Both these boys have been hailed as living gods. But a bloody dispute between Tibetan monks, involving forgery and deceit, must be resolved before one of them is crowned. By Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. Photographs by Harriet Logan.
When a Tibetan teenage monk staggered out of a snowstorm and into a north Indian mountain town less than a month ago, swaddled in animal hides, exhausted and emaciated, an astonished audience of monks, Indian honeymooners and western Buddhist devotees watched as the court of the Dalai Lama swept him up in a rapturous reception.
Within hours Dharamsala, a former British hill station and the base for the Tibetan government in exile, was alight with stories of Urgyen Thinley’s incredible journey. The frail 14-year-old had, according to the Dalai Lama’s spokesmen, walked, ridden and driven across 900 miles of snowbound Himalayan peaks and passes in just nine days to flee his Chinese captors in Tibet. Assisted by faithful monks and his sister, he had slipped past an armed communist guard outside a monastery near Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, on December 28, 1999, and, in apparently superhuman time, crossed the world’s most inhospitable terrain at the height of winter while humanity was ushering in a new millennium with fireworks. It was a feat beyond the physical powers of any living explorer, and a walk to freedom reminiscent of the Dalai Lama’s own escape from the Chinese in 1959.
Urgyen Thinley’s journey was feted by those close to the Dalai Lama as a remarkable victory for Tibetan Buddhism. The lack of reliable information as to how and when the teenager, little known in the West but revered in the East, traversed glaciers, crevasses, valleys and mountains, only enhances the mystique of a boy who is worshipped by millions as the 17th Karmapa, a living god who is the reincarnation of an ancient religious leader who first taught in Tibet in 1110, and the third most powerful figure in the Tibetan spiritual hierarchy after the Dalai Lama and the Panchan Lama.
If he is crowned, in a ceremony today only possible in India, where many of the highest-ranking lamas, Buddhism’s religious elite, live in exile, Urgyen Thinley would formally assume leadership of the 5m-strong Kagyu sect, the most powerful and wealthy of Tibet’s four branches of Buddhism. But until his appearance in Dharamsala at 10.30am on January 5, most of his supporters believed they would never see him. The boy god had been a Chinese prisoner since being officially recognised by the Dalai Lama in 1992.
Within days of his escape, the Tibetan government-in-exile let it be known that it was the Dalai Lama himself who had been instrumental in the plan to spirit the boy away from his monastic prison. Their combined success – the cunning of the 64-year-old Nobel peace prize winner and the heroism of a 14-year-old refugee deity – was said to prove that the fight with China for control of Tibet was far from over. Buddhists could now begin the 21st century galvanised by their leaders’ actions. But in the eyes of 2.5m people, half the Kagyu sect’s followers, nothing could be further from the truth.
If anything, Urgyen Thinley’s trek into exile is more likely to throw the seemingly serene world of Tibetan Buddhism into convulsions of unprecedented violence. What Dharamsala has not made public is that millions of devotees believe him to be a fake backed by greedy monks, and that it was an error of judgment by the Dalai Lama that cast him into a Chinese trap in the first place.
The Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile has also failed to mention that there are two boy gods claiming to be the one incarnation, competing for the one throne of the Karmapa. Both boy’s births were allegedly accompanied by miraculous signs, and both are backed by some of Buddhism’s most venerable monks. And now that Thinley has been led to India, both boys and their backers are stationed precariously close to one another.
While Urgyen Thinley has spent the past eight years in Tsurphu – a monastery hewn from a Tibetan mountainside 1000 years ago – watching the world through a bullet-proof window, another boy in another country has also been groomed for divinity. Thaye Dorje, a solemn-faced teenager with studious glasses and a wisp of a moustache, was smuggled out of Tibet in 1994 and installed in a safe house that overlooks the Kalimpong Valley, in the Indian state of West Bengal.
Since their recognition ceremonies, each boy has endured lonely years of study and prayer. There has been little time for laughter and friends and neither can recall much of his childhood. In Tibet and India, Urgyen Thinley and Thaye Dorje have been taught how to become the Kagyu sect’s one living Buddha. Each has been constantly reminded that the other is a pretender to the Karmapa. Each now aspire to don the Kagyu sect’s black crown, a towering ceremonial hat said to be woven from the hair of 100,000 angels, which will be placed on one boy’s head when he reaches the age of 21.
Now that Urgyen Thinley has reached India, the police and security forces fear a showdown between monks and devotees from both factions. Tens of thousands of Tibetan Buddhist followers from around the world are converging on India, with both sides warning of a false messiah.
But this is not just a story about a metaphysical mess or the potential destruction of an order with 1000 years of unbroken history. The battle over the 17th Karmapa has spawned a paper trail that stretches from Beijing to Lockerbie and from Delhi to Lhasa. The Sunday Times Magazine has had access to a haul of documents – rebuttals, affidavits, writs, government intelligence files, police reports and an inch-thick folder of correspondence between the Dalai Lama and other high office holders. Piecing together this Byzantine jigsaw puzzle, what emerges is a clear picture of how some of Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest men have become masters of intrigue and the architects of a huge confidence trick.
The real story of Urgyen Thinley and Thaye Dorje reveals how two innocent boys are hostages to a fortune.
Both are being used by monks as weapons in a battle for control of an empire spanning America, Asia, Australia and Europe, with a following of five million people and assets estimated at £700m. Welcome to Buddhism Inc.
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