8:00AM BST 01 Jul 2014
On his first ever visit to Europe, the most prominent Tibetan Buddhist figure after the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, talks about being taken from his family in childhood, his exile and the demands of his holy position
|The 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje at the Waldorf Astoria Ballroom, |
New York, America
Even before his birth in 1985 to a simple nomadic family in eastern Tibet, there had been signs that the boy who would be named Apo Gaga – “happy brother” – was special. His mother, it is said, had been visited in a dream by three white cranes, telling her that she would have a son who would be a great incarnation; at the time of his birth a cuckoo was seen to land on the tent where his mother lay and burst into song. The birth, it is said, was without pain, and the sound of a conch shell could be heard like music in the sky.
At the age of seven, the boy told his family that in three days a party of men would be coming to take him away. They duly arrived, a search party following instructions said to have been contained in a letter written by the 16th Karmapa – one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism – before his death in America from cancer in 1981, foretelling where his next incarnation would be found, and naming Apo Gaga as that child.
In accordance with tradition, he was taken from his family to his ancestral monastery of Tsurphu in central Tibet, where in 1992 he was enthroned as the 17th Karmapa, the head of a lineage dating to the 12th century. (The lineage of the Dalai Lama dates to the 15th).
He was given a new monastic name, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, and subjected to a rigorous scholastic upbringing, which included committing to memory thousands upon thousands of pages of Buddhist philosophy and ritual. The Karmapa had been enthroned in a rare window of Chinese accommodation with Tibetan Buddhism. But official attitudes hardened. His principal teachers were forbidden to visit from exile in India; there were police at the monastery gates, and spies within watching his activities.
At the age of 14, when it became apparent that the Chinese wished to co-opt him as a puppet, and pressure on him was increased to denounce the Dalai Lama, he took flight under cover of darkness. With a small party of monks, he travelled 900 miles across the mountains into India to join the Dalai Lama, arriving footsore and exhausted in January 2000. “The Boy Who Outwitted A Superpower”, read one headline.
Since then, his stay in India has been far from easy. For many years he was more or less confined to the small monastery, borrowed from the Dalai Lama, where he currently lives, partly out of concerns for his safety but also amid reports that the Indian intelligence services suspected him of being a Chinese spy. These suspicions have long since evaporated. But due to political sensitivities he has been forbidden from visiting the monastery in Sikkim, on the border with China, that his predecessor established when he escaped from Tibet in 1959; and until last month he had been allowed to leave India only twice, for brief teaching tours in America.
But now there are signs that things are changing. Recently, however, he was to be found in Berlin, on his first visit to Europe, holding hands with monks in a Benedictine monastery to sing vespers, visiting a synagogue and the Holocaust Museum, and giving a series of teachings to thousands of his followers on such matters as “Taming the Mind” and “Cultivating Loving-Kindness”.
He had been waiting “a long time”, he says, to be given permission to travel to Europe. “Until I reached Germany, it almost felt half-dream, half-real – I couldn’t believe it was going happen. But I think this is a very meaningful occasion, because so many people – not just German people, but from different European countries – have come together. I am enjoying it.”
The fanciful Western idea of Tibetan Buddhist lamas, embodied in the person of the Dalai Lama, is of a kind of fluffy, ethereal serenity. But seated in the lounge of a Berlin hotel, flanked by monk attendants, the Karmapa presents a more sober figure – a heavy-set man of 29, moon-faced, with almond-shaped eyes set in a broad face and a piercing glance. Foregoing an interpreter, he speaks in English, occasionally clicking his tongue in irritation at himself when he fails to find the right word. Why, I ask, has it taken so long for him to come to Europe? “That’s difficult to answer, because even I don’t know the reason…”
The name Karmapa translates roughly as “man of activity”. The 16th Karmapa was a renowned teacher who travelled widely and was one of the first lamas to bring Tibetan Buddhist teachings to the West, establishing monasteries and teaching centres, and attracting tens of thousands of followers.
“He had a very large activity and involvement. I need to do a lot, but at the moment I can’t do what’s expected of me. Being the Karmapa is a great responsibility. But if there was only responsibility, I don’t feel that much pressure. But if you can’t fulfil that responsibility, due to some obstacles, that is much more difficult. At the time I became Karmapa I lost my personal life, but sometimes it seems like I’ve lost everything – personal life, and Karmapa life, too. I’m not putting any blame on anybody, but you can say this is my life; this is my karma.”
Historically, in Tibet, the Karmapas are held to be supreme reincarnations and to possess miraculous powers. The 16th Karmapa was famous for having conversations with birds, changing the weather, and predicting the future. His (American) doctor recounted that for three days following his death in an Illinois hospital the area around his heart remained warm, and his skin retained the pliancy of a living person.
|Ugyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th living Buddha|
High lamas never speak of their own accomplishments – the Karmapa insists that he does not consider himself “a good practitioner” – but stories of signs and wonders surrounding him abound. Shortly after arriving at his monastery of Tsurphu, he is said to have pressed his fingers into the granite foundations of a new temple that was under construction, leaving imprints clearly visible in the rock. He was eight. From the age of 10, he was recognising other young incarnate lamas through visions that come to him in deep meditation; in one case, giving instructions on where a two-year-old boy whom he had identified as Jamgon Kontrul Rinpoche would be found, he constructed a replica of the house using his Lego set.
Followers believe that simply to be in his presence is to see the face of a Buddha. In short, the purpose of his life is held to be everybody else’s happiness, but talking with him one senses that it has been lived largely at the cost of his own. Had he ever thought what his life would have been like had he not been recognised as Karmapa?
