Since the leader of a prominent Tibetan Buddhist sect quietly arrived in India from China last week, the 17th Karmapa continues to capture the imagination of devotees and bring new speculation about the significance of his escape.
Beyond the embarrassment caused to China - which has 100 million Buddhists that Beijing reportedly hoped to control through the Karmapa - his arrival may signal a new reconciliation among Buddhist traditions. Some experts say the Karmapa could someday take the mantle of the Dalai Lama as the premier Buddhist figure on the world stage.
The Karmapa already occupies a unique position. His role as the head of the influential Karma Kagyu sect has been accepted as authentic both by the Chinese and by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhists. He has lived in exile in India since fleeing occupied Tibet in 1959. No other Buddhist figure has achieved both acknowledgements. (Two other rival Karmapas are supported by some Tibetan Buddhists.)
Quiet speculation has begun about the future of the young man and the future unity of Buddhists around the world. Tibetan Buddhist politics are serene on the surface, but are turgid and complex underneath. Some experts say the Dalai Lama may have decided to leap over the politics of his close advisers and place his hopes of unifying Buddhists both inside and outside Tibet in a young man who may be less tainted by ambition and old sectarian grudges.
"The ordinary lamas and the lay people all want to see greater Buddhist unity," says Dawa Norbu, an expert on Tibet at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "But the people surrounding the top lamas, the entourages around them, are ambitious and like to play politics. We can't know the exact situation, but the Dalai Lama's move to greet and embrace the Karmapa signifies a great reconciliation among the Tibetan Buddhists."
Two years ago the Dalai Lama created a stir by implying he might not incarnate himself - where his identity as the ancient Dalai Lama is passed to a new person on Earth. The Dalai Lama has been a kind of transcontinental statesman for Buddhism through his efforts to address the spiritual state of the West.
The escape of the Karmapa comes at a time when China is increasing its controls on religion. The government is expected to announce the reincarnation of an important lama, a two-year-old boy, who has not been approved by the Dalai Lama. Along with ongoing repression of the popular Falun Gong movement, Beijing last week defied the Vatican by ordaining five new bishops. In the past year, more leaders and worshippers of clandestine "home churches" have been arrested. This week James Rubin, US State Department spokesman, suggested that China enter a dialogue with the Dalai Lama over the "unique religious, cultural, and ethnic heritage" of Tibet.
The Karma Kagyu tradition, led by the Karmapa, stresses meditation and spiritual practice - and is considered highly demanding as a discipline. For many years, until the Dalai Lama arrived on the world stage in the late 1970s, the Kagyu school was best known in the West.
The Dalai Lama's tradition, the Gelugpa, is considered more scholarly. It has also been the venue for Buddhist authority figures to emerge in the worldly realm, according to Lea Terhune, coauthor of "Relative World, Ultimate Mind."
At this point, say experts, before the 14-year-old Karmapa has received the full "transmission" of teachings and rituals by his teacher, it is too early to know if he will become the preeminent Buddhist. "His mind is not mature, not mellow, not enlightened yet," says Dr. Norbu. "But this exodus reminds me of the path taken by the Dalai Lama."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society