13th Tibetan Religious Leaders Conference indefinitely postponed

Mcleod Ganj: The 13th Tibetan Religious Leaders Conference scheduled for November 29- 30 in McLeod Ganj by the Department of Religion, Central Tibetan Administration has been indefinitely postponed ostensibly over the sudden death, in a tragic accident, of Kathok Getse Rinpoche, head of the Nyingma Council. Over 150 invitations had been sent to all lineage holders and heads of monasteries in India and Nepal. Subjects to be discussed included
challenges before Tibetan Buddhism including the growing incidence of scandals and misconduct by Tibetan monks. The issue of reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama was also part of the agenda.

The conference would have been held in the background of misgivings amongst Tibetans about the Indian Government’s commitment to their cause. This follows the avoidable fiasco of cancellation and then curtailment of the ‘Thank You India’ programme that the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) had planned. This seeming distancing from Dharamshala soon after His Holiness Dalai Lama’s (HHDL) Government approved tour of Arunachal Pradesh took the CTA by surprise. Reports have been in circulation that HHDL hasn’t had the kind of engagement with the Indian leadership he’s enjoyed since Nehru’s days. Obviously, there is a communication gap at the top level.

The question ‘what after the 14th Dalai Lama?’, is increasingly on the minds of Tibetans as all their future hopes rest on him. The sinking feeling that he is not immortal is dawning on them even though he seems in good health.

The subject of his reincarnation has been raised publicly with him evoking various responses, prefaced by his comment “depending on the wishes of the Tibetan people.” To preempt complications by China, the conference would have resolved that the business of Dalai Lama’s reincarnation is his alone and that all those attending commit to abide by his wishes. With CTA representing the Tibetan diaspora and the religious heads their devotees within Tibet, the resolutions would have reflected the will of the people and strengthened HHDL’s hand in whatever he decides, reincarnation or emanation in his lifetime.

The Tibetan community is showing increasing divisions. The Khampas vs Rest debate, which marred elections in 2015 to the post of Sikyong or Prime Minister in exile, has polarized laymen and monks alike. This has undermined the position of the Sikyong Dr Sangay now designated as President of the Central Tibetan Administration. Confusion over Prof Samdhong Rinpoche’s visit in December 2017 to China, denied by him but confirmed by Dr Sangay is illustrative of the gap between HHDL’s private office the Gaden Phodrang and the elected Central Tibetan Administration to which the Dalai Lama has handed over this temporal powers.

The success of any conference to strengthen HHDL’s hands would depend upon the extent of participation. There are 4 major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Of these, current head of the Sakyapas the 42nd Sakya Trizin HH Ratna Vajra Rinpoche had consented to attend.

Kathok Getse Rinpoche, representing the Nyingma school, was to attend but unfortunately died. There was no certainty about top-level participation from the important Nyingma monasteries and whether they would send only their representatives. A fear with some monastic heads is the retribution from Beijing to their participation, the threat of being denied visits to their monasteries in Tibet and holding back of funds for their upkeep.

Comments appearing in Tibetan media as well as social media have alluded to uncertainty over Ogyen Trinley Dorje (OTD), the 17th Karmapa and head of the Karma Kagyu School to attend as a reason for the postponement of the conference. The institution of the Karmapa holds a very special position in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy.

Recognised by both HHDL and China, OTD had gone abroad on a scheduled tour of UK, Canada & the US in May 2017 and has not returned. Subjected to irksome restrictions in India by security agencies, he has sought assurances on the circumstances he would return to. These have not been forthcoming. He has given up his Identity Certificate (a document issued to Tibetans by Government of India to enable international travel) and acquired a passport from the Commonwealth of Dominica for ease of travel and so needs an Indian visa to return. Last heard he is believed to be struggling to surrender his Identity Certificate and obtain a visa of adequate duration.

From the patronage of the Dalai Lama, his own charismatic personality and sympathy for the way he has been treated since his escape from Tibet to India in Jan 2000, Ogyen Trinley Dorje has acquired stature and gained acceptability cutting across sectarian lines. Revered within Tibet and with an international profile, he has come to be recognized as the future face of Tibetan Buddhism. Any conference of Tibetan religious leaders would have been incomplete without the 17th Karmapa’s presence.

India can ill afford to fall out of the perception that the conference, intended to showcase unity on the issue of Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, had to be postponed as the government failed to facilitate the Karmapa’s return in time to attend it. It will be equally challenging for the Government of India, busy with repairing relations with Beijing, not to be seen assuaging Chinese at the cost of Tibetans.