On the outer periphery of Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya in Bihar, a mere few hundred steps from the Bodhi tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment more than 2,000 years ago, the 14th Dalai Lama prays and meets his followers in a monastery behind an iron security curtain. Inside the temple, Trinley Thaye Dorje, the co-claimant along with Ogyen Trinley Dorje for the title of 17th Karmapa or head of Karma Kagyu school, is preaching to his followers from all over the world on Buddhism. The 17th Karmapa will become the key leader of Tibetan Buddhism in case the 14th Dalai Lama dies without reincarnation. The two religious leaders have no common ground because the Dalai Lama, like China, recognises Ogyen Dorje, who left India for the US in May 2017 and acquired citizenship of Dominica in March this year, as the real Karmapa.
On Sunday morning after he discreetly meets a group of monks that has made its way from Tibet Autonomous Region of China, the frail looking but mentally alert 84-year-old spiritual leader of the Tibetan people talked exclusively to Shishir Gupta on wide-ranging political and spiritual issues. Edited excerpts:
How is your health these days?
Quite Good… Not very good ….. for an 84-year-old person, quite good. I go for morning walks in Dharamshala also….Here I take around 600 steps each morning in the monastery.
What was the reason for indefinite postponement of the 13th Religious Conference of the Schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon Tradition (November 29-December 1, 2018) in Dharamshala? The conference was called to discuss the future of the institution of Dalai Lama.
One important lama (Kathok Getse Rinpoche, Head of Nyingma school) all of a sudden passed away. The conference had to be postponed as it was a period of mourning . It has nothing to do with 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje not getting a visa to visit India. I could not meet Thaye Dorje as he was not present when I went for pilgrimage to the Stupa.
Do you talk to both Ogyen and Thaye ?
No I have not yet met Thaye Dorje. Recently, the two met in France. A rightful beginning. Shamar Rinpoche, nephew of 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje who took refuge in Sikkim after 1959 uprising, told me that there were indications that Thaye Dorje was reincarnation of the previous Karmapa. In the meantime, Situ Rinpoche (the rival regent) appointed Ogyen Dorje as the Karmapa. I mentioned to Shamar that a high lama in 19th century had five reincarnations. It is possible for 16th Karmapa to have few reincarnations but the holder of the seat should be one. This is like the two Panchen Lamas with Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (proclaimed by Dalai Lama as reincarnation on May 14, 1995) still alive (other being Gyaltsen Norbu who was appointed by the Chinese government). But then some group told me that I should not be talking about the possibility of two or three reincarnations. I said, OK, then I will keep quiet.
Then who will decide the rightful one heir to the seat?
Situ Rinpoche found a remarkable child (Ogyen Dorje) in Tibet. They came to see me and finalise that. Then I said yes to Ogyen as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa.
There are now two Panchen Lamas, two Karmapas, now the question comes to the tallest lama, the Dalai Lama. Have you initiated the process of your reincarnation because the Chinese government has already initiated the process?
No, no, no. That is not my business. I made it clear as early as in 1969 that it was up to the Tibetan people to decide whether the very institution of Dalai Lama should continue or not. They will decide. I have no concern. Since the 5th Dalai Lama, the (person holding the) title was the head of both temporal and spiritual affairs. Since 2001, I have proudly, voluntarily and happily given up the political role. We have already achieved elected political leadership (Centralized Tibetan Administration in Dharmshala) and they carry their full responsibility about our temporal affairs. I have totally retired since 2011. So my thinking is more liberal than Chinese thinking which is more orthodox.
But how will people under stress in Tibet decide whether the institution of Dalai Lama should continue ?
It should be decided in a free country, not in Tibet, where there is no freedom.
Have you initiated the process of dialogue on the Dalai Lama institution?
No. Formally, not yet. As the Dalai Lama institution is close to Mongolia, Mongolian people should be involved. I think there should be an international Buddhist conference involving Himalayan people and other Buddhist countries to decide on this. My main concern is that my body, speech, mind and life should be useful to other people. So long as space remains and suffering remains, I remain. My daily prayer is the source of my inner strength. This institution of Dalai Lama, I half-jokingly, half-seriously say, has lasted six to seven hundred years should cease with the 14th with grace. If the 15th Dalai Lama turns out to be naughty as the sixth then the institution will cease in disgrace. The institution could voluntarily and democratically cease with the 14th Dalai Lama being quite famous (he laughs).
Has your middle way approach with China worked ? Is it going to benefit Tibetans at all?
