Deity Goes into Retirement: Tibetans Face Uncertainty in Post-Dalai Lama Era


At 14, he decided to flee Tibet to embark on a search for the best Buddhist teacher, as he would later recount. On a December evening in 1999, he jumped out of a window at his monastery and into a waiting SUV. Traveling on horseback and on foot, he crossed icy mountains, avoided military checkpoints and eventually made the risky crossing over the border into Nepal. He arrived in Dharamsala on Jan. 5, 2000. The Karmapa has never revealed the identities of those who helped him escape. Beijing must have felt humiliated. The boy's parents and a few friends were allegedly interrogated for hours and briefly detained.

In Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama took the inquisitive boy under his wing, and he soon became a favored pupil. Speculation ran rampant after the young Karmapa was permitted to sit in the Dalai Lama's chair during his absence. He was the "only plan B that the Tibetans have," wrote the German magazine Geo, while Time was convinced that he was the "world's next top lama."

But that was before the embarrassing scandal that has now engulfed him.

Shadow of a Scandal In January, the Indian police stopped a car on a highway near Dharamsala and seized the equivalent of €150,000 in cash. The men in the vehicle claimed that it was from the Karmapa's monastery and was to be used to purchase a piece of land. Soon afterwards the Indian investigators, who had become suspicious, searched the premises at the Gyuto Monastery. They found additional cash, in various currencies, worth more than €1 million -- a sixth of it in renminbi, the official currency of the People's Republic of China. The police chief in Dharamsala claims that Chinese telephone cards were also found at the monastery, and calls them "substantial proof that points to a connection to China."

The press in New Delhi pounced on the story. The weekly news magazine India Today devoted a cover story to the question of whether the Karmapa might be a spy for Beijing, while a headline in the respected daily newspaper The Tribune read: "Monk or Chinese Plant?"

Tibet is one of the most sensitive issues between the two major Asian powers, which sometimes play the game of "Chindia," joining forces against the West on economic issues, and yet eye each other with suspicion in other respects. India feels increasingly provoked by China, which has adopted an extremely self-confident stance when it comes to foreign policy. "They are building new airports and new rail lines near our border. Beijing is zeroing in on us from all sides," laments Prem Kumar Dhumal, the chief minister of the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where Dharamsala is located. In this climate, some would say that the idea of a "planted" spiritual troublemaker with long-term ambitions is not as far-fetched as it might sound.

The Karmapa laughs off questions about the lingering shadow of the scandal. He receives his guests in a standing position in his simple guest room on the second floor of the monastery, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, like an alert boxer before the first round. He occasionally adjusts his monk's robe, which exposes his fleshy upper arms. He looks like a chubby-cheeked Raphael angel, except for his shaved head that resembles a large billiard ball.

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