A teenage boy revered as the third-most important spiritual figure in Tibetan Buddhism has fled China across the snowy Himalayan mountains, traveling partly on foot, and arrived in Dharmsala, the northern Indian capital of Tibet's exiled Buddhist leadership, according to Buddhist officials.

In what analysts said could be a deeply embarrassing defection for the Communist Chinese government, 14-year-old Ugyen Trinley Dorje, known as the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Lama to his Buddhist followers, reportedly hiked and rode some 900 miles from his monastery near the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and arrived in Dharmsala on Wednesday, where he met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist leader.

Buddhist sources said he reached Dharmsala exhausted, with bruises and blisters from the grueling week-long journey. Buddhist officials in Dharmsala confirmed tonight that the Karmapa Lama had arrived two days ago but would give no details. Authorities in Beijing said only that he had left his monastery with a small number of followers.

The government in Beijing, which had touted him as a "patriotic" Buddhist, acknowledged his departure but suggested it was due to a split in his movement rather than disillusionment with life in China. The official New China News Agency said the Karmapa Lama left a letter to followers in his monastery saying he did not intend to betray "the state, the nation, the monastery or the leadership."

Other reports from China said the Karmapa Lama may have left in order to obtain some spiritually important items, including musical instruments and black hats that are symbolically important to his sect. But some pro-Tibetan groups abroad said this account was inaccurate and that he had been frustrated by restrictions on his activities.

"He said he had tried many times to get an exit visa but the Chinese had made that impossible," said Terry Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Karma Triyana Chakra Monastery in Woodstock, N.Y.

"He said he had been placed under a very strict regime of control and surveillance by Chinese authorities and that pilgrims had not been given access to him," Sullivan said. "He had no choice but to leave as he did."

If the Karmapa Lama has indeed defected from China, it would be the most important defection of a Buddhist leader since 1959, when the Dalai Lama and numerous other Buddhist clerics, including the Karmapa Lama's predecessor as head of the Karma Kagyu Buddhist sect, fled to India after a failed anti-Chinese uprising. The group has since made its headquarters in Dharmsala.

"It would be a slap in the face of the Chinese, who are hypersensitive about the Buddhists," said one Western diplomat here. "Symbolically, it would be a big blow." Some analysts said the defection could lead Beijing to crack down further on monasteries occupied by Dalai Lama supporters.

The Karmapa Lama, who was installed as head of his sect when he was 7, had been held up by Chinese authorities as a patriot who prayed for the soul of Mao Zedong, the late communist leader. He is the first Buddhist figure revered as the reincarnation of a holy person to be recognized by the communist state.

He is one of the key Buddhist leaders China has tried to co-opt to counterbalance the influence of the separatist Buddhist movement in exile, and China was said to hope he might one day replace the 64-year-old Dalai Lama, whose headquarters in Dharmsala is a focal point for agitation and protest against the communist regime.

Yet some Buddhist officials abroad said the Karmapa Lama had been forced to live under restrictive conditions in his monastery 30 miles from Lhasa, and had become increasingly frustrated. They said he sneaked away from his guards after saying he planned to go on a retreat, and then walked for a week along rocky and thorny mountain paths in the dead of winter to reach northern India.

"This is clearly a setback to efforts by Beijing to establish a rival authority to the Dalai Lama in Tibet," said Richard Oppenheimer, spokesman for the Tibet Information Office in London. "It was very extraordinary that he managed to get out when he was being guarded very carefully."

The Karmapa Lama's stature was marked by controversy within his sect, and he was installed only after a serious dispute among Buddhist leaders in Dharmsala. Born to a family of nomads in 1985, he was sent to study in Buddhist schools and was chosen in 1992 as the 17th incarnation of Karmapa, an ancient Buddha, 11 years after the 16th Karmapa died in Chicago. He has since lived in the Tsurphu monastery.

"We are all in a state of shock, but we are very joyful" about his arrival in Dharmsala, a former personal aide to the 16th Karmapa Lama was reported as saying today. "Every follower has been waiting for the chance to receive his blessing."

The controversy over Dorje's installation as spiritual leader of the sect never died, however, and Tibetan monks in northern India named a rival leader as 17th Karmapa.

Correspondent John Pomfret in Beijing contributed to this report.

A Glance at Tibetan Buddhism

The Dalai Lama is the top leader of the Tibetan Buddhists; the Panchem Lama holds the No. 2 position, and the Karmapa is third in line. All are considered reincarnations of Buddha.

These leaders are generally chosen as children who show extraordinary promise and are thus considered a rein-carnation.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959.

After the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981, no Karmapa was chosen for more than a decade.

Ugyen Trinley Dorje was found among the nomads of eastern Tibet and installed in a Tibetan monastery as the 17th Karmapa in 1992. He was endorsed by the exiled Dalai Lama and the Chinese government, which has guarded him closely.

A rival group installed another boy, Tenzin Chentse, now 16, as the 17th Karmapa. This has led to a power struggle, which some fear could be exploited by Beijing.

SOURCE: News services and staff reports