In Rumtek, a Generation of Buddhist Monks Loses Hope

By ANJANI TRIVEDI, The New York Times, January 21, 2013

RUMTEK, Sikkim (India) — In their 13th year of waiting for their spiritual leader, the Tibetan Buddhist monks at a mountainside monastery in Sikkim are starting to give up hope.

The inner courtyard at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim

“Our hearts have fallen – the master isn’t coming,” said Karma Yeshi, a monk and teacher at the Rumtek monastery, home to 150 monks in the Himalayas in the erstwhile kingdom annexed to India in 1975. “It’s like a house without a father.”

The person the monks are eager to see is Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 27-year-old man deemed to be the leader of the Kagyu order of Buddhism, one of the four main schools in Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism stresses the importance of meeting the Karmapa. Teachings in the Kagyu order are passed on from master to student, and the Kagyu’s Web site says that “all great Kagyu teachers regard his Holiness Karmapa as the embodiment and source of all the blessings of the lineage.”

The young man known as the 17th Karmapa is currently based in Dharamsala at the Gyuto Tantric University, having been granted official refugee status in 2001 after fleeing from Tibet in late December 1999. But since 2000, the Indian government has blocked the Karmapa from entering Rumtek and the state of Sikkim, citing security concerns.

To travel outside Dharamsala, the Karmapa needs prior approval from various government agencies and ministries, and he is given security once he does begin his travels, said a Home Ministry official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Rumtek is the most important seat of the Kagyu tradition outside the Tsurphu monastery in Tibet. Rumtek has also been the site of much controversy, as different factions have fought over who is the real Karmapa, or incarnate lama. At least two others have laid a claim to the title, but the Dalai Lama and China have officially backed Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The monastery’s valuable relics have also been the source of contention among two rival factions, leading to fistfights.

The gated monastery and community in Rumtek is more of an armed garrison, with India’s border forces patrolling it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. While some say the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force, which also maintains vigil on the nearby India-China border, is guarding the treasure and symbols of authority at the monastery, others say the forces were placed there after clashes among the monks.

“This has lowered the morale among the monks and Buddhist community at large,” Karma Yeshi said.

The government has two concerns about letting the Karmapa travel: his security and the legal battle over ownership of the relics, according the official in the Home Ministry.

State officials say they believe that the national government thinks the Karmapa is a spy. “There is a strong feeling that he might be an agent of China,” said a state government official, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. “It’s very difficult to escape from China, as far as Tibetans are concerned.”

However, China, which does not recognize Sikkim as a part of India, has dismissed these claims by the Indian government.

In 2011, the Karmapa came under scrutiny by Indian police officials after trunks filled with foreign currency were discovered at his residence in Dharamsala, drawing even more suspicion from the government. The Karmapa’s lawyer said the money was donations from devotees from all over the world.

The Karmapa’s presence is a “very, very sensitive” issue that involves multiple ministries, including External Affairs, said the Home Ministry official, although he denied it had anything to do with security.

However, the official said, “He’s been living here, so it’s our duty to protect him. Rumtek being a controversial matter, it’s not in his interest to go there because there are other claimants. So it’s as simple as that.”

“The government of India has adopted a policy of refraining from any succession controversy. We are not favoring or supporting anyone. This policy has been consistent – it was the case 10 years ago and it is still the same,” he added.

Sikkim’s state government backs the Kagyu monks. Sikkim’s chief minister, Pawan Chamling, who has governed for 18 years, has appealed to Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, many times to allow the Karmapa to visit the state.

“The chief minister had taken up this matter when he last visited Delhi,” the state government official told India Ink. “At least, if you don’t allow him to visit Rumtek, his official seat, let him visit Sikkim and bless the people of Sikkim, who are great followers. Even that is not being done by the government of India.”

However, the Home Ministry doesn’t want to take a risk with his security, according to officials in the ministry, which deals largely with internal security matters. Ultimately, they say, the responsibility for his safety rests with the central government, and not the Sikkim government.

Karma Yeshi of the Rumtek monastery said that this issue is not just a local matter, as India is a place of pilgrimage for all Buddhists, masters and monks alike, as the birthplace of Buddhism.

“This is very important not only for the Karmapa issue but for Buddhism. The Buddha dharma is from India, from India it went to China, from China to Tibet – this is how the lineage came about,” the senior monk said.

The inability to meet the Karmapa is nothing less than a tragedy for these Tibetan Buddhists.

“We have been waiting for long enough now,” said Monay Rai, a 24-year-old guide at the monastery, who was born and raised inside the gates of the Rumtek community. “Sometimes when V.I.P.’s visit, the aged people tell me, ‘Please tell the V.I.P.’s to help us, to allow our guru. I can’t travel. It is my dream before I die to see the Karmapa here.’”


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