The waiting room in the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in northern India is unremarkable, save for the small signs pasted on the wall: “Kindly do not make any offerings in foreign currency.” Many of the pilgrims who have come to pay homage to the Karmapa—the third-most senior cleric in Tibetan Buddhist cosmology who is believed to be the 17th incarnation of a 900-year-old holy spirit—are Chinese travelers, who stuff thick bundles of Indian rupees into envelopes. There is not a Chinese yuan in sight.
The signs are a consequence of a kerfuffle earlier this year that erupted in Dharamsala, the Indian hill station where the Tibetan exile community has coalesced. On Dec. 8, Indian police announced that they had officially charged the Karmapa with conspiracy nearly a year after the authorities found more than $1 million in various foreign currency at the monastery where he lives. The charge sheet was filed at a district court in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where Dharamsala is located, even though earlier this year the Union Home Ministry in New Delhi indicated the Karmapa, whose full name is Ogyen Trinley Dorje, had been absolved of wrongdoing. The senior Tibetan monk’s aides say that the money, much of it Chinese yuan, was from his devotees and that he is not involved in any of his order’s financial dealings. Since then, the waiting-room signs have gone up, they say, to avoid further controversy.
After fleeing Tibet in 1999 in a dramatic voyage that echoed the snow-bound escape of the Dalai Lama four decades before, the Karmapa has resided in India. But his flight to freedom has not brought him full liberty. After he arrived as a 14-year-old in Dharamsala, whispers circulated among excitable members of the Indian media circles that the Karmapa might be a Chinese spy. How else could he have escaped Beijing’s watchful eye, they wondered—even though he and his supporters dismiss such allegations. Then as India’s relations with China have warmed and the surviving Tibetan community in northern India views this geopolitical development with wariness, the Karmapa’s movements have been carefully circumscribed by the Indian government. He cannot travel freely in India without prior government approval. Until 2008, the Karmapa was not even allowed documents to go overseas.
Furthermore, because of a rift within the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu sect in which some adepts believe a rival Indian monk is the true Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje does not live in the 16th Karmapa’s monastic seat in Sikkim, northern India. Instead, he has taken refuge in the Gyuto monastery near Dharamsala, which adheres to the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa sect, not the Kagyu order. The Karmapa’s supporters say they are now gathering funds to build him his own house of worship. Hence the piles of cash.
When I visited the Karmapa in August, stern-faced Indian authorities subjected each visitor to a careful baggage check and pat-down far more rigorous than those required for meetings with some world leaders. He may have been granted refuge by India after fleeing a homeland where his spiritual belief was twisted to the diktat of the state, but the Karmapa, in some ways, still seemed a young man imprisoned. Unlike the Dalai Lama, who maintains a jovial global presence, the Karmapa in public appears serious and cautious. Nevertheless, Tibet-watchers say his theology is impressive, and I saw his handsome young face on posters across Dharamsala next to that of the smiling Dalai Lama.
The Karmapa is a singular international figure. First, his selection was agreed upon by both Chinese authorities and the exiled Dalai Lama, who Beijing accuses of secretly plotting for Tibetan independence—a charge the Tibetan spiritual leader denies. (In the 1990s, the Dalai Lama and the Chinese picked different boys as the new Panchen Lama, the second-highest Tibetan Buddhist figure, and the Dalai Lama’s choice has not been seen in public since he was a small child.) Second, even though he imbibed patriotic propaganda during his childhood in Tibet, the Karmapa still made the momentous decision to flee to India where he could express his spiritual devotion and love for the Dalai Lama fully. Nevertheless, the Chinese have shied away from publicly criticizing him, like they do the Dalai Lama. Instead, Beijing sticks to the fiction that he is merely studying abroad for an unspecified period of time. Perhaps that’s why so many spiritually yearning Chinese feel no qualms about visiting Dharamsala for an audience with him—and why they used to leave packets of Chinese yuan as donations.
The local court will examine the evidence presented by Indian police and rule on whether a criminal case should go forward. “At no point of time His Holiness was ever called or examined by the investigating agency,” said a statement released on Thursday from the Karmapa’s office, which reiterated that he had no involvement in any of the order’s financial affairs. Several of his followers have also been charged with conspiracy, a crime that can carry a two-year prison sentence. Meanwhile, a series of self-immolations by Tibetan clerics this year has underscored the desperation many Tibetans feel about their lives under Chinese rule. A past filled with religious strictures and persecution was precisely why the Karmapa said he escaped Tibet for India. Now, the Himachal Pradesh court will have to decide whether he will experience a difficult future in his new home, as well.