Tibet’s Rising Son

Mar 2, 2009

Category: Urgyen Trinley Dorje

For a god, he is a nice young man. lean and assured, dressed in red and gold, the Karmapa Lama is a scholar-prince greeted with bows wherever he treads. He switches between Chinese and Tibetan fluently, studies Korean at night and occasionally interrupts a translator to voice polite outrage in English. In his temporary quarters, at a new monastery outside Bodh Gaya in eastern India, he can be glimpsed at dusk, between courtly duties, pacing slowly on a lofty terrace that overlooks women gathering wheat from the parched fields below.

The Karmapa, now a handsome 24-year-old with a shaved head, was born to a family of nomads in 1985. But then a party of monks, told to search "east of snow" for their new leader, found him in eastern Tibet. At the age of 7, he was enthroned as a living deity, the 17th reincarnation in a succession of Buddhist leaders of the Kagyu sect. At 14, he fled his native land in a dramatic escape over snowy passes to Nepal, and then India, where he attached himself to the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. Tibetans in the diaspora immediately saw something special in the Karmapa Lama—the deep personal charisma of his mentor, infused with the vigor of youth. Some saw, even then, a potential leader in his own right.

The Dalai Lama is without peer among living Tibetan deities. As head of Tibet's biggest sect, the Gelug, he is the revered and recognized leader of his people. He has won the Nobel Prize and built a global following on little more than moral strength, somehow keeping a movement of rival sects and international pressure groups united behind the notion of justice for Tibet. Yet the Dalai Lama has failed in one key respect: China has rejected even his mildest calls for autonomy and cultural freedom. March will mark 50 years since the Dalai Lama slipped into exile. Some Tibetans now believe that the Karmapa Lama may be able to succeed where the Dalai Lama has failed—if, against all tradition and precedent, he is given an opportunity to lead.

But a change of power among the Tibetans, as among less mystical movements, is a tricky business. Now 73, the Dalai Lama has shaken off minor illnesses, yet muses openly on his death or incapacity, urging Tibetan exiles to plan what may come after. By tradition, the 14th Dalai Lama will essentially hand off power to himself, when he is reincarnated after death. In one of the more intriguing rituals of Tibetan Buddhism, a search committee of monks interprets augury, dreams and mystical symbols on remote lakes, and then dashes off on horseback to identify and enthrone a baby as the next Dalai Lama. The problem is that it takes about 20 years before a credibly educated, suitably adult figure emerges to stand up for his people. And no political movement in this day and age—particularly one that China is determined to strangle—can survive a 20-year pause.

"The Chinese hard-liner strategy has always been, when the present Dalai Lama passes away, the Tibetan movement will fizzle out, or disintegrate," says Lobsang Sangay, a senior fellow at Harvard Law School who participated in a recent conference on the future of the Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala, the exile capital in western India. "So the issue is, is there anyone who can replace him? What will happen to the Tibetan movement after he passes away? That's the big question."

Lobsang is one of those who argues that the question already has a perfect answer: the Karmapa Lama can serve as a temporary replacement. Because he comes from a different sect, he can't become the Dalai Lama, but he could serve as regent until a new reincarnation reaches adulthood. The Karmapa is suited for this, in part, because he embodies the story of his people—a story of oppression, escape and exile that is very similar to that of the Dalai Lama himself, who fled Lhasa disguised as a common soldier in 1959. The Karmapa fled in 1999, at a time when he was under Chinese pressure to denounce the Dalai Lama. Instead, he joined the exile leader—after a daring late-December trek over the Himalaya. Some 150,000 Tibetans out of 6 million have made similar journeys to exile.

In recent years, the younger monk has been increasingly seen under the Dalai Lama's wing. The two live near each other in Dharamsala. Foreign delegations seeking audience with the Dalai Lama often find the Karmapa Lama included, or are urged by the Dalai Lama himself to seek out the newcomer. "He has grown up to be a very attractive lama to the general public," Lobsang says, "but also, importantly, to the young. They can connect with him. He's of the same age. They know the hardships he went through to escape."

At the meeting of Tibetan exiles in November, at least five of 15 working groups listed the Karmapa as a suitable candidate to lead the community in the future. He was mentioned by the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile as a potential leader, and also by the Dalai Lama, who named him among several monks who might emerge to lead the movement. In one scenario, the Dalai Lama would appoint the Karmapa now, to serve after the senior monk's death as a formal regent, providing theological and temporal leadership until a new Dalai Lama comes of age.

By naming a young and popular regent now, the Dalai Lama could assure a smooth transition to a figure who has become like a son to him, while dashing Chinese hopes of simply outwaiting the Tibetan exiles. He might also help to head off a full-blown power struggle over succession. As it is, any new leader—or joint leadership—will have to balance sectarian rivalries, win over alienated youth in Dharamsala, mollify the demands of sympathizers abroad and possibly deal with rival claimants to the title of the next Dalai Lama (each with his own powerful tutors and advisers).

The Karmapa Lama is not the only possible choice to forestall a succession struggle. The Dalai Lama has spoken highly of other monks, including the reincarnation of his former teacher. In a theological twist, the Dalai Lama also ruled last year that he can, under a doctrine called madey tulku, select his own reincarnation while still alive (dualism of this kind—alive, yet already reincarnated—rarely bothers Tibetans). This would allow the Dalai Lama to shorten the period without a leader, and control the selection and education of his replacement. But Chinese officials immediately disputed the ruling, insisting they alone have the historic right to choose the Dalai Lama's successor. This means that two rival Dalai Lamas would likely emerge, clouding the issue of succession for decades. Here the Karmapa offers another potential solution: he is the only major tulku, or reincarnation, currently recognized by both the Chinese and the Dalai Lama. He could be the hinge on which relations between Tibetans and China swing in a new direction.

