On January 5, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, the 14-year-old head of the Kagyu order, having left Tibet under the cloak of darkness, arrived safely in Dharamsala, India, seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Although many details of the Karmapa’s escape were unknown in early January, the New York Times reported that on December 28 His Holiness, whose name is Ugyen Trinley Dorge, fled on foot with several attendants from Tsurphu Monastery approximately 40 miles north of Lhasa.

Ugyen Trinley Dorje was born in eastern Tibet in 1985. In 1992, shortly after he was discovered by Tai Situ Rinpoche and recognized as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje became the first Tibetan lama to be recognized by Chinese authorities. He was hailed as a “Living Buddha” in Beijing and the Chinese govenment reportedly sought to use him as a puppet to justify its claims of religious tolerance in Tibet. When, however, contrary to an agreement with the Chinese authorities, he was prevented from visiting his followers outside Tibet or inviting his teacher, Tai Situ Rinpoche, to visit Tsurphu from Sikkim, the decision to flee was made,according to the New York Times.

The trip of some 900 miles brought the group, including Karmapa’s sister, a Buddhist nun, to the Tibet-Nepal border where they were apparently picked up by several vehicles. The boy was immediately taken to the Dalai Lama’s residence. Soon afterward he was placed under guard at Gyuto Monastery in Sidhbari, and the Tibetan government-in-exile told the press that they had been completely surprised by his arrival. His flight represents, by all accounts, a stunning victory for the exiled Tibetan community and a considerable embarrassment for the communist government of China. It is the first defection by a major Tibetan figure since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959.

The recognition of Ugyen Trinley Dorje as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa was disputed by Shamar Rinpoche, who—along with Tai Situ Rinpoche—was a close disciple of the 16th Karmapa. Shamar Rinpoche suggested that the 14-year-old’s selection was influenced by Beijing authorities. Two years after this Karmapa’ recognition, Shamar Rinpoche claimed to have discovered the Karmapa’s authentic reincarnation, a 10-year-old Bhutanese boy named Thaye Dorje. Recently, a middle position had emerged endorsed by the Dalai Lama: that there have been two reincarnations but that Ugyen Trinley Dorje is the primary one. Bu mid-January, India was being pressured by Beijing to refuse the boy asylum, but Defense Minister GeorgeFernandes announced, “If people walk in and want to stay on for a while they can be allowed to stay.” The U.S. said it would back a resolution critical of Beijing at the U.N. Commision on Human Rights in Geneva in March.

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