On January 5, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, the 14-year-old head of the Kagyu order, having left Tibet under the cloak of darkness, arrived safely in Dharamsala, India, seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Although many details of the Karmapa’s escape were unknown in early January, the New York Times reported that on December 28 His Holiness, whose name is Ugyen Trinley Dorge, fled on foot with several attendants from Tsurphu Monastery approximately 40 miles north of Lhasa.
Ugyen Trinley Dorje was born in eastern Tibet in 1985. In 1992, shortly after he was discovered by Tai Situ Rinpoche and recognized as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje became the first Tibetan lama to be recognized by Chinese authorities. He was hailed as a “Living Buddha” in Beijing and the Chinese govenment reportedly sought to use him as a puppet to justify its claims of religious tolerance in Tibet. When, however, contrary to an agreement with the Chinese authorities, he was prevented from visiting his followers outside Tibet or inviting his teacher, Tai Situ Rinpoche, to visit Tsurphu from Sikkim, the decision to flee was made,according to the New York Times.
The trip of some 900 miles brought the group, including Karmapa's sister, a Buddhist nun, to the Tibet-Nepal border where they were apparently picked up by several vehicles. The boy was immediately taken to the Dalai Lama’s residence. Soon afterward he was placed under guard at Gyuto Monastery in Sidhbari, and the Tibetan government-in-exile told the press that they had been completely surprised by his arrival. His flight represents, by all accounts, a stunning victory for the exiled Tibetan community and a considerable embarrassment for the communist government of China. It is the first defection by a major Tibetan figure since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959.
The recognition of Ugyen Trinley Dorje as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa was disputed by Shamar Rinpoche, who—along with Tai Situ Rinpoche—was a close disciple of the 16th Karmapa. Shamar Rinpoche suggested that the 14-year-old's selection was influenced by Beijing authorities. Two years after this Karmapa' recognition, Shamar Rinpoche claimed to have discovered the Karmapa’s authentic reincarnation, a 10-year-old Bhutanese boy named Thaye Dorje. Recently, a middle position had emerged endorsed by the Dalai Lama: that there have been two reincarnations but that Ugyen Trinley Dorje is the primary one. Bu mid-January, India was being pressured by Beijing to refuse the boy asylum, but Defense Minister GeorgeFernandes announced, "If people walk in and want to stay on for a while they can be allowed to stay." The U.S. said it would back a resolution critical of Beijing at the U.N. Commision on Human Rights in Geneva in March.
MONGOLIA’S HOLY MARKET (SHARE)
Communism collapsed in Mongolia about 10 years ago, and since then, the country is said to have removed “all barriers to religious practice.” Now Christians and Tibetan Buddhists are battling for market share. By last December the increasing presence of Christianity in this former stronghold for Tibetan Buddhism was making news. As reported by Lynne O’Donnell in The Australian, “Evangelical Christians and Tibetan Buddhists are locked in a fierce battle to secure a regional beachhead on the atheist plain created by 70 years of Soviet rule in the vast landlocked nation of Mongolia.”
Tibetan Buddhism, the former state religion, “has re-emerged with the construction of new monasteries and the re-dedication of dozens of temples that were devastated in communist pogroms.” O'Donnell quoted Khambo Lama, head of the Gandang Monastery, who said that the communists’ attempts to control “the physical aspects and removing freedom of speech” were unsuccessful. According to the Lama, Mongolia now has 140 monasteries and 2500 monks, compared with only four “showcase” monasteries under Communism. At the turn of the century, Tibetan Buddhists were far more powerful with almost 700 monasteries and 110,000 Buddhist monks, representing almost one third of the male population.
To update Tibetan Buddhism’s appeal to contemporary Mongolians, lamas are currently translating Tibetan chants and teachings into modern Mongolian for the first time. Western converts to Buddhism are also trying to promote an updated image. O’Donnell says that a group of American members of the Buddhist Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition is "planning to establish a teaching center in Ulaanbaatar [the capital], where young Buddhists will be taught computer skills and the English language.”
In the meantime, an influx of Christian organizations and missionaries have converted thousands of Mongolians. Experts estimate converts at between 10,000 and 20,000 among various groups including Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Southern Baptists, and the Roman Catholic Church. But most of the country’s 2.4 million citizens aren’t impressed by either the Christians or the Buddhists—they’re sticking to their atheist ways.
FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
Elizabeth Bell may not be well known among Buddhists in the West, but in Australia she has been a prominent member of the Buddhist community since the 60s, serving most notably as chairperson for the Buddhist Society of Victoria (BSV) from 1974-1990. Last summer, Bell received the Order of Australia medal for her consistent and outstanding contributions to Buddhism in Australia at the Queen of England’s birthday “List of Honours” awards.
Bell’s work with the BSV in the early 70s helped to form many of the changes in attitude toward Buddhism in Australia at that time. A frequent speaker about Buddhism in schools and other venues, she attracted many new members, especially from the Sri Lankan community. It was then that monks first began coming to BSV to give teachings and lead retreats. Bell also led the Buddhist Federation of Australia for a number of years and served as editor of the federation’s newletter, Metta from 1975-1983.
She recalled her initial attraction to Buddhism—in 1963 when she heard a monk speak for the first time. She said that she was attracted to the teachings because of their realistic approach to suffering in the world.
SARNATH: A SHUT AND OPEN CASE
The gates to Deer Park may be open again. Permanently. Beloved by pilgrims, Deer Park is the site in Saranath, India, where Buddha gave his first sermon. Earlier, the Archeological Inspectorate of India, conducting renovation work at the park, had decided to keep the gates closed permanently. The Inspectorate had found a Buddha statue said to date back to the fifth century. Following its discovery near the Dhamek Stupa, work was suspended in the event that other statues might be found. The Dhamek Stupa, the largest in the area, was built by Emperor Ashoka to mark the spot where the Buddha proclaimed his faith.
Hearing of their decision to close the gates, various Buddhist organizations and the Benares department of the Indian Maha Bodhi Society called upon Indian President K. R. Narayana to keep the gates open. Their letter cited the historical significance of Deer Park—that as the place of the Buddha’s first sermon, it could be considered the birthplace of Buddhism.
THE PRINCESS AND THE PLEA
In northwest Cambodia last summer, a visit by a Thai princess may have helped her country’s recent crackdown on stolen antquities. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, a respected archaeologist, traveled to the dilapidated grave of King Jayavarman VII, whose death in 1218 marked the beginning of the decline of Khmer power. She was accompanied by cadets from Thailand’s prestigious Royal Military Academy in an effort, according to The Nation newspaper, to “increase awareness of the necessity of preserving old ruins in Cambodia.”
Apparently, it worked: In the weeks following their visit, Thai police found more than 300 antique stone statues (including some possible reproductions) in a lake in Thailand’s former capital city of Aytthaya and arrested a Thai sculptor and 14 others connected to the find. Security along the Thai-Cambodian border was also increased.
Much of the Thai government’s efforts in recent years has been to stem the tide of illegal trafficking of antiquities from Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand, especially to the upscale shops of Bangkok’s River Town Shopping Promenade. But Thailand, unlike Cambodia, has still not signed the 1970 UNESCO convention preventing the illegal trade in cultural possessions.
The recent attention to the illegal trade may be derived from the princess’s visit to the Cambodian site—and—to a new series on Thai television called Khun Dej. It is named for the show’s hero, an archaeologist who when not busy as a lover, is saving Buddha statues and icons (often with violence) from the bad guys who work (unsurprisingly) for rich art dealers.
Last fall, Chogye monks were brawling again in downtown Seoul. The Chogye order in the Zen tradition is Korea’s largest Buddhist order and has been plagued by internal bickering for decades. Battles by rival factions of the order erupted at its main temple which was circled by barbed wire and by guards with iron bars and rocks. “Speaking straight out, they are fighting for money,” said Kim Jong-chan, a former managing editor for the Buddhist Newspaper.
Still at issue—echoing the violent battles at the main temple in the fall of 1998—who will handle the order’s annual budget, control existing properties worth millions of dollars, and appoint some 1,700 monks to various duties? The Chogye’s properties include vast real estate holdings as well as newspaper, radio, and television stations. Its holdings are considerable—a network of 2,500 temples across the country and a budget in 1998 of about $18.5 million.
