Why is one of the great spiritual leaders of Tibet still imprisoned in India? He is a virtual prisoner in India. But the Karmapa, one of Tibet’s spiritual leaders, is working to free his people. Katharine Saunders reports
You don’t get to see a deity every day. And when you do, you expect a certain solemnity, a white beard. But this god, tall and slim, with finely chiselled features, is still a teenager. He sleeps in a bedroom, not a cloud, and, at 17, hasn’t lived long enough to accrue much gravitas.
There’s a rumour that he is about to appear on his balcony, and a crowd of devotees is gathering outside his home, perched high in the foothills of the Himalayas. There are, among others, Tibetan schoolgirls carrying devotional white scarves waiting to catch a glimpse of him, several policemen and a couple of government intelligence officials. A few feet away, one man is armed with an AK-47. The authorities are there not only to protect him and make sure his followers don’t get too close, but also to keep him under lock and key.
Ugyen Trinley Dorje is the 17th incarnation of the Karmapa, leader of one of Tibet’s four main schools of Buddhism, the influential Karma Kagyu. He occupies a unique position: since his recognition as the 17th Karmapa in 1992, his legitimacy has been acknowledged not only by the Dalai Lama, but also by China. He is the first incarnate lama to be officially recognised by Beijing since 1959, perhaps in deference to historical tradition – previous Karmapas had been gurus to the emperors of China.The Dalai Lama, the focus of all Tibetan groups, is now 67, and when he dies Ugyen will most likely become one of the most influential spiritual and political figures in the world, with a following of millions. Which makes him, if you like, a kind of deity-in-waiting.
UNLIKE other spiritual leaders, Ugyen has no proper home. Imagine the Pope without the Vatican, and you begin to understand his plight. He is exiled from his homeland, Tibet, which he fled three years ago, India finds him an embarrassment, and China, which has occupied Tibet for the past 52 years, crushing Buddhism, feels humiliated by his flight. Far from being a haven of freedom, India has become his prison. His presence there has strained the country’s already tense relations with neighbouring China. Unlike monotheistic religions, Buddhism believes that its leading lamas all reveal aspects of divinity. Ugyen is not a god in the sense the West would understand, but nevertheless he attracts worshippers who speak reverently of ‘His Holiness’ and hang upon his every utterance.
‘The status of the Karmapa is that of a very high spiritual leader,’ hesays. ‘But I am here, staying in a small guesthouse. I am not even allowed to go into the main shrine room without first asking permission. Sometimes I feel so ashamed when people ask me these questions about my circumstances.’
The young lama is composed, the only signs of vulnerability are a downward gaze and a thoughtful stroking of his head, as if he is struggling to contain his thoughts. Sitting in a simple wooden chair in his audience chamber, he talks through an interpreter. There are thangkas, or religious hangings, on the walls, as well as a cuckoo clock and an ornamental cockatoo – presents from followers.
Getting to him has not been easy. It has taken several months of faxes and telephone calls to his aides simply to set a date. But the real problems start on arrival at Gyuto. Every entrance is guarded, passports are checked, there are body searches, tape recorders are confiscated, photography banned on a whim. Even getting a notebook in has been difficult.
The Tibetan monks at Gyuto are almost outnumbered by plain-clothes policemen and armed guards. Once, security staff and lamas shared their meals in the monastery’s canteen. Now, thanks to rising tensions, this habit has been dropped. It is far from the life Ugyen expected to lead when he fled Tibet three years ago. ‘I escaped to India because I thought it was a free and democratic country,’ he says. ‘I thought I would be able to see my teachers. In Tibet, I was prevented from seeing them by the Chinese government.’
The constant surveillance, however, is only half of his problems. In truth, he doesn’t want to be here. He wants to go to the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, far to the southeast. This is his religious seat in exile. The 16th Karmapa fled there in 1959, bringing with him the main religious relics of the Karma Kagyu school. The 17th incarnation’s return is crucial to the survival of the Karmapa lineage and to a tradition of wisdom unbroken for 800 years. It is here that Ugyen will put on the traditional black hat, or Bodhisattva crown, said to be made from the hair of 10,000 celestial beings, and become a true spiritual leader. But Sikkim is a politically sensitive area: India annexed it in the 1970s, and China does not recognise the claim. So far, Ugyen has been unable to go there. ‘I’ve been here for three years, but it has still not been possible for me to go to Rumtek. The situation has not moved on in any way.’
Despite his frustration, Ugyen remains calm, displaying a maturity beyond his years. He was only 14 when he risked his life to flee Tibet. Evading Chinese security, he made an eight-day journey – trekking on foot across some of the world’s highest mountain passes, riding a horse, travelling in a Jeep, and then a helicopter and a train, to Dharamsala, the base of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.
Ugyen Trinley Dorje was born to a nomad family in eastern Tibet. A number of magical portents were said to have accompanied his birth, including rainbows over the family’s tent the night before he was born. As a child, he was given the name Apo Gaga (‘Happy, happy brother’) by his sister. He was said to be able to tell people where to find lost sheep or cattle, and would often build toy monasteries from mud and stone.
