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Tibetan Spiritual Leader Defects

January 7, 2000

DHARMSALA, India (AP) _ A 14-year-old Tibetan Buddhist leader arrived in India with blistered feet and scraped hands after walking over the snowy Himalayans, the most significant defection from Chinese-ruled Tibet since his predecessor and the Dalai Lama fled four decades ago.

Chinese leaders had installed the boy as the 17th Karmapa, head of the prominent Karma Kagyu religious order, and used him as a symbol of their rule over Tibet. His flight could compound China’s anger with exiled Tibetans and prod the communist leadership to press an already stern 4-year campaign to purge monasteries of supporters of the Dalai Lama.

``He has come,″ Desang, Cabinet secretary in the government-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, said by telephone from Dharmsala in northern India. Desang, who uses only one name, gave no other details. Other officials in Dharmsala said the exhausted boy had met with the Dalai Lama when he arrived Wednesday.

China’s State Council Information Office acknowledged the Karmapa had left his monastery in central Tibet with a ``small number of followers,″ the state-run Xinhua News Agency said today.

The report said the Karmapa had gone abroad to get musical instruments and religious articles used by his predecessors and cited a letter saying he did not mean to ``betray the state, the nation, the monastery or the leadership.″

While officials in Tibet said they had no knowledge of the Karmapa’s departure, his apparent defection sent senior Chinese leaders scurrying. The government’s top advisers on Tibet met in Beijing today to decide a public response, said Robbie Barnett, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism at Columbia University in New York.

Tibetans close to the Dharmsala administration, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Karmapa had eluded his increasingly watchful guards by declaring his intention to go on a retreat. He and a few monks set out across the Himalayas, trekking for days along rocky paths, bordered by thorny bushes that scraped their hands. One leg of the journey was made in a jeep. Barnett said the Karmapa left the 800-year-old Tsurphu monastery on Dec. 28.

The Karmapa is the most important Tibetan figure to defect since his predecessor, the 16th Karmapa and other clerics including the current Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of millions of Buddhists, fled with thousands of Tibetans after an abortive anti-Chinese uprising in 1959.

The Karmapa’s Kagyupa sect, known as the ``Black Hats,″ was once Tibet’s most politically powerful. The sect was supplanted in Tibet by the Gelugpa school of the Dalai Lamas 350 years ago.

The 17th Karmapa was chosen through the traditional identification process as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa, who died in 1981, after a divisive battle among senior disciples in the group’s exiled headquarters in Sikkim, India.

The winning disciples then worked with the Chinese leadership to see the boy installed at Tsurphu, the traditional seat of the Karmapas. Policy papers issued by the Chinese government have pointed to the 17th Karmapa’s investiture and the restoration of Tsurphu as examples of Beijing’s support for Tibetan Buddhism.

Last year, the Karmapa appeared in public with another controversial reincarnation, the boy whom China forced Tibet’s clergy to name as the Panchen Lama, passing over a rival candidate named by the Dalai Lama.

The Karmapa is the first leading ``tulku,″ or reincarnation of a holy person, to be officially recognized by the modern Chinese state, in a deal arranged with his teacher, Tai Situ Rinpoche, in 1992.

As part of that agreement, exiled teachers would be allowed to come to Tibet to educate the child and the Karmapa could return to Sikkim to retrieve his black hat, the symbol of his power believed to be woven from the hairs of female deities.

But then the Chinese ``stopped keeping their side of the deal,″ Barnett said. He added that senior members of the Karmapa’s religious order had repeatedly been refused visas over the past two years.

``This could cause the Chinese to be even tougher on Tibet in the future,″ Barnett said. ``They got caught unawares. But the signals were there all year that the Karmapa was increasingly frustrated, waiting in his monastery for his teachers.″

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