NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Tibet’s Karmapa Lama is revered by followers as a 900-year-old soul in the body of a youth, and tipped to assume the mantle of Tibetan spiritual leadership when the present Dalai Lama dies.
But the 26-year-old who is the current embodiment of the Karmapa Lama, a sacred role in Tibetan Buddhism, shies from the expectations that surround him.
“I don’t want to put on anybody’s shoes,” said the shaven-headed Karmapa Lama, whose youth, religious standing and daring escape across the Himalayas mean many young Tibetans see him as a natural successor to the Dalai Lama as figurehead.
“His Holiness is the overall spiritual leadership, no one can replace him,” the Karmapa Lama said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, referring to the Dalai Lama.
“My brain is not made for politics,” he said in stilted English. He also speaks Mandarin Chinese and Tibetan.
Yet this shy young man in thick glasses could become a key player in shaping the political fate of Tibet, the remote mountainous region beset by tensions over Chinese rule.
The Karmapa Lama, also known as Ogyen Trinley Dorje, is one of the highest figures in Tibetan Buddhism, along with the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, each overseeing different arms of their faith. Lama means “monk.”
After the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa Lama is the most eminent of them to have fled Chinese rule of Tibet, which Communist forces occupied from 1950. Despite his escape in 2000, the Karmapa Lama remains recognised by Beijing as the 17th incarnation of his spiritual lineage, something that could help him reach out to China.
He belongs to a religious order different from the Dalai Lama‘s, and so will not take on that title. Yet, many Tibetans believe he is nevertheless capable of taking on some of the aging Dalai Lama’s functions, including international lobbying.
The Karmapa Lama, though, dismissed the idea that Tibetan aspirations for self-rule could be realised purely through international pressure.
“The painful reality of the Tibetan people is something between Tibet and China,” he said, warning Tibetans should not expect other countries to resolve their problems. “If two people need to talk it is best they meet face to face.”
The Dalai Lama devolved political power to an elected leader this year so there are no longer any formal political roles for Tibet’s senior Lamas, but the respect given to them and their huge followings makes them influential figures.
Even so, the Karmapa Lama has taken to heart subjects close to his mentor, including environmentalism and modernising Tibetan culture. He heads the large Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism and is sought out by thousands of adepts each year.
The Karmapa Lama, who last month called on Tibetans to stop a series of self-immolations in protest at oppressive Chinese rule, said China should not treat his people’s demands for fair treatment as political or separatist.
“It has nothing to do with waving of flags with political slogans, it has to do with a definite real issue of happiness and suffering -- the well-being of our people,” he said, peering through thick-lensed, frameless glasses.
It has been a long journey for the young man born in a tent to a nomadic family in Chinese-controlled Tibet, then identified as the 17th incarnation of the Karmapa Lama when he was seven.
“The memory of my childhood is very vivid and refreshingly pleasant, I was born in a very natural environment,” he said, speaking in a plush Delhi hotel surrounded by shopping malls.
“In this nomadic wilderness removed from the rest of townships, you didn’t even know you were under the Communist government, you had your own small world all to yourself.”
That way of life in some of the remotest regions of the world is now under pressure from Chinese policies to settle and house nomads.
“Now it will be changed I think, the Chinese want to push everybody to building houses and roads and buy motorbikes and all things. I don’t want to go back.”
The Karmapa Lama said there had been benefits for Tibetans from economic changes brought by the Chinese but said people did not believe the policies were sincere.
But he also worries about consumerism, he added.
With some wistfulness, the Karmapa said his time in India has been more gruelling than he anticipated when he set off on his escape through freezing mountains at breathlessly high altitudes.
Accused by detractors of being a Chinese spy, he also came under fire this year when Indian police seized $1.6 million (1.0 million pounds) including quantities of Chinese currency from his monks.
He and his aides deny any wrongdoing. Donations from the benefactors who flock to meet the Karmapa Lama from all corners of the world, including Tibetans from China, account for the large amounts of money, they say.
Adding to his headaches, Ogyen Trinley Dorje has a rival claimant to the title of Karmapa, although the rival does not share Dorje’s close relationship with the Dalai Lama.
The Karmapa Lama lives in a monastery backed by high mountains in northern India, but he is a guest there of the Dalai Lama’s order. Part of the money seized in February was destined to buy land to build him a permanent home, aides say.
He said his calling was to help Tibetans better cope with realities of the 21st century.
“The world is in a very fluid situation right now, changing, like what’s going on in the Arab world, it is something people really need to note,” he said. “There is a call for some drastic change and that needs to be taken into account.”
Reporting By Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Ronald Popeski