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Tibet’s Rising Son

February 22, 2009

Traditionally, the Karmapa Lama would not become the leader of the
Tibetan people. Tradition may need to change.
Patrick Symmes
NEWSWEEK
 From the magazine issue dated Mar 2, 2009

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.
URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/185796
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