The Great Game for the Future of Tibetan Buddhism

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The Great Game for the Future of Tibetan Buddhism

India, China, and the case of the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa.

The Great Game for the Future of Tibetan Buddhism

From early 2017: A protest rally in Gangtok (Sikkim) gathered around a photo of Ogyen Trinley Dorje to demand that he should be allowed to visit Sikkim.

Credit: Aadil Brar

In a video broadcast from the United States, Ogyen Trinley Dorje – the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa – went off topic to discuss his personal story of escape from Tsurphu monastery in Tibet during late December 1999. Addressing a gathering of devotees at the annual Kagyu Monlam Chenmo in Bodhgaya, the Karmapa said, “I have spent 18 years in India… during this time I have had difficulty and hassles as you know…. they said I was sent by the Chinese or that I was a Chinese spy. Many things have happened.”

Ogyen Trinley Dorje was 14 years old when he escaped from Tibet. His sudden arrival in India in early 2000 alarmed the Indian authorities. Both China and the Dalai Lama have extended their benediction upon Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the legitimate reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje – which made India particularly suspicious (the controversy of the Karmapa’s reincarnation has been documented extensively; it continues to impact the Tibetan community). India has maintained a suspicion toward Ogyen Trinley’s activities – claiming that he is under China’s “influence” – since he arrived from Tibet. Such speculation has been circulating since his escape from Tibet and received a fresh support when a large sum of Chinese yuan was discovered with his monastery in Dharamsala.

Ogyen Trinley Dorje has been staying in the United States since early 2017, citing that he is undergoing treatment for an health-related issue. Experts have proposed that Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s visit to the U.S. was planned without consulting India’s intelligence community. Initially, there was rumors that he might not return from the United States or might want to visit his family in China. Ogyen Trinley Dorje put all the speculation to rest in an interview to Radio Free Asia in Washington D.C. – he has stated that he will return to India by November 2018.

For the last 18 years, Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje has had to travel under the watchful eyes of the Indian intelligence community. The issue of letting him visit Sikkim has galvanized public interest in his plight. Despite all the deep-seated mistrust, the Indian authorities had relaxed travel restrictions on Ogyen Trinley Dorje since early 2017 – including Sikkim. But the restriction on his travel to Rumtek Monastery — the contemporary axis mundi of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism– remains in place. Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s visit to Sikkim is a highly impassioned issue for the devotees of the Karma Kagyu school across India. The Indian intelligence community’s persistent call requesting Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s return to India highlights the fact that India wants to maintain its influence over Tibetan affairs and the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Up until the 17th century, the office of the Karmapa had played a central role in Tibetan society. During a violent campaign in 1649, the then-Dalai Lama of the Gelugpa sect– with the help of Mongol rulers – dethroned the then-Karmapa and the authority of Tsurphu monastery – a key monastic center of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Up until then, Karma Kagyu was one of the most prominent schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

This history reverberates to the present as the 14th Dalai Lama – Tenzin Gyatso – has decided to completely depoliticize his office. This would mean that Ogyen Trinley Dorje might not be the natural heir to Dalai Lama. Since Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s arrival in India from Tibet, he was being considered as the heir to Dalai Lama’s office – at least till the next Dalai Lama is identified and matures into taking up the office. But removing the central authority of a religious figure like Dalai Lama in the affairs of Tibetan government-in-exile might not be enough in the present geopolitical context.

Tibet and the China-India Rivalry

China has been doing its utmost to integrate the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with the rest of the Han-dominated country. China’s integration of Tibet has been promoted through an economic and social directive, which includes promoting its citizens of Han origin to settle in Tibet. The uprisings in Tibet during 2008 made the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) realize that its security strategy of targeting individual dissidents, activists, and religious figures isn’t effective enough. As the world has been learning about mass re-education camps being run in Xinjiang, China continues to take similar measures in Tibet.

report released by Human Rights Watch said that China’s Public Security Bureau issued a notice for western regions of Tibet that declared a set of “traditional” activities “illegal.” The notice targets activities related to environmental protection, language preservation, and dispute mediation by Lamas. This notice for TAR came in response to of President Xi Jinping’s call to attack “organized crime” and mafia-like” activities. The CCP has grown weary of the influence that Lamas continue to hold within Tibet.

Premier Li Keqiang’s sudden visit to TAR in July and his call to defend ethnic unity was a rare occasion and provided a visible sign of top-level concern. The last visit to TAR by such a high-ranking member of the CCP was then-Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit in 2011.

Most recently, the People Liberation Army’s 75th and 76th Group Army have also increased their activities in Qinghai Plateau and TAR (China refers to the region as the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau). Meanwhile, Tibetan activists, journalists, NGOs, the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Central Tibetan Administration were reportedly victims of a digital espionage campaign between January and March of 2018. The Citizen Lab had reported about a similar campaign in 2016.

Robert Barnett – former director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University – commented on China’s changing security concerns toward the Tibet issue on Twitter. According to Barnett, China decided “to return to mass re-education rather than relying only on securitization” after the central government’s investigation into the 2008 riots. CCP authorities concluded, Barnett wrote, that “[T]here is  fundamental contradiction in Tibetan mentality which predisposes it to long term receptiveness to Dalai Lama… So you need mass education.”

Barnett argues that the CCP continues to be weary of traditional Tibetan social practices such as conflict mediation by Lamas and environmental activism. Various analysts and academics have concluded that China will continue to pursue its strategy to “re-educate” the people and influence the Lamas and social organizations in TAR.

Since the Doklam stand-off last year, the Modi government in India has been reconfiguring its consensus on the Tibet issue. Earlier in March 2018, it was revealed that India’s foreign secretary directed its ministers to ignore the invitation for the “Thank You India” celebrations. “Thank You India” was a series of events organized by the Central Tibetan Administration to express gratitude for India’s support since the Dalai Lama’s arrival in 1959.

The Dalai Lama and Lobsang Sangay – president of the Tibetan government-in-exile – have equivocally supported the “middle way” solution for the Tibet issue. Most recently, the Dalai Lama called for a European Union-like model of coexistence for Tibet and China – which could fulfill his wish to return to Lhasa. Ogyen Trinley Droje is in a unique position — both China’s appointee for Karmapa and accepted by the Dalai Lama. He could become the face of a “middle way” solution. But Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s video broadcast during Monlam earlier this year points toward a lack of interest in taking on such a political role.

India is waking up to this reality and has offered the Karmapa a piece of land close to New Delhi to build his monastery – something he has requested in the past. The question remains if India would be willing to change its stance on the Karmapa’s history and give up on suspicions that he is a Chinese agent. Reports have suggested that Amitabh Mathur – an adviser to Indian government on Tibetan affairs – met Ogyen Trinley Dorje in New York. Indian authorities are trying hard to ensure that he returns to India – after having already dodged one deadline.

From these recent events it can be gauged that Ogyen Trinley Dorje might have to play an active role in Tibetan affairs. To officiate the Dalai Lama’s duties in the future, the Karmapa would need to address India’s long-held suspicion and vocalize his position on both China and Tibet.

China and India have been trying to bridge the trust deficit that emerged after Doklam stand-off. But the unease between China and India on the Tibet issue reveals the undertones of a rivalry to control the future of Tibetan Buddhism and the government-in-exile.

Aadil Brar is an international freelance journalist and a National Geographic Young Explorer fellow.