A Buddha Busts Out

At the Gyuto monastery, in the foothills of the Himalayas, a love both familiar and exotic was in the air. Some 60 Tibetan schoolgirls had come to be in the presence of the living Buddha--who, in this case, just happened to be a strikingly handsome 14-year-old boy. The 17th reincarnation of the Karmapa had recently made a daring escape from Chinese-controlled Tibet, and the girls, in a temperate Tibetan sort of way, were flushed with excitement. They sat cross-legged on a cold concrete floor, surrounded by tapestries called tankhas, which portray dramatic stories of Buddhist lore. Sweet incense wafted through the air, and a table was covered with offerings--biscuits, apples, bananas--for the teen deity who was already part of an eternal legend.

A murmur rose as the six-foot Karmapa, dressed in maroon and saffron robes and shadowed by Indian security guards, strode into the hall and sat on a downy, makeshift throne. First the Karmapa politely thanked the few Westerners in the audience for their interest and help in Tibetan affairs. Then he turned to the schoolgirls, many of whom had fled Tibet like him. "Don't forget your... homeland," he instructed them in a voice sure and serene beyond its years. "You must study hard so that you can help protect and preserve Tibetan religion and culture."

As befits a Tibetan holy man, the sermon wasn't a call to arms. But the Karmapa's escape poses an enormous challenge to his old patrons in China. Tibetans believe many different aspects of Buddha are reincarnated over and over as humans, and Beijing's atheist leadership has long tried to manipulate the selection of these lamas to ensure that the coming generation will submit to its will. In 1995, Chinese authorities kidnapped Tibet's second-ranking lama, the 11th Panchen, now 10, and ordained another child as the "true" reincarnate. The Karmapa--considered No. 3 in the hierarchy--was groomed to heed Beijing as well. China's leaders imagined he could be used to counter the political power of the exiled Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan freedom struggle.

How did Beijing lose the battle for the Karmapa's soul? While the bare outlines of the story of the young lama's escape were known within days after he crossed into India on Jan. 3, many issues were in dispute. Even now Beijing maintains that the teenager went to India to retrieve some musical instruments and a sacred black hat that belonged to his previous incarnation; Chinese authorities hope he will soon return to his seat at the Tsurphu monastery near Lhasa. But a NEWSWEEK investigation, including an audience with the Karmapa and an hourlong interview with the Dalai Lama, has revealed new details of the Karmapa's dramatic eight-day flight to freedom and the factors that prompted him to run. Already, some Tibetan exiles regard the epic journey as a kind of Second Coming, because it mirrors the Dalai Lama's own harrowing escape 41 years ago.

The Karmapa had been planning his breakaway for more than a year, according to sources in the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile. Beijing had been treating the Karmapa well, allowing his Kagyupa order to lavishly renovate Tsurphu monastery, ruined during the Cultural Revolution. Yet the Karmapa grew increasingly alarmed by reports that authorities were restricting the religious practices of other lamas. His resolve to escape grew firmer after an incident in 1998, when two Chinese intruders were found in the Tsurphu monastery with knives and explosives. "It was obviously a plot to harm the Karmapa," says a source close to the lama, "and then to blame it on the Tibetans."

The Karmapa made repeated requests for permission to visit India, but the Chinese kept putting him off. Meanwhile, they also restricted his access to visitors, says Ksenpo Junay, a Tibetan Kagyupa abbot in Nepal. The Karmapa, moreover, believed his Buddhist studies suffered because the Chinese barred his India-based religious tutor, Tai Situ Rinpoche, from visiting Tibet.

In late December the Karmapa told Chinese guards at the monastery that he was beginning a special prayer retreat and nobody but his teacher and cook should enter his room. As the guards watched television late on Dec. 28, the Karmapa slipped out of his bedroom, changing into a denim jacket and trousers. With two aides and two drivers, he sped in a Mitsubishi four-wheel-drive vehicle toward the border. Once inside Nepal, the lama and his entourage abandoned their vehicle near an icy river; in the rush to avoid a Chinese patrol, they left behind their meager food supplies--some roasted barley paste called tsampa and meat.

An exhausting trek--on horseback and foot--ensued through the forbidding region of upper Mustang, which has no motorized vehicles. At one point the Karmapa took time to write a poem about his aspirations for Tibet: "In a healing land where white incense rises sweet" reads one verse, "May the gracious beauty of luminous moonbeams/Conquer all strife, the darkness of the shadow side."

The party was helped along the way by devotees who provided food, money and other assistance. NEWSWEEK has learned that the Karmapa and his entourage rode a commercial helicopter, chartered by two Kagyupa lamas, to cross a rugged stretch of lower Mustang. News of the Karmapa's arrival in India startled even the Dalai Lama. When the two men met, says an eye-witness, they held each other "as if a father was meeting his dear son after a long separation." The Dalai Lama arranged some warm clothing for the Karmapa, who had blisters on his feet, and dry cracks along his rosy cheeks. "His spirit is very clear and strong," says the Dalai Lama of his new protege. "If he's properly developed and trained, certainly he can make a great contribution."

Tibetans from London to Lhasa to Woodstock, N.Y.--the seat of the Karmapa's order in the United States--were electrified by the news. At the monastery on Overlook Mountain in Woodstock, followers spoke about an expected visit by the Karmapa sometime this year. "I feel the same way a child would if his father was finally coming home," said 67-year-old Trinley Chojor, a Tibetan artist, of his 14-year-old leader.

In Beijing, meanwhile, communist officials were dismayed. Ever since his 1992 enthronement in Tsurphu, the Chinese have pampered the Karmapa. In 1994 authorities ushered him and his nomad parents on a lavish, monthlong tour of China. He was taken on a shopping spree in Shanghai, where he was showered with toys and other treats. (A remote-control truck particularly caught his fancy.) The boy deity even met senior party leaders like Jiang Zemin, who told the young lama: "I hope you will study hard so that you can make a valuable contribution to the prosperity of Tibet when you grow up." Now the 17th Karmapa is doing just that; but not in the manner that Jiang had in mind.