LHATOK region of eastern Tibet is about
as remote as the country gets. Only a few
hardy nomads eke out a living here, tending
their yaks and wandering across a vast expanse
of grassland enclosed by white mountains.
was here 15 years ago that Ogyen Trinley
Dorje was born, a baby whose life would
eventually cause the Chinese government
a great deal of embarrassment.
was when he was eight that a search party
arrived at his parents' yak hair tent and
solemnly announced that their mission was
over. They had found the Karmapa, the latest
incarnation of one of Tibetan Buddhism's
most senior leaders.
suns promptly appeared in the sky. Before
that, 'it would have seemed extremely disrespectful
to have imagined I might be the Karmapa,'
he said yesterday.
was bundled off to Tsurphu monastery, 30
miles from the capital, Lhasa. The boy's
status was swiftly recognised by the Chinese
government, which spent six years grooming
him as a pliant rival to the Dalai Lama.
late 1999, however, the Karmapa had had
enough of Beijing's script. He jumped off
the monastery roof, got into a waiting car
and was driven away. He managed to cross
the border into Nepal three days later.
'We didn't know what they would have done
had we been caught. Only they know that,'
he said last night.
Karmapa's dramatic escape - which echoed
the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet 40 years
earlier - captured the West's imagination
and made him a celebrity.
it also plunged the boy lama into a political
chess game. Shortly after greeting the Dalai
Lama for the first time, with blistered
feet and cracked cheeks, the Karmapa found
himself more or less locked up in a monastery
near Dharmasala, the scruffy hill station
in northern India which is home to the Tibetan
government in exile.
sometimes wondered who had taken my freedom
away,' he said. 'It wasn't that much different
from my previous state in Tibet, where I
was constantly watched.' The Indian security
guards who lived downstairs rarely allowed
months ago, however, India finally granted
him political asylum, allowing him to give
this, his first full interview with a journalist.
'He's beautiful,' one slightly dotty American
disciple gushed, shortly before I was ushered
into the boy's reception room, decorated
with Buddhist wall hangings and flickering
was right. With cherubic red cheeks and
an open, expressive face the Karmapa looked
every inch an incarnation of Buddha, which
his followers believe he is.
he as a young child had any idea who he
was? 'Very simply a human being. I never
thought of myself as the Karmapa,' he said.
was one of the youngest of nine children.
His family was nomadic, moving three times
a year across an almost deserted landscape
of wild flowers and mountains, herding yaks,
goats and sheep.
lived like native Americans,' he recalled.
'We survived on animal products such as
butter, meat and milk. It was an extremely
isolated and natural environment. Because
of that in the region there was a great
degree of faith in Buddhism.
family was neither wealthy nor impoverished,'
he added. The only drawback to this romantically
bleak and 'undisturbed' place was winter.
'The winters were very cold, with biting
wind,' the Karmapa said.
life was transformed after he was recognised
as the seventeenth Karmapa, the head of
the powerful Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism
which emerged in the twelfth century.
Communist Party officials started courting
him soon after he was installed in Tsurphu
monastery in 1992. They whisked him off
on tours of China, showered him with toys
- his favourite was a remote controlled
lorry - and introduced him to Jiang Zemin,
the Chinese President.
whole thing was presented to me as if it
was a vacation or tour,' he said. 'As a
Tibetan, I had thought of the Communist
government as something that was negative,
which was harming us. But when I met Jiang
Zemin at a function in Tiananmen Square
my impression of him was neutral. I didn't
get the impression of him as either good
the Karmapa, who had been recognised by
the Dalai Lama, never intended to be Beijing's
protege. He made it clear he wanted to go
to India to meet several of his religious
teachers who were in exile there. The Chinese
government refused, repeatedly.
after mulling over an escape for a year,
he and a handful of followers, including
his sister Ngodup Palzom, set off across
western Tibet in darkness, intent on reaching
were five or six checkpoints across the
road. But since we were driving at night
the barriers were open. We reached the first
of two army camps. Someone shone a flashlight
at us, so I jumped out with two attendants
and circumvented the camp by walking over
others travelled through, unquestioned.
We rejoined them, and drove through the
final camp unchallenged.'
crossed Nepal on horseback, by helicopter
and on foot to enter India, where the Karmapa
was virtually imprisoned by intelligence
agents in Gyuto Monastery, near Dharamsala.
Karmapa has made it clear he wants to travel
to his sect's principal monastery, Rumtek,
in Sikkim. But so far the Indian government
has prevented him from going. China has
never accepted Sikkim as part of India,
and it seems officials fear his presence
there would further offend Beijing.
Chinese government, for which the Karmapa's
flight was a public relations disaster,
issued a ludicrous statement after his escape
claiming that he had gone to India merely
to collect a sacred black hat and religious
instruments. He would be back soon, they
he told me: 'Having received the status
of a refugee I don't plan to return to Tibet
unless the Dalai Lama does.'
he and his sister still spend most of their
time in the monastery. They have had no
contact with their family left behind in
Karmapa, who has acquired a Pekinese dog,
Dekyi, and a white cockatoo, spends most
of his days studying Buddhist texts and
meeting disciples, who include Richard Gere
and Pierce Brosnan. He also writes poetry,
reads poems and paints. 'I'm exploring painting
myself without instruction,' he said.
Karmapa is clearly a serious and exceptionally
intelligent 15-year-old. Few can doubt his
credentials as a future Tibetan leader,
although one dissident regent in his sect
has accused him of being a Chinese stooge,
and appointed a rival Karmapa in his place.
stooge claim seems to be unfounded. The
Dalai Lama has ruled out the Karmapa as
a potential successor. Yet few doubt he
is likely to fill the interregnum which
would follow the 65-year-old Dalai Lama's
death, before the leader's next incarnation
interview over, we walk on to the Karmapa's
roof terrace. The boy, clutching a well-behaved
Dekyi, poses for photographs beneath a red,
white and blue Buddhist flag.
sun is shining but the sky is thunderous.
We are far from Tibet, But the snow-covered
mountains above hint at what the Karmapa
has left behind, probably forever.
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