BY MICHAEL FATHERS
Sixteen-year-old 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 head?
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 ceremony.
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 in India?
I came to India for very important reasons… Nonetheless 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 Tibetan Buddhism.)
What activities do you enjoy most?
Painting, poetry 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 visions?
Are you studying non-religious subjects?
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 rest.
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.