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Tempest in Tibetan temples

THE WORLD

Allegations of spying and media intrigue lay bare divisions in Tibetan Buddhism.

February 08, 2011|Mark Magnier

DHARAMSALA, INDIA — He's a "living Buddha" with movie-star good looks and an iPod, a 25-year-old who rubs shoulders with Richard Gere and Tom Cruise and is mentioned as a successor to the Dalai Lama.

Now allegations that he's a Chinese spy, and a money launderer to boot, have laid bare divisions in the outwardly serene world of Tibetan Buddhism and longtime tensions between China and India.

There's a lot at stake. The Karmapa is among Tibetan Buddhism's most revered figures and heads the religion's wealthiest sect, with property estimated at $1.2 billion worldwide. His appointment was approved by both Beijing and the Dalai Lama -- a rarity -- but rivals say he isn't the legitimate leader.

Tibetan Buddhism's image of placid chanting and sublime meditation belies a more edgy history, analysts say, replete with religious figures attacking each other and alliances between monasteries and brutal warlords.

The Dalai Lama heads one sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the so-called yellow hats, a reference to their headgear, while the Karmapa heads a black-hat sect.

After the 16th Karmapa died in 1981, top lamas split over who should replace him, resulting in three rivals, significant distrust and a fight over control of the previously shared Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim.

"We in the West tend to project all our fantasies about mystical spiritualism onto Tibetan Buddhism," said Erik Curren, author of "Buddha's Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today." "It's really like a civil war. There's lots of acrimony."

Last week, some 2,000 Tibetans trudged down steep mountain roads here to the Gyuto Ramoche Temple, the residence of the Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, to show their support for the man at the center of the allegations.

"Long live his holiness Karmapa," monks and worshipers chanted, fingering prayer beads and holding aloft pictures of him with the Dalai Lama.

The allegations, largely unsubstantiated, were widely repeated in major Hindi- and English-language media here, prompting aides and supporters to wonder who's fanning the negative publicity.

"There's definitely been a witch hunt," said Kate Saunders, a spokeswoman for the International Campaign for Tibet. She said that with the Dalai Lama aging, Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje is someone able to unify the diverse community.

Some believe Indian security officials may be behind the raids and publicity, concerned over the sect's many temples along the sensitive India-China border, keen to boost budgets and influenced by supporters of a rival Karmapa.

"The Karmapa is definitely not a Chinese spy," said Deki Chungyalpa, an advisor. "I think Indian officials and the media had a role in spreading this. It makes the situation a lot more volatile." Followers added that supporters of a rival Karmapa may be involved.

Rabjam Rikki, private secretary to Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje, said such suggestions were completely unfounded.

The latest incident began Jan. 26 after police discovered $220,000 in a car at a checkpoint. Under questioning, the driver said it came from the Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje.

A search of the leader's religious offices then turned up $1.4 million more in cash, including $165,000 in Chinese currency, fueling media speculation that the Karmapa was working for Beijing. Under Indian law, residents can hold $2,000 in foreign currency.

"Misunderstandings and mistakes" happened, the Karmapa told followers last week, but he expressed faith that the truth would prevail.

Aides said the cash came from foreign devotees and that the money at the checkpoint was intended for the purchase of land for a new monastery.

Tibetan refugees are not allowed to buy land in India, and buying through an Indian proxy is also illegal. But aides said they had repeatedly informed the Indian government of their plans.

"If you go strictly by the rules, yes, but it wasn't done with any bad intention," said spokesman Karma Topden.

Late last month, Chinese Communist Party official Xu Zhitao said the Karmapa was not a Chinese spy, although that's done little to settle the issue.

"It's possible this is a deliberate salvo by China to stir up more controversy," said Robbie Barnett, director of Columbia University's Modern Tibetan Studies Program, given that many Indian intelligence officials tend to believe the opposite of what Chinese officials say. "They must be rubbing their hands with glee."

"There is a lot of tension and politics being played out," said Srikanth Kondapalli, a China studies professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Some fear the infighting could undermine the larger struggle for more cultural and religious freedom for Tibetans under Chinese control.

"It really damages our image," said Tenzin Tsundu, an activist with Free Tibet.

Some analysts said some Westerners have a rosy-eyed view of Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps a reflection of their disillusionment with Western religions.

"Inter-sect conflicts involving physical violence is nothing new," Curren said. "It's just like any religion. It has its share of bad apples, but that doesn't spoil the whole barrel. The sooner Westerners realize that, the better."

--

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Anshul Rana of The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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