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Karmapa Lama: Tibet's young voice

July 23, 2009

By Saransh Sehgal, Asia Times, July 22, 2009

DHARAMSALA, India - The Gyalwang Karmapa is the spiritual head of the
Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism and thus considered the number
three lama in Tibetan Buddhism. Karmapa means "the one who carries out
Buddha activity" or "the embodiment of all the activities of the Buddhas".

Like the Dalai Lama did in 1959, the current 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley
Dorjee, fled his native land in 1999 to Nepal and then India to pursue
full religious and other freedoms. Attaching himself to the Dalai Lama,
the Karmapa now lives in a temporal residence at the Gyuto Tantric
Monastery in Sidhbari, the suburb near Dharamsala in northern India
where the Dalai Lama heads the Tibetan government in exile.

The Karmapa's dramatic escape from Tibet made him a hero to exiled
Tibetans and captured world attention. He was just 14, but the Tibetan
diaspora immediately saw in him something special - strong personal
charisma combined with the vigor of youth. Some already saw, even then,
a potential leader in his own right.

Now a young man, many in the exiled Tibetan community believe the
25-year-old Karmapa will become their next spiritual leader after their
god-king the Dalai Lama, who has sought to blend modernism with
tradition, passes away.

Belonging to the Black Hat lineage, the Karmapa Lama is an exceptionally
intelligent young monk. Although Indian authorities have barred him from
traveling to the Rumtek Monastery, his order's seat in exile in the
Indian state of Sikkim near the Chinese border, his influence cannot be
contained. It seems to be growing particularly among exiled Tibetan
youths, youths inside Tibet and Buddhists around the world.

Every day, scores of visitors, mostly Tibetan, Western, Chinese or
Taiwanese Buddhists, arrive at his monastery to seek his blessings in
private or attend his public teachings.

The Karmapa's importance is growing as the Dalai Lama is aging. Once the
74-year-old spiritual guru departs, the lengthy process of choosing his
reincarnation means years may pass before the new Dalai Lama is ready to
assume leadership and guide Tibetans.

That would leave Ogyen Trinley Dorjee, the 17th Karmapa, as the most
senior Tibetan Buddhist leader in exile. The Karmapa lineage is the most
ancient lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, predating the Dalai Lama lineage by
more than two centuries. The Karmapa was the most powerful school of
Tibetan Buddhism until 400 years ago, when the "Yellow Hat" Dalai Lama's
Gelupa school became dominant.

Although, due to tradition, the Karmapa can never replace the Dalai Lama
as the supreme Tibetan spiritual leader, he can nonetheless act as a
force to lead Tibetans in exile in their 50-year-long struggle to return
to their homeland with freedom. But questions naturally arise over such
a possibility. Will the Karmapa Lama be willing to lead the "Free Tibet"
movement? If so, what will be his approach? Will he continue the Dalai
Lama's "Middle Way" in dealing with Beijing to seek the "high-degree
autonomy" of Tibet? Or will he seek a fully independent Tibet, as some
radical young Tibetans hope for? Could he become more conciliatory with
Beijing?

Asia Times Online had the opportunity to interview the 17th Karmapa Lama
on July 8 at his temporal residence, the Gyuto Tantric Monastery. It was
surrounded by tight security provided by both Tibetan and Indian guards.
Inside the rooftop room of the monastery, where Tibetan Thangka
paintings drape the walls and colorful carpets are spread across the
floor, the Karmapa met in private, preferring to use translators for the
interview. Although his secretary asked there be no political questions,
the Karmapa answered most questions patiently, weighing his words.

Saransh Sehgal: His Holiness, how do the Tibetan people in exile and
inside Tibet see you as a religious leader and beyond?

His Holiness the Karmapa: There are different opinions. It is difficult
to say that they all conform with the reality. However, not only Tibetan
religion, but also Tibetan culture, society and the Tibetan people are
facing hardships. Therefore, there is a possibility [of me] acting not
only as a religious leader but as a leader of a society with all its
aspects ... Or should I say, there is a possibility [of me] giving
guidance.

SS: His Holiness, you have maintained a distance from political
activities in support of the Tibetan struggle. How long do you believe
you can keep that stance?

