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November 30, 2000

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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FEBRUARY 4, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 4

The Great Escape
The CIA did not whisk him away. Nor did Beijing plot his departure. Tibetan exiles reveal how and why the Karmapa lama fled to India
By AJAY SINGH Dharamsala

Down through the ages, since at least the 12th century, Tibet's 17 karmapa lamas have drawn much of their religious mystique from a single hat that devotees call "the precious liberating black crown." Said to be made from the hair of 100,000 dakinis, or fairies, it symbolizes the karmapa's awakened mind and is supposed to be inseparable from him and his sect. So profound is the connection between Tibetans and this fabled hat that the great Buddhist sage Padmasambhava once said "people who see, hear, remember or touch [it] will be born near exalted beings after departing from their present life."

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It was therefore no surprise that when the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, fled to India following China's annexation of Tibet in 1959, the hat was among several holy relics that he took along. Since his 1981 death from cancer at 57 in a Chicago hospital, the hat has been kept in the safe confines of the Dharma Chakra Center, founded by the lama in India's northeastern state of Sikkim. The passage of the black hat to a foreign land, however, posed a problem: Tibetans believe Rigpe Dorje was reincarnated in Tibet as Orgyen Trinley Dorje, which meant that the 17th Karmapa did not have access to the symbol of his power. So when 14-year-old Trinley Dorje recently showed up in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala, surprising His Holiness the Dalai Lama and practically the entire world, the official word from China was that he had come to collect his hat and a religious musical instrument. Beijing said the boy, the only Tibetan lama recognized by both China and the Dalai Lama, had not betrayed the motherland or the Chinese Communist Party and that he would soon be back.

That is unlikely. And despite conspiracy theories - that Beijing deliberately let the lad go in an attempt to divide the exiled Tibetan community, that the CIA flew him out in a helicopter - it appears that the Karmapa left of his own accord, for his own reasons. Tibetan sources tell Asiaweek that the trip was meticulously planned. A few days before his flight on Dec. 28, the Karmapa announced to his Chinese security detail that he was entering a religious retreat and would not see anyone but his tutor and cook. The night of the escape turned out to be fortuitous, say exiles. Two of the Karmapa's guards were on leave and most monks at the Tsurphu monastery, some 60 km north of Lhasa, were watching television.

Shortly before midnight, the Karmapa apparently jumped from his bedroom window and was whisked away in a car, along with his 24-year-old sister, who is a Buddhist nun, two aides and three monks. The group of seven drove non-stop for some 36 hours, following almost the same escape route that the Dalai Lama had traversed on horseback 40 years before.

The car stopped ahead of security checkpoints, where the Karmapa alighted, circled around the barriers and rejoined his comrades on the other side. When the road came to an end near unmotorable mountains bordering Nepal, the party began a trek.

About 12 hours later, the Karmapa and his comrades entered Nepal. Getting past the porous Indian frontier was no problem. Because of a long-standing friendship and trade treaty between New Delhi and Kathmandu, the nations' mutual border is manned by officials from the Indian customs and excise-tax department, not immigration. From Nepal, the group boarded a bus to the northern Indian town of Gorakhpur. From there, the Karmapa and his aides caught a train to Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh state, just a few hours away. From Lucknow, two taxis took them to New Delhi and then onward to Dharamsala in about 20 hours.

Page 2: The Dalai Lama Had No Clue >>

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