Rival Tibetan lamas compete for recognition

by Giles Hewitt, Agence France-Presse March 10, 2012

New Delhi, India -- Thaye Dorje was only 18 months old when, according to his biographers, he began telling people he was the reincarnation of one of Tibetan Buddhism's most influential leaders, the Karmapa Lama.

<< Tibetan leader Thaye Dorje gestures during an interview in New Delhi. Dorje was only 18 months old when, according to his biographers, he began telling people he was the reincarnation of one of Tibetan Buddhism's most influential leaders, the Karmapa Lama.
Photograph by: Getty Images , Agence France-Presse

Now 28, and embarking on a global religious teaching tour, he is one of two young men at the centre of a murky, divisive and seemingly intractable dispute over the Karmapa title.

Other major players in the long-running row include Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, China's communist government, India's Supreme Court and a remote monastery that holds relics and treasures valued at up to $1.5 billion.

Among those relics is the "Black Crown" of the Karmapas - said to be made from the hair of female deities and a symbol of the Karmapa's status as head of the Karma Kagyu lineage, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

But since the death of the 16th Karmapa Lama in 1981, the crown has been locked away, coveted but unworn, in the vaults of Rumtek Monastery in the northeast Indian state of Sikkim, bordering Tibet.

A long and hotly disputed search for the 16th Karmapa's reincarnation split the Karma Kagyu school behind two candidates, Thaye Dorje and Urgyen Trinley, 26 - each enthroned by their respective factions as the 17th Karmapa.

The two rivals both now live in India. Thaye Dorje fled Tibet with his family in 1994, while Urgyen Trinley escaped in 2000.

"We've never even met," Thaye Dorje told AFP in an interview in New Delhi ahead of his four-month, 12-country tour.

"I've thought for a long time that it could be done - that the two of us could just sit down. I really wonder why it hasn't happened," he said.

Of the two, Urgyen Trinley is the better known internationally and is recognized as the 17th Karmapa by both the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.

Recent appearances with the Dalai Lama - notably during a visit to Washington last year - have fuelled speculation that he is being groomed as the Nobel peace laureate's spiritual successor.

Thaye Dorje's take on the feud - he prefers the term "confusion" - surrounding the Karmapa title is couched in a strongly Buddhist perspective.

"We are taught that everything is impermanent, always changing, always in motion, and we must expect there will always be obstacles and challenges.

"This confusion tests one's courage in terms of devotion and in terms of seeing obstacles as an opportunity for turning negative circumstances into positive ones," he said.

But the existence of two rival Karmapas sets a dangerous precedent for the Tibetan movement as a whole, given fears that a similar situation might arise over the Dalai Lama's eventual reincarnation, with China anointing its own successor.

And the dispute also has a distinctly non-spiritual side, tainted by violence and a series of bitterly fought cases - some of them ongoing - in the Indian courts.

In 1993, followers of Urgyen Trinley stormed the Rumtek Monastery and ousted members of the Karmapa Charitable Trust (KCT) - a body set up the 16th Karmapa which had recognized Thaye Dorje as the true reincarnation.

But legal control of the monastery - and the Black Crown - remains in dispute with India's Supreme Court in 2004 having dismissed a petition to challenge the KCT's guardianship.

While voicing "disappointment" that the row had dragged on for so long, Thaye Dorje said it was inevitable that lawyers would become involved.

"The legal route is naturally there ... (the courts) are another tool, another way," he said.

"I really wish that sooner rather than later we can find a solution, because it's completely unnecessary."

Soft-spoken but self-assured, the young lama - whose musical tastes range from Mozart to the Irish singer Enya and who lists Star Wars among his favourite films - was born in Tibet in 1983.

His father was a high lama and his mother descended from Tibetan nobility. According to his official biography, he was just oneand-a-half years old "when he started telling people that he was the Karmapa."

Some observers see his tour of Asian and European countries as an effort to raise his profile and counter the publicity his rival has enjoyed as a result of the Dalai Lama's endorsement.

Thaye Dorje says he has enormous respect for the Dalai Lama as "one of the greatest" Buddhist teachers, but is more circumspect when talking about his spiritual authority.

The Karma Kagyu lineage has always maintained a proud independence from the Dalai Lama's Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism and many of Thaye Dorje's hundreds of thousands of followers argue that the elderly monk has no say in the Karmapa's reincarnation.

"In terms of defining whether the Dalai Lama is the spiritual head of Tibet or not, that answer would go into the political side of things," Thaye Dorje said.

"It would be a political statement, and that's something I've always tried my very best to avoid," he added.

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