This article was originally printed in the TIMES OF INDIA on February 27th, 2011, titled “The Karmapa is an Icon, he Deserves more Respect.” Updated and slightly revised.
NO WAY TO TREAT AN ICON
Almost everyone knows of the Dalai Lama. Not many Indians had heard of “Karmapa Lama” before he recently burst into the news, accused of having 7.5 crores cash in foreign currencies, attempting benami land deals near Dharamsala and, worst of all, being a Chinese spy. So why are the Tibetan refugees themselves so angered by these accusations? Tenzin Tsundue, a leading activist, says, “This country that we are so grateful to is alleging the Karmapa is a spy for China. And we can’t understand that at all.” Many question the motives of the Indian intelligence agencies in leaking this allegation against the Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, ever since he came to India as a refugee in 2000.
Who exactly is the Karmapa? In a word, after the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa is the most important Tibetan Buddhist leader today. In Christian terms, the Karmapa would be like the Archbishop of Canterbury or the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, second only to the Pope. But the Karmapa’s Kagyu centres across the world, over 500, vastly outnumber the Dalai Lama’s Gelug centres. Most impressive for a 25 year old who left Tibet barely 11 years ago.
How did a monk so young acquire such enormous religious power so quickly? In a manner of speaking, he “inherited” it. The Tibetans have a well-established tradition of finding the reincarnation of their most important lamas to preserve the continuity of their religious orders. Sceptics may scoff at it, but even the Dalai Lama was discovered in this way, though he was just the son of a small farmer.
Selecting the reincarnation of the last Karmapa (the 16th), who died in 1981, turned out to be a more contentious issue. Those controversies are the root of the present 17th Karmapa’s problems with the Indian security services. He was discovered by high lamas, in a small village of nomads in eastern Tibet, exactly as predicted in a letter left by the last Karmapa. The Karmapa was enthroned, age 8, at Tsurphu monastery near Lhasa, and even recognised by the Chinese. But, unable to bear Chinese religious restrictions, the new Karmapa made, in the words of Time magazine, “a breath-taking escape” to India in January 2000, when he was only 14 years old. Even the Dalai Lama, surely the highest authority on Tibetan affairs, authenticated his status as the new Karmapa.
By then, another high-ranking Kagyu Lama, Shamar Rinpoche, had put forward his own rival candidate as the “real” Karmapa. This grew into a nasty conflict with wild accusations and allegations being hurled at the recognised Karmapa. Some think the Indian security agencies are backing the unrecognised Karmapa rival for darker motives of their own. Be that as it may, the persecution of the authenticated 17th Karmapa hasn’t stopped since the time of his arrival. Intelligence Bureau officials reportedly sit in on his meetings, and he is not allowed to visit anyone outside a 15 mile radius without police permission. It’s a policy that outrages the millions who believe in the historic lineage of the Karmapas. But that’s not half of it.
The previous Karmapa (16th), Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, was a bear of a man with great wisdom and wit, twinkling eyes, and a laugh that came from the belly. I knew him well. My mother, Freda Bedi, was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun in his beautiful Rumtek monastery in Sikkim. The 16th Karmapa was also the “Raj Guru” of the royal families of Sikkim and Bhutan. Living in India as a refugee, he quickly turned his imposing Rumtek monastery into the most important hub of the Kagyu Order outside Tibet.
Despite his iconic status in the Buddhist world, his reincarnated successor, His Holiness Karmapa 17th, has been prevented from returning to his real home, Rumtek monastery, on the orders of the Home Ministry ever since he fled Tibet in 2000. Instructed to stay in Dharamsala, the Karmapa has been accommodated as an “honoured guest” in a small Gyuto monastery, belonging to the Dalai Lama, for the last 11 years. (Now even that monastery has been seized!) Even the Dalai Lama has been “asked” to live in Himachal Pradesh, which prohibits the sale of land to any outsiders. But, in exceptional circumstances, the Himachal government does give permission for such purchases. That permission had been applied for by the Karmapa’s office --- could there be a more exceptional case? --- while they looked for land. From news reports, it seems they had paid a seller an advance of 1 crore rupees, which was discovered and promptly seized by the Himachal police. That seizure led to raids on “the Karmapa’s monastery”, which resulted in the further seizure of 7 crores in 14 foreign currencies, including Chinese Yuans, the perfect fodder for leaking even more allegations about the Karmapa’s Chinese connections.
So what’s going on here? The Karmapa has legions of foreign devotees, including Chinese and Tibetan, who make donations in the currencies of their countries. The Karmapa’s office applied for, and received, permission to bank the money under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. Inexplicably, this permission was withdrawn after the first $100,000 was received and banked. The Karmapa’s re-application has been pending, and pending, since 2002. What’s a monk to do with a growing pile of donations that can’t be banked, except to keep it in cash and use it for expenses? With all that money now seized, how is the Karmapa expected to pay for the upkeep of all the monks, monasteries and nunneries that depend on him for support while the case winds its way through India’s serpentine judicial system?
If the Home Ministry has any proof of the Karmapa’s misdeeds, let them state their case, prosecute him, and be done with it. If there’s any financial impropriety in the land deal, let the law take its course. But preventing the Karmapa from returning to his historic monastery in Sikkim, refusing permission for his foreign tours (Update: they finally allowed him to vist America in July 2011), not allowing him to bank his donations, and treating him like a pariah for over a decade, makes Indian government look like an oppressive police state with no respect for religious sensibilities. It’s a disgraceful way to treat a Buddhist icon. How would we look if he sought asylum in a friendlier country?
Kabir Bedi is an international actor, producer and occasional columnist. He has been a voting member of the “Oscars Academy” (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) for almost three decades. In December 2010, the Italian Government knighted him, “Cavaliere”, its highest civilian honour.