Tibet's Rising Son

Article excerpt

Byline: Patrick Symmes

Traditionally, the Karmapa Lama would not become the leader of the Tibetan people. Tradition may need to change.

For a god, he is a nice young man. lean and assured, dressed in red and gold, the Karmapa Lama is a scholar-prince greeted with bows wherever he treads. He switches between Chinese and Tibetan fluently, studies Korean at night and occasionally interrupts a translator to voice polite outrage in English. In his temporary quarters, at a new monastery outside Bodh Gaya in eastern India, he can be glimpsed at dusk, between courtly duties, pacing slowly on a lofty terrace that overlooks women gathering wheat from the parched fields below.

The Karmapa, now a handsome 24-year-old with a shaved head, was born to a family of nomads in 1985. But then a party of monks, told to search "east of snow" for their new leader, found him in eastern Tibet. At the age of 7, he was enthroned as a living deity, the 17th reincarnation in a succession of Buddhist leaders of the Kagyu sect. At 14, he fled his native land in a dramatic escape over snowy passes to Nepal, and then India, where he attached himself to the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. Tibetans in the diaspora immediately saw something special in the Karmapa Lama--the deep personal charisma of his mentor, infused with the vigor of youth. Some saw, even then, a potential leader in his own right.

The Dalai Lama is without peer among living Tibetan deities. As head of Tibet's biggest sect, the Gelug, he is the revered and recognized leader of his people. He has won the Nobel Prize and built a global following on little more than moral strength, somehow keeping a movement of rival sects and international pressure groups united behind the notion of justice for Tibet. Yet the Dalai Lama has failed in one key respect: China has rejected even his mildest calls for autonomy and cultural freedom. March will mark 50 years since the Dalai Lama slipped into exile. Some Tibetans now believe that the Karmapa Lama may be able to succeed where the Dalai Lama has failed--if, against all tradition and precedent, he is given an opportunity to lead.

But a change of power among the Tibetans, as among less mystical movements, is a tricky business. Now 73, the Dalai Lama has shaken off minor illnesses, yet muses openly on his death or incapacity, urging Tibetan exiles to plan what may come after. By tradition, the 14th Dalai Lama will essentially hand off power to himself, when he is reincarnated after death. In one of the more intriguing rituals of Tibetan Buddhism, a search committee of monks interprets augury, dreams and mystical symbols on remote lakes, and then dashes off on horseback to identify and enthrone a baby as the next Dalai Lama. The problem is that it takes about 20 years before a credibly educated, suitably adult figure emerges to stand up for his people. And no political movement in this day and age--particularly one that China is determined to strangle--can survive a 20-year pause.

"The Chinese hard-liner strategy has always been, when the present Dalai Lama passes away, the Tibetan movement will fizzle out, or disintegrate," says Lobsang Sangay, a senior fellow at Harvard Law School who participated in a recent conference on the future of the Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala, the exile capital in western India. "So the issue is, is there anyone who can replace him? What will happen to the Tibetan movement after he passes away? That's the big question."

Lobsang is one of those who argues that the question already has a perfect answer: the Karmapa Lama can serve as a temporary replacement. Because he comes from a different sect, he can't become the Dalai Lama, but he could serve as regent until a new reincarnation reaches adulthood. The Karmapa is suited for this, in part, because he embodies the story of his people--a story of oppression, escape and exile that is very similar to that of the Dalai Lama himself, who fled Lhasa disguised as a common soldier in 1959. …