Oh yes. Like Germany and France after centuries of fighting came together after second World War to form European Union on shared common values, we also want to be part of Peoples Republic of China provided the Tibetan culture, language, knowledge and environment are protected. We get more economic benefit for material development as China is rich economically but spiritually we can help million of Chinese Buddhists. This is mutually beneficial. Historically, Tibet has never been part of China and this even some Chinese historians admit. But past is past, we have to live harmoniously and happily together rather than talk in terms of our nation and their nation. People ask me about the future of India and China relations. I say that neither India nor China has the capability to destroy each other. They have to live happily side by side with minor irritants. Ultimately, Hindi-Chini bhai bhai should be the principle. One must remember that there are around 400 million Chinese Buddhists who are inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, which in turn derives majority of its strength from the Nalanda traditions.
There are media reports about Dr Lobsang Sangay, President of Centralized Tibetan Administration (CTA) often disregarding the advice of the 14th Dalai Lama. How is your relationship with him?
No. As he is the head of elected political leadership, all decision-making is in his hand. I have never tried to control the political leadership. But in the meantime, he believes me and trusts me. There are some small rumours.
Will Ogyen Dorje return to India ? We are told that the 17th Karmapa claimant is putting conditions to Indian Government for his return?
That I don’t know. Most probably, I think he will return. I recently had discussions with the Ministry of External Affairs and told them that it is between the government of India and Ogyen to decide. I have no problems. It is his business. Not an important matter. There is no question of the Tibetan movement splintering in this context.
Are you looking forward to a pilgrimage to China ?
Yes. Sure. As far (back) as 1954, I expressed my desire to Chinese government to visit Wutai Shan, the home of 13th Dalai Lama. I was told that there was no road. I still have that desire but it is up to the Chinese government. Once a high Tibetan lama wanted to go to Bodh Gaya but his disciple said that the real Bodh Gaya is in your heart. Historically, the Wutai Shan is seat of Deva of wisdom. Whether I am there physically or not, that wisdom from the Deva is already in my brain….very sharp.
Is there any back channel open with the Chinese for resolving the Tibetan issue?
After we decided not to seek independence from China in 1974, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to have a direct contact with us through my elder brother and the dialogue started in 1979. We sent four fact finding missions to Tibet from 1979 but the dialogue ceased with the death of Deng in 1997. The official dialogue again started under President Jiang Zemin in 2002 but ceased in June 2010. Since then there is only an informal channel open with Chinese retired officials and private businessmen coming to see me from time to time. And they have some connection with the top leader. The Chinese are not in touch with the CTA. We never used the word Tibetan Government in exile. It is the Chinese who have used this and recognized them (he laughs).
Of late various heads of government refuse to meet you fearing the reaction of a now all-powerful China? What is your reaction to it?
I have nothing to ask from any head of state or country. I think they are afraid of the Chinese reaction. I met Barack Obama as former US President and Nobel laureate as also late President George Bush Senior. My visit to Sri Lanka was cancelled at the last moment. I have not visited Thailand since it established diplomatic relations with China. I am never allowed into Buddhist countries because I am a Buddhist (he laughs) except Japan.
Any plans to visit the US and meet President Donald Trump?
No because of my physical condition. Normally, I used to go to the US annually for medical check-up. One Indian doctor found traces of prostrate cancer at the Mayo Clinic in USA. A team of 10 doctors discussed and ruled out surgery due to my age and side effects. Instead, I got radiation and have been completely cured of the disease. I have not travelled to US in the past two years as it is too far and I cannot handle too much physical exertion. So instead of going to the US for treatment, I go to a private hospital in Delhi.
US President Donald Trump has just signed “ The Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act 2018”, which allows the Tibetans to return to their homeland or else the Chinese officials stopping them face sanctions. What is your reaction to this?
The present president of the greatest democratic nation is little bit unpredictable. So I am in no position to comment on this as I do not know enough. But both the US houses have been strong supporters of Tibet over the decades and so has been the American government. American people love Tibet.
What is your reaction when you were asked to shift “ Thank You India” event to mark 60 years of your exile in New Delhi to Dharamshala in April?
The Indian government tried to avoid any obstacle to their relations with China. That is understandable. That is OK. I was not unhappy. Not much. Nothing. Basically, our relations with India are centuries old since a Nalanda master introduced Buddha Dharma in Sanskrit tradition in the 8th century. My body is Tibetan but spiritually and mentally I am an Indian. Today 10,000 monks and now nuns are studying in Nalanda Buddhist traditions with total freedom and not under any restricted environment in Tibet.
Will you or your people ever be able to return to their homeland Tibet?
India is the only place where modern education meets ancient knowledge, which is needed to tackle emotions. I am committed to reviewing the ancient Indian knowledge to tackle emotions. For these things freedom is very important. My return to Tibet is of no use if there is no freedom. I prefer this country and this freedom and then I am the longest guest of India.