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Correspondent Friday, 25 May, 2001, 14:07 GMT 15:07 UK
The boy king
The boy king
The boy king

Click here for transcripts

Eighteen months ago, Urgyen Trinley Dorge, the 16 year-old boy whom many Buddhists believe to be a gifted spiritual leader, escaped from his native Tibet, to live in a monastery in the Indian mountains. The BBC's Carol Wightman, who gained exclusive access to him, reports:

Plucked from a nomad's tent when he was still a child, Urgyen Trinley Dorge, the reincarnate Karmapa ("One who does many things") is, at 16 years old, Tibet's most ancient spiritual leader.

The boy king addresses the international media
This boy king has fled from his Chinese controlled homeland to India where he has become the central figure in a largely political battle for the soul of Tibetan Buddhism. His actions have antagonised the Chinese and divided his own people.

Governments thrown into chaos

The Karmapa is currently seen as the second most important Tibetan religious leader after the Dalai Lama. His recent escape from his monastery in Tibet to the Tibetan community in exile in Dharamsala has thrown the governments of China, India and Tibet into chaos.

He was recently granted refugee status by the Indian Government but now, 18 months after his escape, he has no official papers and remains under virtual house arrest, amidst tight Indian security at Gyuto Monastery.

After 18 tense months of negotiations with the Tibetan Government in Exile, the Indian Government and with those Tibetan lamas who advise the Karmapa, it was here that I was finally allowed to talk to him, in his cramped quarters on the top floor of Gyuto.

He's a tall, striking young man - well aware of the power of his words - and well-versed in carefully explaining his reasons for leaving Tibet.

"At certain significant occasions, there was a feeling of restriction. Basically what would happen was that when I was attempting to go with the responsibilities, people would prevent me in certain situations from carrying these out. The reason for my escape was connected with these restrictions."

Dramatic escape

The Karmapa's escape route over the Tibetan Mountains to India
His dramatic escape story would make a Hollywood movie. Clearly still traumatised by the experience, the monks who risked their lives to accompany the young boy told me how it took more than a year to plan.

On 28th December 1999, they foiled the Chinese guards and jumped from a window of Tsurphu Monastery to a waiting vehicle. It was the middle of winter when conditions were at their worst.

"We travelled night and day and finally came to the first Chinese army camp. We had to leave the vehicle with the driver and His Holiness and I and his personal assistant walked around the camp. We had to go up a mountain. It was very steep like a precipice.

Lama Tsewang

We had to hold onto something to climb up it and the bushes had thorns so we all got wounds on our hands. We didn't care much for this ourselves but to see His Holiness suffering was very painful for us. It took us about four hours to go up and down this mountain and find the car again which had gone past the first camp."

Five days later, after travelling non-stop they finally reached Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama, apparently astounded, welcomed the Karmapa.

Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama
"When he came in this very room he told me his main goal is to serve Buddhism and the Tibetan nation. To fulfil this he cannot serve properly if he remains inside Tibet so in spite of the risk he decided to escape - wonderful, wonderful," the Dalai Lama told me.

The Dalai Lama is in no doubt about the Karmapa's significance.

"He is one of the most important lamas in Tibetan society. He also has a large number of followers. Many people respect him and so he has a great important role. The identity of Tibet has been given a huge boost by the Karmapa's escape.

Even before he came out he also demonstrated by himself, through his own intentions, that he is quite tough".

Bitter resentment

He will need to be tough. His escape has rekindled the bitter resentment of a rival faction of Buddhists who are angered by the Dalai Lama's endorsement of Urgyen Trinley Dorge as the Karmapa.

They want to see their "own Karmapa" in place.

This dispute has been damaging to the image of Buddhism around the world and some say it is one of the factors behind the Indian Government¿s current refusal to allow the Karmapa to go to the official seat of the Karmapas at Rumtek in Sikkim.

This action would also antagonise the Chinese who still feel that Sikkim should be part of China. Moreover establishing the Karmapa in Rumtek would enable him to gain the full international recognition which would raise his profile even further. Not everybody wants this.

The Karmapa is playing a waiting game but it was obvious to me that he is becoming increasingly impatient with his confinement. He is tired of what he calls "living in a guest-house".

Already, he has been more outspoken on the Tibet issue than the Dalai Lama and his every movement is being closely monitored by both the Indian and Chinese governments. They recognise his potential leadership role.

What will happen when the Dalai lama dies?

No-one knows what will happen when the Dalai Lama dies. The system of choosing leaders using the Tibetans' traditional system of reincarnation is open to corruption and abuse.

They can't afford another dispute over another senior reincarnate lama. There are fears that Tibetans have much to lose if this is not confronted soon. For very complex reasons, thousands of people, including Gedun Rabsel who himself escaped from Tibet to Dharamsala some years ago, have a vested interest in Urgyen Trinley Dorge's future.

Gedun Rabsel
Gedun Rabsel
"Tibetans in Exile are becoming more attached to the Karmapa and every day more people are putting their hopes in him. Normally, when a person is spiritual or religious he gains the trust and confidence of his people. The Karmapa will become both a religious and political figure and will definitely play a role in getting our country back."

But the Karmapa himself told me he was not interested primarily in politics: "I myself have no political intentions or ambitions. In spite of that there is still some political consequence in my coming here. But it is still fine for me to say that this wasn't my intention."

Sitting in front of me, surrounded by senior lamas, tense minders, western devotees and armed Indian police, the young Karmapa told me that his "function is to work for the benefit of others". Precisely how he does this remains to be seen.

The Boy King: Sunday 27th May at 1910 BST (1810 GMT) on BBC 2.

Reporter: Carol Wightman
Producer: Richard Else
Deputy Editor: Farah Durrani
Editor: Fiona Murch

Carol Wightman
The story of the boy king
Dalai Lama
He is one of the most important lamas in Tibetan society
Carol Wightman
This monastery has been given over to the Karmapa
Urgyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa
I myself have no political ambitions
See also:

08 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
09 Mar 00 | South Asia
03 Feb 01 | South Asia
05 Feb 01 | South Asia
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