GAYA – The Dalai Lama arrived at the traditional site of the enlightenment of Buddha on Tuesday, braving threats to his health and safety to preside over the biggest annual gathering of Tibetans and other Buddhists.
The Tibetan spiritual leader, 67, canceled his appearance at the Kalachakra prayers last January, after being hospitalised with a stomach infection.
This time around there are security threats as well as the health problems associated with a huge public event staged in India’s poorest state, Bihar.
The Kalachakra Initiation, or Wheel of Time, which runs January 11-20, is expected to draw about 300,000 people to hear one of the highest teachings in Tibetan Buddhism.
The Dalai Lama’s advancing age and periodic bouts of ill health have raised doubts that he will risk presiding over such an event again.
Greeted by drum beats and dancers in a cold wind, the Dalai Lama prayed at Mahabodhi Temple, the most sacred at the Buddhist shrine.
Some 80,000 devotees have already occupied the site called Bodh Gaya, where Buddhists believe the founder of their religion attained enlightenment more than 2,500 years ago.
Situated just south of Nepal, Bodh Gaya is accessible from major Buddhist communities in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and India. Thousands of Western and Southeast Asian Buddhists are also expected to attend.
But the site’s proximity to Nepal, which is suffering an increasing Maoist insurgency, is giving organisers security nightmares.
There are also threats closer to home.
For the second year, the All India Monks Federation, an organisation of Indian Buddhists, has threatened dire consequences if the Dalai Lama goes ahead with the ritual. He is expected to be accompanied by the Karmapa, the third-highest ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism, whose escape from Chinese-controlled Tibet is still viewed with suspicion by many Indians.
“If the Dalai Lama and Karmapa … attend the Kalachakra Puja here, they themselves will be solely responsible for the threat to the life and properties of participating monks and guests,” the Indian monks group said in a statement in December.
The Federation, which is seeking to take control of the main temple at Bodh Gaya, has demanded the deportation of the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa, accusing the Tibetan government in exile of receiving about US$100 million in aid annually from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
But the Dalai Lama’s Private Office has dismissed the threats. “We are quite satisfied with the security arrangements in place,” said Tenzin Taklha, the Dalai Lama’s press secretary.
The Federation’s stance reflects resentment among other Buddhist groups at the mess made by hundreds of thousands of Tibetan pilgrims at the sacred site.
Last year the Karmapa was threatened with legal action for wearing shoes inside the main temple, an act considered acceptable by Tibetans but sacrilegious to Indians.
The Karmapa is attending this year’s Kalachakra but his arrival was delayed by a week after the Indian government hesitated over granting him permission to attend. There have been allegations recently that the Dalai Lama’s entourage is riddled with Chinese spies.
The Dalai Lama’s security is normally handled by a Tibetan bodyguard, state police and agents from the central government.
Additional security will be provided at Bodh Gaya by Tibetan units from the Indian army, hundreds of Tibetan volunteers, and extra state police.