New Delhi limits Karmapa Lama's travel

Dharamsala, India - India clamps travel restrictions on an influential exile monk

The Indian government has moved to limit the freedom of movement of one of Tibetan Buddhism's most influential monks, the 24-year-old Karmapa Lama, refusing to allow him to tour nine European countries from May to July for a series of teachings, lectures and initiations for his devotees.

The travel ban has caused apprehension both in the exile community and among the Karmapa Lama's followers in the west. The restrictions come at a time when many in the exile community increasingly see the youthful monk, whose name is Ogyen Trinley Dorje, as the political successor to lead the Tibetan Buddhist movement after the Dalai Lama.

"The process has begun to find out why this visit was not possible and what positive conditions are needed to make the visit possible in near future," said Ringu Tulku, the coordinator of the cancelled visit, in an email to Asia Sentinel.

It is not necessary to look farther than Beijing. Dorje, who was named the Karmapa Lama at the age of 7, is a particular bĂȘte noir to the Chinese, who gave him recognition as Tibet's first living Buddha and had hoped to groom him as an influential and patriotic Tibetan leader, giving him gifts including a color television and a car. He ranks as the spiritual leader of the Black Hat sect, one of four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, behind only the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama in the Tibetan spiritual hierarchy.

However, to Chinese fury, in December 1999 the Karmapa, then 14, pretended to go into seclusion but instead slipped out a window of the Tsurpu Monastery with a handful of attendants. He began a daring 1,450-kilometer winter trip across some of the most forbidding terrain on the planet by foot, horseback, train and helicopter to Dharamsala, making world headlines and embarrassing Beijing. He was given refugee status by India in 2001.

Partly for that reason, the Indian government, virtually since the Karmapa Lama arrived in Dharamsala, has been careful to not annoy the Chinese by allowing him unfettered movement, according to a source in New Delhi, although it did allow him to visit the US in 2007. The cancellation of the European trip came just before the Indian Minister for External Affairs, SM Krishna, made an official visit to Beijing.

The restriction of Tibetans in exile has always been at the top of agenda for Beijing, which has complicated relations with India. Giving the Dalai Lama a half century of free movement has allowed New Delhi to use the Tibetan leader as a card to play in border issues with China. But India also recognizes that restricting the freedom of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's supreme leader, would create an international firestorm and may well wish he hadn't been allowed free movement in the first place. Thus restricting the young Karmapa's travel could be viewed as a way of stopping trouble before it begins. Permission to travel either to other parts of India or overseas is granted only at the discretion of the Indian government.

"In 2008, he sought permission to visit some forward areas of Himachal Pradesh and Leh Ladakh, but New Delhi refused," the Delhi source said. "Obviously, New Delhi didn't want to annoy the Chinese, who were hypersensitive about the Beijing Olympics and would definitely have viewed Indian permission to the Karmapa to visit areas close to the Chinese border just before the Olympics as an unfriendly act."

The Karmapa Lama himself in a statement to his Europe devotees said "My proposed visit has had to be cancelled for reasons beyond my control. I was very much looking forward to meeting with my European students, visiting your dharma centers, giving teachings, and having the opportunity to gain first-hand experience and insight into the great variety of European life and culture."

"I was wholeheartedly preparing for this visit so you will understand that I too was sad and disappointed when I learned that I would not be able to come this time. However, I hope that this is merely a temporary setback and that I will definitely be able to visit Europe in the near future," the monk said.

The youthful religious leader is hugely popular among young Tibetans, partly for his escape but also because of his undeniable charisma. He passes much of his time in the protected top floor of Gyuto Monastery near Dharamsala, a complex guarded by Indian policemen and intelligence officers who keep a constant watch on his activities. He is not even allowed to roam around the outside the complex without prior permission.

The Karmapa gives daily public audiences and blessings in the complex, with a limited number of private audiences twice a week. The media is mostly kept away. He is occasionally allowed to visit the Dalai Lama and for short trips to visit for religious functions, monasteries and schools in and around Dharamsala.

India is also believed reluctant to allow him to travel because his status is under challenge as the real successor to the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, who died as a refugee of cancer in Chicago in 1981. Trinley Thaye Dorjee is also vying for the throne of the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, the official seat of the Kagyu lineage. Both have been kept away until the matter is settled. The case is in an Indian court for a ruling on who has the right to the assets of the Black Hat Lama. His rival co-claimant lives in Kalimpong, India and often tours European countries. Although the Dalai Lama has endorsed Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the true Karmapa Lama, it is believed that the pretender has strong connections to the Indian ministry and it would have been easy for him to cancel his rival's trip.

Although the Karmapa Lama has spoken many times about his desire to enroll into a university for formal education, particularly to learn modern science, with his movement restricted, his desire remains unfulfilled.

The Tibetan government-in-exile spokesman Samphel Thupten said he respects the Indian government's decision. "We have always wanted the Karmapa Lama to visit places abroad to reach more students, his disciples. However, as the Tibetan government in exile sees it, it would be improper to speak against our host India; it is bound under the Indian authorities' decision and will follow that".

However, since the Europe tour cancellation has come into light, the exile community and Buddha practitioners in the West across has demanded urgent action, signing petitions and letters to the Indian government. Tibetan exiles and thousands of western followers from more than 30 countries have signed the petitions.

Charlee Parkison, a student of Karmapa Lama in the United States and her group are heading the global petition, called "The Roaring Lions," says thousands have signed their plea to allow the Karmapa Lama freedom of movement. "We want the Karmapa to come in West to teach us, his messages of compassion," Parkison said.

Lobsang Wangyal, an exiled Tibetan photojournalist, says India still has to prove what it stands for in terms of political freedom.

"It would be in the best interest of India to allow the trip," he said."Tibetans are not happy to see the current decision but hope the trip will be allowed eventually. It's just a matter of time; the restriction shouldn't have been put at the very first place as India loses face on the global level."