ABC News : After the Dalai Lama

Broadcast: 18/11/2008
Reporter: Eric Campbell

The Tibetan people hope this 23-year-old monk will be their new leader.

The Karmapa was just 14 years old when he fled in secret across the desolate mountains of Western Tibet and Nepal, to exile in Northern India.

It was a controversial and provocative move, as he is the only significant Buddhist figure to be officially endorsed by both China, and its nemesis - the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibetans, the Dalai Lama.

Now, eight years later, he's being granted more freedom of movement by the Indian government, touring America earlier this year, and visiting the Himalayan province of Ladakh, which borders Tibet.

Eric Campbell caught up with the Karmapa in Leh, the picturesque high-altitude capital of the province often dubbed "Little Tibet" because it looks so similar.

Banned by India from taking up his official seat at a monastery in Sikkim, the Karmapa lives near the Dalai Lama near Dharmasala, home to thousands of Tibetan emigres, the Tibetan government in exile, and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from all over the world.

Although they head up rival sects, with the Dalai Lama leading the Gelug school, or "yellow hats", and the Karmapa the Kagyu school, or "black hats", the Dalai Lama has effectively taken the Karmapa under his wing, and many believe that the Karmapa is being groomed as a successor.

But the real story is far more complex, with a rival claimant to the Kagyu throne, allegations of covert Chinese meddling, a contested monastery that's under armed guard 24 hours a day, a treasure trove that has been locked up and hidden from public view for decades, and a mysterious Black Hat that is said to hold the key to the Karmapa's power.

From the outside it appears somewhat arcane. But it's a serious and deeply relevant issue for the future of Tibet. 

The Dalai Lama recently announced that he'd "given up" trying to persuade China to allow greater freedom for Tibet through non-violent means. He's long advocated what he calls "the middle way" - asking China for limited autonomy for his homeland while still giving Beijing control over defence and foreign affairs. 

Now he's about to ask Tibetans what they want to do. 

However many worry that whatever is decided, Tibetans will lack a strong and united leadership after the Dalai Lama dies. 

Their future may lie in the hands of the 17th Karmapa, whose task will be to prevent China exploiting the divisions among his followers, in an attempt to weaken and perhaps critically disable the independence movement.


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