China, a secular state, approved his recognition for political reasons. Party officials wooed the boy with expensive toys and visits to China, trying to mould him into a patriotic figure loyal to the Communist party who could one day rival the Dalai Lama. But despite having been in exile for 43 years, the Dalai Lama retains the loyalty of Tibetans as their temporal and spiritual leader.
And the young Karmapa showed an increasing defiance to the regime. Once, he horrified his Chinese minders by refusing to prostrate himself before the boy chosen by China as the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. When China denied him access to his two trusted teachers, Tai Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsab Rinpoche, resident in India, because of their closeness to the Dalai Lama, Ugyen decided to flee.
Banning contact with teachers threatened the continuation of the Karmapa lineage. According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, there is is only so much the lama can learn from the writings and teachings left by his previous incarnations, so high-ranking teachers are crucial links in an orally transmitted tradition, teaching the new Karmapa the ancient philosophies and scriptures.
‘The decision to leave my homeland, monastery, monks, parents, family and the Tibetan people was entirely my own – nobody told me to go and nobody asked me to come,’ he says.
His flight began from his religious seat at Tsurphu, about 40 miles west of Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, at the end of 1999. He announced that he was going on a retreat, and two monks, Lama Tsultrim and Lama Tsewang, who accompanied him on his journey, told everyone they were going on a trip – strategies that ensured a delay in their being discovered. During the evening, two of the monastic security guards in charge of his quarters were diverted by monks in a prearranged plan. Around 10.30pm, Ugyen, having swapped his robes for a baseball cap, jacket, shirt and trousers, climbed out of his bedroom window and leapt to the ground, where a Jeep was waiting.
At one point, Ugyen and his companions had to get out of their car and continue on foot while it passed through an army checkpoint. It was pitch black and they had to feel their way along the mountainside. Blind and stumbling, they almost gave up hope of finding the vehicle again until the moon emerged from behind clouds for a second to illuminate the Jeep. Another anxious moment came when they sought shelter in a devout Tibetan home. There were many photographs of the 17th Karmapa on the shrine, and the monks were worried that he might be identified, but the family did not recognise the young man in a baseball cap as their religious leader.
Further on, their route took them past a Chinese military camp where, miraculously, the guards failed to spot them. Then they trekked for more than 30 hours over Nepalese territory, travelling part of the way by helicopter. They crossed the border into India at Bihar and arrived in Dharamsala in the early morning of January 5, 2000, where Ugyen met the Dalai Lama for the first time. ‘My joy knew no bounds,’ he says.
Still, the privations continue. He has access now to his teachers, but to little else. He cannot walk freely in the grounds. He must ask permission to pray in the shrine. He cannot ever be alone with visitors. And though his teacher, Tai Situ Rinpoche, is at a monastery just two hours away, he may not visit him. He is allowed the occasional pilgrimage to sacred sites and he sees the Dalai Lama at least five times a year. His aides believe the government finds him a diplomatic embarrassment, a figure who could scupper India’s relations with China. ‘On the one hand, India wants to prevent his assassination, which they feel is a risk, but they also want to prevent him escaping from Gyuto,’ says a security official for the Tibetan government in exile. ‘It seems China is urging the Indian authorities to ‘protect’ the Karmapa, which means to keep him under their control.’
Whatever their motives, it’s too late to silence him. The Dalai Lama is spreading the word. ‘Even at such a young age, the Karmapa is so intelligent, so deeply devoted to the dharma (Tibetan Buddhist philosophy) and very gifted, particularly in writing poetry,’ he has said. ‘The first time we met he explained he has two main priorities: to serve the dharma and to serve the Tibetan people. I was very impressed by this statement.’
And if that weren’t enough, Hollywood has joined in. Ugyen has just met the actor Richard Gere, a practising Buddhist who has long espoused the Tibetan cause. ‘He’s quite dedicated to his religious practice,’ says Ugyen. ‘I’m not sure whether I’ve seen any of his films because we don’t have a television in Gyuto. But when I’m allowed to go on a pilgrimage, we generally stay in five-star hotels, and I really enjoy watching all the different TV channels in the room.’
He is, after all, a religious leader for the 21st century. He may be a 10th-level Bodhisattva – one at the threshold of enlightenment who works for the benefit of all beings – but he’s also pretty proficient on a PlayStation. The senior monks say he beats them every time, skilfully downing virtual planes and crashing cars with gusto. ‘I really enjoy rap music, though I don’t understand the words yet,’ Ugyen says. Then hepauses. ‘I also enjoy some Chinese instrumental music. Music is meant to make you happy, but I sometimes find I can’t listen to it, because it makes me sad.’ He finds in poetry and painting a freedom that is missing from his real life. And in a distinct tone of wistfulness, he says: ‘The westerners I’ve met have lots of freedom; I find them to be very open-minded and easy-going.’
