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.'
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