BY LUKE HARDING
THE LHATOK region of eastern Tibet is about as remote as the country gets. Only a few hardy nomads eke out a living here, tending their yaks and wandering across a vast expanse of grassland enclosed by white mountains.
It was here 15 years ago that Ogyen Trinley Dorje was born, a baby whose life would eventually cause the Chinese government a great deal of embarrassment.
It was when he was eight that a search party arrived at his parents’ yak hair tent and solemnly announced that their mission was over. They had found the Karmapa, the latest incarnation of one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most senior leaders.
Three suns promptly appeared in the sky. Before that, ‘it would have seemed extremely disrespectful to have imagined I might be the Karmapa,’ he said yesterday.
Dorje was bundled off to Tsurphu monastery, 30 miles from the capital, Lhasa. The boy’s status was swiftly recognised by the Chinese government, which spent six years grooming him as a pliant rival to the Dalai Lama.
By late 1999, however, the Karmapa had had enough of Beijing’s script. He jumped off the monastery roof, got into a waiting car and was driven away. He managed to cross the border into Nepal three days later. ‘We didn’t know what they would have done had we been caught. Only they know that,’ he said last night.
The Karmapa’s dramatic escape – which echoed the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet 40 years earlier – captured the West’s imagination and made him a celebrity.
But it also plunged the boy lama into a political chess game. Shortly after greeting the Dalai Lama for the first time, with blistered feet and cracked cheeks, the Karmapa found himself more or less locked up in a monastery near Dharmasala, the scruffy hill station in northern India which is home to the Tibetan government in exile.
‘I sometimes wondered who had taken my freedom away,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t that much different from my previous state in Tibet, where I was constantly watched.’ The Indian security guards who lived downstairs rarely allowed him out.
Two months ago, however, India finally granted him political asylum, allowing him to give this, his first full interview with a journalist. ‘He’s beautiful,’ one slightly dotty American disciple gushed, shortly before I was ushered into the boy’s reception room, decorated with Buddhist wall hangings and flickering candles.
She was right. With cherubic red cheeks and an open, expressive face the Karmapa looked every inch an incarnation of Buddha, which his followers believe he is.
Had he as a young child had any idea who he was? ‘Very simply a human being. I never thought of myself as the Karmapa,’ he said.
Dorje was one of the youngest of nine children. His family was nomadic, moving three times a year across an almost deserted landscape of wild flowers and mountains, herding yaks, goats and sheep.
‘We lived like native Americans,’ he recalled. ‘We survived on animal products such as butter, meat and milk. It was an extremely isolated and natural environment. Because of that in the region there was a great degree of faith in Buddhism.
‘My family was neither wealthy nor impoverished,’ he added. The only drawback to this romantically bleak and ‘undisturbed’ place was winter. ‘The winters were very cold, with biting wind,’ the Karmapa said.
His life was transformed after he was recognised as the seventeenth Karmapa, the head of the powerful Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism which emerged in the twelfth century.
Chinese Communist Party officials started courting him soon after he was installed in Tsurphu monastery in 1992. They whisked him off on tours of China, showered him with toys – his favourite was a remote controlled lorry – and introduced him to Jiang Zemin, the Chinese President.
‘The whole thing was presented to me as if it was a vacation or tour,’ he said. ‘As a Tibetan, I had thought of the Communist government as something that was negative, which was harming us. But when I met Jiang Zemin at a function in Tiananmen Square my impression of him was neutral. I didn’t get the impression of him as either good or bad.’
But the Karmapa, who had been recognised by the Dalai Lama, never intended to be Beijing’s protege. He made it clear he wanted to go to India to meet several of his religious teachers who were in exile there. The Chinese government refused, repeatedly.
So after mulling over an escape for a year, he and a handful of followers, including his sister Ngodup Palzom, set off across western Tibet in darkness, intent on reaching freedom.
‘There were five or six checkpoints across the road. But since we were driving at night the barriers were open. We reached the first of two army camps. Someone shone a flashlight at us, so I jumped out with two attendants and circumvented the camp by walking over the hills.
‘The others travelled through, unquestioned. We rejoined them, and drove through the final camp unchallenged.’
They crossed Nepal on horseback, by helicopter and on foot to enter India, where the Karmapa was virtually imprisoned by intelligence agents in Gyuto Monastery, near Dharamsala.
The Karmapa has made it clear he wants to travel to his sect’s principal monastery, Rumtek, in Sikkim. But so far the Indian government has prevented him from going. China has never accepted Sikkim as part of India, and it seems officials fear his presence there would further offend Beijing.
The Chinese government, for which the Karmapa’s flight was a public relations disaster, issued a ludicrous statement after his escape claiming that he had gone to India merely to collect a sacred black hat and religious instruments. He would be back soon, they hinted.
But he told me: ‘Having received the status of a refugee I don’t plan to return to Tibet unless the Dalai Lama does.’
Meanwhile, he and his sister still spend most of their time in the monastery. They have had no contact with their family left behind in Tibet.
The Karmapa, who has acquired a Pekinese dog, Dekyi, and a white cockatoo, spends most of his days studying Buddhist texts and meeting disciples, who include Richard Gere and Pierce Brosnan. He also writes poetry, reads poems and paints. ‘I’m exploring painting myself without instruction,’ he said.
The Karmapa is clearly a serious and exceptionally intelligent 15-year-old. Few can doubt his credentials as a future Tibetan leader, although one dissident regent in his sect has accused him of being a Chinese stooge, and appointed a rival Karmapa in his place.
The stooge claim seems to be unfounded. The Dalai Lama has ruled out the Karmapa as a potential successor. Yet few doubt he is likely to fill the interregnum which would follow the 65-year-old Dalai Lama’s death, before the leader’s next incarnation is discovered.
The interview over, we walk on to the Karmapa’s roof terrace. The boy, clutching a well-behaved Dekyi, poses for photographs beneath a red, white and blue Buddhist flag.
The sun is shining but the sky is thunderous. We are far from Tibet, But the snow-covered mountains above hint at what the Karmapa has left behind, probably forever.