Police in Himachal Pradesh, India formally charged the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, along with some of his aides, with crimes related to a putatively illegal stash of foreign currency which was discovered nearly a year ago. I had perhaps naïvely thought this story had quietly gone away. A number of questions arise: is the Karmapa going to be arrested? Since these are serious charges, is there any question of his being sentenced to prison time? It seems virtually impossible that things would get to that stage (if somehow every other avenue failed, I imagine the president of India could pardon the Karmapa to avoid the public relations disaster of trying to imprison such a high-profile foreign guest). But it is possible that today’s developments signal a stepped-up harassment of the Karmapa by hostile elements in the Indian government. Exactly what their motivation for doing that is has always been unclear to me. It could be related to the Shamarpa/Tai Situ controversy, but I have never had the impression that the Shamarpa has that much influence in the Indian government. It could be that elements in Indian government are actively trying to make sure the Karmapa never has any political ambitions that would cause friction between India and China; or, they do want him to have political ambitions, but they want to be able to control him.
One other question that today’s charges bring up: how much is the Karmapa willing to put up with in India before he decides to try to find somewhere else to live? Is he even at liberty to leave India? He has been heavily restricted from visiting other countries, but that was on the assumption that he was still relying on their hospitality when he came back. I’m going to assume that India wouldn’t try to prevent him from leaving the country to live somewhere else permanently. If it did come to that, where would make a good home for the Karmapa? An obvious option would be the United States. The Karmapa already has a well-established headquarters in Woodstock, New York. He would have the opportunity to make an enormous impact on Buddhism in North America. By dint of its hegemonic position, the United States is more willing to stand up to Chinese political pressure than any other nation, so it would likely be willing to offer him asylum and not restrict his movements or activities. The downside, however, is that the Karmapa might be seen as aligning himself clearly with China’s main rival, which could undermine his ability to act as a go-between in negotiations with the Chinese government.
Living in Japan or Taiwan would probably offer fewer benefits to the Karmapa while evoking an even greater level of suspicion from the Chinese. Any of the other countries in East Asia are likely to be too intimidated by Chinese power to make amenable home for him.
Western Europe is another promising option. Perhaps the best home for the Karmapa would be in Switzerland, a small country famous for its neutrality. I understand there is already a small but active Tibetan exile community there. Perhaps the Karmapa could make an arrangement with the Swiss government to be able to create a monastery and a small settlement of his followers at some out-of-the-way location in Swiss Alps. The residents would mostly be monks interested to helping the Karmapa build a new home monastery in exile, but could also include some laypeople employed by the Karmapa’s organisation as well as some business owners and workers doing business with the other residents. This could benefit Switzerland by creating a unique cultural attraction (Tibet remains fashionable) and a lot of positive PR. It would also create an alternate center for the global Tibetan exile community, which could potentially be a useful hedge if, in the future, India becomes much less hospitable to the exile community there. A side benefit for the Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, is that Western Europe so far has been the heartland of support for his rival, Trinlay Thaye Dorje. By establishing his headquarters, there he might be able to shift the region’s tendencies in his own favor.
The day when the Karmapa chooses to move away from India might be a long way away and it might never come, but the time to start planning for contingencies, I would say, is here already.
UPDATE: according to news reports, the Karmapa in principle could be sentenced to up to two years in prison. I still think this will never happen in a million years. Still, the threat of prison time could be very real for some of his advisers, which might encourage him to stay in India — the better to lobby for their release.
UPDATE 2: it occurs to me that moving his headquarters might be a good opportunity for the Karmapa to revamp his team of advisers. I’ve always had the gut feeling that there might be some shady characters around him. On the face of it, you’d think that someone like the Karmapa could just hire and fire staff at will, but in interpersonal relationships it’s always a little more complicated than that, especially given the limitations placed on the Karmapa by the Indian government. This incident could be an opportunity for a shake-up. Obviously, the Karmapa would still not want to leave his older advisers to languish in prison.
UPDATE 3: The more I think about, the choice of where the Karmapa would move if he left India depends a lot on what political rôle, if any, he expects to play in the future. If he expects not to be involved with politics at all, then there are many advantages to living in the United States. I think the Karmapa could have an enormous impact on Buddhism in North America. On the other hand, if the Karmapa is going to be involved in negotiations with the Chinese, then he would be better off not appearing to affiliate himself with the U.S. Switzerland is a country that is used as a symbol of neutrality. Incidentally, the Karmapa’s rôle in negotiations would be as an informal go-between and he would likely remain entirely in the background until after a deal was reached. The Karmapa’s value comes from the fact that he is probably perceived by the Chinese as more neutral and trustworthy than the Dalai Lama or the exile government are. The Karmapa should never have a formal position in the government-in-exile, nor does he need official approval from them to talk to the Chinese about politics (he should quietly coordinate with them behind the scenes). The distance between the Karmapa and the government-in-exile is a feature, not a bug: the CCP hates the idea of negotiating with a “government-in-exile”, so that makes the Karmapa the “good cop” by comparison. Even if everyone knows the Karmapa and TGIE are coordinating behind the scenes, the public presentation is still a face-saver for the Chinese government.