“If I was a normal person? I don’t have that sort of knowledge or experience, but I think if I’d been just a simple monk, an ordinary monk… maybe happier then.” He pauses. “Sometimes I see birds flying free and I think maybe it would be better to be a bird.”
Without his Buddhist practice to fortify him in his tribulations over the past 14 years, he says, it would have been easy to succumb to despair. “I have this understanding and outlook that has helped me very much. Buddhist practice brings me more energy and strength and equanimity, so I can bear the circumstances with more patience.”
Many people, I suggest, would look to him for an answer to the question of how to find happiness. “I don’t think I’m that learned, you know, but I do have some experience from a young age, facing lots of challenges. I’m always thinking that happiness is not just a feeling on your emotional level. It’s more to do with realisation or state of mind. To be in happiness rather than it be a feeling that just comes and goes. We are always expecting that outside things will bring us happiness. But our desire for these material things is limitless, and it’s difficult to fulfil. Sometimes even breathing itself is a kind of happiness. The very ordinary and very simple things brings you the most happiness.”
A few days earlier he had managed to take a walk without the customary procession of officials and dignitaries. “Just sightseeing… The weather was quite good; I could feel the wind… it was a very pleasant day. And suddenly I feel… I’m breathing out and breathing in; and it was very satisfying.” He smiles. “That kind of feeling…” He makes this most commonplace activity sound like a kind of miracle. “This is also happiness if you can realise it.”
In the years since his escape from Tibet, the suppression of Buddhism under Chinese rule has, if anything, worsened, and dissent has taken a saddening new turn. In the past five years some 131 Tibetans, many of them monks, 21 of them women, have self-immolated in protest at Chinese rule. He sighs deeply when this is raised. Those who have died made a “very brave sacrifice”, he says.
“But I don’t want to see my fellow Tibetans die this way. And I don’t see any result coming out. I don’t think the Chinese government will change policy; we don’t see that. Also we don’t see any international reaction – a little bit, but not much. So therefore I think this is a big loss rather than we gain a result. Also, according to Tibetan Buddhism we need to cherish this very precious human life; this kind of sincere motivation they can put into education, so that more Tibetan people can do more things to help the Tibetan cause. That is, I think, more sufficient than self-immolation.”
As the most prominent Tibetan Buddhist figure after the Dalai Lama, it is widely assumed that it is the Karmapa who will assume the role of spiritual figurehead and symbol of the Tibetan cause when the Dalai Lama dies.
In an interview earlier this year, he reiterated his “unequivocal” support for the Dalai Lama’s call for autonomy for ethnic Tibetans within China. But he emphasises that he does not see his future role as a political leader. “We all know His Holiness is becoming old – according to the Tibetan calendar, he’s 80 years old this year. I think it’s very important to have this understanding that we need to be ready to fulfil his wishes. But that does not mean I need to have some extra position. Because I am already the Karmapa; historically this is a very important spiritual leader, and I think I don’t need more; I can’t do more.”
|Karmapa visits the landmark Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya|
In recent years, he has taken a particular interest in the environment, establishing his own environmental organisation, Khoryug, which last year hosted a conference in Delhi on water supply. Many of the world’s great rivers flow out of the Tibetan Plateau — the Yellow River, Yangtze Kiang, Mekong, Salween, Sutlej and the Brahmaputra, supplying water to half of the world’s population. Climate change and intensive Chinese development in Tibet has contributed to the desertification of grasslands, the drying of lakes and river systems and the dislocation of nomadic communities on the Tibetan Plateau.
“For me, this is very important because when you are telling people about the Tibetan cause, people immediately think: 'Oh this is a political issue,’ and lots of people don’t want to touch a political issue – lots of nations don’t want to touch this political issue. There needs to be a different kind of approach. The political way… over 50 years we don’t get any good result. But when you’re talking about the environmental issue of Tibet, this is different thing. It’s not just a Tibetan issue. It’s a Chinese issue, an Asian issue, a world issue; Tibet is the most important environmental region. So to protect the Tibetan environment is also connected to the Tibetan way of life, culture and religion – it’s all related.”
|The 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje performs his first Mahakala dance ritual|
Could he foresee a time when he would return to Tibet? “I think so. All the Tibetan people, including the Dalai Lama, want to go back to their home; nobody wants to live and die in another place. But if I said, 'I want to go back to Tibet,’ then people will manipulate this and say, 'I want to go back to China.’ ” He shrugs. “This is the situation.”
Earlier that afternoon he gave a talk on the subject of compassion. Malaria, poverty, pollution – all, he said, were great killers, but the lack of compassion and what Buddhists call “loving-kindness” was one of the greatest killers of all. It was because of this that “very sad things” had happened to Germany – “two world wars and the Holocaust”. You could have heard a pin drop in the conference hall when he said this.
But loving-kindness, he went on, was man’s natural state from childhood. “Due to some fortunate circumstances, I was born as the child of very good parents. Love and care for others was cultivated because of their example. My spiritual journey started with them.”
When he escaped from Tibet, they remained behind; he has not seen them in 14 years. This I suggest, must be very difficult. “Very difficult… Sometimes I think that even though I have this high title as Karmapa, spiritual leader, I can’t do what an ordinary human being can do – you need to be with your parents, you need to do some service [for them], but I can’t do that.” He pauses. “For this, sometimes I feel very, very sad.”