I’m very passionate about supporting the middle path: Karmapa

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 21, 2009

By Rashmee Roshan Lall

India is downplaying the Chinese incursions but Beijing remains miffed about the Dalai Lama’s visit in November to a monastery in Arunachal Pradesh.

Meanwhile, the Karmapa Lama, Trinley Dorje, the only senior Buddhist leader recognized by Beijing, the Tibetans and India, picks his way through the diplomatic minefield. On a visit to Delhi from Dharamsala, the 24-year-old leader of one of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism talks politics, hip-hop and video games with Rashmee Roshan Lall . Excerpts from the interview.

Is India being diplomatic enough to and about China and and vice versa?

Obviously I can’t speak from the perspective of a politician who is active in these communications. Obviously the government of each country has its own interests in the ongoing conversation. They are doing what they can to advance their own interests. I’m not able to comment on what those interests might be. But if I were to make some observations and guesses from my own vantage point, it seems to me that the Chinese government is acting somewhat deliberately in attempts to slightly irritate the government of India.

Because of this the neighbourly relationship has suffered a little bit. India has always been a relatively peaceful country, a country that has always had a reasonably good record of valuing peace, India does not seem interested in pursuing any type of conflict, however, India is on the rise in the world and perhaps the Chinese government feels some type of impulse to blunt this rise somehow. Perhaps that is what is causing some of the things we see today.

You haven’t visited China since your swashbuckling escape to India in January 2000. Have you ever been invited back and what is your relationship with the Chinese authorities?

Relationship! I don’t have a particular relationship at all with the Chinese government. When I lived in Tibet, it is of course controlled by Beijing so there was no choice but to have some form of relationship. However, I have left Tibet and now live in India and so I’m completely removed from any type of control exerted by the Chinese government and so there is no communication to speak of, there is no relationship at all.

But as the only senior Tibetan Buddhist monk to be recognized by both the Chinese and the Dalai Lama, many say you could be the hinge on which relations between Tibetans and China swing in a new direction? But you sound very angry with Beijing?

No, it’s not that I have any anger or aversion to the Chinese whatsoever. Since I am a Dharma practitioner, I try to maintain impartiality and be free from excessive attachment to my own side and aversion to and hatred of others. In terms of where my own interests lie, I’m very passionate about supporting the middle path that has been articulated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In His Holiness’s vision of this middle path, there is great benefit for the people of Tibet and also great benefit for the people of China.

If we follow the middle path, both the government of China and the people of Tibet will be benefited. This vision is something that about 90% of Tibetans support – the vast majority of Tibetans. I simply consider myself one of those Tibetans whose responsibility it is to further the cause of the people. Now in terms of specific opportunities that might arise from me to serve this vision, I’m not so sure.

Right now, the government-in-exile of Tibet has been engaging Beijing in dialogue but perhaps the dialogue hasn’t always been fruitful. So, we have to wait and see what kind of opportunities arise.

Do you think those ‘opportunities’ will have arisen by the time you are 50? You’re 24 today and Tibetans have already been in India more than half-a-century? Will Tibetans become totally Indian by the time you’re 50?

Due to the kind support of the Indian government and the Indian people and due to the exemplary leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we Tibetans have been able to preserve Tibetan culture in the diaspora to some degree. Nevertheless, we would obviously rather be preserving the culture of Tibet inside a Tibet that was amenable to us. Obviously, that’s not the situation now so that means there’s going to be some challenges for us in preserving our culture exactly the way we want to.

Really, if you want to preserve Tibetan culture in the long term, that has to happen inside Tibet. This is why I feel the situation of Tibet is dire and that people in the world need to pay more attention to it. The situation is not one where we can take our time and wait 10, 20, 30 years to see what happens, what conditions might change because the danger is so great that much our culture could be lost and the chances of restoring our culture greatly diminished.

So it’s actually quite a hot potato that we have here. We have to do something quickly. In the language of your question, if we were to wait 50 years, we would be in danger of losing a great chunk of Tibetan culture that could not be recovered.

You are young, so you understandably sound impatient. The Dalai Lama is 73, many say you should succeed him because you embody the story of your people – of oppression, escape and exile – and have been coached by the Dalai Lama?

Well, you made some remarks about people perceiving me to have a special background. I would accept that generally speaking, I do have some special attributes in my background in terms of my life story and this subject of the future of Tibetan leadership and possible successors to the role of leadership that the Dalai Lama plays, has been a popular topic in the general conversation around the Tibet issue.

However as I always say, I am just one of the students, the followers of the Dalai Lama and there are a great many Tibetan people who are doing a wonderful job serving the vision of His Holiness and implementing his vision. I try to do my best too but in terms of future roles that I might assume, I’m already the Karmapa, that’s my role and it’s already one I feel quite weighed down by, it’s heavy responsibilities.

