The 14-year-old Karmapa Lama survived a formidable obstacle course last week to arrive in India, like tens of thousands of his compatriots before him.
Yet the trek - scaling the planet's highest mountain passes, forging near-freezing waterways, and trekking along the precipices of deep, barren gorges - is unlikely to deter more Tibetans from making the treacherous trip to the center of the Tibetan diaspora.
"Winter is the worst time to try to leave Tibet," says Tashi Wangdi, minister for religion and culture in the Tibetan government-in-exile headed by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. Mr. Wangdi met the Karmapa last week. But "more and more Tibetans are fleeing their homeland to escape the reality of Chinese-occupied Tibet."
The Karmapa Lama, the highest ranking religious leader to leave Tibet since the Dalai Lama, heads one of Tibetan Buddhism's four major schools. His defection "will certainly embarrass the Chinese government because it shows that all its propaganda cannot whitewash the appalling controls on religion and culture in Tibet," says Mr. Wangdi.
The Chinese government's attempt to wipe out Tibetan nationalism by clamping down on Buddhist temples apparently triggered the Karmapa Lama's defection last week. He risked the Himalayan odyssey "in search of religious freedom and education," says Rinchen Khando Choegyal, minister of education in the Dalai Lama's government. China's official reaction to the Karmapa's journey was that he was expected to return.
Mary Beth Markey, a rights monitor at the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, says the Tibetan diaspora, which stretches from Nepal to India to Switzerland to the US, now numbers more than 100,000 refugees, and is growing.
Each year, about 3,000 to 4,000 Tibetans are processed through a refugee camp on the outskirts of Nepal's capital, and about half are monks or nuns, says camp director Jigme La.
"Some who flee here have been tortured and imprisoned, while others have been barred from entering any monasteries in Tibet," Mr. La says.
Wangdi says that "if the Chinese government doesn't end its attacks on Tibet's temples and its culture, many more Tibetans are likely to attempt to flee."
An underground railroad that criss-crosses Tibet and ferries Tibetans fleeing life under Chinese Communist rule surfaces at La's refugee camp, and later winds its way on to Tibetan settlements in India.
The Tibet-Nepal stage of the journey is so costly in terms of casualties that few Tibetans, except the railway's "conductors" and refugees apprehended along the route, ever retrace their steps back into Tibet.
"Most of the refugees who escape want to stay permanently in exile," says Bhuchung Tsering, a Tibetan spokesman at the International Campaign for Tibet.
Refugees caught inside Chinese borders are "placed under permanent surveillance," says Mr. Tsering, while "the families of those who make it to India are often held as virtual hostages by the Chinese government."
Dozens of refugees interviewed at the Kathmandu center asked not to be identified, with each citing fears that the Chinese government could take reprisals against family members left behind in Tibet.
Surrounded by hills and strewn with multihued Buddhist prayer flags, the simple brick building that serves as a temporary barracks and processing center for the refugees resembles a tiny patch of Tibet that has been transplanted onto the Nepalese countryside.
Many of the refugees, who range from infants to the elderly, carry only a ragged knapsack filled with personal possessions. Most are destitute, and the reception center issues about $50 to each Tibetan exile to begin a new life in India.
"I love my homeland, but I had to leave it in order to study Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism," says a teenaged refugee. The would-be monk adds that the Chinese authorities had blocked him from entering a Tibetan monastery, and says "My only option now is to join one of the Dalai Lama's monasteries in India."
As hazardous as escaping from Tibet is today, passage to exile carried far greater risks 40 years ago, when the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers made their way to India after Chinese troops crushed a popular Tibetan uprising.
The Dalai Lama, the 15-year-old head of Tibet's Buddhist theocracy when Chinese troops crossed into the remote Himalayan region in 1950, initially tried to cooperate with Beijing's leaders when they said they wanted to construct a socialist utopia that would preserve Tibet's Buddhist culture. Yet the execution or imprisonment of senior Tibetan clergy, the attacks on Tibet's monasteries and the harsh communist propaganda campaigns that followed the Army's march across the region triggered the area's first "counter-revolutionary rebellion" against Chinese rule in 1959, along with the first of many waves of refugees into surrounding countries.
The Chinese authorities have long viewed monasteries as the nerve centers of Tibetan nationalism, and "when China attacks Tibet, it is our monks and nuns who usually take the brunt of the assault," says Tsering. Mao Zedong attempted to forcibly obliterate Chinese and Tibetan traditions and beliefs during the radical Cultural Revolution from 1966 to '76, which was ostensibly aimed at paving the way for a pure communist society.
After Mao's passing in 1976, his more moderate successors promised Tibetans religious freedom, but not political autonomy, and began financing the rebuilding of some of the region's devastated monasteries. Yet the era of limited liberalizations unleashed new calls for an end to Chinese rule, which were largely silenced when heavily armed troops opened fire on protesters - many of them monks and nuns - in the Tibetan capital 10 years ago.
In the latest phase of this clash of civilizations between Chinese Marxists and Tibetan Buddhists, Beijing has largely replaced its arsenal of tanks and bullets with much more subtle means of controlling the region's temples and clergy.
The party, officially atheistic, has manipulated the appointment of Buddhist leaders, installed ideological watchdogs in monasteries across Tibet, and used police and prisons to silence any dissent. Beijing also now bans the teachings of the Dalai Lama within Tibet.
Most Tibetans believe the Dalai Lama is an incarnation of a Buddhist god who was sent to Tibet to head its government and church. The current Dalai, the 14th in a succession of lamas to rule over Tibet until the communist takeover, has created a "micro-Tibet" for the tens of thousands of refugees who have followed him to northern India. A network of schools and temples in India act as a powerful magnet for Tibetans. Despite his flight 40 years ago, the Dalai Lama remains the most revered figure within communist-ruled Tibet. Although the Dalai Lama has called for a democratic federation between Tibet and China, Beijing still labels him a would-be "secessionist."
The US State Department said in its most recent annual human rights report on China that "There were reports of imprisonment and abuse or torture of monks and nuns accused of political activism, the death of prisoners, and the closure of several monasteries." Human rights abuses, it added, are worst in Tibet's prisons, and are usually focused on Buddhist figures and pro-independence activists.
Bhuchung Tsering says "Buddhism is at the heart of our culture - by attacking the church, the Chinese government is endangering our identity and our future."
Refugee camp director La says that if the exodus continues, Tibet's cultural and ethnic identity could slowly fade into oblivion. He says he sometimes finds himself pleading with refugees who have just scaled cloud-capped peaks and fled from armed border guards to turn around and go back into Tibet. "I say to young Tibetans 'if you don't go back, a Chinese could take over your land. Tibet is your homeland, the land of your ancestors, and you must return to protect its future,'" La says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society