The KARMAPA's daring escape from China keeps hope alive for Tibetans (TIME ASIA)

April 24, 2002  TIME ASIA

Karma Phuntsok, Buddha and Super Heroes

More than two years have passed since a 14-year-old monk from Tibet made his dramatic escape over the Himalayas to India and caught the imagination of the world. He was the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, one of Tibet's most important religious leaders. To me, a Tibetan born and brought up in exile in India, news of his escape came like a reviving gust of fresh air that blew away the cloud of confusion and inertia that seemed to have descended upon our decades-old freedom struggle. With that one act of desperation and courage, the Karmapa exposed the Chinese lie that Tibetans were happy and prospering under their rule and that they were free to practice their religion.

Every year, more than a thousand Tibetans continue to risk their lives, defying Chinese-imposed restrictions on travel by secretly making the arduous and dangerous Himalayan crossing into Nepal and India. The Karmapa's escape was different. He was communist China's most prized stooge in Tibet, the highest reincarnate lama under Beijing's control to have the Dalai Lama's official recognition, the head of one of the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism-and by tradition, the third most important lama in its religious hierarchy.

For some time, the Chinese had realized that the greatest threat to their rule in Tibet came from the country's deep-rooted Buddhist culture. The enduring faith of Tibetans in their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, despite a sustained and vitriolic official campaign to discredit him was a continuing source of bafflement and irritation. So, avowedly atheist communist functionaries suddenly found enthusiasm not only in supporting the institution of reincarnate lamas but in actually approving their selection. Their strategy was to control and indoctrinate the future religious leaders of Tibet and to deploy them in their efforts to neutralize any opposition and legitimize China's occupation of the country.

Ever since his state-authorized enthronement at the age of seven in 1992, the Karmapa had been carefully groomed to assume the role of Chinese puppet. But something went wrong with the plans. Despite the Chinese authorities' best efforts at brainwashing him and despite his youth, the Karmapa grew up with a strong sense of his own convictions; his spiritual training proved stronger and more profound than the Chinese could have imagined. When the contradictions between his beliefs and the public role he was expected to perform-especially when it came to denouncing the Dalai Lama-became irreconcilable, he decided to flee.

This was a repudiation of everything the Chinese claimed to have achieved in Tibet, a slap on the face by someone they considered a handpicked lieutenant. The Karmapa's escape was a loud wake-up call to those of us who have spent a lifetime in exile. It reminded us forcefully that the cause we are fighting for is alive and just and as desperate as ever.

Documentary filmmaker Tenzing Sonam is working on his first feature film in Tibetan


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