Karmapa on Campus (The New Yorker)
BY NICK PAUMGARTEN
Visiting Dignitary ｜ MAY 11, 2015 ISSUE
On Saturday, His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the top lama in the Karma Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, led a prayer ceremony at Riverside Church for the victims of the earthquake in Nepal. It is for such work (alleviating suffering, raising funds) that he’d come to America, in March, to take a tour of colleges and temples—and perhaps why he’d been born, if you believe, as Tibetans do, that he is the embodiment of Chenrezig, the Buddha of compassion.
But is the Karmapa not a man? A few weeks before the earthquake, His Holiness was eating vegan Thai takeout at the home of a Princeton chemistry professor, which overlooked a golf club’s sixteenth fairway. Someone asked the Karmapa to name his favorite food.
“Meat,” he said.
“But you’re a vegetarian.”
This was a small private reception, an appropriate occasion for levity. Still, there were almost as many security personnel as guests. The Karmapa is holy man, political eminence, and celebrity in one. Before dinner, as he addressed a question about whether suffering had increased in the past hundred years, one of the bodyguards, a Tibetan in a suit, squatted to tend to something on the floor. It looked as though he was using a credit card to herd a crumb. It was an ant.
His Holiness was born in Tibet in 1985. His recognition as the Karmapa, at the age of seven, was based on an interpretation of a secret document left behind by the sixteenth Karmapa, and was eventually endorsed by the Dalai Lama, the Chinese government, and three of the four relevant Rinpoches. (There have been a few rival claimants.) He fled Tibet at fourteen, and made his way, by jeep, foot, horse, helicopter, rental car, and train, to New Delhi and then to Dharamsala, where he has held court ever since. You might say that, in the pantheon of Buddhist celebrities, only the Dalai Lama surpasses him. One Princeton student likened him to Justin Bieber. “Except imagine if Justin Bieber had been pronounced, from age seven, the most perfectly compassionate and wise being.”
The Karmapa came to Princeton because he wanted to be a college student for a day. “It’s very important for me to feel this sort of sadness,” he said. He attended some classes: sculpture (on an iPhone, he had shown students his drawings—one of a tiger would look great on the side of a van); gender studies and sexuality (the Karmapa has led a campaign to allow the full ordination of Buddhist nuns, a radical position that has earned him a reputation as a feminist). In a meditation group, a student said, “We really investigated our own suffering and the source of our suffering and the sources of suffering everywhere. Do you have any questions about this?” The Karmapa responded, “No, not really.”
Bare-armed and robed in maroon, the skin under his fingernails bright pink, the Karmapa had a sensuous aspect, which, combined with his husky voice and slightly slurred speech, brought to mind mid-career Muhammad Ali. He spoke through a translator, a lama from Woodstock, and also in English. His Holiness likes hip-hop. His sandals slap when he walks. At one point, he recalled a penchant of some Tibetan teachers for using stinging nettles as a lash: “Very, very vicious.” His facial gestures were elastic and performative: bulging eyes, exaggerated grimaces and sighs, and double takes to accompany his own jokes. He wore square rimless glasses. “People think I’m intelligent, but I’m not so sure,” he said. “Intelligent people have a danger. It’s easy for them to be boring.”
After the reception, His Holiness was driven to a campus building dedicated to religious life. In a café in the basement, students were hosting a spiritual open-mike night. He sat at a table in the corner, with his translator and his sister, Jetsun Ngodup Pelzom, a wary-looking woman in a long gray skirt and a pink fleece. Students stood to recite poetry, sing, and read. The first up had a poem: “This is how God walks through the playground / Not a terribly bright student but consistent / No one goes near him during recess.”
The Karmapa took notes on a yellow pad. Actually, he was writing poems. He handed the pad to the Woodstock lama, who translated them into English. A woman gave an account of meeting the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. Another read from the end of “Paradise Lost.” The basement had the close smell of a dorm room or the skin under a wristwatch. A girl read some gender-bending passages from the Gnostic Gospels, and, upon explanation, the Karmapa said, “Sounds like Tantra.”
His Holiness could not summon the courage to go up to the mike and read one of his own poems. He felt a little shy, and unsure of his English. He and his entourage left early and headed back to their hotel to get some sleep. School night. ♦