By November, events had calmed. Korean scholar, Frank Tedesco, reports several recent developments from Seoul: “A new Chogye Order president, Venerable Chong Dae, was peacefully elected by majority on Nov. 15 and approved by the Council of Elders on Nov. 20. He is highly regarded because of his extensive administrative experience and good 'people skills.’ He pledged to continue reforms which began in 1994 . . .[and] make special efforts to spread the dharma and expand education programs as well as strengthen 'socially engaged activities.’”
In further developments, Tedesco says that Chogye and Zen monks honored Christmas this year: “As a sign of a positive effort to improve relations with Korean Christians, the Chogye Order erected a huge public banner across the street of Chogyesa Temple in downtown Seoul to celebrate the birth of Jesus during the Christmas season. So, too, did Hwagyesa Temple, home of Ven. Seung Sahn’s Seoul International Zen Center.”
Tedesco recommends two websites for information: www.buddhapia.com/eng and iarf-religiousfreedom.org.
CULT FEVER IN JAPAN
Another Buddhist order is making headlines in Japan as the target of renewed suspicions: Soka Gakkai. The lay Buddhist organization, best known for its chanting of Namu-myoho-renge-kyo, was begun in 1930 and founded the political party New Komeito in 1964. According to the New York Times, in October of last year, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi named a new coalition cabinet which allied his long-governing Liberal Democratic Party with New Komeito. Subsequently, public opinion polls showed widespread disapproval of the coalition. For many, it prompted memories of another relatively obscure sect, Aum Shinrikyo, which was responsible for the nerve gas attacks of Tokyo subways in 1995.
Many in Japan view Soka Gakkai as a cult. It is led by Einosuke Akiya who reportedly consults with Daisaku Ikeda, the organization’s chairman, on a daily basis. Ikeda, who has been at the helm for the last 40 years, still travels widely, including to the United States where Soka Gakkai says it has 300,000 followers and a university. Founded as an offshoot of Nichiren Shoshu, it claims to be “an ardent promoter of social activism and human rights.” Nichiren was a 13th century monk whose ideas inspire Soka Gakkai.
Detractors, however, warn that Soka Gakkai’s real ambition is to govern Japan indirectly through its political party—and, ultimately, to establish its strain of Buddhism as an official religion. The Times article quoted Seizaburo Sato, deputy director of the National Graduate Institute of Policy Studies in Japan: “We are dealing with a dictatorship built around the person of one man.”
Sokka Gakkai is said to be on the way to "becoming the most powerful religious movement here," with a total of eight million followers chanting.
A GROWING PRESENCE
The New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), a Tibetan Buddhist school, recently announced plans to build a Kadampa Buddhist Temple in the United States, possibly in New York state or New Mexico. The NKT, founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in 1991, has been at the center of the Dorje Shugden controversy (see Tricycle, Spring 1998). Shugden has been an important protective deity of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism since the 17th century. The worship of Shugden, however, was renounced by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1996, in part because it was believed that such worship promoted sectarianism within the Tibetan Buddhist community-in-exile. Although the NKT has since distanced itself from the Shugden debate, in the summer of 1996 it became well known in the UK following its controversial protests against the Dalai Lama. The group accused His Holiness of impinging upon its religious freedom by prohibiting Shugden worship.
Current discussion in the NKT about the construction of a Kadampa temple in the United States indicates that the presence of the NKT may be growing in this country. In an email to Tricycle, NKT Secretary, Jim Belither, said that the increasing interest in the NKT in the U.S. has led to a growing number of groups here. However, he stressed that the spiritual home of the NKT will likely always be in the UK even though the number of NKT followers in the U. S. may eclipse those in Britain and elsewhere in future years. From March 31 to April 8 of this year, Geshe Kelsang will be teaching in California. Fundraising activities for the new American temple have already begun within the extensive international network of NKT centers. For information, visit: www. kadampa.org.
Image 1: The primary 17th Karmapa. Courtesy www.kagyu.org.
Image 2: Mongolian horseman. Courtesy Boojum Expeditions/Kent Madin.
Image 3: The Dhamek Stuba at Sarnath. Courtesy www.spantours.com.
Image 4: Barteay Chhmar, Temple of Jayavarman VII. Courtesy www.worldmonuments.org.
Image 5: Daisaku Ikeda, Soka Gakkai chairman. Courtesy www.sgi.org.
Image 6: Geshe Kelsang Gyatso of the New Kadampa Tradition. Courtesy www.kadampa.org.