The Karmapa, one of the most important spiritual leaders in Tibetan Buddhism, confirmed this week that he’ll return to India at the end of the year, ending months of speculation that he would seek asylum in the United States.

The Karmapa told The Tibetan Service of Radio Free Asia on Monday that he has been discussing his return to India with the government in New Delhi after being in the United States for some 10 months.

“I have no doubt or question that my return to India is absolutely certain,” the religious leader told RFA.

The Karmapa said he planned to return to India in time to take part in an important meeting of the heads of the major Tibetan religious schools in Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The 33-year-old head of the Kagyu sect said the Dalai Lama, with whom he has had close ties, was expecting him to attend the meeting, adding:  “Therefore, I must attend.

“So I wanted to clarify these things by having constructive talks with the Indian government, and we are going ahead with discussions now,” he said. “If things turn out well, I am ready to return.”

The 17th Karmapa is the head of the 900-year-old Karma Kagyu Lineage and guide to Buddhists around the world. He was born in Tibet in 1985, and was recognized by the Dalai Lama, other senior Tibetan religious leaders and the Chinese government as the reincarnate of the 16th Karmapa.

Xi Jinping's China is casting a keen eye on Tibet and its spiritual leader Dalai Lama. Photo: Reuters and Wikimedia Commons
Xi Jinping’s China has cast a keen eye on Tibet and its spiritual leader Dalai Lama. Photo: Reuters and Wikimedia Commons

Daring escape to India

In 1999, at the age of 14, the Karmapa made a daring escape to India from his monastery in Tibet accompanied by several followers and teachers. He later explained that one of the reasons he decided to leave was because the Chinese authorities had not allowed him to study with monks he considered to be his mentors.

To his disappointment, the Karmapa has also faced trouble since arriving at the monastery of Sidhbari near Dharamsala some 18 years ago. The Indian government has restricted his travels and also limited his contacts.

“When I first arrived in India, I faced many difficulties, including accusations that I was a Chinese agent,” the Karmapa told RFA. He said his access to Indian authorities was for a long time limited to lower-level officials. “But now we have an opportunity to meet with higher-level Indian leaders to explain my situation, which has made a huge difference.”

The Karmapa told RFA that a series of medical examinations in the United States revealed no “major concerns” about his health, apart from “possible indications of diabetes” and a “small issue” with his heart, for which he is undergoing treatment.

According to an Indian source, the Karmapa, who has been in the United States since last October, had been expected to return in June, but then delayed his return several times. That raised concerns in India that he was frustrated with the restrictions placed on him there and that he was considering resettling in the United States.

The Karmapa said that he’d had a series of medical exams in New York, and that there were minor concerns “possible indications of diabetes” and “a small issue with his heart.”

“There are no major concerns about my health,” he concluded.

In a rare and frank talk via a live webcast in March, the Karmapa laid out the problems he was facing and said that staying in the United States had allowed him “to rest both the body and the mind.”

However, he surprised his listeners by openly describing his lifelong struggle to meet the demands of his leadership role and to resolve sectarian differences in the Kagyu school.

‘Depressed’

“I have been depressed. Many people think to themselves that being the Karmapa is some incredible thing,” he said, “but for me, that hasn’t happened.”

He also spoke of difficulties he has faced with the Indian government, which in the past has suspected that his escape from China had been arranged by Communist authorities and that the Karmapa was sent to spy on India.

The Karmapa expressed disappointment with the education he had received in both Tibet and India. Contrary to past Karmapas, he has been restricted from contact with the primary teachers of his tradition, both in China and India.

“I never really felt that I had any freedom of my own,” he said of his childhood at his Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet, where he was under the strict control of Communist authorities.

An expert on Tibet, who preferred not to be named, criticized the Indian government for its poor treatment of the Karmapa.

“They should have been aware of what an important figure he is as the Dalai Lama ages,” she said, accusing the Indian government of placing too many restrictions on the young religious leader. She said further that the situation had “reached a level of alarm.”

China has long been trying to woo the increasingly influential Tibetan religious leader.

Not long after arriving in Dharamsala, the Chinese government began sending representatives to India to urge him to return to his monastery in Tibet. China is keen to win over the popular Karmapa, and other Tibetan religious leaders, in an attempt to undermine the position of the Dalai Lama, who turned 83 this year, and sinicize Tibetan Buddhism.

Woeser, a prominent Tibetan poet and commentator, said from Lhasa last week that photographs of the Karmapa can be seen throughout the city, a stark difference how the Chinese have generally dealt in the past with likenesses of the Dalai Lama.

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