great spiritual experience and wisdom who could also pretend to be a 'successor'. Why should the choice be limited to the Karmapa?
In any case, does the Dalai Lama need a successor? In a recent interview, he hinted that he could live a very long life, perhaps till 100. It would therefore be wise to wait a bit.
Regarding a 'political successor', the present Dalai Lama has ceaselessly worked from the early 1960's to introduce democracy in the exile community. To have a 'political successor' would negate all these years of hard work. Would a 'political successor' prevail over an elected Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister)? Tibetan democracy would then become a laughing stock.
Historically, the regency (Regents were 'temporary successors') has been the bane of the Tibetan system of governance. A power struggle between Regents Reting and Tagtra took the Land of Snows to the brink of a civil war in the 1940's.
For the media, the idea of a successor to the Dalai Lama sells well, but is it good for Tibet?
During my visit to Rumtek (Sikkim) a few months back, I asked the care-taker of the monastery, "Why has the Karmapa to go through all the unpleasant problems?"
He philosophically answered: "Don't worry, he will go through them, but it is a very old, very ancient karma that he has to unknot; these things take time. It can't be solved in one day."
Born in France, Claude Arpi's quest began 36 years ago with a journey to the Himalayas. Since then he has been a student of the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He is the author of numerous English and French books. His book, Tibet: the Lost Frontier (Lancers Publishers) was released recently.
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