The Karmapa's monastic order holds a prayer festival every January in Bihar, India's poorest province, at the spot where Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment in the sixth century B.C. Called Monlam, the prayer festival had about 200 attendees in 1993. But several years ago, when the Karmapa Lama began to appear himself, the crowds swelled, and now 10,000 monks, nuns and lay people attend. They mostly want to hear the teachings of the Karmapa—regarded as the living manifestation of the four-armed goddess of compassion—accompanied by deep-voiced, ritualistic Tibetan chants and trumpets. This year the grounds of the pilgrimage site sometimes resembled a Buddhist Woodstock, with juniper smoke and an aroma of yak-butter candles blowing over the massed ranks of monastic adepts in saffron- and wine-colored robes.

Among several thousand lay people present, Tibetan exiles—women in striped aprons, and men in off-the-shoulder-jackets—barely outnumbered those speaking in the accents of Boston, Birmingham and Berlin. Although it is rarely acknowledged, foreign followers translate into power. Donations from Asia and the West help build new monasteries, wealthy supplicants fill begging bowls with silk and cell phones, and lamas who can shuttle between Boulder and Bihar assume greater importance than those who cannot. The temptations of the material world are not unknown even here: at the Monlam festival, the Karmapa sacked the administrator of a monastic center in Gangtok for corruption. A sweating and visibly nervous replacement was led out of a meeting with the Karmapa as a reporter from NEWSWEEK was brought in to an interview.

The rituals of Tibetan Buddhism approximate those of a medieval court, with hushed attendants, servants lighting incense and fetching tea, and hundreds of petitioners waiting for a word with the "glorious teacher of the karma people." Still, the Karmapa observes the probities of monastic life, fasting and sitting for long hours of meditation. His own interest in comfort seems no greater than massaging his toes at the end of a long day. "A little tired," he explained in his tentative English to a NEWSWEEK reporter who interviewed him twice during five days spent following him around. Visitors normally present white scarves to high Tibetan lamas, but the Karmapa seemed to make little of the offerings, and playfully drew an extra scarf from a pile of luxurious silks to toss at the reporter. Most questions from journalists were "too easy," he warned through a translator.

After that flash of pride, the Karmapa directed attention away from himself—as befits one who has renounced the ego. Asked directly if he can replace the Dalai Lama as a leader, he replied that he was only one of many possible heirs. "The Dalai Lama is like the sun. No matter how many stars there are, they don't look too bright in comparison." A broader leadership could form, he suggested, "if many stars come together [with] the same strength and power and brilliance of that sun."

The Karmapa shares the Dalai Lama's ability to navigate modern questions of geopolitics with a delicate balance of aphorism, riddle and ancient verities about compassion, nonviolence and generosity—along with modern nostrums on global warming and overconsumption. He has condemned violence, including the Tibetan riots against Chinese rule in Lhasa last April that killed dozens of ethnic Chinese. But he says he understands the "sheer frustration, the sheer sense of suffocation" of Tibetans scattered in exile or forced to live under Chinese rule. "For any living being," he said, "when you feel the force of being cornered time and again, more and more, the time comes when you have nothing else left except to explode."

The risks of explosion were increasing, he said, and every day that the Chinese stalled in accommodating legitimate Tibetan demands merely increased the chance of chaos. "The Chinese Communist Party needs to understand that for right now, there is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. [He] is the main force that is controlling the emotions, keeping the wave of anger from spilling out. When there isn't somebody like him, then there is a great danger." But isn't there someone like him waiting in the wings—the Karmapa Lama, perhaps? "I have no goals, nor any ambitions to be of great influence," the Karmapa said during the interview at his monastery in Bihar. "But if circumstances make me a force for change, then I am a force for change."

In some obvious ways, the Karmapa Lama is a wrong choice to replace the Dalai Lama. Already a tulku, or reincarnation, he cannot be chosen as the reborn Dalai Lama. The Karmapa is also from a rival school of Buddhism, the Kagyu, a small order known colloquially as the Black Hats. Naming the Karmapa as regent would effectively place an outsider at the head of the Dalai Lama's own Gelug, or Yellow Hat, sect. That's like sending an Episcopalian to oversee the Vatican for 20 years.

But the choice of the Karmapa is so wrong, it may be right. If the Dalai Lama acts decisively now to name the Karmapa as regent, or appoints him to lead in a purely temporal capacity, the choice could unite Tibetans more than divide them. "Theological issues are becoming secondary," Lobsang of Harvard notes. Choosing the Karmapa Lama fits "the political reality of the Tibetan movement."

"He's young," says Lhadon Tethong, the executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, which has 30,000 members worldwide. "Everyone talks about this. He's clearly a strong, dynamic character in Tibetan life, not just religious life, but spiritual and political life. He represents a new generation that continues to defy Chinese efforts to control Tibetans."

Asked during a second interview if he was in communication with the Chinese, the Karmapa at first demurred and deflected. He spoke instead of an enlightened Chinese policy toward Tibet, one that would be based on demonstrating China's Great Power status and accommodating Tibetan desires for genuine autonomy along the lines proposed by the Dalai Lama. The Karmapa then rose to leave, before being called to a halt by a reminder that the question was about contacts with China.

"I have no contacts, nothing political with anybody," he said—and then shrewdly conceded that some form of contact had taken place. The Chinese had conveyed, via India, that the Karmapa Lama should not engage in any political activities, he said. Yet if he remains purely a spiritual leader, China will not close a door on him.

"That's perfectly fine. I don't even know what politics is," the 24-year-old monk said with a broad smile. It was impossible to know for sure, but the smile could have been signaling just the opposite.



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