Karmapa tours U.S.

By JANET I. TU, The Seattle Times, May 31, 2008

Is likely successor to Dalai Lama

SEATTLE, WA (USA) -- Time magazine referred to him as "the world's next top lama." Elle Magazine named him one of "25 People to Watch." That's a lot of responsibility and acclaim for a 22-year-old.

<< The 17th Karmapa Lama, Ogyen Trinley Dorji

But, in a sense, this young man was born into the role. He is the karmapa, one of the most prominent lamas — or teachers — in Tibetan Buddhism, and a person regarded as a likely successor to the dalai lama as the symbol of Tibetan Buddhism worldwide.

The karmapa arrived Thursday in Seattle as part of a two-week U.S. tour — his first visit to the West. He plans to meet with local Buddhists and give public teachings.

The karmapa is traditionally regarded as third in prominence among lamas, after the dalai and panchen lamas, said Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University and author of the new book "Why the Dalai Lama Matters."

The karmapa's U.S. tour is significant, Thurman said, because "it's good for the world to note that there are these younger lamas who can become major spokespersons for the Tibetan people."

His visit is "a very big deal for us," said Dzogchen Ponlop, the Seattle-based Buddhist monk who organized the tour. "His presence brings a lot of blessings, a lot of inspiration."

The 17th karmapa, named Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje, was born to a nomadic family in eastern Tibet.

He is considered to be the reincarnation of the 16th karmapa, although there is controversy surrounding the matter.

Another boy was identified as being the reincarnation of the 16th karmapa, and that young man has a strong following, particularly in Asia and Europe. But most Tibetan Buddhists, especially in America, regard Ogyen Dorje as the karmapa, and he was confirmed as such by the Dalai Lama, Thurman said.

The karmapa, who is a leader of the Kagyu order, one of the four major schools within Tibetan Buddhism, made international news when he escaped Tibet eight years ago, fleeing across the Himalayas to India. There, he met with the Dalai Lama.

That was significant, Thurman said, because for centuries there was a strained relationship between the Kagyu school and the Gelug school, to which the Dalai Lama belongs.

That the Karmapa and Dalai Lama have a "wonderful mentor, senior-junior relationship bodes very well for unity between these important lamas and their orders," Thurman said. "This is very important for the unity of the Tibetan community."

Thurman also thinks the Karmapa's U.S. visit — he spoke to sold-out audiences in New York and Boulder, Colo., earlier this month — could help gain support for the Tibetan cause.

Thurman said China believes "when the Dalai Lama is gone, people will forget about Tibet. This helps people know this is not going to be the case."

Nonetheless, the Karmapa's visit is nonpolitical, emphasized Ponlop, the tour organizer and monk who founded Nalanda West, a center dedicated to fostering American Buddhism.

Unlike the Dalai Lama, who is both spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhists, the Karmapa's role has historically been spiritual, Ponlop said. "I don't see him getting involved in politics."

While the Karmapa will be teaching here, he will also be learning about the West.

"It's good to get him exposed to Western culture," said Ponlop, who has known the Karmapa since he was a boy.

Ponlop said the Karmapa is an inquisitive young man, open to ideas from the West. And "his participation in our goal to establish American Buddhism is indispensable."

America has an open, pioneering spirit, but at the same time, there is much anxiety, pain and rage, Ponlop said.

"There is this sense of need for spiritual insight," he said. The presence of the Karmapa "helps us connect with our own heart."