As an aging Dalai Lama turned 83 this year, the Tibetan religion is coming under unprecedented pressure from a Chinese government intent on exerting complete control over the movement. As a result, the charismatic 17th Karmapa is increasingly being seen as a possible savior for the future of the Buddhist faith and culture.

The Karmapa, the third most important religious leader in Tibetan Buddhism, is expected to return to India later this year after spending more than a year in the United States.

“The Karmapa is extremely important as a young generation religious leader in this context, head of the Karma Kagyu school, representing the vibrancy of the Tibetan traditions and their relevance in the 21st century,” an American expert on Tibet who preferred not to be named said. “He has a huge following, including across the Himalayas, in China itself – he has many Chinese devotees – in the West, in India.

“It’s one reason why the Karmapa is very important,” she said. “He commands the devotion of so many people, including in China and across the world.”

A hero ‘deeply important to Tibetans’

The 17th Karmapa is the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism and a hero to many young Tibetans around the world since his harrowing escape out of China-controlled Tibet at the age of just 14 in 1999.

“The Karmapa is a young generation leader recognized by both the Chinese side and the Dalai Lama, and who has tens of thousands of devotees in China and across the West as well,” the US expert said. “He’s the only young lama who was born and brought up in Tibet, and who has met and been cultivated by Chinese leaders.”

“He took his lineage into his own hands by leaving China,” she said. “It was a strong statement that spoke for itself.”

She said further that at a time when China was seeking to extinguish authentic Tibetan Buddhism, the young Karmapa has become “someone deeply important for Tibetans in Tibet.”

“Not only as a symbol of hope,” she said, “but also as someone who is of critical significance in the struggle for the survival of Tibetan religion, culture and national identity.”

Some observers say, however, that the Karmapa may be reticent to take on such a heavy responsibility.

The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje leads a prayer ceremony at the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Center in Toronto on June 04, 2017. Photo: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd. / NurPhoto)
The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje leads a prayer ceremony at the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Center in Toronto on June 4, 2017. Photo: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd / NurPhoto

‘Prefers to keep out of politics’

“The Karmapa has the potential to become the leader of the Tibetan diaspora and the voice of Tibetan politics,” said a prominent Tibetan scholar. “However, I don’t see that the Karmapa himself has the interest or inclination to be the leader of the Tibetan movement. He has never publicly made any political statements and prefers to keep away from commenting on politics.”

The scholar also said that the “exile government” lacks a process to incorporate the Karmapa into its structure, and that the Dalai Lama had stated publicly that he wanted the structure to be “more secular and with less involvement of lamas.”

“We need to watch what the current Dalai Lama has to say in the next few months or years,” he said.

There are also lingering concerns among some regarding the Karmapa’s legitimacy.

There are some in the Tibetan community who are not fully convinced that the Ogyen Trinley Dorje, recognized by the Dalai Lama and Beijing as the 17th Karmapa, has legitimacy.

Trinley Thaye Dorje, another claimant to the title of Karmapa, had the backing of the late and powerful Shamar Rinpoche, a senior Kagyu official who, who was reputed to have close ties to the Indian security establishment. Shamar Rinpoche passed away in 2014, and his choice for the title got frustrated left the monkhood and married.

Seen as pro-Beijing or a spy by some in India

The scholar said that recent articles in the Indian media by former Indian officials clearly shows that the government is not happy with the Karmapa and many continue to see him as pro-Beijing.

“If the Karmapa is to become the head of the Tibet movement, he will need  Indian support,” the scholar said. “It is clear that the government of India has reservations about him.”

Members of Indian intelligence community and people in government circles have long suspected the Karmapa of being a Chinese spy. But agencies monitoring him closely have yet to offer any evidence.

The Karmapa’s potentially-important role is why he has been caught up in a tug of war between the Tibetans, Indians and Chinese.

Observers say that China is working hard to get ahead of the secession question by winning over lamas in exile and offering them trips back to Tibet and other perks.

Beijing seeking to lure lamas in exile back

The Tibetan scholar said that Beijing was making some inroads in the battle for hearts and minds.

“Tibetan Lamas are very sectarian, and their primary concern is promoting their own sects,” he said. “At the present Tibetan Buddhist sects are divided, and individual lamas are negotiating with Beijing directly and returning to Tibet.”

“Tibetan religious leaders are going back to China,” the American expert agreed. “That undoubtedly has been happening. It is most definitely succeeding and gaining some traction, “ she said.

“There are more active efforts to cultivate Tibetan religious leaders outside China, for instance in the Himalayan regions, and this is leading to a variety of channels of communication.

“The Chinese leadership is adopting a multi-pronged strategy to dominate and seek to ensure control over the question of succession of His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” she said, “and this is clear in its intensified drive to ‘Sinicize’ Tibetan Buddhism, particularly after the 19th Party Congress.” The Party Congress took place in October 2017.

Indian authorities were very concerned about Chinese inroads and encroachment in the region. “Look at how China has managed to drive policy in Nepal, creating a dangerous and fragile environment for Tibetans, despite centuries-old cultural and religious ties among the Himalayan peoples,” she said. “This is a high-stakes battle for influence.

“On the other hand, the ‘soft power’ of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama’s influence on a global stage is unquestionable and to an extent recognized by the Chinese leadership,” she said.

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama addresses a gathering during the " Thank you India-2018" function at Tsugla Khang Temple in Dharamshala on March 31, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Shailesh Bhatnagar
The Dalai Lama speaks during the ‘Thank you India-2018’ function at Tsugla Khang Temple in Dharamshala on March 31, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Shailesh Bhatnagar

Doubt on Dalai Lama’s successor, intentions

There are serious concerns about what will happen once the Dalai Lama leaves the scene. In Tibetan history, the status quo has generally been maintained by a regent appointed by the Dalai Lama, a process that has not always been smooth.

Observers, however, say there could be friction if the Dalai Lama was to recognize the 17th Karmapa as his “regent.”

“His Holiness the Dalai Lama will have to clarify who he wants people to listen to while he’s in absentia and promise to return,” said the Tibetan Buddhist. “And if his appointed ‘regent’ is Ogyen Trinley Dorje, this has potential for division.”

The Dalai Lama has said a number of times that he may not reincarnate, a point that has angered Beijing, which is already defending it’s right to control the choosing of his successor.

The Communist Party of China has been interfering in the selection of reincarnated lamas for decades, which is ironic given that the Party is avowedly atheist.

Panchen Lama kidnapped, not seen since

The most blatant example was the kidnapping of the Panchen Lama in 1995, barely a month after he turned six. The Panchen Lama, who was recognized by the Dalai Lama, has not been seen in the 23 years since.

China proceeded to appoint its own choice for the position. Few Tibetans recognize Beijing’s choice, which they ridicule as the “fake Panchen Lama” or the “Chinese Panchen Lama.”

The danger is that it could take years for a Tibetan team of monks to discover the next – 15th – Dalai Lama through a complicated set of rituals. It took four years to “find” the 14th Dalai Lama.

It will then take more than a decade for the child to come of age and have influence, by which time the situation could radically worsen.

The expert on Tibetan Buddhism, however, believes the future of the Tibetan cause lies in the arrival of the 15th Dalai Lama.

“The only way such a figurehead will endure is through continuity and I see many chances for things to go wrong,” he said. “I suspect His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be forced to reincarnate if we are to assure the greatest possibility of Tibet and Tibetan culture being properly preserved.”