Ugyen Trinley Dorje, the most senior religious
leader in Tibet until he fled the country
15 months ago, has spoken for the first
time since he joined the Dalai Lama in exile
in India. Better known as the 17th incarnation
of the Karmapa -- and a possible successor
to the Dalai Lama -- the teenager's press
conference on April 27 lifted the veil on
his personality. Two days later, he sat
down with TIME's South Asia bureau chief
Michael Fathers and discussed growing up,
missing his parents and his love of painting
and music. Edited excerpts:
When do you expect to
return to Tibet?
Having come to India
as a refugee, I don't plan to return to
Tibet until the Dalai Lama returns. I will
go back with him.
The government of China
says you left your monastery to go to India
to reclaim the Karmapa's symbolic black
hat and other religious possessions. They
said your reasons were contained in a letter
you left behind.
It is true that I
left behind a letter. I am perfectly aware
what was in it as I wrote it myself. I said
in it that I was leaving because for a long
time I had persistently and repeatedly asked
permission for my teachers in India to come
to me. But this was refused. There was no
mention at all in the letter of the black
hat. What would be the purpose of taking
it back to China -- to put it on Jiang Zemin's
Do you want to work
with the Dalai Lama for an independent Tibet?
What makes Tibet
famous is its religious traditions and culture.
So my responsibility is to support the religion
and culture as vigorously as I can. By doing
this I will benefit the people of Tibet
and the overall situation of Tibet. And
I believe I will be supporting the Dalai
Lama as much as I can.
Are you worried that
Tibetan culture is dying under Chinese rule?
I am not particularly
learned in the political sphere. But each
and every nation has its own distinct spiritual
and cultural tradition. And if there ever
arises a situation where a culture could
become extinct I hope and pray that it never
happens to Tibet.
It is said that the
Chinese are waiting for the Dalai Lama to
die in the hope that the Tibetan independence
movement dies with him. Where do you stand
on this issue?
The Dalai Lama is
not that old (he is 65), and he is also
very healthy. I pray constantly for his
longevity and I am confident he will be
with us for a long time. During that period
there may be political changes in China.
As far as the youth of Tibet are concerned,
I would urge them to concentrate on the
preservation of the cultural and spiritual
traditions of Tibet.
What sort of future
would you like to see for Tibet?
I'd like to see a
non-violent Tibet where our spiritual and
traditional values are respected. My great
aspiration is that Tibet and its peoples
will live in a state of peace.
What was China hoping
to get from you?
There was no doubt
in my mind that China was planning to use
me. I was treated as something very special.
But I came to suspect that there might have
been a plan to use me to separate the people
of Tibet from the Dalai Lama.
Were you pressed to
recognize China's candidate as the reincarnated
Panchen Lama (who is aged 11, and is the
highest-ranking cleric left in Tibet)?
There was no particular
pressure placed on me to support him. But
I was invited to his hair-cutting and ordination
What was your childhood
like? Did you have any sense of being a
reincarnated high lama?
I can remember being
treated with great respect by my parents
I didn't really accumulate much experience
on my own. At the age of five I entered
a monastery, and after that I was intensely
involved in the study and practice of Buddhism.
There was nothing in particular that made
me aware of my position.
What do you miss most
I came to India for
very important reasons
I do think about my parents a lot and I
miss them. I also worry about the people
from my region (in eastern Tibet).
Does your previous life
in Tibet differ from your life in India?
There are some differences,
obviously. India is a different country
with different laws and different customs.
The main difference is that in Tibet I felt
my mind was somewhat sharper. Here in India
my mind is a little unclear. I think it
might be the difference in climate.
Does this worry you?
Sometimes I feel
uncomfortable about my lack of mental clarity.
But if I go outside for a while, it helps.
Do you feel constrained
by your surroundings (he is confined to
an empty monastery)?
There is a sense
of restriction living here, but it has been
ameliorated by the Indian Government's decision
to give me refugee status and to allow me
to go on a pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy
places. If the trend in this direction continues,
my wishes will be fully met. So I regard
this as a temporary place. It is a little
bit inconvenient; it is like being in a
guesthouse. After all this is not a monastery
of my own (Kagyupa) tradition. (The monastery
is a "tantric university" of the
Dalai Lama's Gelupa tradition, or sect of
What activities do you
and music -- and I like them all equally.
I paint people. My paintings don't have
any particular symbolism. I just draw and
paint what comes to me.
Does this include your
Are you studying non-religious
Not in India, but
I did in Tibet. I did not study politics
or political science. But I did study a
bit of Tibetan history and mathematics;
traditional Tibetan mathematics, which includes
astrology and modern mathematics. I am not
studying mathematics any more because beyond
a certain point you don't need that much.
I don't much like accounting. And I don't
much like counting money. Other people do
it for me so I don't even attempt it.
Do you see your role
as adapting Tibet's traditional culture
and religion to modern needs?
Both strands are
very important. Traditional knowledge and
methods are very precious. At the same time
they need to be presented in a way that
fits or works with modern people, and the
knowledge that we are accumulating now.
Rather than selecting one to the exclusion
of the other, we need to bring them together.
I am one of many people seeking to do this.
Do you use a computer?
I don't know how
to use e-mail and I don't yet have the need
to use e-mail. I don't have an (Internet)
link, although I hope to eventually.
Are the divisions in
your sect and the presence of a rival Karmapa
of concern to you?
I am a little bit
concerned because it does affect Buddhist
teachings and the survival of Buddhist teachings.
But I constantly pray for the welfare of
everyone without thinking or making a distinction
between those who are on my side and the
Sharmapa Rimpoche (a
senior lama of the Kagyupa sect who has
dismissed the 16-year-old lama as the real
Karmapa and appointed his own) has called
you an agent of the Chinese.
Up to this point
I have done my best to deal with the situation
in the appropriate way. I don't want to
speculate, as it will only worsen things.
Are you the real Karmapa?
The identity of the
Karmapa is not decided by popular vote or
debate. It is decided only by the prediction
of the previous Karmapa.
What has been the happiest
moment of your life?
It was probably my
childhood, when I was still living in my
birthplace, because at that time I was free
and did not have the title of being a great
lama. In contrast to now, I am living with
the responsibility that comes with a title.
It is a great blessing and a great honor,
but it is somewhat restrictive.
Material Subject to