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After the Dalai Lama: Tibetan Buddhism's next leader?

By Barbara Crossette, IHT, April 7, 2008

New York, USA -- The recent outburst of Tibetan rage against the Chinese government not only demonstrated once again the fear and anger among Himalayan Buddhists living under the cultural insensitivity of Beijing, it also illuminated the crucial role of the Dalai Lama, navigating skillfully between restive Tibetan exiles and an Indian government under Chinese pressures to stifle their protests. What will happen when he is gone?

<< The 17th Karmapa Lama, Ogyen Trinley Dorji

The West is about to get its first glimpse of that possible future.

In mid-May, a serious young man of 22 who is revered as the 17th Karmapa - now the second-most-important figure in Tibetan Buddhism - will make his first visit to the United States.

The trip comes eight years after his dramatic flight to India from a monastery near Lhasa at the end of 1999, when he was just 14 years old. This is the first time that a skittish India has allowed him permission to travel abroad. His flight from Tibet was a considerable embarrassment to China.

The Karmapa Lama, spiritual head of the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, is now the only major Tibetan lama recognized as a reincarnation of his lineage by both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government since it overran Tibet in the 1950s.

The Panchen Lama, the third of a triumvirate and previously the second-highest ranking among the three lamas, vanished into Chinese custody as a boy in 1995 and has been replaced by Beijing's own political appointee.

In a thriller that is already a legend among Buddhists, the Karmapa and two fellow monks drove in secret from Tsurphu Monastery, north of Lhasa, to the remote and rugged border of Mustang, a former Buddhist kingdom now part of Nepal. From there he and his companions made a dash by horseback to the nearest Nepali airport, from which they were able to fly unnoticed via Katmandu to Delhi. The Karmapa, born Ogyen Trinley Dorji, arrived unannounced in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama's base, in January 2000, and has remained under the watchful eye of the Tibetan leader since.

Because of fears in the United States that India, bowing to Chinese pressure, will prevent this trip abroad at the last moment, the Karmapa's visit is expected to be low-keyed and not political. His comment on a pre-trip video that "The United States is one of the world's most powerful countries" has been excised from an online transcription of his remarks, which dwell instead on his hope of meeting "many American friends." The trip was planned before the protests in Tibet.

This is a significant milestone for Tibetan Buddhists and a momentous one for Western practitioners. The young lama's predecessor, the 16th Karmapa, visited the United States on numerous occasions and had established in the 1980s a part-time American seat in Woodstock, New York, at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra center. After the young Karmapa's flight from Tibet, the Woodstock monastery immediately geared up to welcome him, even designing furniture to match his sturdy frame. Then they waited, and waited and waited. He will now finally get to see their work. The Karmapa's American followers would like to have him establish his base in the United States, making him the first Asian religious leader of that magnitude to live in the West.

The Karmapa could serve as a possible unofficial, transitional successor to the Dalai Lama, who is now in his 70s. Because the Karmapa leads a different order of Tibetan Buddhism - the Dalai Lama is a Gelugpa monk - the young Karmapa cannot inherit his title. A future reincarnate to that position has yet to be born after the Dalai Lama's death.

The young Karmapa, who is described by those who have met him as a serious, even stern, young man, is also recognized as a compelling religious teacher and budding literary scholar, even without the Dalai Lama's magnetic charm and sense of humor. The Karmapa could well be the stopgap spiritual leader Tibetan exiles will someday need to hold together their fragmented diaspora, while at the same time assuming a larger role as a religious teacher for Buddhists of all nationalities and schools.

For the moment, these two Tibetan leaders are a complementary pair, the wise older man and the vigorous young lama who now has the chance to show the wider world if he can muster a universal appeal.

Barbara Crossette, a former New York Times correspondent in Asia, is the author of "So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas."

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