News and Views on Tibet

Back to the Future – interview with Karmapa

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One of the holiest men in Tibetan Buddhism explains how his flock should straddle tradition and modernity.

By Jerry Guo

The 25-year-old Tibetan monk known as His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, is a self-professed “Facebook stalker” who exercises using his Nintendo Wii and whose favorite Western movie is Kung Fu Panda (and yes, he’s already seen Avatar). But this bespectacled man is also thought to be the latest reincarnation of the 900-year-old Karmapa, the spiritual leader of one of Tibetan Buddhism’s four schools. Prior to his daring escape from China—which he fled by horseback, train, and helicopter out of fear the Chinese government would use him as a political pawn—to exile in the Indian Himalayas, the Karmapa was recognized as the next leader by both China and the Dalai Lama (although there is another Karmapa recognized by followers of another of the schools). Because of his unique position and his high profile, many Tibetans see him, rather than a not-yet-born baby (which is customary), as a possible successor to the Dalai Lama. His Holiness sat down with NEWSWEEK‘s Jerry Guo this week in Dharamsala, India, to talk about his life and Tibet’s future. Excerpts:

I understand you have an iPod and even a PlayStation.

Someone gave me an iPod. But I gave it to a friend because I don’t have a lot of free time, and it could be more useful to others. Someone gave me a Nintento Wii, actually. So sometimes I exercise with it; I find it quite interesting. I also use the computer and the Internet.

Given the restrictions placed upon you by the Indian government—where you can’t leave the country, and your European tour this summer was canceled—do you use the Internet to communicate with your followers?

I use the Internet for work, to read the news, and for research. It’s convenient, and because I can’t go to other countries, I use e-mail and livecasting for teachings to reach my followers. I’ve personally only used the Internet for a year or so, but in the future we can reach all followers.

So, then, how important do you think the role of the Internet will be for the Tibetan movement?

There are already many Web sites for Tibetans, so we can use these as a way of finding out what’s happening in Tibet. I don’t know if Tibetans in China can see these Web sites, but it’s a place for people to write suggestions and debate, so it’s some help. It’s a new environment for us, still a sort of novelty.

Your only trip abroad so far was to the United States in 2008. What was your impression of the country?

I was really busy for two weeks, flying back and forth between the West and East coasts. Some people said I would have jet lag, but I had no time for jet lag. When I was little I read some Western children’s stories, so I developed a feeling for the West. So this was like living that dream, like I had seen it before.

Tibet’s Chinese-appointed deputy chief, Pema Thinley, calls you a friend and claims that you left behind a letter promising never to “betray the state, the nation, the monastery, or the leadership.” What did you mean by that?

My purpose was to receive teachings and instructions from the Buddhist tradition. Me coming to India [to study] was a purely spiritual trip. So I left a letter to make sure this trip wasn’t seen as political; I didn’t want my parents, family, and friends to get hassled. In Tibet you always have a fear that Chinese policy will change. Tibetan policy is different from other areas, because [the Chinese] can take extrajudicial action. But my biggest fear wasn’t that I would disappear one day like the Panchen Lama [who at the age of 5 disappeared after the Dalai Lama declared him a reincarnation], but that I would be given a political [office] by the Chinese to, for example, curse the Dalai Lama. I was worried this would happen when I turned 18.

How is your relationship with the Chinese government?

There is no direct relationship ever since I came to India. Obviously they’re not happy, because I escaped and they didn’t know, so it’s an embarrassment. Then I went directly to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I don’t want to believe I’m an enemy of China, because I don’t want to be the enemy of China. I don’t have the heart to hurt China. The Chinese did recognize me. I was born in Tibet in 1985, when Tibet was already under Chinese control. To be Karmapa, you had to be approved—of course, not spiritually—by the Chinese government. The Dalai Lama also approved me.

Aren’t you in a unique position to help solve the Tibet issue, as you’re recognized by China?

To help Tibetans, to protect our culture, and to listen to the Dalai Lama’s guidance are all part of my responsibility. I will do what I can.

Many people have their hopes in you as a possible successor to the Dalai Lama.

This isn’t realistic—it’s just people’s wish. In history, the Karmapa is 900 years old and has always been the spiritual leader of Tibet, but never climbed into a political position. The Karmapa already has a lot of responsibilities, so others have to consider that. To push more on my plate, I couldn’t stand.

Today’s young Tibetans seem to want to leave Tibet, and those in India want to go to the West. Will this movement die out?

To preserve Tibetan culture is a big challenge, because in Tibet there is a lot of Chinese influence and outside of Tibet there is a lot of modern influence. So we have to think about how to combine tradition with modernity. In Tibetan schools, for example, we will want to study Tibetan culture as well as have modern education. Without tradition, you would be empty. But without modern education, you will have no way to exist in today’s society. I want to help prepare Tibetans so one day when they have freedom they have the [skills] to organize their own country.

That sounds like you are arguing for independence and not just autonomy.

Of course I agree with His Holiness’s middle way. Now you need more time to improve relations between China and Tibet. If a middle way is possible, then we can return and contribute as exiles. But no matter what, we need to preserve our tradition and culture. Tibetan Buddhism is welcomed worldwide, so it’s important to global culture.

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