May 31, 2020
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Buddha Isn't Laughing

The Dalai Lama is dragged into the power struggle at Rumtek

Buddha Isn't Laughing

THE Dalai Lama would never have wanted to be involved in a court case. But that's exactly what happened early this October. Personal rivalry and power politics in one of Sikkim's main monasteries dragged the Buddhist spiritual leader into a messy situation. He was accused, in a petition filed with Delhi's chief metropolitan magistrate, of conspiring with six others to separate Sikkim from India and align it with the Tibetan autonomous region of China. At the root of the controversy is the power struggle at Rumtek, the 250-year-old monastery located 24 km off state capital Gangtok.

Rumtek, headquarters of the Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, has been without a Karmapa—head of the monastery—since 1981 after the death of the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa. Under the sect's tradition, the incumbent Karmapa normally nominates his successor and leaves behind his identity in a cryptic form in a hidden letter. This serves as a clue for the Karmapa's followers to locate the reincarnation of the head of the monastery. The 16th Karmapa, when he died in 1981, apparently left behind no tell-tale clue, leaving succession a messy, open-ended matter.

In 1992, the four monks—Samar Rin-poche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Jamgonkotrul Rinpoche and Tsurpu Gyalstab Rinpoche—who were running the monastery since 1981 even while making attempts to locate the young successor, split into two groups. One group, led by Tai Situ and Tsurpu Gyalstab claimed they had found a letter among the late Karmapa's belongings which indicated that a young boy in Tibet was the reincarnation. The rival group, led by Samar Rinpoche, however, pressed the claim of a Kalimpong-born boy for the post. As tension rose along territorial affiliations, things took an unsavoury turn with supporters of the two factions coming to blows.

This twist to monastery intrigue prompted the Sikkim administration to intervene and post armed police at the premises. As Gyame Tsultring, representative of Tai Situ, told Outlook: "It was a very embarrassing moment for us at the monastery. Never in its long history had this place seen a weapon being brandished here. Unfortunately, the group opposing our claim resorted to physical violence." It was at this juncture that the Dalai Lama thought it fit to step in. In 1994, he approved the choice of the 14-year-old Tibetan boy, Ogygen Thinley Dorjee, as the next Karmapa, further angering the Samar Rinpoche group.

Following the Dalai Lama's blessings, the boy in Tibet was taken under the wings of the monks (who are currently training him to become the next head of Rumtek). Not one to give up easily, Samar Rinpoche launched a campaign against Tai Situ the same year. The concerted lobbying by the anti-Tai Situ group resulted in the monk being expelled from the country for 'anti-Indian' activities.

Finally in August this year, under considerable pressure from Dharamshala, the notification restricting Tai Situ's entry into India was withdrawn and the monk was allowed to enter the country even though he was barred from visiting Sikkim and the northeast. The current court case, many analysts in Sikkim feel, is an aggressive response by the Samar Rinpoche group to the latest development in which Tai Situ's stand is seen to have been vindicated.

 But why is Rumtek really embroiled in such murky affairs? As a senior journalist based in Gangtok, not wishing to be identified, says: "It has nothing to do with religion. The current controversy has more to do with money and power. " Since the Rumtek monastery is believed to be India's wealthiest monasteries, with real estate worth crores of rupees under its ownership, many want to have a controlling stake in its affairs. The court case is seen as an attempt by the anti-establishment group to keep the issue on the boil for as long as possible. As a senior Sikkim government official says: "Given the Dalai Lama's background, it's inconceivable he could ever work against Indian interests. The whole case has been drummed up to gain cheap publicity." But cheap publicity demands a heavy price.

In this case, it has made the Dalai Lama an unwitting victim in the entire controversy.

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