Born into a nomadic Tibetan family in 1985, Apo Gaga was 7 years old when he was proclaimed the 17th Karmapa: the latest reincarnation of the head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. That made the child the religion's third highest leader, after the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. He soon began a rigorous training program. Then, at the age of 14, after the Karmapa started to find Chinese control suffocating, he made a daring escape by helicopter and horseback to Dharamsala, India, seat of the Tibetan government in exile. There he's continued his training in earnest. Given the Dalai Lama's age, he's just 73, the length of time it will take to name a successor and the disappearance of the Panchen Lama in 1995 (China was anxious to control the selection of his reincarnation), many assume the young Karmapa could soon become Tibetan Buddhism's most-senior figure. On the eve of his 23rd birthday, the monk spoke to NEWSWEEK's Sudip Mazumdar about his recent trip to America, the global pro-Tibet protests and boycotting the upcoming Beijing Olympics. Excerpts:
MAZUMDAR : How has your recent trip to the United States changed your perspectives on the world?
THE KARMAPA: It was a big change for me, because I had only seen pictures of America. Now I have seen America in real life, and I was amazed. The Western world is so different from the Eastern world. I feel that I can learn so much from the Western world.
What are conditions like inside Tibet today?
I don't have any news. My understanding is only through television. It is difficult to get the real picture. This is a problem not only for me but for the entire world.
What is your view of the recent protests?
The protesters had different views. Some asked for a free Tibet; some talked about a middle path [autonomy within China]. The most important thing is what Tibetans in Tibet think. Their secure future is very important. They should have a good future. The protests have made lives more difficult. They need results. If there are no good results, things will become even more difficult.
How do you see calls to boycott the Beijing Olympics?
China is a big country and does not belong only to the Communist Party. It belongs to the Chinese brothers and sisters. The world needs to give them more chances and opportunities to show their growth and express their views. The Olympics are such a chance. I am not for the boycott, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama is also [against it].
Do you think you could become a bridge to Beijing when you get older?
[Laughs.] Fortunately, His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognized me, and the Chinese also have a little bit of support [for me]. Not that I want it, but if they give me a chance, then I hope [to play that role].
You have now lived for about eight years near the Dalai Lama. What have you learned from him?
I am a spiritual disciple of His Holiness. I need to learn spiritual practices from him, I need to train and be educated. During these years, I've learned many things from him.
For example, patience. His life is very hard. He must be patient, and he has lots of patience. This is an important lesson. Sometimes if I am a little bit sad or I have problems, I go see him. And after meeting him, the problems disappear and I forget them. There is a spiritual power in him. Every time I see him I come back happy.
Can Tibetans live under Chinese rule?
It is difficult to say. When we are in India, we always talk negatively about the Chinese. All information about Tibet and the Chinese is negative, nothing positive. But the situation needs to be examined and investigated thoroughly. We need more information. We have to think about the positive side for the future of China and Tibet.
Do you see any positives right now?
It is difficult to say. Maybe you journalists should investigate.
Chinese government officials continue to attack the Dalai Lama, accusing him of fomenting trouble. What would you like to tell them?
They should examine and investigate themselves. However much we try to explain, it never fulfills their wishes. They never trust. They get more doubtful. So they should investigate themselves.
Is it true that you criticized patriarchy in some Buddhist communities?
Not criticism, just an observation. In some Asian countries, men have all the control and power. From a Buddhist point of view, men and women are equal. All sentient beings are capable of attaining enlightenment, so obviously women can. But sometimes some traditional cultures hold the wrong view, that men are more powerful. That is not correct.
What would you like to tell the Tibetans living in Tibet?
It is difficult to express in words. I hope that just my living in this world should be for the benefit of all sentient beings, including all Tibetans. If it is not, then also it is OK. But I always hope that my life benefits all Tibetans.