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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003