The Politics Of Reincarnation

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 and oranges--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 room 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, so Beijing's atheist leadership has long tried to manipulate the tradition of reincarnation by Tibetan lamas to ensure that the coming generation will submit to its will. In 1995, 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. Communist Party bosses imagined he could be used to counter the political power of the exiled Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan freedom struggle. Instead, the Karmapa is now emerging as a new leader who may revitalize the Free Tibet movement.

How did Beijing lose the battle for the Karmapa's soul? While the outlines of the story of the young lama's escape were known shortly 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, revealed new details of his 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. (The Karmapa experienced a bad omen--and left the main palace--shortly before a monk discovered the would-be assassins hiding under blankets on the floor of the library, according to the London-based Tibet Information Network.) The intruders admitted they'd been paid to kill the Karmapa, Tibetan sources say, but the Chinese authorities released them. "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 abbot in Nepal, who belongs to the Kagyupa sect. The Karmapa was told to curtail his normal habit of giving audiences and blessings to visitors between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. Worst of all, they barred his India-based religious tutor, Situ Rinpoche, from visiting Tibet.

In late December the Karmapa told Chinese guards at his monastery that he was entering a special prayer retreat and nobody but his teacher and his cook should be allowed in his room. As the guards watched television late on Dec. 28, the Karmapa slipped out of his bedroom window, 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, they abandoned their vehicle and rushed to avoid a Chinese patrol; in the process, 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 remote and 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."

Although much of the weeklong journey was undertaken in primitive conditions, 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 flew in 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, who received word that a "Very Important Reincarnation" had checked into a Dharmsala hotel very early on Jan. 5. The senior lama sent his private car to fetch the Karmapa; when they met, says an eyewitness, they held each other in a prolonged, warm hug, "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, scratches on his hands 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 Llasa to Woodstock, New York--the seat of the Karmapa's order in the United States--were electrified by the news. At the Sherabling monastery in India, seat of the Karmapa's longtime guru, Tai Situ Rinpoche, preparations were underway last week to receive the Karmapa in a matter of days: Indian government intelligence officers briefed the staff on security precautions even as lamas scoured the calendar for an auspicious date for the Karmapa's enthronement in exile.

Elsewhere in India and Nepal, exiled monks and other Tibetan Buddhists are excitedly discussing the prospect that the 17th Karmapa could fill a more overt political role. Some believe he could become an interim leadership figure after this Dalai Lama--now 64--passes away. (A leader, that is, until the Dalai Lama's next reincarnation becomes an adult.) Robbie Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University, calls the Karmapa's escape "one of the most interesting developments in exile politics in years."

In Beijing, by contrast, communist officials were dismayed. Ever since his 1992 enthronement in Tsurphu, the Chinese have pampered the 17th 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.