Image: Ogyen Trinley Dorje
Ashwini Bhatia  /  AP
Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the Karmapa Lama, arrives Tuesday at the Tsuglakhang temple in Dharamsala, India, to attend a function marking the 50th anniversary of the 1959 Lhasa uprising.
updated 3/11/2009 5:40:16 PM ET 2009-03-11T21:40:16

Like his 16 previous incarnations, this Karmapa Lama has spent his life immersed in the Tibetan Buddhist arts of meditation, study and prayer. Unlike them, he likes to relax playing war games on his PlayStation.

This blend of ancient spiritual authority and modern-day tastes is fueling expectations that the 23-year-old monk, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the No. 3 lama in Tibetan Buddhism, will emerge as the public voice for the next generation of Tibetans in their struggle for freedom from China.

The Tibetans desperately need somebody. Their relations with the Chinese have, over the past year, gone from bad to terrible amid outbreaks of violence and deadlocked talks.

And with the Dalai Lama now 73 and increasingly frail, Tibetans must face that he will eventually die — leaving them without an icon to plead their case before the world and keep them united.

It's a role that the Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu sect, one of the four streams of Tibetan Buddhism, is now willing to take.

"If given the opportunity, I will do my best," he said this week in a rare interview with a small group of Western journalists.

Zones out to hip-hop on his iPod
But to do so, he will have to surmount bitter sectarian disputes and geopolitical rivalries between China and India, Asia's two superpowers.

He will also have to come to terms with his own contradictions — the holy man spreading the wisdom of Buddha and the restless young man who zones out to hip-hop on his iPod.

Born in 1985 to a nomadic family in the vast Tibetan plateau, he was enthroned as the 17th Karmapa at the age of seven after mystical signs identified him as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa, who died in exile in India in 1981.

Other monks of the sect championed another boy as the true reincarnation, but Dorje's status was recognized by the Dalai Lama and also by Beijing, which hoped he might emerge as a more malleable authority they could use to weaken the Dalai Lama.

But Chinese hopes were dashed when he escaped Tibet at age 14, saying he could not get the religious education he needed.

After jumping from the window of his monastery room, he made a treacherous eight-day journey by jeep, foot and horseback past Chinese border posts, across a 17,650-foot (5,380 meter) -high Himalayan pass into Nepal and finally by helicopter to India, the Dalai Lama's home in exile.

He was the most important Tibetan figure to defect since the Dalai Lama fled with the previous Karmapa and thousands of Tibetans after an abortive anti-Chinese uprising in 1959.

While Beijing claims Tibet has been part of Chinese territory for centuries, Tibet was a deeply isolated theocracy — ruled by a series of lamas who reincarnated after death into a new leader — until 1951, when Chinese troops invaded Lhasa.

Tibetans fear extinction of culture, religion
Tibetans in exile say their unique culture and religion is on the verge of extinction under Chinese rule, while Beijing has long said it brought modernity to a region where monks and wealthy landowners had long ruled over huge tracts of land worked by slaves and serfs.

The Karmapa's daring escape made him a hero to the exiles, particularly the younger generation which has grown weary of the Dalai Lama's insistence on dialogue and compromise with China. He is also still revered inside Tibet.

But Beijing, not surprisingly, was unhappy with his escape.

"His reincarnation was recognized by the central government. But he left without saying 'goodbye' and has failed to live up to the expectations religious circles had for him," said Zhou Yuan, a historian at the government-backed Chinese Center for Tibetan Studies in Beijing.

While much has been made of the fact he had China's blessing, Dorje downplays it, saying he has no current contacts with Beijing.

"Now I'm in India. I am a free man. I have no reason to connect myself to China," he said.

Yet he is not entirely free.

India gives sanctuary to Tibetan exiles
India, which gives sanctuary to the Tibetan exiles, was fearful of further antagonizing China, its giant neighbor to the north, at a time when relations were improving after decades of animosity following a 1962 border war where China routed Indian forces.

At first, the Karmapa was restricted to the top floor of a monastery in Sidbhari, a small village near the Dalai Lama's headquarters in Dharmsala.

While India gradually loosened the restrictions, he is still barred from traveling to the Rumtek Monastery, his order's seat in exile, located near the Chinese border.

Discussing his confinement, he displayed his growing diplomatic skills — praising India for hosting the Tibetan exiles.

However, he also showed a rare candor, expressing his "very personal" frustrations.

"Sometimes I feel like a prisoner," he said. "Under house arrest."

To deal with his frustrations he likes to play war games on his PlayStation, he says, twiddling his thumbs as if on a game console.

Like the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dalai Lama, he opposes violence. But the games, he says, help to get rid of "bad energy."

His emergence has taken on an added importance for the Tibetans in recent years as 73-year-old Dalai Lama's hectic globe-trotting has been interrupted by a series of minor health issues, including two bouts of exhaustion.

Once the Dalai Lama is gone, the process of choosing a young boy as his reincarnation means decades may pass before the new Dalai Lama is ready to assume the leadership.

That would leave the Karmapa as the most senior Tibetan Buddhist leader in exile. The religion's second-highest figure, the still-teenaged Panchen Lama, is inside Tibet, presumed under Chinese control.

Could act as a spiritual guide
The Karmapa's sect is Tibet's oldest and was the most politically powerful until it was supplanted by the Dalai Lama's Gelugpa school, known as the "yellow hats" 350 years ago.

Rivalry between his sect and the Gelugpa would prevent him replacing the Dalai Lama as Tibet's supreme leader, but he could act as a spiritual guide and rallying point during the transition.

If the Karmapa does emerge as a central force among the exiles, it could signal a change in the direction of the struggle — though it is unclear whether he might push for full independence, as some younger Tibetans would like, or be more conciliatory with China, as some speculate.

"His Holiness The Dalai Lama has been very successful in laying the foundation for the Tibetan struggle in exile," was all the young lama would say. "It is for the next generation to build on this and take it forward."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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