A Young Lama Prepares for a Greater Role
THE NEW YORK TIMES July 28, 2011
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
WOODSTOCK, N.Y. – At the age of 7, he was deemed to be the 17th reincarnation of the Karmapa – one of the most revered figures in Tibetan Buddhism – and whisked from the yak-hair tent of his nomad family in the Himalayas to be groomed in a monastery for leadership.
Now 26, his mere appearance on the stage alongside the Dalai Lama at a major ceremony in Washington this month sent a flutter of excitement through the Tibetans in the crowd. Here was more evidence to them that the Dalai Lama had taken the young Karmapa under his wing, serving as teacher and father figure in India, where both live in exile, because China claims sovereignty over Tibet.
The Karmapa and the Dalai Lama lead different Tibetan Buddhist lineages and are not equals; the Dalai Lama, who is 76, is the pre-eminent spiritual leader of Tibet. And yet, many Tibetans are looking to the Karmapa to assume the mantle of the Dalai Lama when the elder lama dies, to take on the role as shepherd of the Tibetan people and lead them home from exile.
The succession talk appears to be burdensome for the young Karmapa, a solid 6-footer with a serene gaze whose name is Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Asked about his future during an interview at the mountainside monastery here that is his North American seat, the Karmapa said that the Dalai Lama had made it clear that his hopes for the future of Tibet rested with its young leaders.
“In that regard, His Holiness has been very kind to me, and has served as a mentor and guides me greatly,” the Karmapa said in Tibetan, translated by an American lama. “But I’m only one of many.”
Then, breaking into English, he added, “I don’t need more pressure.” The Karmapa smiled, and then grew serious and added in Tibetan: “I don’t think I can do any more. It’s hard enough just to be the Karmapa.”
His Holiness the Karmapa, has just come through a trying time. Earlier this year, he was investigated by the Indian police who found more than $1 million in foreign currency in his residence, including more than $166,000 from China.
The Karmapa and his aides insisted that the money had been donated by devotees who flocked to India from around the world to see him. Although there is a rival who also claims the title, the Karmapa is regarded by the Dalai Lama and most Tibetans as the leader of the 900-year-old Karma Kagyu lineage, one of the four main schools in Tibetan Buddhism, with hundreds of monasteries and dharma centers in more than 60 countries.
The Karmapa’s aides said they planned to use the money to buy land for a monastery in India. But the Indian media fanned rumors that he was a Chinese spy.
To Tibetans and to scholars of Tibetan Buddhism, the notion is absurd. The Karmapa fled Tibet when he was 14, climbing out a window of his monastery to a waiting car, avoiding military checkpoints and riding a horse through the Nepalese outback to reach India. The escape was reminiscent of the Dalai Lama’s dash over the icy passes of the Himalayas in 1959.
But the rumors about the 17th Karmapa persisted in part because the Chinese government has recognized him as the legitimate leader of the Kagyu tradition, and avoided denouncing him even after his flight to India. That is in marked contrast to the Chinese denunciations of the Dalai Lama as a “splittist.”
This puts the Karmapa in a singular position, said Robert J. Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University.
“The Karmapa is perfectly placed to be someone who could broker a solution in the future,” Mr. Barnett said. “This is one of the rather rare issues where exiles and those in Tibet are in agreement. They have very wide respect for the Karmapa.”
The rival Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje, has the backing of one senior lama in the Kagyu tradition and some followers in the West (who managed to secure the rights to the Web address karmapa.org). But Mr. Barnett likened the rivalry to the “birther controversy” involving President Obama. “For most people, this is a settled issue,” he said.
Tenzin Chonyi, president of the Woodstock monastery (called Karma Triyana Dharmachakra), was an aide to the 16th Karmapa, and as a child fled Tibet with him in 1959. He said the 17th Karmapa was identified by a group of lamas who were entrusted with the task of finding the child who they believe is the reincarnation of the previous Karmapa.
“This Karmapa was found based on the previous Karmapa’s instruction,” Mr. Chonyi said. “So we have no doubt.”
In response to the Indian police investigation, Tibetans turned out by the thousands to demonstrate their support for the Karmapa. The Tibetan government in exile sent delegations to New Delhi. The Indian police quickly cleared him.
Several months later, the Indian government gave him permission to travel to the United States, permission it had denied since his first trip to the United States in 2008.
Asked whether the suspicions had damaged relations between India and the Tibetans in exile there, the Karmapa took the long view.
“The connection between India and the Tibetan people is thousands of years old,” he said. “It is a spiritual connection and a cultural connection and is one of great affection. After all, the spiritual path of Buddhism, the spiritual path pursued by the majority of Tibetans, came from India to Tibet.”
He added, “This connection is one that has lasted generation after generation, and so I don’t think that this connection is in any danger.”
On his last trip to the United States, the Karmapa steered clear of politics. But this time, he did not mince words when asked about Tibet. He said Tibet was “in an emergency” that had only grown worse since the Chinese crackdown on the Tibetan demonstrations in 2008.
“The government of China has continued to be extremely restrictive,” by limiting the activities of monasteries and the number of monks, he said.
“The building of infrastructure – roads, trains, airports and so on – and the large immigration of people from central China into Tibet threaten the survival of Tibetan culture and the ecosystem,” he said.
“It is a very good sign,” he said, that President Obama met with the Dalai Lama this month.
The Karmapa will speak at Hunter College in New York City on Friday night. He said he would talk about compassion – not politics – which his devotees say is really the calling of a reincarnate lama.
“You could say he’s in his 20s, and he’s 900 years old at the same time,” said Lama Kathy Wesley, a longtime American convert to Tibetan Buddhism and a board member at the Woodstock monastery. “The wisdom mind of the first Karmapa is said to continue in him.”