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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."

Monk in waiting

June 9, 2009

Devyani Onial

 

Indian Express

 

Sunday, Jun 07, 2009

 

 

 

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.”
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