For the future, my view is that I will continue as I am now, serving the vision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all of us who are serving this vision together will be successful.

But if you were asked – by popular appeal – to assume leadership of the Tibetan movement, would you accept? Yes or no?

It’s really quite an involved issue. In order for anyone to assume the role of leader of the Tibetan people, it’s important to have historical context or at least an examination of the historical context. For anywhere between 800 and 900 years, the Karmapa has been a very apolitical figure, a person who has concentrated solely on spiritual leadership, not involved in any way with governmental leadership.

So I think it would be very difficult to change that historical pattern overnight and turn the role of the Karmapa into something more than strictly a spiritual teacher. Furthermore, we have to be mindful that the Dalai Lama is enjoying excellent health, he’s very active, he’s still contributing tremendously to the cause of the Tibetan people, he is the strong leader of the Tibetan people and that will continue.

It’s important not to get too far ahead of ourselves. There’s a lot of talk about what an authentic Tibetan democracy will look like in the future, who are the leaders going to be, but that’s all discussion at this point and we shouldn’t try and reach too far into the future.

Moving to other issues, I believe you like to listen to hip-hop on your ipod. Who are your favourite artistes?

I can’t think of any specific artistes right now, I basically listen to what ever comes my way, whatever sounds appealing. It’s important for me to stick to my traditional forms of art because I am a Tibetan Buddhist teacher wearing these robes. It’s important for me to maintain my cultural affiliations.

But from time to time I do enjoy listening to hip-hop because it has a very modern sound to it and even though I’m a Tibetan teacher representing these ancient teachings, I’m also a global citizen in the 21st century. Hip-hop perhaps is one way of me being a 21st-century person.

Is that why you play war games on your play station because many might say it’s inappropriate for a Buddhist monk dedicated to peace to play war games?

Well, I view video games as something of an emotional therapy, a mundane level of emotional therapy for me. We all have emotions whether we’re Buddhist practitioners or not, all of us have emotions, happy emotions, sad emotions, displeased emotions and we need to figure out a way to deal with them when they arise.

So, for me sometimes it can be a relief, a kind of decompression to just play some video games. If I’m having some negative thoughts or negative feelings, video games are one way in which I can release that energy in the context of the illusion of the game. I feel better afterwards.

The aggression that comes out in the video game satiates whatever desire I might have to express that feeling. For me, that’s very skilful because when I do that I don’t have to go and hit anyone over the head.

But shouldn’t meditation take care of that?

No, video games are just a skilful method.

You’ve practically grown up in India, do you speak Hindi, read it, eat Indian food and like it, or do you try and stay away from all that because you want to maintain your Tibetan cultural affiliations?

Thoda thoda. I like Indian food and learnt a little bit of Hindi as well, but beyond that it’s important to recognize for all practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism that now is the time to be more open to all cultures and traditions in the world.

Tibetan Buddhism must interact with a wide cross-section of cultures. We can’t isolate ourselves any longer and say ‘oh, I’m a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, I have to live up in the mountains and cut all my ties with society’. Now is the time for Buddhists to be engaged with the world and part of that is other languages and cultures and different experiences of people.

Especially with regard to India, the birthplace of Buddhism and in all Buddhist traditions there is very high reverence for the land of India, the country.

I have taken some time to learn Hindi, I know a little bit and if I could practice with someone on a regular basis, I would pick it up more quickly. I didn’t find it too hard, Hindi is also fairly close to Tibetan in language form. In my previous studies, I studied some Sanskrit grammar as well.

I know you’ve been talking to schoolchildren in Delhi about ‘how to be happy’. Can anyone ever be totally happy? Are you? If a free Tibet would make you happier, may be you’re not totally happy like the rest of us lay people?

Whether one’s happy or not really depends on the way one holds one’s mind. With regard to the situation in Tibet, of course many of us hope for things to improve but even if Tibet were to gain autonomy, in harmony with the middle way path, it’s possible you still won’t be content in your mind.

It’s really up to the mind of the individual whether you’re happy or not and one of the main keys to happiness is being content with little. That contentment is the ground for genuine, stable and long-lasting. As to whether anyone can be happy without any suffering whatsoever, happiness and suffering are inter-dependent.

You can’t really speak of happiness if you don’t have a reference point of some suffering. You can’t speak of suffering if you don’t have a reference point of some happiness. You can talk a certain kind of happiness that’s beyond the realm of mundane happiness or mundane suffering, but you’re talking a pretty high-end game at that point.

Rashmee Roshan Lall /  World Report