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Karmapa Ugyen Trinley Dorje: the hip-hop lama ready to lead the Tibetan struggle

March 15, 2009

From The Times
March 12, 2009

Jeremy Page in Dharamsala

When I first met Ugyen Trinley Dorje, it was hard to imagine that he
would one day be hailed as a future leader of the Tibetan freedom movement.

He was 7 years old, sitting on a throne at his monastery in Tibet,
surrounded by devotees and incense, and looking a little bemused.

It was 1992 and, while travelling in Tibet, I attended his enthronement
as the Karmapa, the third-highest-ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism, at
Tsurphu monastery near Lhasa.

Seventeen years on, we met for a second time this week “ in very
different circumstances.

This time it was in the Indian town of Dharamsala, where the Dalai
Lama “ the highest-ranking lama “ has lived since fleeing Tibet 50 years
ago.

The Karmapa had grown into a confident 23-year-old man, who, I learnt,
balances Buddhist studies with painting, learning English, listening to
hip-hop on his iPod and playing “war games” on his PlayStation.

He is also now being talked about as a potential successor to the Dalai
Lama “ and a mediator between China and the 200,000 Tibetans in exile.

“His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] has been very successful in laying the
foundations for the Tibetan struggle,” he said, speaking partly in
broken English and partly through an interpreter.

“He has done a great job. Now it is time for the next generation to
build on this and carry it forward.”

The Karmapa cannot become the next Dalai Lama, as they head different
schools of Tibetan Buddhism, but as concerns mount about the health of
the 73-year-old Dalai Lama “ he recently had his gall bladder removed “
the Karmapa is emerging as favourite to front the movement, possibly as
regent, if Tibet’s spiritual leader dies or falls ill.

Not only is he recognised widely inside Tibet “ where many secretly
carry his photo alongside that of the Dalai Lama “ he is also unusual in
being acceptable to Tibetans and to Beijing.

In 1992, in a rare example of co-operation, he was recognised both by
China and the Dalai Lama.

The Karmapa left his nomadic parents” home in eastern Tibet, moved to
Tsurphu and began his education under the scrutiny of the Chinese
authorities.

In 2000, however, he shocked Beijing by fleeing on foot and horseback to
India. When he first arrived, Indian intelligence thought he was a spy.
He needed an escort to pray and exercised by walking around the roof of
his new monastery. “Personally speaking, it didn”t meet my
expectations,” he said. ‘sometimes I feel a little bit like a prisoner.
Like under house arrest.”

Visitors are still frisked and forbidden to carry cameras and mobile
phones. Three bodyguards monitor his quarters, one an Indian security
agent with a pistol tucked in his jeans.

Recently, however, restrictions have been relaxed as he has gained the
trust of the Indian authorities and the Dalai Lama, who meets him once a
month “ and brings him presents after overseas trips.

Last year India allowed him to go to New York, his first foreign trip.
In the past few months he has also started to talk openly about
politics, reaching out, in particular, to younger Tibetans.

“The Chinese Government considers the older generation of Tibetans as
rubbish . . . they don”t value them. What they are trying to value now
is the coming-up generation,” he said.

“We must not consider China and the Chinese as opponents and enemies but
respect them as a source of education. We should learn their language .
. . and compete with them. That’s how you become equal.”

Asked if he will ever return to Tibet, he said: “I hope so. Because I”m
still young, maybe I have time.”

Whether China allows that is another question, but it has made a point
of not criticising him publicly.

Nor have his relatives in Tibet had significant problems “ unlike the
Dalai Lama’s choice for the Panchen Lama, the second-highest in the
hierarchy, who disappeared with his family in 1995.

Some Tibet experts say that China is leaving a window open for the
Karmapa as an interlocutor but he has his own ideas about what role he
should play.

“I wish I have no political responsibilities . . . Having a monk as head
of state doesn”t qualify as a fully fledged democracy,” he said.

He took an equally independent view of recent unrest in Tibet, saying:
“All this could be a blessing in disguise. All the inspiration for the
Tibetan struggle is coming from within Tibet.” He admitted that
sometimes he felt frustrated and vented his “negative energy”
playing “war games” on his computer.

As for our first meeting, he had only hazy recollections of that day.

“I remember being a little bit tired,” he said. “There was a great
commotion . . . things were happening from left and right. I didn”t
really understand them.”

Quest for enlightenment

“ The Karmapa is the leader of the Kagyu sect, one of four main schools
of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama heads the Gelung sect

“ The 17th Karmapa is a keen environmentalist and has overseen the
publication of environmental guidelines for his followers Karmapas wear
a black crown, so are sometimes described as the Black Hat Lamas

“ The first Karmapa died in 1193, having attained enlightenment at the
age of 50. His successor, the second Karmapa, is claimed to have been
the first reincarnated lama
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