He has a laptop computer, but communications at Gyuto are basic and there is no access to the internet. Like the Dalai Lama, a well-known ambassador for world peace, Ugyen is keen to keep up with world news and eagerly questions his western visitors on the latest developments.
THERE IS another layer to Ugyen’s story, one that all the diplomacy in theworld won’t solve. A pawn in the power play between India and China, he is also the victim of infighting within his own Buddhist school. Depending on who you speak to, he isn’t the 17th Karmapa. A rival group led by a senior religious leader, Shamar Rinpoche, claims that another 17-year-old Tibetan, Thaye Dorje, is the true reincarnation; the continuing row has spilt over into violence at Rumtek at least twice.
Shamar Rinpoche was voted out of power by most Karma Kagyu organisations in 1992, but he still wields some influence with the Indian authorities, and there are fears of instability in Sikkim between the two factions, should Ugyen be allowed to go there. It doesn’t stop there. As well as the two disputed 17th Karmapas, there are two Panchen Lamas. The one recognised by the Dalai Lama is languishing in Chinese custody, his whereabouts unknown; the one the Chinese have nominated is naturally not recognised by Tibetans. No wonder both the Dalai Lama and Ugyen – from quite different schools – have called for unity among the differing Buddhist groups.
Ugyen’s predecessors all steered clear of politics, and he too is reluctant to be involved. Can he envisage talks with Beijing one day to help resolve the Tibet issue? ‘I’m not claiming I have the ability to do this right now,’ he says. ‘But I accept that this idea is being expressed by people. Yes, sometimes I feel that this might happen.’
The threat to Tibetan religion and culture has never been more extreme. Monks, nuns and spiritual leaders risk torture and imprisonment. Nearly 3,000 Tibetans, many from various religious orders, flee into exile every year. The Buddhist religion is bound up with Tibetan national identity. Following the Chinese invasion in 1949-1950, thousands of Tibetan monasteries and nunneries were destroyed. The Dalai Lama fled to India in1959, and in the 1990s, China stepped up efforts to undermine his influence.
Ugyen’s concern for the refugees was evident at a recent audience for those who had just arrived. ‘The main principles of our religion and culture are communicated through the Tibetan language and culture, and so we should try to sincerely preserve [it],’ he told them. ‘At the present time, it is difficult – we are at a crucial point in our history. But we should not despair, we should try to feel hope and to think of our future.’
Among his audience were two nuns, Choeyang Kunsang and Passang Lhamo, who escaped from Tibet five months after Ugyen. Choeyang Kunsang, 21, endured torture and solitary confinement during her four-year prison sentence in Lhasa’s notorious Drapchi jail. She recalls hearing the news of his escape. ‘We were all very happy, knowing His Holiness would have the freedom to practise his religion. For the young generation, born after Tibet lost its independence, the Karmapa was one of the few High Lamas left, and it was essential that he should preserve his lineage.’
Choeyang trekked across the Himalayas with her friend Passang, 20, who had been sentenced to five years’ jail after staging a peaceful demonstration. She underwent months of severe maltreatment at Drapchi prison. ‘We would be forced to stand in the sun without moving and talking for the whole day,’ she remembers. ‘The guards would put books or cups of water on our heads, and when the book fell or when some water was spilt, then you would be beaten. If you helped someone next to you who had fallen then you would both be beaten. In the winter we’d have to stand all day barefoot on icyconcrete. Sometimes they made us run around the prison courtyard all day long. By the end of the day most of us would have collapsed, unable to move any more.’
During the audience, Passang sits in silence, her hands folded in prayer, appearing to be entirely at peace. ‘In Tibet, the Karmapa was the only person we could put our trust in, our only source of hope. When I saw him first in exile, I felt a great sadness as well as happiness. It’s like when you meet your mother for the first time after a long separation; you feel happy but also sad about being apart for so long. We are far away from home, but the Karmapa gives us inspiration to continue with our lives.’
Ugyen’s situation may be difficult, but it is not hopeless. While the Indian government declines to comment on the situation, there are signs that his presence on Indian soil is helping to change politicians’ attitudes little by little.The chief minister of Sikkim has urged the government to allow the Karmapa to travel there, while Ugyen himself is reaching a wider community, from Hollywood stars such as Richard Gere to ordinary Indian devotees. Even the Indian security police at Gyuto refer to him as ‘guru-ji’, a term of respect for a teacher. Recently, the influential Buddhist organisation in India, the Maha Bodhi Society, invited him to be their guest of honour at a religious ceremony, while he has officiated at the wedding of a member of an Indian business clan that owns the Oberoi chain of resorts.
Unless India changes its policy, it may be years before he can fulfil his destiny. Meanwhile, an increasingly impatient Ugyen is practising acceptance. And that in itself is a very Buddhist accomplishment.
Photographs by Tom Stoddart appear in the newsprint version only of The Sunday Times Magazine. He said: ‘Photographing the 17th Karmapa was surprising but also frustrating – surprising because he turned out to be an expert on PlayStation and rap music, and frustrating because I wasn’t allowed to photograph that aspect of his life’