We heard the news one morning in Calcutta. Initial reports were that fourteen year old Ugyen Trinley Dorje had "trekked" 1450km (900 miles) in a week¡ªfrom his home at Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet across Nepal and into India. The route had taken him across the world's highest mountain passes; in the dead winter. An impressive journey to be sure but most notable was the fact that he had gone undetected by the Chinese authorities.
Despite being dressed in layman's clothes for the journey, Ugyen Trinley Dorje normally dons the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk. If he was just a monk however we probably never would have heard of his journey. Ugyen Trinley Dorje is considered by many Tibetans¡ªthe Dalai Lama included¡ªto be the 17th Karmapa, the leader of the Kagyu-pa¡ªone of the four main sects of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Karmapa is number three in the Tibetan leadership hierarchy. The number two Panchen Lama was arrested by the Chinese authorities in 1995 and hasn't been heard from since. The Dalai Lama, of course, is number one.
But is Ugyen Trinley Dorje the true Karmapa? A major dispute amongst the Tibetan community has been steaming over this question for some time. Now, with Ugyen Trinley's arrival in India, the issue had boiled over. How and why had he come?
His arrival in India had come as a surprise to the Indian Government and to most if not all Tibetans as well. It was widely felt that he was fleeing the repression of the Chinese Government. He wouldn't, after all, be the first Tibetan to do so.
Since the Chinese invaded and took over Tibet in the 1950's there has been a regular flow of Tibetan refugees into India. The Karmapa's arrival in Dharamsala¡ªseat of the exiled Tibetan Government¡ªis seen as the most significant (and dramatic) of such journeys since the Dalai Lama fled disguised and under cover of night in 1959. With him on that journey was the 16th Karmapa¡ªUrgen Trinley Dorje's predecessor.
The significance of the Karmapa's flight derives not just from his position but more importantly from the fact that he is recognized by both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese Government.
Agreement between these two parties is rare indeed. In a bid to coopt him, the Chinese authorities endorsed Ugyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa taking him on two tours of China during which he met with President Jiang Zemin and other leaders. Less than a year ago the Karmapa was quoted in the propaganda periodical "China's Tibet" as saying he'd "received an education in patriotism" and that he would follow Jiang's instructions and "work hard for the unification of the motherland".
Perhaps because of such statements, and despite the Dalai Lama's endorsement, there is some dispute within the Tibetan community as to who is the 17th Karmapa.
The Kagyu sect has been without a leader since the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981. According to tradition the incumbent Karmapa nominates his successor in a hidden letter. This letter serves as a clue for the Karmapa's followers to locate his reincarnation. The 16th Karmapa apparently didn't leave such a clue.