He is older by five years since my last audience in the Gyuto Ramoche Tantric Monastery near Dharamsala, slightly more plump but engaging as ever and seems much more confident. That last is an illusion. The confidence was always there for the boy was also a man, 900 years old, a “Living Buddha” as the Chinese call him. But the confidence is more obvious now because of the fluency in English that allows him to touch on such diverse matters as the need to give a spiritual dimension to practical life, the role of monks in Tibet and the militant Tibetan Youth Congress. Our conversations at Gyuto had been through interpreters. Now, in the round drawing room of a Calcutta hotel suite, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, tells me he takes daily English lessons.
A highly successful American tour may have made him more outgoing. Conversation flows easily and at the end, there’s almost a hug. His American devotees had been waiting for the return of the Karmapa since 1981 when the 16th incarnation passed into parinirvana, as they say, in their midst. But the Indian government, which strictly controls his movements, would not allow him to take up the invitation until 2008. New Delhi has clamped down again since then, refusing permission to accept a second American invitation. A trip to Europe had to be cancelled at the last moment because the government objected. Since he has made India his home and Sikkim’s Rumtek monastery is his rightful seat, the Karmapa obeys with good grace.
But it rankles with his followers that even Sikkim is forbidden to him, though he was allowed to conduct special ceremonies across the border at Mirik near Darjeeling. Would the Central Reserve Police Force be set on the Living Buddha if he stepped across? Would the army shove him across another border to make his way back to Tsurphu monastery near Lhasa, traditional seat of the Karmapas, where he was enthroned and from where he fled with a handful of attendants on December 28, 1999? There may be legal reasons for debarring His Holiness from Rumtek since the title has been disputed in court. But Sikkim, where 50 per cent of the population is Buddhist and two other important monasteries (Phodong and Ralang) also belong to his Karma Kagyu sect, is clamouring for the privilege of hosting him.
That was the demand of the massive September 26 rally of Nepalese, Bhotias, Lepchas and plainspeople, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and animist, in Gangtok. Cries of “Karmapa come home!” resounded from 50,000 throats. Following a series of smaller assemblies throughout the state since June, the rally enjoyed the blessings of the chief minister, Pawan Chamling. As chief guest, India’s former ambassador to Mongolia, Karma Topden, also a Rajya Sabha member for two terms, struck a pleading note as he addressed New Delhi, “Today you heard the voice of Sikkim.... It’s a soft voice, voice of love, voice of trust, voice of faith, voice of hope.” He implored more directly, “Please, please, hear this voice of Sikkim.”
Another speaker, Thukchok Lachungpa, president of the Sikkimese Tribal Association, added, “We are not throwing stones, we are not asking for azadi. All we are asking with folded hands is for our Lama to be allowed to come to Sikkim so that we can receive his blessings and teachings. This is a big thing for us but for Delhi it is a small matter. It only needs a small stroke of the pen to write — ‘Permitted to go to Sikkim.’” No one understands the Centre’s unexplained refusal to do so.
Remembering that the placid young man expounding his views with a slight smile on his face, arms gesticulating expansively, is travelling to Bodh Gaya for the anniversary of the first Karmapa’s installation in 1110, I ask if he is really 900 years old. “Sort of,” he replies with his half smile. “Sort of” is a favourite way out of tricky situations. Does the Indian government recognize his rank? “Sort of.” The gleam in his eye and the knowing smile indicate he knows exactly what the inquisition is about but isn’t going to stumble into any pitfalls. I have heard the Dalai Lama also choose his words with care, but he is more than double the Karmapa’s age, has ruled Tibet and picked his way through the world’s minefields. What experience taught the elderly Dalai Lama is instinctive in the young Karmapa.
But there’s no mistaking his serenity. Or his commonsense. An American journalist who attended his first teaching in the United States of America, delivered after the exhausting flight from India, was profoundly impressed by the composure of the 24-year-old monk facing 3,000 people in the cavernous Hammerstein Ballroom in midtown Manhattan. “These terms like enlightenment and awakened mind,” the Karmapa advised, “seem so far away as to be useless.” What we need to focus on is right now where we are, right in the midst of our difficulties, even in the midst of New York City, where “the people and cars are rushing, where even the buildings seem to be rushing, growing higher”. In such a place, he said, we might think it’s impossible to attain any happiness and stability. But in the middle of Manhattan or in a cave in the Himalayas, we’re all in the same boat. If we can learn to be present and aware in the midst of our difficulties — whether we can resolve them or not — we will “never let them destroy our peace of mind”.
Two historical facts bear stressing. First, the Karmapa is Tibet’s — therefore the world’s — oldest incarnation. The better known Dalai Lama evolved 300 years later; the first Panchen Lama was not until the 14th century. Second, the Karmapa is the only Tibetan incarnate lama whose lineage is rooted in India. It began with the 10th century Bengali monk, Tilopa, at Nalanda, whose teaching passed down through a chain of disciples to Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193), the first Karmapa. The Dalai Lama, the Chinese government, the sect’s three highest rimpoches, Situ, Gyaltsab and Jamgon Kongtrul, and the majority of Karma Kagyud monasteries recognized Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa. Thaye Dorje, the rival candidate, was promoted by only one rimpoche, Shamar, and his followers.
The Karmapa is a modern man with an inquiring mind. He paints and likes music and, though he denies the addiction to computer games with which the Western media saddled him, admits to exercising with a Nintento Wii and to making good use of computers and the Internet. Cooped up in Gyuto, he can reach his followers across the world only via the Net. But he doesn’t talk to them only about the hereafter. He is passionate about his surroundings. Dekila Chungyalpa, the vivacious young Sikkimese director of the WWF-US Greater Mekong Programme in New York, gives me a bright little booklet, 108 Things you can do to Help the Environment, bearing the Karmapa’s byline. I knew already about the Himalayan Guardian of the Dharma Chakra Centre Environment Conservation Committee he established to raise environmental awareness through discussions, identify protective measures, plant trees and popularize waste management and solar power. He mentioned the drought and floods that threaten the world’s two most populous countries to warn that it’s wrong to treat challenges “on which the very existence of humanity depends as political issues.”
As he said almost in passing, so casually I nearly missed it, the Tibetan Youth Congress (hotheads who denounce the Dalai Lama’s compromise formula) blame Tibet’s plight on its monastic order. The past is beyond recall. But the synthesis of spiritualism and pragmatism the Karmapa preaches might save something of the future if India’s bureaucracy does not shackle a brave young man whose vision, energy and authority could be harnessed in the service of the subcontinent.