HH: There is nothing unusual about it. On one side, the Karmapa is a
spiritual leader with a history of more than 800 years. Therefore, as I
am the one upholding [the lineage of karma], it would not be proper for
me to act slapdash. Speaking from another perspective, the present
situation of Tibet not only concerns religion, but is also related to
human well-being ... I think it is important to consider the other
aspects rather than holding only the political aspect and thinking of it
as the most important.

SS: The [present Tibetan] prime minister in exile is ending [his term]
next year, there will be democratic elections by the Tibetans in exile -
how do you view this matter?

HH: I don't know much about it. I have not yet paid special attention to
that. All I can do is pray so that it will come out well.

SS: His Holiness, Buddhism is very popular in the West, and people in
the West are more inclined to Tibetan Buddhism. What is the reason
behind the growing popularity of Tibetan Buddhism?

HH: Let's put it this way, people of modern times, for example people in
highly developed Western nations, are [looking] for peace of mind. They
have undergone tremendous material development, [but] in between they
are facing problems, which instead of helping their material development
put them under extra burdens or pressure ... They have come to realize
the importance of peace of mind and in Buddhism [the] presentation of
[these] aspects of the mind are comprehensive and clear. I think this is
one of the reasons why people's interest in Buddhism is growing.
Likewise, many noble beings like His Holiness the Dalai Lama are
visiting through the world and [have] spoken out their views. People are
moved. I think this is also one of the reasons behind the growing
interest in Tibetan Buddhism.

SS: His Holiness, will you stick to the Middle Way that His Holiness the
Dalai Lama has been continuing?

HH: I think the guidance provided by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with a
great intention of bringing a swift, just and sincere - not "Victory to
oneself and defeat to the others" - solution to the Tibet cause, is very
great.

SS: His Holiness, the entire community of Tibetan youths over here in
exile, as well as hopefully those inside Tibet, take you as a young
leader. How do you see your interactions with Tibetan youths?

HH: I have nothing to do other than as I said previously, though I am
physically young, mentally I am a traditionalist. This is my position.
Therefore, with this as a reason I hope to maintain a good relation
between past or tradition and modernity, and act as a liaison between
the two.

SS: How do you see the issue of succession of His Holiness the Dalai Lama?

HH: His Holiness is well aware of the issues. I think His Holiness will
definitely give clear instructions and guidance. I have always been
thinking of it, I have no further comments.

SS: But there are times where He said, that there may also be a female
Dalai Lama also. Or maybe a young lama ...

HH: I think His Holiness will clarify all these issues. Those were His
Holiness' passing remarks, not officially spoken. His Holiness said that
such things are possible.

SS: Are you worried that Tibetan culture and religion is dying under
Chinese rule?

HH: The present Chinese political standpoint and policies have a
[negative] influence [upon Tibetan religion and culture]. That makes us
worry. However, the survival of Tibetan religion and culture is in the
hands of all the Tibetans. For example, if Tibetans in exile don't
harbor faithful, sincere and foresighted devotion to Tibetan religion
and culture - and if religion and culture is not preserved - there is
the possibility of religion and culture being destroyed even during our
exile in free countries. Therefore, it depends on Tibetans. The Tibetans
in Tibet are making great efforts, and thinking of their efforts, I
still see some hope.

SS: His Holiness, does China hope to have a dialogue with you, as you
are very much recognized as a religious leader in China?

HH: Me! I am not [involved]. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual
and temporal leader of Tibet and the Tibetan government in exile are in
the process of dialogue. Not me.

SS: Are you able to get messages from your family in Tibet?

HH: Yes, sometimes, sometimes.

SS: What are your interests, apart from spiritual studies and how do you
plan to further educate yourself?

HH: Different arts and different languages.

SS: His Holiness, Can you describe your experience in India till now?

HH: I am amazed by the freedom to engage in various spiritual and
political activities that is enjoyed by the huge number of Tibetans
settling in India, and the rights the government of India has extended
to us to practice our livelihood and Dharma activities - [this] has been
impressive.

SS: His Holiness, how do you see the future of Tibet?

HH: Future of Tibet? I am not sure. The future of Tibet is a matter of
grave concern but nobody knows.

SS: When do you expect to return to Tibet?

HH: I don't know. On this also, I am not sure because not only me, but
all [Tibetans] wish to return. When we will be able to return, no one
knows.

Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be
reached at info@mcllo.com  
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