Deity Goes into Retirement: Tibetans Face Uncertainty in Post-Dalai Lama Era


"India, unlike China, is not a dictatorship but a functioning democracy," says the 17th Karmapa. On the wall behind him is the only piece of decoration in the room, a likeness of his "forefather," the first Karmapa. "And that's why I am confident that these accusations will be fairly examined. They will prove to have been unfounded, because it is clear that true believers from the People's Republic also find their way here as tourists and donate money." These pilgrims, he says, were the source of the "suspicious" currency.

For him, the Dalai Lama is the great teacher, a man he looks up to. They are often alone together for hours, discussing the relationship between religion and science. No one can replace the Dalai Lama, says the young man. And yes, he adds, he too has heard the rumor that he is predestined to become the "new Dalai Lama." But the traditions of his order would prevent him from holding the title in the first place. "Perhaps it is wishful thinking for some people, but for me it's unthinkable."

One of his advisers shoots him a stern look, and he immediately stops talking about current politics. He wrote an essay titled "108 Things You Can Do to Help the Environment," says the Karmapa. He loves ink drawings and likes to write poetry, and he practices Buddhist self-criticism. "Sometimes I watch video recordings of my speeches, especially those that I thought were successful. And then I realize that I said nothing significant at all, and I am ashamed."

He is a computer buff and is interested in world affairs, documentaries and films. He liked the animated action comedy "Kung Fu Panda," and he also enjoyed James Cameron's "Avatar." He readily admits that these are escapes into other worlds, and is quick to point out that he is much more interested in real life. But with the exception of a trip to the United States in 2008, the Indian government has not permitted the Karmapa, a man with the status of a stateless refugee, to leave the country. The authorities, probably fearing negative reactions from Beijing, cancelled a planned trip to Europe in 2010.

His day is completely planned in advance. It begins with the audiences, in which he blesses pilgrims from around the world. On this particular day, his visitors included wraithlike French schoolteachers, Taiwanese theology students and American acting students, who brought gifts ranging from plastic Buddhas to white shawls to the ubiquitous envelopes filled with money. His meeting with SPIEGEL will be followed by a session with his Korean language teacher. After that, he will have his religious studies to attend to (copies of both the Koran and Bible are in the library), followed by discussions of the Buddhist concept of emptiness. "In my job," he says, "I can't lose sight of the big picture."

The Karmapa spends his spare time playing with Tashi, his sister's white lap dog, and his idea of freedom is listening to inner voices. "The people around me mean well, and I know that I must submit to my destiny," he says. Then, with an almost defiant glance at the adviser, he adds: "But sometimes I do feel locked up and try not to be sad about it."

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