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Succession of Karmapa could impact India

by Jayadeva Ranade, DNA India, February 13, 2011

Dhramsala, India -- The Himalayas, peopled by a large numbers Tibetan Buddhistsm, have the potential to become a belt of unease along India’s northern borders.

The Tibetan Buddhist religious orders are presently poised on the threshold of major changes, which have the potential of altering important equations settled decades ago as well as affecting the community inside China and in exile.

The momentum acquired by the international movement started by the Tibetan Buddhists under the leadership of the Dalai Lama for fulfillment of their aspirations could also be affected. Not all the changes will have an immediate impact but they could, in the course of time, have far-reaching consequences.
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The impending changes relate to the Dalai Lama and consequently the leadership of all Tibetan Buddhists, and the heads of two of the major Tibetan Buddhist sects, namely the Sakya and the Karma Kargyu. Of these, the head of the Sakya sect is not a reincarnate but selected by his predecessor and his peers.

The wrangle among the four claimants for succession to the position of the XVII Gyalwa Karmapa, or head of the Karma Kargyu (or Black Hat) sub-sect of the Kargyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, is of concern. The recent revelations of alleged illegitimate financial dealings by close aides of Ughyen Thinley Dorjee, a claimant to the position of the XVII Gyalwa Karmapa, has caused avoidable embarrassment to the office while prompting an investigation into his activities.

Ranjung Rigpi Dorjee, the XVI Gyalwa Karmapa, fled from his monastery in Tsurphu in Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese took over Tibet. He managed to bring considerable wealth belonging to the sect with him.

After becoming an exile, he travelled to the US where he established the first monastery of the Karma Kargyu sect at Woodstock. He later went to Sikkim where he set up a monastery at Rumtek, and which was designated between 1962 and 1965 as the Gyalwa Karmapa’s spiritual seat-in-exile. The Gyalwa Karmapa presides over the Karma Kargyu sub-sect with approximately 180 financially well-endowed Dharma Chakra Centres world-wide.

The Karma Kargyu is the dominant sect along the Himalayan belt, including the border regions of Sikkim and Bhutan. The sub-sect has numerous monasteries in this region. It is also in this belt that China lays claim to Indian territory. This factor, along with the internecine rivalry, is a matter of concern for India.

The succession to the throne of the XVII Gyalwa Karmapa has four claimants. Of them, Ughyen Thinley Dorjee is supported by Tai Situ Rimpoche, a regent of the sect, while the second claimant, Thaye Thinley Dorjee, has been propped up by the other surviving regent, Shamar Rimpoche.

These two frontrunners were born in Tibet, and are better known because of the influence and wealth of their patrons. Tai Situ Rimpoche, the regent who ‘discovered’ and supported Ughyen Thinley Dorjee, was successful in securing the recognition of the Dalai Lama and Beijing for his candidate. This places Ughyen Thinley Dorjee in a unique position of being the only claimant aspiring to head a Tibetan Buddhist sect who is recognised by both the Dalai Lama and Beijing.

As long as the heads of the other major Tibetan Buddhist sects and the Dalai Lama are alive, the Gyalwa Karmapa will remain only the head of one sect.

But thereafter, he could be among the very few highest ranking lamas of Tibetan Buddhism, who is formally recognised in the traditional manner, and will wield considerable influence over Buddhists. This gives his claims a definite edge over that of the other contenders, and this might make the office of the Gyalwa Karmapa more important and vulnerable to pressure and manipulation by Beijing. This vulnerability, especially sincethe incumbent’s leanings are unclear, would be a matter of serious discomfort to India.

The role and character of the inheritor to the throne of the Gyalwa Karmapa at such a time will, therefore, be crucial. All these developments could impact on India’s border negotiations with China and the maintenance of stability and calm along the vulnerable Indo-Himalayan border region, which is inhabited by a large number of followers of Tibetan Buddhism.

The author is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, government of India.

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