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


The Karmapa lives in the hottest part of Dharamsala, 600 meters (2,000 feet) lower down and half an hour's drive from McLeod Ganj, the elevated part of town where the Dalai Lama has his official residence. He resides in the Gyuto, a whitewashed monastery with little golden towers, which also houses the Tantric University -- as a subtenant of the Dalai Lama.

Ogyen Trinley Dorje, a.k.a., the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, has given only a handful of interviews in his entire life, and he hasn't given a single interview since the damaging accusations were made against him. Calling him well-protected is an understatement. The circles of his caretakers surround him like the leaves of a water lily. His daily schedule is managed by a staff of 12 people, with titles like public relations director, human resources manager, manager of reincarnation issues, and each of them has a deputy. Very few are granted the chance to penetrate to the center of the flower, the Karmapa himself.

After lengthy negotiations with the Karmapa's team of advisers, SPIEGEL finally managed to arrange a meeting, but only under somewhat conspiratorial circumstances: It was characterized as an "audience," the last item on the Karmapa's agenda that day, following prayers and audiences with a handful of privileged pilgrims from around the world.

Historically speaking, the Dalai Lamas and the Karmapa Lamas are members of different schools. The Karmapa's Kagyu school, also known as the "black hats," were long more powerful than their rivals, the Dalai Lama's Gelugpa or "yellow hats." But when faced with the common threat posed by the Maoists, the Tibetans, without abandoning their theological differences, joined forces under the undisputed spiritual leadership of the current Dalai Lama.

The 14th Dalai Lama and the 17th Karmapa have some things in common, including a magical, centuries-old life history that requires a considerable leap of faith on the part of their followers, or, as the Dalai Lama puts it, "about as much of a leap of faith as the story of the virgin birth" in Christianity. According to the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, both men demonstrated significant signs of their uniqueness in their earliest youth, signs that could only be interpreted as a nod from above. In this sense, both men emerged as reincarnations of a very special sort.

The story of the current Karmapa ("man of Buddha activity") goes like this: As predicted by his predecessor, he was born in 1985 in a nomadic tent "northeast of the snow," to sounds resembling a conch shell horn. He baffled his mother by identifying himself to her as the Karmapa, saying: "If you wish to sacrifice something to the Karmapa, you can give it to me." In 1992, he unerringly led his parents to a search team of monks equipped with the secret notes and clues provided by the deceased 16th Karmapa. When the seven-year-old boy was also able to identify ritual objects, the searchers were in agreement. "Apo Gaga," as he was called, "the one who makes us laugh," had to be the true holy one.

He was taken to the main monastery of the Kagyu order in Tsurphu near Lhasa, where he was enthroned in a magnificent ceremony -- and recognized, not only by the Dalai Lama, but by the leaders in Beijing. It seems safe to assume that this was all part of a political calculation. But why was the government of the People's Republic so accommodating when it came to the Karmapa?

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