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World's next top lama' to visit Europe

February 28, 2010

The Karmapa, 24 years old and likely spiritual
successor to the Dalai Lama, is coming to the UK in June
Ed Halliwell
Guardian (UK)
February 26, 2010

Thanks to Tiger Woods, Barack Obama and the Dalai
Lama, searches for the word "Buddhist" shot into
the top 10 on google trends last week.
Inevitably, the two stories merged when reporters
asked the Tibetan leader, fresh from his
consultation at the White House, to comment on
Woods' re-affirmation of his Buddhist practice.
The Dalai Lama injected a much-needed note of
levity into the story, explaining that he had never heard of the golfer.

With his rare combination of humour, gentleness,
and charisma, the Dalai Lama remains, at 75, the
undisputed western poster boy for both Buddhism
and Tibet. But his singular popularity is both a
boon and a curse for the Tibetan cause – such is
the inextricable association between the ageing
monk and his homeland that when he dies, there
will come an emptiness that the western media,
let alone Tibet, will struggle to fill. The
procedures for finding a new incarnation being
what they are, there will be no adult Dalai Lama
for around a quarter of a century, unless
unlikely radical rule changes are implemented.

More probable is a passing of the mantle to the
17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who, it has
been announced, will make his first ever trip to
Europe in June, and will fulfil speaking
engagements in London, Oxford and Scotland.
Though he currently enjoys a fraction of the
exposure given to the Dalai Lama, the 24-year-old
Karmapa is increasingly being groomed for an
expanded role -- on his first US visit in 2008,
Time magazine dubbed him the "world's next top
lama". The lineage of Karmapas have tended to
eschew political comment, but the current
incarnation may be impelled to break with that
tradition – he has already described the
situation in Tibet as "dire", having reached "a level of emergency".

As head of the Karma Kagyu lineage, the Karmapa
ranks third in the list of eminent Tibetan
Buddhists, but with number two – the Panchen Lama
– having disappeared (presumed captured by the
Chinese) and replaced by a Beijing-sponsored
appointee, it is the Karmapa who carries the
hopes of many Tibetans for a future figurehead.
And while the Dalai Lama has made it clear that
Tibetan political authority must in future rest
with an elected secular government, it seems
unlikely that any Tibetan prime minister could
match for public relations value the perceived
spiritual power of a respected high lama. The
previous 16th Karmapa apparently had it in spades
– when in a US hospital dying of cancer, even
hardcore religious sceptics among the hospital
staff ended up referring to him as "his
holiness", such was his good cheer and equanimity
in the face of great pain and imminent death.

The current incarnation seems to bear up well
against expectation. Born to a nomad family in
East Tibet in 1985, he was formally recognised at
the age of eight by a Karmapa search party and
installed at Tsurphu Monastery near Lhasa.
Despite attracting many Chinese devotees,
relations with Beijing became strained, and at
the start of the new millennium he made an
audacious eight-day escape by horseback and
helicopter over the mountains to India, where he
was received in Dharamsala by the Dalai Lama, who
he now regards as his teacher.

He insists, like his mentor, that he harbours no
anger towards China, and supports a continued
middle way policy rather than the independence
demanded by some Tibetan radicals. Though
considered more serious than the Dalai Lama, he
has nevertheless impressed with his diplomacy, maturity and intelligence.

There has been controversy -- his credentials are
disputed among a faction of the Tibetan Buddhist
hierarchy, which found and enthroned its own
Karmapa (a story of intrigue catalogued by Mick
Brown in his book The Dance of 17 Lives). Some
eyebrows were also raised recently when he
admitted playing war games on his Playstation as
a form of emotional therapy – "If I'm having
negative thoughts or feelings, video games are
one way I can release that energy in the context
of the illusion of the game ... I don't have to
go and hit anyone over the head."

Passionate about environmental issues, he is also
a strict vegetarian (Tibetan Buddhists are
usually meat-eaters) and a fan of hip-hop. A
typical 24-year-old, basically. As to whether he
has the charisma to walk in the shoes of his
75-year-old mentor is something that will likely
only emerge once that mentor is no longer with
us. In the meantime, his visit to the UK in June
will offer a first-hand opportunity to experience
the mind which may one day represent Tibet in the way the Dalai Lama does now.
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