Bumbler on the Roof of the World

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There were reminders, in the 17th Karmapa's escape, of the Dalai Lama's flight across the mountains to India in 1959. Then, too, the Chinese government had broken some promises. Then, too, China's first reaction was that the fleeing lama intended no disrespect to the Communist Party or treason to Beijing. The Dalai Lama, the Chinese said in 1959, had been kidnapped by imperialists. The Karmapa, they said last week, had gone to get his hat. It is, admittedly, a very important hat. But why would he risk his life on such a dangerous journey to fetch it? China could not explain. No doubt the story was meant to imply that the teenager, Beijing's key trophy lama, had no quarrel with the government and would soon be back. Not likely.

The explanation offered by those close to the young Karmapa -- that he wanted more contact with his teachers -- is highly plausible. Advanced spiritual masters are thin on the ground in Tibet, a direct result of Chinese attrition over the years. It is also reasonable to assume that the Karmapa did not like the regime under which he had been living. Last year, for instance, he was taken to Tashilunpo monastery in Shigatse to greet the heavily guarded child the government has endorsed as the 11th Panchen Lama, after the Dalai Lama's choice was made to disappear. The boy is widely perceived in Tibet as a Chinese-imposed fake. As a religious leader with rather better credentials, the Karmapa perhaps resented having to pay homage to a Chinese policy error.
What is striking about his departure is that it didn't have to happen. Closer contact with the Karmapa's exiled teachers, after all, would have posed no danger to the Chinese state. Had Beijing displayed a modicum of sensitivity and intelligence, it could have been spared the humiliation of the Karmapa's flight, and his devotees in Tibet would still have the consolation of his presence.
The Karmapa's residence at his historic monastery in Tsurphu was perhaps the biggest success of China's Tibetan policy. The process of finding and recognizing the boy had several remarkable and encouraging aspects, though a quarrel over a rival candidate did create a schism in his Kagyupa order. That the Karmapa was recognized as authentic by both the Dalai Lama and Beijing gave him spiritual as well as temporal standing. Enthroned at Tsurphu, he received thousands of devotees and embodied the restoration of a tradition even older than the Dalai Lama's Gelugpa order.

Had Beijing handled the affair more deftly, it would still be able to point to warm relations with the Buddhist sect that had ruled Tibet before the Dalai Lamas and that has, since 1959, built up a large and wealthy worldwide following. Even if he had no greater value than to refute, by his presence in Tibet, the charges of religious oppression China routinely faces, the Karmapa was worth his weight in sutras to Beijing. Instead, China has been humiliated. And worse. Several years ago, Beijing seems to have decided that time would eventually solve the Tibet problem. The Dalai Lama is 64 years old. The end of his reproaches was in sight. But now there is a young and charismatic alternative. Instead of becoming his substitute in Tibet, the Karmapa is now the Dalai Lama's ally in exile.

How the Karmapa spends that exile will be crucial. No doubt he will get back to his books and teachers, for a few years at least. But he has the potential to become a figurehead for the next generation, as the Dalai Lama has been for his. The Dalai Lama's position as Tibet's secular ruler is gone forever, as he often points out. Today what matters is that someone embody Tibetan religious identity and national aspirations -- and be a focus for Western sympathies. If the Karmapa continues to demonstrate the courage and charisma he has shown so far, he could prove a formidable symbol of resistance to China's occupation of Tibet.

With no religious beliefs themselves, China's party chiefs find it difficult to handle those who have faith. Remove the element of belief, and no doubt one maroon-robed figure looks much like another. Perhaps the leadership is genuinely puzzled by the Tibetan insistence that only the right lama will do. Beijing seems to be trying to manage Tibetan Buddhism as it would a slightly deviant party branch: if the regrettable necessity of a purge arises, another leader can be substituted. And if the branch resists, simply disband it and start again.

The Karmapa's defection poses difficult questions for China. Its attempt to eradicate Buddhism in Tibet in the 1950s and '60s was a failure. Isn't the lesson that oppression tends to strengthen religious belief rather than weaken it? If so, what is to be gained by continuing to alienate Tibet's religious leaders? Within China itself, where is the advantage in picking fights, as the government has, with the Falun Gong meditation group, the Vatican and the house church movement?

As China continues down the path of liberalization, party influence will inevitably decline and other mechanisms -- the elements of civil society -- will need to arise to keep the social fabric from fraying. Religion is one aspect of society that, on the whole, promotes desirable behavior rather than the opposite. The party has tried to extirpate religion, only to have it blossom more vigorously than before. Time, surely, to try for peaceful co-existence.

Isabel Hilton, a London journalist, is the author of The Search for the Panchen Lama