Three months ago, on January 5, the Tibetan population-in-exile erupted in rare celebration. After a hair-raising, eight-day journey across the Himalayas from Chinese-occupied Tibet, the 15-year-old Gyalwa Karmapa arrived, unannounced, at the doorstep of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, northern India.

The Karmapa is the leader of the Karma Kagyu school, one on the four main traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and one of Tibet's most important lamas. The young man, whose name is Ugyen Trinley, and his tiny entourage hadn't slept for days, driving, trekking through frozen, uncharted mountain passes, even riding horseback to get to India. "You must be tired," said the Dalai Lama to his surprise guest, hugging the Karmapa in a fatherly way. "Yes," replied the Karmapa. "I am."

Every year, nearly 4,000 Tibetans escape from Tibet to Nepal and India. Most of them flee during the winter months--when there are fewer border patrols--and risk frost bite, death by exposure, and arrest or even death at the hands of the Chinese army and police who might catch them. But the Karmapa's was a triumphant escape, not just because it was successful, but because the young lama has been the focus of the hope and fear of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans--hope that he would help safeguard the future of Tibetan Buddhism, and fear that the Chinese would turn him into a pawn in their ongoing campaign to strangle Tibet.

In the months since his flight, the terrible events leading up to the Karmapa's escape have come to light, and there has been much speculation about the role the Karmapa may play in Tibet's future. And most important for the Karmapa, he has begun to receive the sacred teachings that will enable him to fulfill his title and become a genuine lama.

For the Chinese, the Karmapa's flight was an intense political blow that robbed them of an important religious figurehead--and one they thought they could control. The Dalai Lama, for one, has said often that he hopes the Karmapa will be a key player in bringing about Tibetan autonomy. And since the young lama's arrival here, the international press has presented him as a possible successor in the event of the death of the Dalai Lama, until the next Dalai Lama reaches an age when he will be able to shoulder his responsibilities. Although there are no historical precedents for a Karmapa acting as regent, the present one could do so.

Beijing's handling of the Karmapa highlights a crude strategy of using high lamas in its attempt to thwart the spiritual and civic life of Tibet, and how those attempts backfire. Despite the restrictions placed upon him by the Chinese, who severely limited the religious training he would normally have received by this age, the Karmapa has become known for his extraordinary charisma, maturity, and intellectual gifts--witnessed by the fact that the 15-year-old masterminded his own escape. Born to a poor nomad family in eastern Tibet, he was recognized at age 5 as the 17th incarnation of the first Karmapa, who died in 1193, by a search party following indications left in a letter said to have been written by the 16th Karmapa (1924-1982). Ugyen Trinley, along with all his predecessors, is considered to be an emanation of the Buddha of Compassion, like the Dalai Lama.

Since his enthronement, he had been living under virtual house arrest at his monastery, Tsurphu, 35 miles northwest of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Heavily guarded by Chinese police and spies, he was not allowed to travel freely or talk openly with visitors. Instead, they tried to flatter him with gifts and by granting him permission and funding to restore monasteries--Tsurphu itself was totally destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but has since been rebuilt.

More importantly, the Chinese assumed that if they deprived the Karmapa of a genuine education, his credibility as a bona fide leader and spokesperson for Tibetan religion and culture would flounder, and his dependence on the Communists would increase. The Karmapa, who has grown to six feet and has an extraordinarily direct gaze, had reached the age when his tradition demanded he receive the teachings of his lineage. The chain of oral transmission for the Karmapa dates back 800 years, and each previous incarnation had received the teaching from a master lama who had received them from the Karmapa who came before. In 1995, the Karmapa's main teacher, Tai Situ Rinpoche, who lives in India and had helped identify the current Karmapa, was denied permission to visit Tibet. Sources close to the Karmapa say he is deeply embarrassed to bear the exalted title without being able to acquire the learning to justify it.

The Karmapa had also been under constant pressure to denounce the Dalai Lama, as many lamas have been forced to do. And he was subjected to re-education programs, carried out in monasteries throughout Tibet since 1997 by the Communist Party.

The young Karmapa also strongly resented the Chinese authorities for forcing him to participate in the enthronement celebrations for the Panchen Lama appointed by the Chinese four years ago. The Panchen Lama is the second most important figure in the Gelukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism, after the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama recognized the 11th Panchen, Gedun Chökyi Nyima, in 1995, enraging Chinese authorities who then arrested the little boy. They enthroned their own candidate as the "real" Panchen Lama. The boy recognized by the Dalai Lama has now disappeared and Beijing refuses to disclose his whereabouts. If alive, the young Panchen, now 11, is arguably the world's youngest political prisoner.

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