Tibetan Buddhist factions come to blows: A dispute that has challenged the Dalai Lama's authority led yesterday to a battle, writes Tim McGirk in New Delhi

THE Tibetan Buddhists believe that karma - one's past actions or deeds - can cling to a person through many lifetimes. That is why many Tibetans explain the odd behaviour of a lama named Shamar Rinpoche by referring to an event 202 years ago.

In his incarnation then, Shamar Rinpoche was a monk so overcome by greed that he lured the Gurkha army into attacking a monastery for its treasure. The Gurkhas were eventually driven off and Shamar Rinpoche died, disgraced, in 1792. His after-death punishment was a strange mix of bureaucracy and wizardry: his red lama's cap was buried under a stone pile and the monks decreed that it would be 'a crime' for him to reincarnate again as a high lama for six lifetimes.

He is back. In his present incarnation, Shamar Rinpoche has triggered off the gravest spiritual crisis among Tibetan Buddhists since 1959, when the Chinese invasion forced the Dalai Lama into exile. It is a tale of monastic intrigue, with accusations of murder, forgery and manipulation by the Chinese government. This medieval drama culminated in a pitched battle at a monastery outside Delhi yesterday, when monks and Tibetans faithful to the Dalai Lama threw bottles and bricks and fought against a coterie of Shamar Rinpoche's followers, many of them Westerners initially attracted to the Buddhist creed of non-violence.

This episode has shaken many Tibetans' faith in their 1,000-year-old belief that their sages can, and do, reincarnate after death to pass on Buddhist teachings. It has also caused a split in the Tibetan exile community, which has challenged the Dalai Lama's undisputed religious and political authority.

The story begins with an ending: the death in a US hospital in 1981 of the Karmapa who, after the Dalai Lama, is probably the most revered spiritual figure in the Himalayas. Having been through 16 reincarnations already, rebirth had become a bit humdrum for the Karmapa. He traditionally scribbles down clues to make it easier for his disciples to locate the family where he will next appear, so that he can swiftly be spirited back to the monastery. With the last Karmapa it seemed that he left no forwarding address.

Years passed, and Rumtek monastery in Sikkim was swamped by hundreds of letters from Tibetan parents who, like show-biz mothers in the West, were convinced that their child was the exceptional one. None of them was. The monks of the Karmapa's Kagyu order despaired at the thought that their spiritual leader was somewhere on the planet, in the shape of a child, and they could not even begin to search for him.

Then, in March 1992, one of the four regents at Rumtek monastery, Tai Situ Rinpoche (himself a reincarnate lama) claimed he was repairing an amulet given him by the Karmapa when he noticed a slip of paper inside. It was Karmapa's prediction: he would reappear in Lathok district of Tibet in the year of the Wood Ox (1985) in 'a beautiful nomad's place . . . with the miraculous, far-reaching sound of the white one'. Situ Rinpoche told the other regents of his find. But Shamar Rinpoche, pushing his own candidate, a nephew of Bhutan's king, dismissed it as a forgery.

Keeping it a secret from Shamar, Situ and another regent (the fourth had died in a car crash) travelled to Tibet and found a boy, Ugen Thinley, in Lathok district whose nomad tribe claimed that his birth had been accompanied by rainbows and the blowing of a conch-shell in the heavens. The boy also recognised Situ and his fellow monks.

Situ and the other regent, Gyaltsap, rushed to Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama's home in exile, but the spiritual leader was in Rio de Janeiro. Informed by fax, the Dalai Lama, who had a vision that matched the descriptions of the nomad boy's birthplace, agreed that Ugen Thinley, a handsome child with black, penetrating eyes, was indeed the 17th Karmapa.

In August 1992, when Situ and Gyaltsap returned to Rumtek monastery, Shamar was ready for them. In an echo of what happened 200 years earlier he brought the army into the monastery - for his own protection, he claimed. This led to rioting that spread to parts of the Sikkimese capital, Gangtok. When police finally broke the three-day siege in the monastery they found that Shamar's monks had stockpiled an arsenal of axes, bricks and stones. 'There's no doubt it's the same Shamar Rinpoche as 200 years ago. The same karma, the same mind,' said Situ Rinpoche.

The Dalai Lama tried to end the strife by giving his official blessing to the boy in Tibet, who was enthroned in September 1992 near Lhasa. But dissent festered at Rumtek. Fights often erupted between gangs of monks and Shamar Rinpoche tried twice to close off the main shrine to Situ Rinpoche's followers. Shamar Rinpoche claimed that an unknown sniper's bullet had narrowly missed him, but police failed to find any evidence of an assassination plot. The trouble was compounded by China's refusal to let the new Karmapa leave Tibet to visit his numerous exiled Tibetan and Western devotees in India.

The tale took a more sinister twist when, in Delhi yesterday, Shamar Rinpoche unveiled his candidate for 17th Karmapa, a shy, rather scared 11-year-old Tibetan. Three coachloads of Tibetan monks and students arrived and waged a fierce battle with Shamar's renegade followers. 'Shamar's manipulating this boy for money and power,' shouted one protesting monk as he tossed a brick.

Many Tibetans are praying for the Dalai Lama to intervene more forcefully to end the dispute between the two Karmapa factions. Eerily, this row was foreseen by the 5th Karmapa. Back in the 14th century, he predicted that between the 16th and 17th Karmapas 'an incarnation of demon, one spoken of as a relation, a protector, will arise. By the power of this person's perverted aspirations, the Karmapa will be near destruction.'

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Life & Style
life
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit