Book Review: His Holiness the 17th Karmapa

On the night of Dec. 28, 1999, the 14-year-old Ogyen Trinley Dorje made a fateful decision. Accepted and celebrated by both the Chinese government and the Tibetans as the reincarnated 17th Karmapa Lama – the only high Tibetan priest recognized by both of the warring sides, used to the presence of such dignitaries as the Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, the Karmapa, along with the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, was one of Tibetan Buddhism’s triumvirate of highest holy men, the prelate of the Karma Kagyu order.

The young teenager, however, decided that he could no longer be what the Chinese government wanted him to be. Even as early as the age of 9, the Karmapa was already rebelling against Chinese pressure, refusing to read from prepared texts and almost daring the Chinese, to the consternation of his advisors. On the surface, writes Tsering Namgyal, the author who spent a year with the Karmapa to research this book, “the Chinese government treated the Karmapa with great respect and reference, which his position deserved…Yet, behind the scenes, pressure was quietly mounting on the Karmapa.”

On that night, the youth and his closest and most trusted advisors disappeared from the monastery where the Chinese had installed him to begin a trip over the top of the Himalayas, 800 miles by foot, horseback, jeep, and other transport, across some of the most rugged terrain on the face of the earth in the middle of winter, to reach Dharamasala, the exile capital of the Dalai Lama, who had fled there in 1959. Remarkably, according to Namgyal, it appears to have been his decision, not that of his advisors and seniors.

The propaganda blow to the Chinese was humiliating. They had earlier kidnapped the six-year-old who had been picked by Tibetan priests as the reincarnated 10th Panchen Lama, who has never been seen again, and installed their own Panchen Lama in his place, a stunning demonstration of just how ham-fisted the Chinese government can be. The idea that their own Karmapa would reject them and flee for India must have been devastating.

There appears to be more than just rebellion to the Karmapa, now 28 years old and living quietly in a monastery near Dharamsala, India. Even if you tend to be skeptical of reincarnation, according to Namgyal’s account, he displays a striking amount of intelligence and maturity and the occasional miraculous performance. He appears to be a powerful advocate of Buddhism, able to draw huge crowds to hear him speak – and, if the book is to be believed, able to make rain to end long droughts, as his predecessor, the 16th Karmapa, did as well, on an Indian reservation in the American southwest. In particular, he has involved himself in drawing the symbiotic relationship between Buddhism and the environment, Namgyal writes.

Partly because of his unique position of having escaped China, the Karmapa is almost a prisoner of the Indian government, allowed out only occasionally to travel and visit and to perform powerful Buddhist ceremonies. He has not been allowed to return to the monastery of the 16th Karmapa in the kingdom of Sikkim despite his wish to do so. At one point he was charged with laundering money although the charges were dropped as a farce. There is some controversy over his direct lineage to the 16th Karmapa, with two senior disciples of the 16th Karmapa identifying two different boys as the true Karmapa. Namgyal doesn’t really get into the controversy, pointing out that the Dalai Lama, the faith’s highest religious figure, has identified Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the true Karmapa, and that’s kind of that.

The Karmapa– and the Dalai Lama as well – of course represent a religion and a people in a large measure of crisis. More than 100 young Tibetans have set themselves afire to protest not so much the occupation of Tibet, which much of the world views as illegal, as the way the Chinese have screwed the lid down tight on human rights. At the same time, the vast, empty spaces of the Tibetan plateau and mountain ranges are being invaded increasingly by the Han Chinese. A significant number have fled their homeland, not only for Dharamasala but across the earth.

As with the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa represents, in his person as well as his position, a beacon to the Tibetan dispossessed, a person whose other activities “have manifested themselves particularly in the field of environment, interactions with scientists and his use of art in spreading Buddhist teachings. Very few individuals have performed such a diverse range of activities, let alone someone of his age."

Tibetans, Namgyal writes, respect him much as they do the Dalai Lama, because “he is a 21st century Buddhist. He asks his students and followers time and again to experiment, to develop critical faculties and refrain from falling victim to blind faith."

The book suffers somewhat for being in too many places a recitation of where the Karmapa spoke, and to how many people, instead of focusing in what the man told the crowds, and what makes him special. Certainly, it is more personal journey than biography of the Karmapa. Nonetheless, it is a valuable addition to the Tibetan Buddhist canon, providing both a history of the land and its people as well, drawing concise pictures of other religious leaders such as the 16th Karmapa, who truly appears to have been a figure larger than life. Namgyal delves into the signs that Tibetan priests look for in determining which child is a reincarnated prelate.

For Namgyal, who now lives in New York City and is perhaps the most widely published journalist and writer of Tibetan origin, this is a book of personal discovery as well, a look into his own aspirations and objectives as a Buddhist and as a writer as well as a picture of the Karmapa.