DHARAMSALA, India (Reuters) - He is a “living Buddha” with an iPod, the 23-year-old possible successor to the Dalai Lama who may bridge the gap between Tibet’s elder leaders and both an alienated Tibetan youth and a suspicious China.
For the Karmapa Lama, who fled Tibet nine years ago to India and is now the third highest ranking Lama, it is time for Tibetans to modernize to survive.
“Tibet ... has developed over many generations its own way of thinking, a way of living which is pretty much outdated,” the Karmapa told Reuters in a rare interview at his home in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala, the base of Tibetan exiles.
“There is a gap between the old Tibetan mentality and the youth of today ... that is a huge problem,” he said through a translator. “I definitely feel I can be the bridge between the two.”
This year, as the 73-year-old Dalai Lama marks the 50th anniversary of his flight from Chinese rule into exile, there is speculation he could pave the way for a successor.
It is the Karmapa, mixing youth, intellect and charisma, who is most talked about. Despite his classical Tibetan education, he stands out from his elders. He says he has an iPod, a play station and he enjoys “Indiana Jones” movies.
The Karmapa is also recognized by both Tibetans and Beijing, in contrast to the Dalai Lama who China criticizes as fomenting violent revolt.
“He’s worked with the Chinese. The Chinese are not foreign to him,” said Jeremy Russell, the Karmapa’s English-language teacher. “He’s not burning with resentment. He sees them as part of the landscape.”
Monks searching for signs of a Lama rebirth chose this son of nomads as the 17th reincarnation of the Kagyu sect when he was seven. Many Tibetans see him as a living deity who passes on wisdom and teachings through generations.
His daring escape from a Tibetan monastery to cross the Himalayas by foot and horseback to India has also earned him the respect of exiles, including some radicals frustrated at the Dalai Lama’s failure to win Tibetan autonomy.
“(He) chose to give up the privileges he would have enjoyed under the Chinese. His flight from Tibet made him a hero to the Tibetans and is seen as a deliberate act of opposition to the Chinese,” said Tsering Shakya, a leading Tibetan scholar.
His followers say he is forbidden from talking about politics by the Indian government. But the Karmapa sees a growing role as an advocate for Tibetan rights.
“We are under a huge power, under the suppression of a huge power and the suppression is so extreme that sometimes we have no right, liberty to breathe in and out,” the Karmapa said, referring to China.
During the interview, he occasionally rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders when the translator tried to direct talk away from politics, a sign perhaps of a young rebel under his maroon-colored robes.
Before he dies, the Dalai Lama traditionally will inform monks of his reincarnation and they will seek the child Lama. But Tibetans fear China will elbow in their own successor, as they did in the 1990s with the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking Lama.
The Dalai Lama has suggested the idea of a regent, a spiritual leader who could take his place while a new Lama was groomed.
But the Karmapa — again in a hint of rebelliousness — said he might not want the job.
“Tibetan society today is a democracy, so each individual has rights and reasons to say what he feels and thinks. It is not compulsory for someone to follow what someone has said.”
The Karmapa’s upbringing — he speaks fluent Chinese and writes Chinese calligraphy — may allow him to mend bridges with Beijing.
“These learnings can help in creating a cordial understanding, relationship and providing a sort of situation for peaceful coexistence,” said the Karmapa.
Additional reporting by Bappa Majumdar in New Delhi; Editing by Dean Yates