New York Times: Young Spiritual Leader Arrives in New York, Ready to Teach and Be Taught
“It is the first time I’ve ever visited the United States, and it’s a bit like a dream,” said His Holiness, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ugyen Trinley Dorje, one of the most important leaders in Tibetan Buddhism.
Despite his youth, he is revered by followers as a master teacher, and on Thursday he began his whirlwind tour of the United States, an 18-day visit to New York, New Jersey, Boulder, Colo., and Seattle.
Yes, he is that Karmapa: the young master who made headlines across the world at age 14 with his daring escape from China to India across the Himalayas in 1999.
His followers regard him not only as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, who died in 1981, but also as the 17th incarnation of the first Karmapa in the 12th century, in an unbroken lineage going back 900 years. They revere him as leader of the Kagyu sect — called the black hat or black crown sect — one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
To believers, he is the embodiment of wisdom and compassion, a “reincarnate lama,” or teacher who has achieved enlightenment yet returns to the human world, lifetime after lifetime, to help others do the same.
“The passing of the previous Karmapa was like the sun going behind the clouds,” said Michele Martin, a Tibetan translator who is the author of a 2003 biography, “Music in the Sky: The Life, Art and Teachings of the 17th Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje.”
She added, “With the new Karmapa’s arrival, it’s like the clouds have cleared away, and he is the sun in the sky.”
Thousands of people have attended his public appearances in India, and some 20,000 more are expected to see him in America. In Manhattan he will be speaking to the faithful on Saturday at the Hammerstein Ballroom (tickets: $30 to $108), and Sunday in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria (tickets: $35 to $175).
On Monday he will visit his North American seat at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra center in Woodstock, N.Y., where he is ecstatically anticipated. The shrine room was used for scenes in “Kundun,” the Martin Scorsese film about the life of the Dalai Lama.
Americans have been preparing for the visit for a year and a half, said Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, the organizer of the American trip, who is president and founder of Nalanda West in Seattle, one of the speaking stops. “There is great joy and delight that they can finally see him,” he said.
So little is easy, however, on the noble eightfold path of Buddhism, and Ugyen Trinley Dorje is but one of two claimants to the title of Karmapa in the Kagyu tradition. A rival, Trinlay Thaye Dorje, made a tour of Europe several years ago. There have been legal battles in India. Rival factions of monks, those emissaries of loving kindness, have come to blows over the conflict.
But the American followers of Ugyen Trinley Dorje point to his recognition as the 17th Karmapa by both the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama, a world figure and a spokesman for Tibetan Buddhism who has been a teacher to Ugyen Trinley Dorje.
In an interview, the Dalai Lama’s United States representative, Tashi Wangdi, said, “We welcome the visit” of Ugyen Trinley Dorje, adding, “We are very happy that he will be here.”
Robert A. F. Thurman, professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, said, “The guy who’s here is the official one,” adding, “The other Karmapa is a nice person, and he has followers in Europe and Asia, but almost all of the Tibetans accept the Karmapa who is here now.”
Asked about the rival Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje said that “one person is appearing at a time, who is the reincarnation of the previous Karmapa.”
He added, “Being its current incarnation, as I am, it is my greatest responsibility” to embody the succession.
His great escape from China, in December 1999, was a grueling eight-day, 1,000-mile trip by foot, horse, train, jeep and helicopter that led him to Dharamsala, India. The government accepted him as a refugee in 2001.
Ugyen Trinley Dorje’s age, spiritual presence and dramatic escape have made him a rock star in certain precincts of Tibetan Buddhism, and some have invoked a Barack Obama parallel. Elle Magazine named the meditative master one of its “25 people to watch.”
“He could become a spokesman for Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet itself, if he chooses to,” said Dr. Thurman, the author of a new book, “Why the Dalai Lama Matters.” He is also the father of the actress Uma Thurman.
Though Ugyen Trinley Dorje’s residence has been a source of unease in Chinese and Indian diplomacy, his followers say that despite the embarrassment to the Chinese government his escape represented, the Chinese have not excoriated him, as they have the Dalai Lama.
His followers expressed the hope that Chinese protesters would not react to the visit of Ugyen Trinley Dorje as they did to the arrival of the Dalai Lama in Seattle recently. Some protestors have blamed the Dalai Lama for violent anti-Chinese riots in Tibet, an accusation he has denied.
In the interview, Ugyen Trinley Dorje deflected political questions, saying, “My work is all spiritual wherever I go,” adding that “sometimes politics enters into spirituality, but it is my prayer that it not do so.”
A kinetic, big-boned 6-footer with a gentle grip and piercing eyes, he has a sturdy voice and a ready laugh. In his maroon robes on a floral red-silk armchair before a gold-framed mirror, he was surrounded by handlers and protected by the State Department, which extends security to foreign dignitaries and the occasional perfect master.
“I wish I spoke better English,” he said in an aside to a visitor while his translators were struggling to render one of his comments.
His Holiness, as his followers call him, confirmed that he was 22 years old. When asked if he was also 900, he laughed heartily. He carried on most of a brief interview in Tibetan through two translators, with occasional asides in English.
The Karmapa has been traditionally recognized to be the third most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism, after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, Dr. Thurman said.
“I hope his followers won’t push him too soon while he is a young lama, and give him a chance to grow,” he said of Ugyen Trinley Dorje, estimating that he has more than a million worshipers worldwide, and about 50,000 in the United States.
The visit is a chance to “bring peace and happiness to the minds of sentient beings,” said the newly arrived Karmapa. Asked if he had a message for Americans, he answered, “Americans have a message for me.”
He added, shrugging off gravitas with a twinkling eye, “I am here, and I’m having this new experience, and I’m open to what Americans have to tell me.”