The Karmapa Lama in an exclusive interview

Jun 17, 2011

Category: Police Raid Jan 2011

On Wednesday the Himachal Pradesh police filed a chargesheet naming the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Thinley Dorje, among 10 people in the case over the discovery of foreign currency worth Rs 7 crore at the Gyuto monastery. In June this year, the Karmapa Lama gave an exclusive and rare interview, to We reproduce it below:

While approaching the Gyuto Ramoche monastery in Sidhbari near Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, one is immediately struck by the pervading peace of the complex. Since 2000, the Gyuto or Upper Tantric College, has offered as temporary accommodation, a wing of its premises, to the 17th Karmapa Lama, Ugyen Thinley Dorje, who has been in the news in recent months.

The 26-year old Lama lives here, surrounded by relatively tight security, with the majestic Dhauladhar range as a background.

Till now, apart from a few statements issued by his office, the young Lama has refused to come out of his reserve and comment on the accusations levelled against him, particularly the cash donations received by his monastery but not deposited in a bank, and his relations with India.

For the first time, he agrees to speak to in an exclusive interview to Claude Arpi, who also interviewed the newly elected prime minister of Tibet, Lobsang Sangay, in Dharmsala.

Throughout the interview, one discovers a remarkable calm young man, deeply interested in Indian culture, in art and the environment of the Himalayas, who is able to see the deeper meaning of the controversies that have surrounded him since he fled from Tibet in 1999, under amazing circumstances.

He takes time to answer each question, knowing perfectly the importance of his words. He usually prefers to speak through his interpreter, except for the last questions where he showed his proficiency in English and his sense of humour.

Your Holiness, can you tell us about your relations with India, which is often misunderstood?

My relationship to India is not something limited to the life of a single individual. This important relationship between the Karmapa lineage and India has a long history that goes back 900 years.

This relationship cannot be separated from this context. The Buddhist lineage was introduced more than 1,200 years ago in Tibet. The beginning of my own [Karmapa] lineage started 900 years ago, and its traditions are firmly rooted in India. The entire history of our lineage goes back to India. The lineage transmitted by the Karmapa comes from India, and was passed through the great Indian Mahasiddha Tilopa and Mahapandita Naropa, whom we revere as our forefathers in this Dharma lineage. Without these Indian sages as predecessors, the history of the Karmapas lineage would have not come into existence. Thus the Karmapa lineage itself is rooted deeply in the very soil of India.

Continuing with this historical background, at the end of the 1950s, when Tibet went through a critical period, Tibetans turned to India. Not only did they turn to India, but India responded warmly and since then has truly been a generous host for the Tibetan people -- not only for His Holiness the Dalai Lama but also for the many tens of thousands who took refuge [in India] and who now form the Tibetan diaspora. India has been a great host; India extended her hospitality to the displaced Tibetan people, for whom that hospitality was not a mere formality, but a matter of life or death.

On top of this, India has provided a sanctuary for the preservation of our Buddhist religious and cultural heritage as well as our Tibetan culture in general.

When the times were so difficult, when we were in such an utterly helpless situation, to whom did we turn? To India! And India provided the refuge we so desperately needed.

Even someone like me, born after 1959, I have heard so much about the kindness and generosity of the Indian people after 1959. It is much talked about among Tibetans. In my generation, there is a general attitude of gratitude towards India to the extent that when Tibetans think of a place for refuge, a land of peace and freedom, where the meaning and purpose of our life can be fulfilled, we immediately think of India. This is why the Tibetan people, myself included, have eagerly turned to India for refuge. We have the feeling that just by reaching the holy land of India, we have accomplished something of great meaning in our lives.

Your Holiness has taken the initiative to look for some religious songs in Sanskrit (they were lost in their original forms in India). Could returning to India these parts of the Indian cultural and religious heritage, be considered as your offering to your host country?

As I mentioned, India is the source of Buddhism for the world. Buddhism originated in India, but it was unfortunately virtually destroyed in its homeland. As heirs to the Buddhist teachings from India, we feel a family connection. We think of ourselves as descendants of India. As descendants of this Buddhist inheritance, we feel responsible for preserving it. In fact, not only must we preserve it, but also whatever spread to our culture and language and is now preserved in it, I feel that we must try to offer back to India. That means we have a family obligation to bring the Dharma back home to India. We have accepted this responsibility to contribute to its revival and renaissance in India.

In this context, I have taken some initiatives. For instance, whenever we have prayer gatherings for world peace, such as the one we hold annually in Bodh Gaya the Kagyu Monlam Chenmo -- at the beginning of the function, when the Sangha [community of monks and nuns] gather together, we chant prayers in their original Sanskrit. Reviving the use of Sanskrit in our prayer gatherings is one way to acknowledge our heritage and to recollect enduring India's kindness to us.

We also have some wonderful sacred songs, also known as Dohas or songs of realisation with very profound words.

Were there Sanskrit songs?

No, they were in different ancient Indian languages. We can't single out Sanskrit; these Dohas existed in different ancient languages of India, Sanskrit is of course the best known of these languages.

