The 17th Karmapa Ugyen Trinley Dorje, who is just 14, made a dramatic escape from his monastery in Tsurphu, north of Lhasa, to India. His arrival in Dharamsala in India on January 5 was announced by one of his centers in the United States. The Karmapa is the most prominent Tibetan lama to have escaped from Tibet to India since the escape of the Drikung Chetsang, head of the Drikung Kagyu lineage, in 1975.

The Karmapa is the only lama in recent times to have had the recognition of the Dalai Lama as well as the approval of the Chinese Government. The Chinese Government did much to promote him as a symbol of its liberal religious policy in Tibet. He has been taken to Beijing to meet Chinese leaders, including President Jiang Zemin. Chinese leader Li Ruihuan was quoted by Xinhua in January 1999 as saying that the Karmapa will “have great impact on the development and stability of Tibet.”

At the time of writing little is known about the escape of the Karmapa and his six followers other than that they left Tsurphu on December 28, 1999. Tibetans who have visited the Tsurphu Monastery in recent months have reported that Chinese officials have a strong presence there. There was also a report that visitors to Tsurphu at the end of 1999 were told that the Karmapa was on a retreat, meaning he could not be disturbed. The Tibetan leadership in Dharamsala has said that it had no foreknowledge of the Karmapa’s escape.

While this development has the potential of affecting Dharamsala-Beijing relationship as well as India-China ties much will depend on how the Chinese authorities react to it. At press time, Beijing had said the Karmapa left a note in his monastery saying that he was going to India only to collect some religious artifacts and that he had not intended to “betray the state, the nation, the monastery or the leadership.” A Chinese Spokesman also indicated that it would not be pleased if India granted asylum to the Karmapa.

The 16th Karmapa passed away in 1981 and his reincarnation was discovered in 1992.

The Karmapa is presently in a secluded place in India.