Bishop caught in battle over living Buddha

London, England - The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, was at the centre of an unholy row last night after he participated in an exotic spiritual ceremony with a disputed living Buddha.

Bishop Chartres welcomed six other faith leaders to the celebration "of friendship and trust" at St Ethelburga's, a London church transformed into a peace centre since it was bombed by the IRA in 1993.

But the bishop, who was supposed to have taken a full part in the event, was forced to minimise his role amid the controversy.

He was represented by a stand-in as showers of rose petals were thrown, prayers were read in Latin and Sanskrit and a colourful Japanese tapestry was unveiled.

The spirit of enlightenment had been seriously disturbed after senior Buddhists denounced the presence at the event of His Holiness Thaye Dorje. The 22-year-old's claim to be the 17th Karmapa, one of the most revered figures in Buddhism, is fiercely disputed.

Bishop Chartres was inundated with angry letters and e-mails from Buddhists who insist that Thaye Dorje is the "failed candidate" and is not the real incarnation of the Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu Buddhist school.

Confusingly, to western minds at least, there is another reincarnation, His Holiness Urgyen Trinley, who is living in exile in India. He is recognised by most of the mainstream Tibetan Buddhist community as the genuine Karmapa.

Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, a senior Buddhist abbot whose monastery is in Scotland, told Bishop Chartres that the person he would be meeting was not recognised by the Dalai Lama or any of the heads of the main Tibetan Schools.

The abbot also criticised Thaye Dorje's supporters, adding: "I humbly ask you not to provide a platform for these people and also to let other faith leaders know." The battle of succession, which has been raging for two decades, began after the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981 when the traditional written instructions about where the next incarnation would appear could not be found. In 1992, one of the four regents appointed to find a successor claimed to have discovered a letter of prophesy, and Urgyen Trinley was identified in Tibet the same year.

With the approval of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, and most of the Karmapa's followers, he was installed near Lhasa in Tibet until he escaped over the mountains and arrived in India in 2001.

But the authenticity of the letter, and the role in the succession of the Dalai Lama, has never been accepted by the senior regent, Shamar, and in 1994 he announced that he had found his own young candidate, Thaye Dorje. The supporters of the two lamas have since carried on a war of words on the streets, over the internet and in the courts.

The mainly European followers of Thaye Dorje said he was making his first trip to Britain to meet devotees and to "stand side by side" with other faith leaders following the London bombings.

Thaye Dorje told The Daily Telegraph last night that he tried to remain above the dispute. "It is political," he said. "From my point of view I try to stay out of the politics as much as possible and stay a good Buddhist."

Bishop Chartres's office told critics that it "was appropriate" to welcome Thaye Dorje to the celebration "of friendship and trust".

But it added: "We have no wish, however, to fuel the controversy around his lineage" and said that the organisers would "avoid images" that could be used to imply that the Bishop "endorses or otherwise the disputed claims".

The event was attended by Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh and Jain leaders.