DHARAMSALA, India — The Dalai Lama’s not getting any younger.
He turned 75 on Tuesday and by all accounts he’s in good health. But, inevitably, the question of who will succeed one of the world’s most revered spiritual leaders looms large.
Increasingly, the spotlight has been turned to the Karmapa Lama. He is close to the Dalai Lama and calls him “a spiritual and personal father figure.” As head of one of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, he is also an accomplished scholar in his own right. But he’s of a new generation.
He plays video games and spends time after meditation listening to rap music. On a recent visit to his monastery in Sidbhari, a village near the Dalai Lama’s exile home in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala, the Karmapa Lama tossed around ideas for which team might win the World Cup — not exactly the subject that first comes to mind when you think monastery and Dalai Lama.
“Some people were saying Argentina would win but now they have lost and are gone so now people are saying Germany,” said the Karmapa.
There’s no doubt the Karmapa Lama is an unusual young man. His is an eclectic mix that bridges the gap between old and young. It’s also turned him into the modern icon of the Tibetan struggle against China for autonomy.
Born Ogyen Trinley Dorje, he was pronounced the 17th incarnation of the Karmapa Lama as a 7-year-old boy and whisked away to a monastery near the capital Lhasa. He was quickly recognized by China which hoped it had found a potentially powerful rival to the Dalai Lama.
But a 14-year-old Karmapa had other plans.
“At 18 I might have had to take a position in the Chinese government hierarchy … and turn against the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause. That was one of the reasons I decided to leave.”
Leave he did, fleeing his home in rural Tibet for India, embarking on an eight-day journey by foot and horseback across the Himalayas. China was infuriated by the dramatic escape that echoed the Dalai Lama’s flight four decades earlier.
The fact that many believe he is being groomed for the top is hardly a secret, but the prospect of taking on such responsibility has failed to enthrall the young man.
“I’m not very excited about the possibility but His Holiness has great faith and hope in the young generation and I’m part of the young generation so I will do what I can to support his work and hope to leave behind a rich legacy like his,” said the Karmapa.
He isn’t the only one downplaying the hype. The Dalai Lama’s spokesman, Tenzin Taklha, praises the young monk but said no one knows what will happen after the Dalai Lama.
“[The Karmapa] is charismatic, good-looking and has great potential. He’s a promising leader and will certainly be one of our most important spiritual leaders but I could not say he is the only next leader.”
Tibetan Youth Congress President Tsewang Rigzin echoes Taklha’s caution, explaining that while the Karmapa is a “potential spiritual leader, it’s just too early to tell.”
The Dalai Lama has discussed his succession although no decisions have been made.
Traditionally monks in Tibet would fan out across the region to find the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation after his death, but some fear China will hijack the situation and insert its own chosen figure, as it did in 1995 with the Panchen Lama. At that time, the Dalai Lama named a competing incarnation, who promptly vanished.
This time, the Dalai Lama has signaled he could break with tradition and name a spiritual leader to succeed him prior to his death.
While the succession question remains unanswered, for now there’s universal agreement that losing the Dalai Lama would be a devastating blow.
“When you don’t have a leader you are very lost so it’ll have huge impact on the Tibetan exiled community and Tibetans in Tibet, as well as globally … I cannot even contemplate that in my everyday life,” said the Karmapa with a sigh, his broad shoulders slumping.
For now the Karmapa’s everyday life is packed with study, meditation and meetings with people that range from community leaders to Hollywood celebrities like Richard Gere.
India has granted him asylum but restricts his travel, wary of aggravating already tense relations with neighboring China. The Karmapa has been abroad only once in 11 years, when he went to the United States in 2008.
It’s a source of great frustration to a young man itching to spread his wings and meet his spiritual brethren around the world.
“Lots of people are waiting for me to come to their countries so it is upsetting as I can’t fulfill their wishes,” he said.
He may be struggling to fulfill his followers wishes abroad but closer to home the Karmapa is doing just fine.
“Young people love the Karmapa,” said Lobsang Rampa, a 22-year-old student who arrived in Dharamsala from Tibet five years ago. “He’s one of us, the younger generation, he’s our future.”