“Daunting audience with a 900-year-old teenager”
April 28 , 2001 (London)
BY MICK BROWN
FEARS for the Karmapa’s safety since his flight from Tibet to India, can make meeting him a daunting experience. On the three occasions I have met him since his arrival in India 16 months ago, the procedure has always been the same.
First one must negotiate the armed police who prowl the steps leading to the Gyuto monastery where he lives. At the door, one is searched and one’s name and passport number logged, before being led up the four flights of narrow stairs to the audience room, where yet another screen of security men stand.
Then there is the imponderable weight of his spiritual ancestry to consider. The present Karmapa – the 17th of his line – is believed to be the repository of an unbroken line of teachings going back 2,500 years to the time of the Buddha himself, and the Karmapas are the oldest line of identifiable reincarnates in Tibetan Buddhism. The first Karmapa was recognised about 900 years ago – 400 years before the first Dalai Lama.
Regarded as the great miracle-workers of Tibetan Buddhism, they are unique in leaving instructions at their deaths about where their next incarnation will be found. The 16th Karmapa who died in 1981, was believed to have the ability to control the weather, talk to birds and leave imprints of his hand and feet in solid rock. His letter of prediction was found eight years after his death, leading to the discovery of the present Karmapa, living in a nomad family in eastern Tibet.
Enthroned at the ancestral seat of Tsurphu monastery in 1992 with the permission of the Chinese, the Karmapa remained in Tibet until last year, when he fled to India to join the Dalai Lama in exile.
Since arriving in India, he has been confined in the small Gyuto monastery in Dharamsala. Last month, after finally being formally granted refugee status, he was allowed to make a pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in India; but he is still forbidden to travel to his seat of Rumtek monastery, in Sikkim, which was established by his predecessor the 16th Karmapa after his flight from Tibet in 1959.
His court at Gyuto is a miniature of the system that has served successive Karmapas for centuries. His inner circle is made up of his monk tutors and personal attendants, including members of the party who escaped with him from Tibet. Among these are one of the lamas who planned the escape (another remained behind), and the Karmapa’s elderly chamberlain, who serves his meals, prepares his clothes and ministers to his daily needs, and who fulfilled the same functions for his predecessor.
His closest confidants are two middle-aged lamas, one of whom he refers to as “uncle”, both highly educated in Buddhist philosophy, fluent in English, well-travelled and politically astute. Then there is the outer circle, or labrang, made up of a handful of lay people who administer the Karmapa’s affairs.
In the 16 months that his entourage has been confined in Gyuto, the small, cramped warren of rooms of the monastery have come to resemble a refugee camp. Monks sleep on camp-beds, dormitory style, and administrators have been working amidst a tangle of papers, cardboard boxes and piles of clothes. Adding to this disarray is the daily avalanche of offerings from devotees who arrive at the monastery to receive his blessing.
While only 15, the Karmapa is a tall, powerfully built figure, whose presence seems to fill the room. His smile can change in an instant to an expression of fierce intensity which devotees call “wrathful”. Even his closest attendants confess that they feel uncomfortable holding his gaze for too long.
Conversing with him, one is left in no doubt that he has a strong mind of his own; his comments yesterday about China’s President Jiang suggest he also possesses sharply ironic sense of humour.
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