(AP) – Ten years ago, the world witnessed the startling spectacle of maroon-robed Tibetan monks – those tribunes of inner peace and outer compassion – hurling stones, soda bottles and curses at each other at the gates of a Buddhist institute in New Delhi.
The scuffle in the Indian capital was over a seven-year-old boy, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, enthroned two years earlier in a monastery in Tibet as the 17th incarnation of the Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu sect that is one of the four streams of Tibetan Buddhism.
The clash over the boy’s legitimacy exposed bitter rivalries that had been largely hidden within the sect.
With that conflict as a backdrop, Lea Terhune, an India-based American journalist and a longtime student of Tibetan Buddhism, has written an absorbing portrait of the Karmapa – in his current and previous lifetimes – in her book Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation (Wisdom).
Tibetans believe high lamas, or tulkus, like the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa are reborn over and over again, accumulating the wisdom of each lifetime even though they rarely remember their earlier existence.
The story is important for Tibet-watchers because the Karmapa, at least in spiritual stature, is the equal of the Dalai Lama, and one day could succeed the 68-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner as the public voice of Tibet.
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Although unusual in modern times, intrigue, disputed successions and even murders of holy men are plentiful in the 1,400-year history of Buddhism in the Land of the Snows. Like the church in medieval Europe, monasteries in Tibet controlled vast estates and great wealth, in a feudal system that survived well into the 20th century.
The challenge to Orgyen Trinley Dorje’s claim to the black crown of leadership also came against the background of a dissident faction seeking control of the sect’s treasures and property, Terhune writes.
The book opens in late December 1999, when the Karmapa, then 14, made a dramatic escape from Tibet, where Chinese authorities had been keeping him under tight control.
Jumping almost three metres from the window of his room, he made a treacherous eight-day journey by jeep, on foot and by horseback past Chinese border posts, across a 5,380-metre-high Himalayan pass into Nepal and finally by helicopter to India, his new home in exile.
Tall for his age, with a penetrating gaze and a confident, commanding presence, the teenage monk quickly hurled himself into a rigorous dawn-to-night daily schedule of prayer, meditation and study, interrupted by brief audiences for devotees. He also studied English and computers, and composed poetry on his laptop in the intricate, multilayered ancient style of Tibetan symbolism and mythology.
“Perhaps the most striking thing about the Karmapa is what a well-integrated contradiction he is. He behaves and speaks like a sage. … but then suddenly the teenager peeks out,” writes Terhune.
With only rare outings for pilgrimages and teachings, the Karmapa has been kept in virtual isolation for the past four years in a monastery near the Dalai Lama’s home of Dharmsala by the Indian government, apparently fearful of angering China. Terhune claims Indian officials may have been influenced – bribed, in fact – against the Karmapa and his followers by opponents from within the Karmapa’s own sect.
Karmapa is full of anecdotes of magic and myth as it chronicles the history of the Black Hat sect, although at times the narrative becomes weighted with lineages and “begats” of almost biblical proportions.
To most Tibetans, the pantheon of deities, ghosts and demons, in all their incarnations and manifestations, are as real as the neighbour next door. The miraculous powers of high lamas also are unquestioned.
Legends speak of Karmapas curing illnesses and halting epidemics, controlling the weather and foretelling the future. Before his death, the Karmapa usually leaves clues to lead his devotees to his next incarnation.
So it was with the 16th Karmapa, who concealed a cryptic message inside a brocaded pouch, or talisman, that he gave to his disciple, the Tai Situ, before dying of cancer in 1981. The Tai Situ was one of four “heart sons,” or chief disciples, who were left as joint regents when the Karmapa died.
It was not until 10 years after his mentor’s death that the Tai Situ thought to open the talisman he had worn around his neck all those years, and discovered a 13-line riddle.
Once deciphered, the message led a search party to an empty region of eastern Tibet and a child born to a family of nomads. Throughout the valley in the days after his birth, the search party was told, people heard the inexplicable sound of conch shells and saw three suns in the sky. Flowers bloomed that had never been seen there before.
The Dalai Lama quickly lent his authority to the recognition of the 17th Karmapa. For reasons Terhune doesn’t fully explain, Beijing also granted recognition to the boy – the first time since the Chinese army entered Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, in 1959 that China acknowledged a tulku.
Terhune reports on her interview with the young monk just four months after his flight from Tibet, in which he takes an evenhanded approach about China. “Just because I came here (to India) doesn’t mean I won’t go back. I think the time will come when the Dalai Lama and everyone who wants to will be able to freely go back to Tibet,” he told the author.
His demeanour and experiences dealing with the Chinese before his escape reinforce the belief, Terhune writes, that “whether he wants to be or not, he is seen as a possible political heir to the Dalai Lama.”