The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorjee is the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, “the one who carries out Buddha activity.” He belongs to the most ancient lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, predating the Dalai Lama lineage by more than two centuries. His dramatic escape from Tibet in 1999 into exile in India brought him to reside alongside the Dalai Lama in the de facto capital of the Tibetans in exile. Exiled Tibetans saw him as a hero as his escape, fooling the Chinese government, caught world attention.
Today, the 30-year-old energetic Karmapa, recognized by both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government, is both a spiritual leader and the young voice of Tibet. He carries a lot of weight with Tibetans in and outside Tibet and many believe he is the future face of global Buddhism, especially after the current Dalai Lama passes away. The lengthy process of choosing the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation means years may pass before the new Dalai Lama is ready to assume leadership and guide Tibetans. This underlines the Karmapa’s importance more than ever, as Tibetans are looking to the Karmapa to take on a key role and lead them home from exile — especially as the Chinese government is seen as waiting to make its move after the current Dalai Lama passes away and further control Tibet when Tibetans are perceived to be directionless.
Over the years, the Indian government has restricted his travels abroad, bowing to pressure from the Chinese government and of their own suspicion for various reasons. This time after receiving the necessary clearances from the relevant Indian authorities, the Karmapa gave Buddhist teachings in new European countries while embarking on his third-ever visit to Europe.
As an influential global figure he has been constantly trying to highlight various world issues, especially focusing on the impact of climate change in the Himalayan region and world peace. His efforts are often regarded as a Buddhist response to global warming.
The 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorjee gave a rare and exclusive interview to Saransh Sehgal in Paris, during the last leg of his recent Europe visit and spoke on a range of topics, including his strong interest in preserving the global environment, his future role (especially when the Dalai Lama passes away), and issues related to Tibet. Excerpts from the interview follow; the interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Saransh Sehgal: Your Holiness, it’s the third time you are visiting Europe, how do you feel?
His Holiness the 17th Karmapa: In the past when I visited, I primarily went to one country, which was Germany. Now during this visit to Europe I actually had the chance to visit Switzerland and France, seeing other countries in Europe. So, it feels differently from before. It feels like I have made progress.
During your teachings you focused a lot on world peace and the environment. Now you are in Paris, where the UN Climate Change agreement has taken place recently and so have marches for world peace, especially after the city witnessed deadly terrorist attacks in 2015. As both the issues are close to your heart, what do you have to say?
Generally, speaking about world peace is not special because whenever we teach Dharma this is the main focus. This is the main aim so that sentient beings who live in the world can be happy. So it’s not particularly special to be speaking about world peace as such. But because of the change in the times in the world, we have reached a different critical situation. There are more and more conflicts in the world. There is more information, we have closer connection with each other, but on the other hand, there are still many conflicts in the world which we do not know about. So no matter how much information we get, we haven’t been really able to bring our understanding toward the positive direction, so for that reason we are seeing more and more conflicts.
So definitely, it’s important that we be able to improve and change our minds and especially, it’s important that from now on we develop a real loving connection with each other, whether this be a loving connection between people to people or be loving connection between people and the environment. This is the essence of the Dharma and is very beneficial right now, especially now because we are in an urgent situation.
Considering you as an environmental activist, what is urgently needed for us as humans to take meaningful action?
Well, I don’t really see myself as an activist, but I have a few things to do for the sake of the environment. I think the most important thing is that we need to learn how to control our human desires. But, this is a time, when our culture and our information and all of the media increases our desires and this has a strong effect upon the environment. So, I think for that reason it is very important to control our desires, which is a very basic thing that we need to do.
Climate Change is an increasingly hot topic, as Himalayan glaciers are melting at a very steady rate. The Tibetan plateau, which is often named as the Third Pole, has seen drastic changes with impacts strongly visible across the Indian sub-continent. You even have a Khoryug that mainly focuses on the environmental protection of the Himalayan region. In your view, how can we save further harm?
Since I was born in Tibet, I have a direct and a strong connection with Tibet and in terms of living, Tibetans are part of the Himalayas. That is primarily the reason it important to focus on. So, I think it’s essential for us to do something and that is the reason why I shoulder this responsibility.
Many people around the world understand or know about the glaciers and the ice fields melting in Tibet and the Himalayas, but maybe some of the locals do not necessarily understand why this is happening and so it is very important that local people understand that it’s not an issue that affects [only] their own area, but this also affects Asia and the entire world. So the idea is to introduce this [awareness] to them. For this, I think it’s important that we begin with the local people and start by educating them in order to protect the environment there.
The Tibetans have had a sustainable lifestyle in their region for thousands of years, but now people are turning towards a modern lifestyle and they need to think about the effect this is going to have. They need to understand what it is that makes them have a sustainable lifestyle, what choices can be made. This is something they need to consider.
There’s a lot of blame on the Chinese government on the destruction of environment in the Himalayan region particularly in the Tibetan plateau. What is your view?
For the Chinese part, I think it’s because they had mistaken policies. They have been ignoring the hopes and wishes of the local Tibetan people. It’s their own mistake and what they are doing in following their policies is that they have hurt the Tibetans, in terms of their feelings, and this is something that has disappointed the people in Tibet.
