A Young Lama Weighs Tibetans' Future (The Washington Post)
By Emily WaxWashington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
SIDBHARI, India -- For a living Buddha and one of Tibet's next spiritual leaders, the 23-year-old Karmapa Lama hardly conforms to Western notions of a monastic figure. He spends many of his afternoons in his wine-colored robe, head-bobbing to hip-hop music on his iPod or releasing "negative energy," as he calls it, playing war games on his PlayStation.
Frustrated over the pace of Tibet's struggle against Chinese rule, he is known here as the reluctant lama: brooding and outspoken about the plight of his compatriots, many of whom have lived in exile in India for three generations and feel no closer to persuading China to let them have autonomy in their homeland.
"Sometimes I feel like an old man," the Karmapa Lama said from his monastery in Sidbhari, a farming village near the Dalai Lama's exile headquarters in the northern Indian town of Dharmsala. "I'm physically young, but the challenges I have been through have made me an old, experienced man."
That's because the Karmapa Lama -- born Ogyen Trinley Dorje -- carries a heavy burden: He is Tibetan Buddhism's third most senior figure and is being groomed as one of several potential leaders to forge a fresh path for the next generation of Tibetans in their struggle against China, whose troops entered Tibet in 1950.
The appointment of a successor to the 73-year-old Dalai Lama, who almost single-handedly catapulted Tibet's struggle into the world's consciousness, has become a daunting issue for Tibetans as the spiritual leader ages.
The Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace laureate, has won over presidents, Hollywood stars and multitudes of soy-and-granola suburbanites with his nonviolent doctrine, down-to-earth spirituality, easy laugh and personal search for compassion and inner happiness.
So far, Tibetans have remained unified largely out of their love and respect for the Dalai Lama. But there is a growing divide in the community -- some want independence from China, and others favor the Dalai Lama's proposal for true autonomy, or his "middle way" approach. Analysts are uncertain whether the Tibetan movement could remain united under a less-venerated leader such as the Karmapa Lama.
"Our generation has so much to take on our shoulders when His Holiness passes. The Dalai Lama has unified the hearts of all Tibetans," said Tenzin Tsundue, a poet and member of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a group that advocates an independent Tibet. "But Karmapa is passionate, he's energetic. He has the respect of the youth. We will really need him."
Tibetan Buddhism holds that the soul of a high-ranking monk, or "living Buddha," is reborn after his death. The resulting "soul boy" can be found through the interpretation of signs, which could include recognition of the deities' personal items.
In the past, Tibetan court-appointed monks have sought the successor to previous Dalai Lamas from among Tibetans. The current Dalai Lama was discovered in 1937 as a 2-year-old in a village in Amdo, now part of China's western province of Qinghai.
Monks searching for signs of a lama rebirth chose the Karmapa Lama, then a 7-year-old son of nomads, as the 17th reincarnation in the Kagyu sect, one of four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
But his sect is a problem. Previously, all Dalai Lamas have come from the Gelugpa sect. Some analysts say appointing the Karmapa Lama as the next Dalai Lama would be similar to appointing a Methodist as the next pope. Despite that obstacle, there is a movement among Tibetans for him to become an acting leader when the Dalai Lama dies, in part because any replacement would probably be too young to lead immediately.
"After the Dalai Lama, things will be very difficult. We will have lost not just a leader, but our soul," the Karmapa Lama said, his leg nervously bouncing up and down.
In a recent interview with Western journalists, he was vague about his stance on independence vs. autonomy. "His Holiness has been very successful in laying the foundations for the Tibetan struggle," he said, referring to the Dalai Lama. "He has done a great job. Now it is time for the next generation to build on this and carry it forward."
Tibetans worry that China could exploit division over the Dalai Lama's successor and that it is already trying to steer the selection process for Tibet's next leader. Last week, Chinese officials said that Beijing must approve the Dalai Lama's successor, according to the state-run New China News Agency.
The Dalai Lama has suggested that his incarnation might be found outside China and could be female. He also said Tibetans themselves could vote on whether to continue the tradition of theocratic rule through reincarnated Dalai Lamas.
A 6-year-old boy anointed by the Dalai Lama in 1995 to succeed the late 10th Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's second most senior leader, disappeared in China 14 years ago and hasn't been heard from since. Posters of the young, rosy-cheeked boy line the narrow lanes of Dharmsala. Human rights groups have called him "the world's youngest political prisoner."
So far, the Karmapa Lama, who speaks fluent Chinese, is the only spiritual leader recognized by the leaders of Tibet and China. China had once hoped that the Karmapa Lama would be more conciliatory than the Dalai Lama, but that optimism has been tempered in recent years.
"The Chinese government considers the older generation of Tibetans as rubbish. What they are trying to value now is the coming-up generation," the Karmapa Lama 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. That's how you become equal."
For now, he is a hero among Tibetan youth in exile, many of whom spend their days in Internet cafes where his photo is posted with the caption "Tibet's Rising Son," competing for space with Pink Floyd concert posters and Free Tibet bumper stickers.
The Karmapa Lama has taken the same path of exile as many of the 200,000 Tibetans living outside their homeland. In 1999, under increasing pressure to denounce the Dalai Lama, he escaped Chinese-dominated Tibet by jumping from the second-story window of his monastery.
He trekked for eight days across the freezing Himalayan pass. He was then airlifted by helicopter to India, the Dalai Lama's home in exile. The Dalai Lama himself fled Tibet 50 years ago this month, disguised as a soldier.
The Karmapa Lama, tall, broad-shouldered and restless, is schooled in traditional religious painting. He looks forward to visits with his sister, who lives in town. Once a month he lunches with the Dalai Lama, who often brings him sweets and prayer beads from his world tours. Those who know the Karmapa Lama say he often paces the rooftop, with a view of Dharmsala's wheat fields, tea plantations and snow-brushed mountains.
When he first arrived in India, he was restricted to the top floor of the monastery. Indian intelligence worried that he was a spy for China. But lately he has gained the trust of Indian authorities. Last year he traveled to the United States, where he was introduced by a swooning American female fan as "His Hotness" rather than the traditional salutation, "His Holiness."
In January, the Karmapa Lama was allowed by India to appear at a prayer festival in Bihar, at the spot where Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment in the 6th century B.C. He drew the largest crowds in decades.
In Dharmsala, half a dozen young devotees recently woke at dawn to attend a prayer service for Tibetans who lost their lives or were arrested during last year's demonstrations in Tibetan areas of China. Amid the yellow light of butter lamps and the sound of throaty Tibetan chants and long brass trumpets, they squeezed into a prayer service led by the Dalai Lama, a leader they still adore. But they were equally eager to see the Karmapa Lama, and what they saw intrigued them.
"The Dalai Lama is always smiling. He has joy in his heart. But Karmapa seems so intense and serious, so worried about the future," said Sonam Lhamo, 29, who bent her ponytailed head in prayer at the Dalai Lama's Tsuglakhang temple, nestled in the Himalayan foothills. "Karmapa is like our young generation: angry, serious about Tibet, but unsure of what to do."