It is not his destiny to be the next Dalai Lama. For he is already reincarnated as the 17th Karmapa Lama.
Yet he may one day succeed his 81-year-old teacher and protector.
Revered since age 7 as spiritual leader of a 1,000-year-old branch of Tibetan Buddhism, Ogyen Trinley Dorje is making his first trip to Canada this week at the age of 31.
Meeting Ontario politicians Tuesday before sitting down for an interview, the Karmapa padded around Queen’s Park in a pair of brown hiking shoes peeking out from under his simple maroon robes. A picture of youthful wisdom with his direct gaze, towering above other monks at six feet tall, he may yet emerge as the public face of Tibetan Buddhism
Worshipped as a living god and the Buddha of Compassion, will he also inherit the Dalai Lama’s imagery of divinity and celebrity?
This week in Toronto he is giving public lectures about mindfulness and the environment, the power of meditation, and ancient wisdom in modern times. But among his devotees, there is a different kind of knowledge — that karma could ultimately bind the Karmapa to a bigger burden.
As the Dalai Lama grows older in exile, and tensions with China grow deeper, His Holiness muses publicly about declaring an end to his own line. Rather than risk the spectacle of rival reincarnations — with Tibetan monks and Chinese Communists putting forward competing candidates in a spiritual standoff — the Dalai Lama has hinted it might be wiser to repurpose another reincarnated lama for a leadership role.
Many devotees believe the Karmapa will fill any future void, emerging as Tibet’s symbolic leader — if not the quite spiritual leader of all Tibetans (for there are so many complications among the denominations). The Dalai Lama has already delegated many of his erstwhile political responsibilities to a Tibetan administration led by a prime minister, so the tradition of a supreme leader has already been recast.
“It is almost impossible to take on the role of the Dalai Lama,” the Karmapa tells me cautiously, modestly, in our interview.
The politics of religion is a delicate subject, not least for the world’s most suffocated and yet idealized faith. The Karmapa — which translates roughly as the embodiment of Buddha activity — is accompanied by bodyguards to safeguard him from physical threats, but also an entourage of aides to protect him from political missteps.
“I will try to do as much as I can do, but this issue about future leadership, this is not something that I alone can decide. I think this is up to the people of Tibet,” he answers diplomatically.
His intonations and mannerisms are reminiscent of the Dalai Lama, whom I interviewed at his residence-in-exile in the Indian redoubt of Dharamsala more than a decade ago, after my own trip to Tibet. Like the Dalai Lama, he barrels ahead in blunt English on familiar topics, but deftly reverts to an interpreter for the stickier subjects.
In years past, the Karmapa skirted the succession question by saying he had his hands full in his current role. Now older and wiser (and bolder), he maps out another route that stresses the propitious over the ambitious.
“Maybe things need more time to resolve this problem,” he concludes.
More time. In the meantime, he worries about political positions hardening on both sides, blocking the way to an eventual settlement.
The Tibet he left behind as a 14-year-old — escaping his Chinese minders in the dead of night to cross the Himalayas and reach neighbouring India — is in even more desperate circumstances today. Hundreds of monks have immolated themselves to protest Chinese repression, which has become only worse since violence erupted in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in 2008.
In late 2003, the Dalai Lama told me about his diplomatic dialogue with Beijing, which had just resumed. All these years later, it has reached a dead end, the Karmapa acknowledges.
Despite the frustration and radicalization of younger Tibetans, he still believes the middle path is the only route to a political settlement. And he may be well placed to find a way, never having been denounced by China’s rulers, who continue to demonize the Dalai Lama as a “splittist.”
“Dialogue between Tibet and China needs to continue,” he answers in Tibetan, throwing in the English words “common sense” and “mutual understanding” to make his point.
“Far too much time is spent on discussing policy and political issues outside, when the real attention needs to be paid to the daily experiences of the Tibetan people inside Tibet,” he continues. “It’s very easy on the outside to get lost in this policy discussion.”
In the same vein, he frets about the people’s propensity to lose their way on environmental threats and the spectre of global warming, which are no less forbidding for the people of Tibet and the world. Like political obstacles, environmental challenges can seen insoluble if addressed in their entirety, rather than individually.
“I think the biggest issue is also related to humans’ motivations — human greed is the biggest issue of the environment, because of consumerism,” he muses. “The sad thing is, until something happens, people don’t want to change.”
At age 7 he was discovered by a group of travelling lamas and plucked from his family to be tutored in monasteries and groomed for his reincarnated role. In later years he was watched over by the Chinese minders and spies. After his escape as a teenager, he was suspected by the Indian security services of being a Chinese plant, and largely confined to lodgings supplied by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. Only recently has he been given greater freedom to travel (a yellow ID document issued by India governs his movements).
I ask, teasingly, about an exercise machine in his monastery.
“But no place to put,” he deadpans.
Does he miss his personal freedom of movement?
“Yes of course,” he shoots back. “I don’t have much choice . . . sometimes it’s too much.”