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New Face of an Ancient Lineage

He loves art, music, and computers and has written several songs. At age twenty-four, he is deeply concerned about people his age and the world they are inheriting. The Karmapa ensures the continuity of the Kagyu lineage and the transmission of the authentic Mahamudra teachings.

As BARRY BOYCE tells us in our January 2010 cover story, this young man's views will help define Buddhism in the 21st century.

On the day his first visit to America was suddenly announced, I booked a ticket. After the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa ("the Karmapa," for short) is the third most important spiritual leader in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, and the one who may carry that tradition forward in the twenty-first century. I rearranged my schedule and jumped through some hoops to make the trip, but my little journey was nothing compared with his.

In 1999, at the age of fourteen, the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, made a stunning escape from Chinese-controlled Tibet that attracted the world’s attention, and the eyes of the world have remained on him ever since. The Dalai Lama has hosted him at Gyuto Monastery in India since his escape, and is thought to be preparing him to continue his global message of peace, cooperation, and human kindness. But what has made the Karmapa even more interesting is that he’s not afraid to rock the boat: he talks about the environment, vegetarianism, and the role of women—and how Buddhist institutions needed to align themselves more with the modern world on these issues. His youth contrasts markedly with the grandfatherly countenance of the Dalai Lama, and he has decades of work ahead of him, time to have a real impact on the world of my children.

As I sat in the cavernous Hammerstein Ballroom in midtown Manhattan waiting to hear his first public pronouncement in America, I wondered, What kind of a person is he? Will his voice resonate with people of a younger generation? How will he bring together his ancient spiritual tradition and his concern for the problems of today’s world?

The first sight of him was deceptive. He peered out into the spotlights, unable to make out the face of even a single person in the crowd of three thousand. He looked his age—twenty-three—with an attractive face and manner and an inquisitive mien. Of course the crowd was predisposed to like him, but still they seemed taken by his innocent demeanor. He didn’t appear to be shielded from the world by the solemn mantle of spiritual leadership. He was dwarfed by the monumental wall hanging of the Buddha behind him, and as he started to speak I felt certain he would be timid and intimidated. Who would not be, had they arrived the day before on a direct flight from India and faced a throng of twitching and buzzing New Yorkers. I expected to hear the tentative musings of a twenty-something who had led a controlled and isolated life. Maybe an orthodox recitation of traditional Buddhist categories. He was young, and perhaps not yet inhabiting his exalted role. I’d be all right with that.

But then he spoke, for the first time ever to a Western audience. He was gentle and genuine, yes, but not tentative. He knew his mind. Far from isolated, he appeared as someone who understood the DNA of the world and could speak with some authority to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Orgyen Trinley Dorje was not playing a part, falling back on rote rhetoric and tidy doctrines. In the several days I heard him speak and spent time in his presence, he did not cling to dogma or judgment. He spoke plainly, from the heart, about his experience of mind and life, almost like a New York cabbie telling you what he thought about things while still keeping his eye on the road ahead.

“These terms like enlightenment and awakened mind,” he said to the crowd, “seem so far away as to be useless.” What we need to focus on is right now, he said, where we are, right in the midst of our difficulties, even in the midst of New York City, where “the people and cars are rushing, where even the buildings seem to be rushing, growing higher.” In such a place, he said, we might think it’s impossible to attain any happiness and stability. But in the middle of Manhattan or in a cave in the Himalayas, we’re all in the same boat. If we can learn to be present and aware in the midst of our difficulties—whether we can resolve them or not—we will “never let them destroy our peace of mind.”

Spiritual authority in Tibetan Buddhism is commonly vested in tulkus, masters who consciously take rebirth with the intent of helping others, as tradition says the Buddha did himself. Generally recognized when they are children, they’re trained in Buddhist philosophy, ritual, and meditation to carry on the lineage of their predecessors.

So far there have been seventeen Gyalwang (“Victorious”) Karmapas. Theirs is the Kagyu lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism. It is called the “ear-whispered” or practice lineage, because of its emphasis on meditation practice and direct, personal transmission from teacher to student. Closely associated with the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism and its famed practice of Dzogchen (the “Great Perfection”), the Kagyu lineage specializes in the ancient teachings known as Mahamudra, the Great Seal.

The Kagyu lineage can be traced back more than a thousand years to a wild Indian yogin named Tilopa. He passed his realization of Mahamudra on to his principal student, the scholar Naropa, who in turn transmitted it to the Tibetan translator and farmer Marpa. Marpa’s leading student was the cave-dwelling ascetic and Tibetan national poet Milarepa, whose principal student was Gampopa, a monk and physician who established the first Kagyu monastery.

Gampopa’s most significant student was Tusum Khyenpa, whose contemporaries gave him the title Karmapa, “the man of Buddha activity.” Tusum Khyenpa decided that the best way to ensure the continuation of the lineage was to leave behind a letter telling the monastery how to find his next incarnation, who would then be installed as head of the lineage after a period of regency. The second Karmapa thus became the first formally recognized tulku, creating a system for maintaining continuity of the teachings that became widespread in Tibet.

It is the Karmapas’ role to ensure that the transmission of the practice lineage remains fresh and intact, not so much by being a good leader, which is important, but mainly by embodying the spirit and realization of Mahamudra’s true meaning. The actual experience of Mahamudra is beyond words, but Tilopa offered a pithy summation: “Mahamudra mind dwells nowhere.” It’s called the “Great Seal” because all that exists—good and bad, suffering and enlightenment, the beginning of the path and its fruition—is “sealed” with the mind’s true nature, which is empty, aware, and blissful.

Such simplicity is born from extensive study, instruction, and practice, and over the centuries, the Karmapas acquired a reputation as highly adept meditation masters with a powerful presence and a palpable sense of caring for everyone they encountered. Until the Sixteenth Karmapa made his first trips to the West, this reputation was largely limited to Asia. His visits to the United States in 1974, 1976, and 1980 were whirlwind affairs, with large groups of monks and fellow teachers journeying through Disneyland, the Capitol Building in Washington, Hopi Indian lands, and untold venues large and small. Many students like me fell in love with the Sixteenth, for his abundant warmth and playfulness. He died at fifty-seven, having spent the last twenty-two years of his life outside Tibet.

The person now known as the Seventeenth Karmapa began life as Apo Gaga, a boy born in 1985 in a poor nomad family in Chinese-occupied eastern Tibet. By then Tibetan monks had already started to search for the Sixteenth Karmapa’s reincarnation. In 1992, at the age of seven, with the Dalai Lama’s blessing, Apo Gaga was declared to be the Karmapa tulku.


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