These wonderful Dohas that were once sung in India are now lost here. They are virtually unknown within Indian society. I thought it was important to revive them [by having them performed again] in their ancient form. I feel that it is our responsibility to preserve them and make them available to the Indian public. We have treasured these sacred Dohas for many centuries in Tibet. India is now the second home to us Tibetans, and this is just one small effort to try to bring back home to India what India generously offered to us Tibetans many centuries ago.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that he is a son of India, he says that he eats rice and dal like any Indian. Do you like Indian food?

Oh yes, I like Indian food.

Do you like cricket?

Cricket is not played in every country of the world. For example, when I lived in Tibet, I never heard about this game. Frankly, even now, I do not fully understand cricket! But when you live in India, how can you not be influenced by it? Cricket is one of the most important or prevalent games in India -- some might even call it one of the 'religions' of India -- so one way or another, one gets influenced by the game.

Since the time you arrived in India, some Indian officials raised some doubts about you. What can be done or what can you do to dissipate the doubts?

Recently, I have personally approached and communicated directly with some prominent Indian leaders and have also communicated indirectly through some of my representatives. [A delegation of eminent Indian disciples of Karmapa met Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and other senior leaders in Delhi].

Your Holiness has personally met Indian leaders?

Yes, some senior officials. I would like to say that if people in the government or people in positions of responsibility have any doubts or suspicions about me, I hope that they might ask me. Please ask me!

You will clarify if there is any doubt.

Yes, I am ready and willing to do whatever is needed to clarify any doubts anyone may have. In fact, I am eager to have the opportunity to answer questions, because allowing such doubts to linger is not helpful for anybody, neither for me of course, but nor for the Indian government. Therefore the best is, if there is still any doubt or suspicion, I would welcome the chance to answer them directly.

You are ready at any time to clarify?

Yes, I will clarify.

Any restriction from the Government of India on your tours in India?

According to the information made available to me, I am restricted from visiting Sikkim [where there is a court injunction] and the monastery of Sherabling [in Himachal Pradesh, the seat of Situ Rinpoche who recognised the present Karmapa]. But I can visit all other places in India, though of course I must seek permission to travel anywhere.

Does His Holiness the Dalai Lama follow the same procedure when he informs the liaison office of the ministry of external affairs of his intended trips?

It is not exactly me. In the case of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it is a matter of formality. He just has to inform of his intention he wants to go tomorrow to such and such places; in my case, it is a bit different. I have to apply through various channels, well in advance, and then wait for the clearance.

Have the issues that made the headlines in the Indian press a couple of months ago, been sorted out, mainly the issues cash donations/offerings and benami purchase of land?

It is better if you ask the general secretary of the trust. He knows better the details of these things.

General Secretary Karma Chungyalpa says that, as a measure to bring its house in order, the Karmapa Office of Administration has engaged an Indian chartered accountant. Approval under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to accept donations in foreign currency is still under consideration by the ministry of home affairs. A delegation that met Home Minister P Chidambaram and Home Secretary G K Pillai was assured that the application was being processed. Regarding the purchase of land on which to construct a permanent home for His Holiness the Karmapa, necessary applications had been made to the relevant government departments, including the local town planning authorities of the Himachal government, well before the issue made the headlines of the Indian press. This request is still being processed.

Do you still have contacts with your Tsurphu monastery in Tibet?

Of course, I have no direct contact with Tsurphu monastery. But sometimes when people are able to come from there, I am able to hear some news second-hand from them.

Do you have many Chinese disciples from mainland and Taiwan?

Yes, they come here [to Himachal] or to Bodh Gaya [in winter].

Apparently, the Chinese government never criticises you, is it true?

I am not sure that it is correct. Criticism need not to be always public [in the press]. For example, I heard that some time back it was forbidden to display my picture in monasteries in Tibet.

In Tsurphu?

No, in other monasteries, not in Tsurphu.

My point is that criticism is sometimes not made public. Just because the Chinese government does not single someone out for public criticism, can this justify accusing this person of being a Chinese spy? I think that it is ridiculous.

It is equally ridiculous to equate anybody with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He is the unquestionable temporal and religious leader of the Tibetan people. He is the symbol of the Tibetan cause; he is its supreme torchbearer. It is not justified to compare me with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Obviously, the Dalai Lama is specifically targeted for criticism by the Chinese government because he has this prominent leadership role and he leads the cause so very well.

It would be very naive to believe that there is something suspect about me, simply because the Chinese government does not criticise me. They are more clever than that. If they calculate that it is in their interest to criticise somebody publicly, they will criticise them. If it better serves their interests not to criticise them openly, they will not do so openly.

Furthermore, we have different traditions in Tibetan Buddhism and there are leaders for each of these different traditions. The leaders of these traditions are not criticised by the Chinese government either. Why? Because they have no political role, just like me. Why should it be normal that other religious leaders are not criticised, while not criticising me is wrong?

You said the Dalai Lama is the Light of Tibet. He has now announced his political retirement, will he remain the Light of Tibet?

Yes, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has made clear that he is devolving all his political and administrative responsibilities, but this does not diminish the spiritual authority of the Dalai Lama. It does not and cannot diminish the deep faith and respect that the Tibetan people place in him. This will not change. His authority in that sense will remain unquestionable.




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