An Interview with Tibet’s Third Holiest Man – The 17th Karmapa by Saransh Sehgal
13th September – Gyuto, Dharamsala.
The Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorjee is the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism and revered as the Tibet’s third highest lama. The Karmapa means “the one who carries out Buddha activity” and like the 14th Dalai Lama, the 27-year-old the 17th Karmapa too fled his homeland Tibet for religious and other freedoms and now lives in the Indian Himalayan town of Dharamsala also known as the de facto capital of Tibetan exiles which has come an epicenter of Tibetan Buddhism and politics far away from their homeland Tibet.
His dramatic escape from Tibet in 1999 made him a hero to exiled Tibetans and caught world attention fooling the Chinese government; he pretended to go into seclusion but instead slipped out with a handful of helpers. He was just 14, but the Tibetan movement straightway saw in him a young and a charismatic leader who balances his spirituality much with today’s modernity.
The young and energetic Karmapa is the young voice of Tibet and many believe is the future face of global Buddhism especially after the current Dalai Lama passes away. Belonging to oldest school in the Tibetan Buddhism, the Kagyu – the 17th Karmapa holds the more than 900 years old lineage.
The 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorjee is though recognized by the Dalai Lama and most Tibetans in and outside Tibet. New Delhi still restricts him from traveling to the Rumtek Monastery, his order’s seat in exile in the Indian state of Sikkim near the Chinese border and also to the West where his Buddhists followers in Europe and United States, and his fans still await to seek his blessing and listen to his discourse.
Nevertheless his influence and unique position cannot be undermine, he is one of the holiest men in Tibetan Buddhism and his close attachment with the Dalai Lama are possible signs the world could see in him as a great future leader, particularly in relation to the Tibet’s geopolitics. In an exclusive and rare interview, to the APA – Austrian Presse Agentur he speaks about his life, the situation inside Tibet and hopes on travel restrictions being removed so he could meet his followers in Europe.
Saransh Sehgal: Being a spiritual leader, you are also an influential figure and carry a lot of weight of Tibetans in and outside Tibet, how do you view this?
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: Historically, the Karmapas already have high dignity and spiritual position – thus a role to play. For me the Tibetan people both in Tibet and exile have strong faith and I feel that I have a responsibility to serve the people and the nation. So it’s both spiritually and social service.
Saransh Sehgal: The world portrays you as the future global face of Buddhism (especially when the HH Dalai Lama passes away), what are your views?
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: I do not think that far. In Buddhism there is lot to learn, it’s very deep and wide and I’m still learning the philosophy and practice. First it is important is to be a human being with good heart and be as a good person and next become a good practitioner so that can benefit on certain beings, this is my responsibility. But it’s also not just me but lots of other Rinpoche and lamas and our Buddhist community in large, especially Tibetan community where young leaders are growing up, so it’s not just me as a new face of Buddhism but maybe lots of other.
Saransh Sehgal: You are one of the most modern Tibetan spiritual leaders with an iPod, PlayStation and internet, how do you balance your spirituality and modernity?
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: Sometimes I think the 21st century is more materialistic century, we need more than before. But sometimes these material things become more like obstacle to the practice because in lot of things one gets carried away and one can’t focus and concentrate the practice, which is possible. But if I try to just use from those things then maybe it’s not a problem. Actually, the point is one’s mind, one can’t just go away from the material things, it is difficult especially for a person like me, I can’t escape from the society and go to some remote place. So by training our mind one can focus and not be driven by those material things.
Saransh Sehgal: What is the current situation inside Tibet?
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: The situation inside Tibet is very difficult and sad, and there are lots of heartbreaking news because of many Tibetans set themselves on fire. It is tragic.
Saransh Sehgal: What are your views on the self-immolations of Tibetans which has crossed the 50 mark?
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: I think that is quite difficult to say as there are lots of people, they have different ideas but I’m worried that one day it is just becoming like a number, already its 50 then maybe 70s, 80s… so just a number and not a positive influence or result, which is very sad.
We Tibetans consider the human life is very precious.
On the other I’m also wondering this period of time if the international community will support the Tibet issue more strongly or not as their there is global economics which is not so good, everyone wants strong relationship with China, so I am not sure.
Saransh Sehgal: Would you like the international community to press the Chinese government in engaging talks with the exiles?
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: That is something I can’t say in details, so it would be better to ask the Tibet government and Kalon Tripa (prime minister in Tibetan) Dr. Lobsang Sangay.
Saransh Sehgal: Could you tell about your relationship with His Holiness the 14th the Dalai Lama?
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: When I was in Tibet, although I didn’t see him but have a strong connection, every Tibetans has this deep and holy regard. His Holiness is the Avalokiteshvara – the Buddha of Compassion or the living Bodhisattva. When I came to India I received lot of his teachings and guidance, the relationship became closer like a teacher and student.
Saransh Sehgal: Your Holiness, you have large followers in the Europe, if I may ask what advice you have for western practitioners.
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: Immediately I have no special advice but I want to see them because they are longing for long time to see me, I also have that wish.
Saransh Sehgal: You have been denied permission to travel to the west where your teachings are being requested by your dharma centers and followers. Can you explain how this affects you personally and what would you say to those devoted to you who are feeling very disappointed due to your political restrictions?
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: Personally for me it’s quite sad and disappointing because when I was in Tibet I couldn’t travel within the Tibetan area what the Chinese call the Autonomous region and when I actually arrived in India I thought things will change – I can travel freely, I can see what I want to see but since my arrival lot of political things and still it’s not 100 percent free to travel. It’s already 12 years which is a long period of time and I think I can’t wait for another 12 years. I have already requested the Indian government to consider my request so I could travel freely.
Saransh Sehgal: When can Europeans see you touring the Europe? Could they followers expect something to see you in coming months?
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: Nothing I can say now but I hope next year it could be possible.
Saransh Sehgal: What do you expect from Europe/the EU (maybe Austria in special) concerning the Tibet/China-conflict?
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: Of course Austria and the European Union have done many things in the past and can still a lot of things but this is something I cannot advice but Dr. Lobsang Sangay head of the Tibetan government in exile can appeal.
Saransh Sehgal: You have a special affinity towards environment activism, could you us tell about it?
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: I think the environmental issue is the issue of 21st century. We have done a lot of environmental damage and now it is the tipping point that we need to change our behavior. For the benefit of change behavior is the first thing that needs to be changed. In lots of people there is no realization, we have to be interconnected and dependent on natural environment and have a clear vision so that we can understand the value of nature and how important it is to protect and preserve.
Saransh Sehgal: What are your views on the first ever Tibetan athlete Choeyang Kyi winning a medal at the London Olympics but for China?
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: It doesn’t matter, for-example in the past when the Japanese controlled Korea that time one Korean athlete (Sohn Kee-Chung) won a gold medal for Japan but still she was a Korean.
So I’m proud about her achievement. She is the first Tibetan to win at the Olympics and I think it’s a proud feeling for all Tibetans and especially in Tibetan women.
Saransh Sehgal: Do you think you will ever see your homeland Tibet and that China will ever change its policies and allow HH Dalai Lama, you and exiled Tibetans back to Tibet?
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: I think so I will see. The exiles have opportunities as we know the world is changing very quickly in the 21st century and China should also change. I hope not than just me, His Holiness the Dalai Lama can also go back to home.
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who currently is pursuing further study in Vienna, Austria.