In a spacious room on the fourth floor of the Gyuto monastery in Sidhbari, a farming village near Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, stands with a grave expression. He is receiving a few people who have sought a private audience with him. Some have come merely to pay their respects and to receive his blessings, others in the hope that he can fix their problems. Two old gentlemen bend to touch his feet, three women have come all the way from Hong Kong—one of them with a “business problem”. There is a reverential hush in the room, broken suddenly by the cry of a little girl accompanying her mother. With an unfortunate sense of timing peculiar to children, she bawls incessantly and is taken out of the room by her crushed mother. The Karmapa finally allows himself a half-amused look before returning to his duties with practised ease.
It’s an ease that has grown in the nine years that he has been living in India and will come in handy if he were to eventually become, as many say he will, the new face of the old Tibetan struggle. In the Tibetan hierarchy, the Karmapa, who is the head of the Kagyu sect and whose role is purely spiritual, is the third most important leader after the Dalai Lama (who heads the Gelugpa sect, the biggest sect), and the Panchen Lama, who went missing in China in 1995, a few days after he was chosen by the Dalai Lama.
This year marks 50 years of the Tibetans living in exile in India. It was in March 1959 that the Dalai Lama escaped from China in the guise of a soldier, made home in Dharamsala and in the following years, kept the Tibetan cause alive internationally. But the Dalai Lama is 73 now and concerns of ‘what after him’ are growing. His successor will be accepted as a reincarnation, but the search for and the grooming of one can take years and time is a luxury the community can ill afford. The void, they fear, will play into the hands of the Chinese—whose policy appears to be to wait-out the Dalai Lama after whom they hope the Tibetan movement will peter out.
That is where the Karmapa, who turns 24 this month, can play an important role, taking on the responsibilities of the leader of the Tibetans—over 1,00,000 of them live in India—till the next Dalai Lama is ready. “After the Dalai Lama, we need a leader who is acceptable to a majority of the community,” says Nyima Gyaltsen, a masters’ student of political science who has come to Gyuto for the Karmapa’s talk. “The Karmapa will be suitable. Of course, right now he’s young, but in another decade or two, he can be an important leader of the Tibetan struggle,” says Gyaltsen.
But Tenpa Tsering, representative of the Tibetan government-in-exile, says such talk is just speculation. “All this talk of him being the next leader is mere presumption. There is no official decision on this yet. Every Tibetan has a role to play in the Tibetan struggle and of course the Karmapa has a greater one because he’s an important figure.”
The Karmapa, too, concedes his responsibility is great, but then, as he says, it comes with the title. “The Dalai Lama wants every Tibetan, especially the young, to be responsible to the cause. But yes, as a Karmapa, my responsibilities are greater,” he says in halting English, turning to the interpreter whenever he can’t find the right words.
In the meanwhile, he’s trying to learn as much as he can. Apart from traditional Buddhist education, he’s taking classes in English and Korean. “I am interested in languages. I can speak a bit of Vietnamese, a bit of Hindi and some Chinese too,” he says. Though he doesn’t get much of an opportunity to speak in Chinese here, he tries. “I speak broken Chinese with students who come to visit me,” says the Karmapa who, in December 1999, like thousands of Tibetans before and after him, took the treacherous route over frozen passes to escape out of China. “There were seven of us, including me. We travelled by car, on foot, on horseback, for eight days and eight nights before crossing the border,” he says.
The Karmapa had been recognised both by the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government—which was shocked by his flight—and that places him in the position of a key negotiator in the future. “I was fortunate that I was recognised by both. But I had my reasons for escaping to India,” he says.
He was a seven-year-old living in east Tibet in 1992 when he was recognised as a reincarnation and made the 17th Karmapa. But his selection was not free of controversy—a section of the Tibetans back another as the real reincarnation, but Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje has the Dalai Lama’s approval and the backing of the majority of the community.
“I was seven when I was recognised as the reincarnation of the Karmapa. I was taken to our main monastery, 72 km away from Lhasa. It was a remote place. The road leading to it was quite bad so the Chinese officials hesitated to come there. We were left to ourselves. They only came sometimes to check on us. When I look back, I think those were simple days. I was in my homeland and I was happy.”
But then he says he had reasons to believe that the Chinese government was planning to give him a political position and would want him to give statements denouncing the Dalai Lama. “There was this fear always that I would be asked to denounce His Holiness. That was one reason why I decided to escape.”
There were other restrictions too. “We could not call teachers of our lineage from India, so we decided to go to them,” says the Karmapa. “We found out the paths we would have to take. They looked very difficult but we had to have courage. Winter months are the best to go across the border because there is so much snow on the mountains and there are not so many soldiers out at checkposts,” he says.
But the restrictions did not end in India. The government in India initially suspected him of being a Chinese spy and did not let him travel much out of his Sidhbari monastery. The restrictions are easing now and last year, he went on his first international visit to the US. “It was always my dream to go abroad and so when I did, I was very happy. Being in a new country can give you many new experiences,” he says.
