Out of India: High jinks in search for a high lama

WHEN A Tibetan lama named Jamgon Rinpoche smashed his BMW into a tree and killed himself - all to avoid hitting a chicken that was crossing the road - many Tibetans wondered: what was a monk doing driving a BMW, anyway? And those Tibetans who believe in reincarnation were asking: who was the chicken?

Normally, a monk's death does not lead to speculation about the past lives of a chicken. But there were strange goings on in the Rumtek monastery of Sikkim, where Jamgon had been one of the head abbots. It all began with the death in 1981 of the monastery's spiritual guide, Gyalwa Karmapa, one of the leading figures in Tibetan Buddhism. Ordinarily, the next rebirth of a high lama is found through the aid of dreams and prophecies.

This can be tricky, for there are a lot of new babies on this planet to choose from. Sometimes the divination is hard to understand. Clues are misread. Or politics and money creep in on this mystic manhunt. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of reincarnate lamas but, most probably, only three-quarters of them are genuine.

Reincarnate lamas - referred to as Tulkus or Rinpoches - are springing up all the time. Dagyab Rinpoche, a leading Tibetan scholar and monk, is worried about what he calls the 'Tulku boom'. He wrote recently: 'The number of reincarnated lamas in exile has increased like inflation.'

There is a cynical reason for this. 'Obviously,' says Dagyab, 'many people in exile have become aware of the fact that the title of a Rinpoche is a capital with considerable value in the Western market.'

The Gyalwa Karmapa, however, tries to make allowances for these earthly wranglings. It has been the custom - over the past 10 incarnations, spanning six centuries - for the Karmapa, before he dies, to leave behind the name and address of his future parents. Thoughtful though this may sound, it involves slightly more than a quick browse through the Tibetan telephone directory.

Before his death 11 years ago, the 16th Karmapa named four abbots to stand in for him at Rumtuk monastery until he appeared and came of age. One of them was Jamgon. After Karmapa died, the four regents looked at each other and pretty much said: 'Well, he didn't give the address to me. How about you?' None of the four had it.

Years went by. The followers of Karmapa became increasingly agitated over the regents' failure to find the little lost lama. The regents tried through the usual methods of divination, but nothing panned out. Two of the abbots, Jamgon and Shamar Rinpoche, began leaning towards a possible candidate, a young nephew of the King of Bhutan.

Then, this March, another one of the abbots, Situ Rinpoche, happened to remove a necklace amulet which had become frayed. It had been a gift from the 16th Karmapa. Inside, written in red ink, was the prediction, giving the name of the Karmapa's next father, mother and the place of birth.

Situ hastened to tell the other three regents of his discovery. Jamgon and Shamar were less than pleased. 'We inspected the letter . . . and expressed doubts about the authenticity of the handwriting and signature of the late Karmapa,' Shamar has said. He and Jamgon demanded the letter undergo forensic tests. This was refused by the two other abbots since, they claimed, it was a sacred document.

It was decided that Jamgon should be the one to undertake the search in Tibet and bring the boy back. But before he set off for Tibet, Jamgon swerved his BMW off the road last April, killing himself.

But the intrigue did not stop there. Secretly, the abbot of the amulet dispatched an envoy to eastern Tibet and found a nine- year-old child, Ugen Tinley, who already was a monk. Without telling Shamar, the two abbots, Situ and Gyalstab Rinpoche, hastened to Dharamsala - the exile residence of the Dalai Lama - to proclaim their find.

The Dalai Lama was in Brazil for the Earth Summit, and so the two lamas faxed him the news in Rio. He sent back a short reply, saying that if all the lamas agreed this was the boy, then he would give his backing. Shamar, however, hadn't given his backing. He didn't even know about it, until the two lamas returned triumphantly to Rumtek monastery.

Then Shamar behaved most un-monkishly. Outmanoeuvred, he tried to use force. He returned to Rumtek monastery last June escorted by a platoon of Indian soldiers to confront the two regents. This armed intrusion inside Rumtek sparked off unrest among the monks, already divided by the quarrels of their spiritual superiors.

Sikkim officials said the army escort had been supplied after an urgent request from the King of Bhutan, whose nephew was one of Shamar's choices. Only after the Dalai Lama renewed his support for the nine-year-old child from eastern Tibet did the rumblings cease inside Rumtek monastery.