A Young Lama Weighs Tibetans' Future

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

SIDBHARI, India -- For a living Buddha and one of Tibet's next spiritual leaders, the 23-year-old Karmapa Lama hardly conforms to Western notions of a monastic figure. He spends many of his afternoons in his wine-colored robe, head-bobbing to hip-hop music on his iPod or releasing "negative energy," as he calls it, playing war games on his PlayStation.

Frustrated over the pace of Tibet's struggle against Chinese rule, he is known here as the reluctant lama: brooding and outspoken about the plight of his compatriots, many of whom have lived in exile in India for three generations and feel no closer to persuading China to let them have autonomy in their homeland.

"Sometimes I feel like an old man," the Karmapa Lama said from his monastery in Sidbhari, a farming village near the Dalai Lama's exile headquarters in the northern Indian town of Dharmsala. "I'm physically young, but the challenges I have been through have made me an old, experienced man."

That's because the Karmapa Lama -- born Ogyen Trinley Dorje -- carries a heavy burden: He is Tibetan Buddhism's third most senior figure and is being groomed as one of several potential leaders to forge a fresh path for the next generation of Tibetans in their struggle against China, whose troops entered Tibet in 1950.

The appointment of a successor to the 73-year-old Dalai Lama, who almost single-handedly catapulted Tibet's struggle into the world's consciousness, has become a daunting issue for Tibetans as the spiritual leader ages.

The Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace laureate, has won over presidents, Hollywood stars and multitudes of soy-and-granola suburbanites with his nonviolent doctrine, down-to-earth spirituality, easy laugh and personal search for compassion and inner happiness.

So far, Tibetans have remained unified largely out of their love and respect for the Dalai Lama. But there is a growing divide in the community -- some want independence from China, and others favor the Dalai Lama's proposal for true autonomy, or his "middle way" approach. Analysts are uncertain whether the Tibetan movement could remain united under a less-venerated leader such as the Karmapa Lama.

"Our generation has so much to take on our shoulders when His Holiness passes. The Dalai Lama has unified the hearts of all Tibetans," said Tenzin Tsundue, a poet and member of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a group that advocates an independent Tibet. "But Karmapa is passionate, he's energetic. He has the respect of the youth. We will really need him."

Tibetan Buddhism holds that the soul of a high-ranking monk, or "living Buddha," is reborn after his death. The resulting "soul boy" can be found through the interpretation of signs, which could include recognition of the deities' personal items.

In the past, Tibetan court-appointed monks have sought the successor to previous Dalai Lamas from among Tibetans. The current Dalai Lama was discovered in 1937 as a 2-year-old in a village in Amdo, now part of China's western province of Qinghai.

Monks searching for signs of a lama rebirth chose the Karmapa Lama, then a 7-year-old son of nomads, as the 17th reincarnation in the Kagyu sect, one of four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

But his sect is a problem. Previously, all Dalai Lamas have come from the Gelugpa sect. Some analysts say appointing the Karmapa Lama as the next Dalai Lama would be similar to appointing a Methodist as the next pope. Despite that obstacle, there is a movement among Tibetans for him to become an acting leader when the Dalai Lama dies, in part because any replacement would probably be too young to lead immediately.

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