Tibetan Buddhism’s Karmapa Lama shies from mantle of power

December 1, 2011

(Karmapa Lama, the third highest ranking Lama, pauses during an interview with Reuters in the northern Indian hill town of Dharamsala March 2, 2009. REUTERS/Abhishek Madhukar)

Tibet’s Karmapa Lama is revered by followers as a 900-year-old soul in the body of a youth, and tipped to assume the mantle of Tibetan spiritual leadership when the present Dalai Lama dies.

But the 26-year-old who is the current embodiment of the Karmapa Lama, a sacred role in Tibetan Buddhism, shies from the expectations that surround him.

“I don’t want to put on anybody’s shoes,” said the shaven-headed Karmapa Lama, whose youth, religious standing and daring escape across the Himalayas mean many young Tibetans see him as a natural successor to the Dalai Lama as figurehead.

“His Holiness is the overall spiritual leadership, no one can replace him,” the Karmapa Lama said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, referring to the Dalai Lama.

“My brain is not made for politics,” he said in stilted English. He also speaks Mandarin Chinese and Tibetan.

Yet this shy young man in thick glasses could become a key player in shaping the political fate of Tibet, the remote mountainous region beset by tensions over Chinese rule.

The Karmapa Lama, also known as Ogyen Trinley Dorje, is one of the highest figures in Tibetan Buddhism, along with the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, each overseeing different arms of their faith. Lama means “monk.”

After the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa Lama is the most eminent of them to have fled Chinese rule of Tibet, which Communist forces occupied from 1950. Despite his escape in 2000, the Karmapa Lama remains recognised by Beijing as the 17th incarnation of his spiritual lineage, something that could help him reach out to China.

He belongs to a religious order different from the Dalai Lama’s, and so will not take on that title. Yet, many Tibetans believe he is nevertheless capable of taking on some of the aging Dalai Lama’s functions, including international lobbying.

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