So, did he expect his flight to freedom to end in this? “I think my expectations were met but yes, there were many things that could have been different but the circumstances were such. Things have changed now but some things still need to,” he says.
In the afternoon, a group of visitors make their way to the monastery, register themselves and are frisked before being led in. Security for the Karmapa is strict—no one is allowed to photograph him, permission to journalists is rare and if granted, has to be cleared by the SP in Dharamsala. Three security men are always around, following him even when he takes his walk around the monastery. On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, the Karmapa has a public audience, which is open to all. His tall frame fills the chair and in his rimless rectangular frames, he looks suitably serious but during his talk, thaws a bit, occasionally smiles and sometimes rolls his eyes for effect. The talk over, he retires to his library, and sits there for a while, leafing through a book. In the corner of a shelf in the book-lined room, a few DVDs of films lie stacked—Slumdog Millionaire, Courage Under Fire, Diehard with a Vengeance. When he’s not studying, the Karmapa likes to write stories, paint—“I like modern art”—and listen to music. He is said to like hip hop but he’s not too sure what that is. “Hip hop,” he asks. “I don’t know what the music I listen to is called. But I like modern music. I like this singer, I think it’s pronounced ‘Allan’. He’s a British singer. You heard of him,” he asks. He also plays some games on his playstation, though, he says, he is increasingly finding less and less time for it. “You know, Wii, it’s new,” he says and when he sees our blank expressions, does a fair imitation of someone holding a racquet and playing.
He does a bit of calligraphy and is interested in science and computers, though he hastens to say, “I know computers but I am not a specialist”, and follows environmental issues closely. “I think the environment crisis is even bigger than the global economic crisis,” he says.
In the evening, he drops in at a class being held at the monastery, before taking a walk. The sun is still out and his securitymen and a few monks try and keep in step with him. An elderly monk opens a big red umbrella and he takes it from him and continues his walk. It makes a pretty picture: a tall broad figure in maroon robes with a cloud of red above his head against an imposing yellow monastery. After two rounds of the monastery, he retires to his chamber, where, later in the evening, he will resume his classes.
For lessons outside the class, he often turns to his mentor, the Dalai Lama. It was to him that he first went on arriving in Dharamsala. The relationship has grown stronger over the years. “I meet the Dalai Lama at least once in three months. We share a warm relationship. He’s not just my teacher, he’s my friend, he’s like a father. We don’t always talk about serious things. We sit together, share a joke,” says the Karmapa, whose family is still in Tibet but he has a sister who lives in his monastery. “I meet her sometimes,” he says.
Though some sections of the youth may be getting impatient with the Dalai Lama’s advocacy of the middle path and demand of autonomy, and not complete freedom, the Karmapa sounds a word of caution. “The Tibet issue has become urgent now. One solution is autonomy. If the Chinese could trust His Holiness, certainly it’s the faster and sweeter way. The young people often see the immediate situation but they don’t have a sense of history, of past experiences.”
As for China, he says, “Tibet is a big challenge for them too. But they want to decide themselves, they don’t want to consult the Tibetans. Or maybe they do but they have a political mind and they have their own doubts and suspicions.”
“The Chinese people too have been brainwashed by their government but times are changing. This is the information age and more and more Chinese are getting information from other sources on the issue and are getting to see it for what it really is,” he says.
In McLeodganj in Dharamsala, where the Tibetan community lives, a candlelight march was held on Wednesday night to observe the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests—June 4, 1989—in China. As monks, nuns, students and tourists sit in the Namgayal monastery premises, watching a documentary on Tiananmen, some discuss the future of the Tibetan struggle. “We have heard that the Dalai Lama has asked the Karmapa to take over after him,” says 19-year-old Dolkar Lhamo.
Lhundup Gyatso, who studies in a school in Dharamsala, says it’s a question they often debate. “I lived in Tibet when the Karmapa lived there and when he escaped. Before he escaped, he had gone to Beijing where he met Central government officials, including Jiang Zemin, who was President then. The Tibetans were a bit suspicious of him but then just a few weeks after that, he escaped. Everybody—the Tibetans, the Chinese—was shocked,” says Gyatso, who, like the Karmapa, was just 14 when he took an 18-day trek to Nepal and then came to India. “Now 99.9 per cent of the Tibetans accept him but whether he can lead us in the future remains a question. In school, often our topic of discussion is the Karmapa. Some students are suspicious of him. They say he’s young, he’s smart, but how do we know what’s at the bottom of his heart? We’ll have to wait and watch, year by year.”
Others, like 26-year-old Neema Tsering, an assistant in a shop in McLeodganj, have more confidence in his leadership but find it difficult to see beyond the Dalai Lama. “The Karmapa has grown up so quickly but he’s still very young. The Dalai Lama, well, what can one say? He’s King.”