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Young Buddhist leader waits in the wings

By TIM JOHNSON, Mcclatchy-tribune, Nov 29, 2008

Known as the Karmapa, he is a possible successor to the Dalai Lama

SIDHBARI, INDIA -- Give the magnetic personality and hunky good looks of a rock star to a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and the result might be Gyalwang Karmapa, the third-highest lama in the Tibetan religious firmament.

<< TIM JOHNSON MCCLATCHY
A portrait of the Karmapa, one of Tibetan Buddhism's most revered leaders, looks down on a sitting room in the Buddhist university near Dharamsala, India.

The Karmapa, as he is known, is getting more than his share of attention these days.

He's being talked about as a possible transition figure for when the Dalai Lama, who's the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, dies. The Dalai Lama, 73, was hospitalized last month to have gallstones removed.

At 23, the Karmapa has some unique characteristics that make him appealing to a broad cross-section of Tibetan Buddhists, and even to China, which now claims the right to approve or veto all reincarnations born to become "living Buddhas" — or senior lamas delivered to help alleviate human suffering. Reincarnation, or rebirth, is a basic tenet of Tibetan Buddhism.

Flight from Tibet

The Karmapa is the first Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation to be recognized by both the Dalai Lama and Communist Party authorities of China. He made headlines in January 2000, at age 14, with his flight from Chinese-ruled Tibet into exile, traveling by foot and horseback, then by jeep and helicopter to India. Allegations of espionage, intrigue involving a forgotten amulet and squabbling within a monastery marked his early years in India.

Exuding self-assuredness, the solidly built, 6-foot-tall Karmapa received several foreign journalists in a rare interview over the weekend at the university that's his temporary home near the mountain headquarters of the Dalai Lama. The Karmapa talked of his love of music, his future role for Tibetan Buddhists and the lack of human rights in China.

He criticized the Chinese government, which he said wanted "to create this ethnic conflict" that exploded in deadly rioting in Tibet in March. However, he spoke tenderly of the Chinese.

"Since I am born as a Tibetan, I really care about the Tibetan people and Tibetan community. At the same time, I also love the Chinese," he said.

Some Tibetan exiles say the Karmapa has a magnetic hold on Tibetans.

"He's young, he's charismatic and he's smart," said Lobsang Sangay, a Tibetan exile who's a senior fellow at Harvard Law School. At meetings among hundreds of senior exiles in nearby Dharamsala last week, Sangay said the Karmapa's name repeatedly emerged as a central figure in a post-Dalai Lama era.

The Dalai Lama, asked about the Karmapa at a news conference Sunday, described him as "young, energetic and of course (with) a lot of experience in Tibet," but declined to go further in elaborating on his future role.

The Karmapa is the head of the Karma Kagyu, one of four schools in Tibetan Buddhism, and is believed to have about a million followers in Tibet and several hundred thousand in Europe and the U.S.

He's been called the 800-year-old lama. That's because followers believe he's the 17th in a line of consecutive lamas reincarnated, or born, with the same spirit or consciousness. According to this belief, the current Karmapa embodies the collective wisdom and learning of all of his predecessors.

Using omens and a prediction note from the 16th Karmapa that turned up in an amulet, senior lamas identified a young boy, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, as the reincarnated Karmapa, and sent him for religious training at the Tsurphu Monastery near Lhasa, Tibet's capital. China gloried in its trophy lama, viewing him as a calming influence on restive Tibetans.

But the boy lama grew unhappy, leading to a daring escape to India. The flight into exile proved humiliating to China, which initially claimed that the Karmapa had gone to India to retrieve some musical instruments and key black hats worn by his Buddhist sect.

Once in India, the Karmapa found his movements constrained by Indian security agents who seemed to consider him a threat. He's never been allowed to visit the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim that's the seat of his sect in India.

Tight security

Even eight years after the more popular Karmapa's arrival, security agents still hover, barring journalists from bringing cameras, tape recorders or electronic devices to interviews.

Beijing has said nothing overtly critical of the Karmapa, making clear that it wants its great lama to return and counterbalance the criticism that the Dalai Lama regularly heaps on China.

But there's no sign that will happen. The Karmapa has been given a significantly looser leash by Indian security, winning a chance to visit with U.S. followers last summer in New York, Boulder, Colo., and Seattle.

His residence in exile carries some sadness, too, as his parents remain in Tibet. China doesn't permit them to travel to India. "I want to see my parents," he said. "Their life is very simple, in a remote place."

So he devotes himself to intense religious study, preparing himself for the future.



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