Thunder Out of China

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The outside world viewed him as Beijing's stooge. But last week the 17th Karmapa, the impressively tall 14-year-old recognized as the reincarnated leader of Tibet's second-most important Buddhist sect, climbed out of a monastery bedroom and began an incredible journey--by car, horse, bus, train and taxi--that brought him eventually to India. After eight days on the run, he was united last week with the exiled Dalai Lama--to the elation of those who support Tibet's freedom. The flight from China to Dharamsala, the Himalayan site of the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, caught both India and China unaware. The Karmapa is Tibet's third-ranking reincarnated bodhisattva, or enlightened being, after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. The teenager's status had been formally recognized by both the exiled Tibetan government and Beijing. His escape represents a serious blow to Beijing's efforts to win support for its control over Tibet. And it could set back improving relations between India and China; Delhi is sure to face renewed pressure from Beijing to end its support for Tibetan exiles. China's official news agency has played down the event, reporting that the Karmapa left to search for religious artifacts and that he did not intend to betray the state, the nation, the monastery or the leadership.

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For the Karmapa, it's a dramatic twist in an amazing life. Born Ugyen Thinley Dorje in 1985 to a family of nomads in a small district in southeast Tibet, his birth was allegedly foretold by his predecessor, who died in a Chicago hospital in 1981. It was not until 11 years later that a high-ranking lama said he had discovered, in an amulet, the previous Karmapa's prediction about his successor. The monks sent to search for the incarnate noted that Dorje's birth had been heralded by other auspicious augurs: the sound of conch shells, unique birdsong, the appearance of three suns in the sky. He was recognized as the 17th reborn leader of the Kagyupa, or Black Hat sect, Tibet's most venerable line of Buddhists. (They dominated Tibet until 400 years ago, when the rival Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat sect, gained prominence and the Dalai Lama became Tibet's God-King.) The Karmapa was recognized in 1992, at the age of seven. Beijing's endorsement led to charges that the Karmapa was a pawn in China's efforts to justify its rule in Tibet.

In fact, the Karmapa has chafed under China's restrictions on his freedoms and apparently faced strong pressure to denounce the Dalai Lama. According to the Karmapa's adherents in exile in India, Beijing also wanted him to declare publicly that China was a bastion of religious freedom. His spiritual education had come to a full stop: China wouldn't allow him to visit the three surviving regents of the Black Hat sect, all of whom are living in India. At the end of December, he decided to flee from his home in the remote Tsurphu monastery, a sprawling network of halls and small rooms set in pristine pasture amid hills some 70 km northwest of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

To prepare his escape, the Karmapa told his Chinese guards that he was going into a contemplative retreat and would not leave his bedroom. During such retreats, only his personal cook and teacher were allowed to see him; the guards remained outside watching TV. Once his minders had been lulled into complacency, the Karmapa escaped through a bedroom window at 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 28. A car was waiting for him with two drivers, two lama assistants, a personal servant and his sister, a Buddhist nun. They drove toward the Nepal border, following a route almost identical to that of the Dalai Lama's escape on horseback in 1959. Back at the monastery, the boy's cook and teacher made daily visits to his empty room to keep up the illusion that he was inside.

The Karmapa discarded his monk's habit for civilian dress, and the party drove night and day across Tibet. As the car approached security checkpoints, the Karmapa alighted ahead of each barrier and circumvented the police post, joining his companions on the other side. The Karmapa and his party walked across the border with Nepal and traveled by horseback and via public transport to the capital, Katmandu. (They phoned the Karmapa's bedroom on his private line to tell the two co-conspirators that they had safely crossed the border. Unknown voices answered the call; the fate of the teacher and cook is not known.) From Katmandu the group crossed into India, passing through Lucknow and New Delhi. They traveled to Dharamsala by train and taxi, arriving Jan. 5. to an emotional welcome. You must be tired, the Dalai Lama said in greeting. Yes, I am, the Karmapa replied.

With the Karmapa's escape, the most prominent Buddhist leader left in Tibet is the Panchen Lama--or, more accurately, two Panchen Lamas. In normal times, the Panchen Lama is the second most important figure in the Yellow Hat sect, after the Dalai Lama. But these aren't normal times. The young boy that Beijing insists is the incarnate holy man, now age 9, has been seen only once in Tibet: surrounded by armed guards, he briefly presided over religious ceremonies last June. He lives in a villa outside Beijing. Another boy, also age 9, certified by the Dalai Lama, has disappeared completely. China considers it an offense to possess his photograph. A similar situation surrounded the Karmapa in 1994, two years after China and the Dalai Lama recognized him as the 17th incarnate. In a schismatic attempt to split the Black Hats, a group of lamas announced a rival Karmapa. China allowed the pretender, Tenzin Chentze, to leave for India and held fast to its earlier choice. After last week's humiliation, they must wish they had changed their mind.