And, generally, there has been a lot of environmental destruction in Tibet. So, if you look at it from one perspective, this is something the Chinese have done; they have caused the problem. And another way of looking at it is, actually, this is happening in every country all over the world in how development happens. So the mistake or the problem actually comes down to the way we presume material development in the present day.
In any case, this is something that has had a strong effect on the Tibetan inhabitants and the external environment in Tibet. And this has brought many difficulties because of the Chinese politics, it’s very difficult to say anything. It’s also related to the issues of Tibet. So, it’s very difficult to raise your hand and speak up. It’s a critical environmental situation and it isn’t that it only affects Tibet but also all of China and other neighboring countries.
The situation causes a lot of effects on neighboring countries, either helping or harming them. So I think, the neighboring countries as well have the right to have a say. They not only have the right to interfere in what’s happening there [in Tibet] but they have an obligation to interfere. So the environmental situation in Tibet is something that is interconnected to Asia and the entire world. All of us need to take interest in this and provide support. I think this is very important.
How do you see your relationship with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama? The world portrays you as the future global face of Buddhism (especially when HH the Dalai Lama passes away); what are your views?
I think the relationship between His Holiness and me is very simple. You can say it’s a teacher-student relationship or you can say a relationship as spiritual friends. Besides that, it’s mainly a Dharmic relationship. Other than that, we do not have any political relations.
But, of course, lot of people including myself have loads of worries when His Holiness passes away on what will happen to the Tibetan community in exile, the Tibetans inside Tibet, and the Tibetan situation. I think, because we Tibetans rely so much on His Holiness till now, that’s why I think once His Holiness is no longer there, we really don’t know what will happen. Maybe we will lose the direction or maybe we don’t know what will happen.
The issue when His Holiness passes away and whether I will have some extra responsibility or extra role to play, I think that is a little bit obvious. Being the Karmapa, I already have heavy responsibilities, which are not easy to handle. Because I am young, I may have more responsibilities in the future but I do not have any special powers as might be attributed.
What are your views on the issue of Tibet-China? Could you ever see yourself engaging in a dialogue with the Chinese government for issues related to Tibet (even in the case of climate change)?
It’s a very complicated question, I think. Of course, I have some wishes [to engage] spiritually. The population of Buddhists in China is increasing and there has been huge material development inside China. But for Chinese people, their mind and heart is very empty. They are hungry for spiritual instructions or spiritual solutions.
Also, in the past, we [the Karmapas] have had a long-term spiritual relationship with the Chinese people, which dates back more than 600 years. But I’m in a very difficult position, as a lot of things are involved; [there were] a lot of suspicions when I arrived in India. It makes it very difficult, even though I have a simple and sincere motivation, but it’s difficult to apply that because if I do something, then maybe people will suspect or misunderstand it. So this is the difficulty I’m facing. But of course, I still have hope and aspiration, which will continue.
Self-immolations by Tibetans inside Tibet and a few in exile have still not come to an end. You have repeatedly made appeals yet no there are signs of it stopping. How do you see this?
Yes, right from the beginning I have appealed several times that Tibetans everywhere need to cherish their lives because Tibetans are in the minority [in China], so that is why each and every individual Tibetan is precious and important for the Tibetan cause. That’s why, I think, they should continue to live; that is the only way.
But I think my appeals or statements either didn’t reach Tibetans inside Tibet that much for various reasons, such as the information gap, or it maybe were not well-received or circulated. But I do think that in the exile community, we can see the world better than Tibetan people inside Tibet, in terms of the situation. We should give recommendations or suggestions [to Tibetans in Tibet].
Given the current situation of Tibet what message do you have for people inside Tibet?
I do not have any special message for them. I am inspired by the Tibetan people inside Tibet, even though they are [living] under very difficult circumstances. They are encouraging and have sincere motivations devoted to the Tibetan cause and their devotion to Tibetan culture and religion is very strong.
I am revered by the Tibetan people in Tibet. So I will also look up to them and be myself as a stronger Tibetan and can do some service to the Tibetan culture and religion.
There are Tibetans inside Tibet waiting to see you, even your own family and parents. Could you foresee a time when you would be able to return to Tibet?
Of course, my parents are getting old and this is my worry as I am eager to see them. Sometimes, I think a lot about it, on how and where I could meet them, but it’s very difficult to say. However, my strong wishes remain. Because they have difficulty to come to visit me in India, there’s almost no hope. Therefore, I need to make some efforts.
The number of newly arrived Tibetans into exile has gone down to a trickle in the past two or three years. Why do you think fewer Tibetans are arriving into exile? What is the reason behind the decreased numbers?
I think there are many reasons. One major reason is that the borders are more restricted and for Tibetans escaping at the Tibetan or Chinese border is more difficult than before. The Chinese have put [in] a lot of machines and technologies and that makes the escape almost impossible.
Or maybe there are some other reasons or issues. I have heard that a lot of Tibetans in the past, coming from Tibet, studied here [in India] but later realized [there was] no point of continuing living further in India. It’s a difficult situation for Tibetan people as lack of ‘defined’ status for the Tibetan people in India and problems in finding jobs even after good education makes prospects for long term settlement in India difficult.
So then lots of people seek refuge in other foreign countries or they go back to Tibet. I think these are some problems in the Tibetan community in India, so there’s not a single reason but lots of different situations.
Saransh Sehgal writes about Tibet and geopolitics in the Himalayan region. He is based in Vienna, Austria.