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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The Karmapa Visits the Northwest

May 30, 2008

Jeff Alworth
Blue Oregon (USA)
May 28, 2008

This Saturday and Sunday, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, will
appear in Seattle at four public events.  It is the third stop on his
inaugural North American visit, the first time he has been able to
leave India since fleeing there from Tibet in 2000.Hhk The
22-year-old head of the Kagyu lineage is regarded as a prodigy and a
born leader, inspiring language like this, from the NYT: "Ogyen
Trinley Dorje's age, spiritual presence and dramatic escape have made
him a rock star in certain precincts of Tibetan Buddhism, and some
have invoked a Barack Obama parallel. Elle Magazine named the
meditative master one of its '25 people to watch.'"  So his visit is
being hailed by some (like me) as a big deal.

But why should you care?


It is often misleadingly reported that the Karmapa is the third
most-important leader in Tibetan Buddhism.  This is a statement of
political authority and by that metric the Dalai Lama and Panchen
Lama are indeed the two most important.  But it's sort of like saying
the Archbishop of Canterbury is the second most powerful Christian in
Europe.  True, but not wholly relevant.

Tibetan Buddhism has four main schools or "lineages," and the Karmapa
is the leader of the Kagyu school.  The Dalai Lama is the head of the
Gelugpa school, and there are two other schools with important
heads.  Since the Chinese invasion and subsequent exile of these
leaders, the schools have worked more closely together to maintain
their traditions and the continuity of Tibetan culture and
history.  The Karmapa has been living in Dharamsala, India and
receives guidance and instruction not only from Kagyu religious
leaders, but also meets and works with the Dalai Lama.

And this is where it gets especially interesting for outside
observers: the Dalai Lama, who turns 73 in July, has no obvious
successor.  The Panchen Lama, responsible for identifying and
educating the 15th Dalai Lama, has been abducted by the Chinese and
has vanished.  When a controversy arose over the identity of the 17th
Karmapa, the Dalai Lama authenticated Ogyen Trinley Dorje.  Many
wonder if he might not return the favor in the future.


It's not certain what role the 17th Karmapa will play in the future
of Tibet.  At 22, he shows enormous potential, yet who can say how
events will unfold.  But his prospects seem even more lofty because
of his circumstances: he was born in occupied Tibet and raised among
Chinese citizens; he speaks Mandarin and, critically, has been
recognized by the Chinese government as the authentic reincarnation
(a strategic decision they now regret).  Unlike the Dalai Lama, who
struggled as a minor figure until midlife and was always a flashpoint
for the Chinese government, the Karmapa begins life as an
international figure, with followers around the globe.

The Karmapa may be in a position to escape the trap both the Chinese
and Dalai Lama find themselves.  Although the Dalai Lama no longer
argues for an independent Tibet, the Chinese have spent too much
political capital demonizing him to work toward a possible
solution.  The Karmapa, a less obvious political figure and someone
with ties to China, might be able to finally make progress.  It would
definitely be good for China to have a lasting solution in Tibet, and
of course, Tibetans would love to have some measure of autonomy to
practice their way of life.

I hold out even more lavish hopes about what he might
achieve.  Tibetans have unique insight into the threat posed by
China, and yet none of the Buddhist leaders urge violence.  Quite
remarkably, they call for understanding.  They are firm in their call
for civil rights of citizens there, but their mode is one of
compassion rather than aggression.  Even when the Chinese initiate
another round of suppression against the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama and
Karmapa do not call for violence.  Unlike our leaders before the Iraq
invasion, they see ripple effects of both compassion and
violence.  This is not milquetoast appeasement, but a kind of abiding
strength forged in very difficult circumstances--and an understanding
of long-term effects.  It could be that the 17th Karmapa might be
able to teach the US something about dealing with hostile neighbors.

In any case, the first visit is a historic one, and I hope it will
have long, positive benefits.

[Full Disclosure: I am a member of the board of directors of Kagyu
Changchub Chuling (KCC), a local Tibetan Buddhist center.  KCC was
one of a number of organizing centers for the Seattle visit.
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