The Seventeenth Karmapa in New Jersey
SHAMONG TOWNSHIP, in southern New Jersey, sits about two hours down the turnpike from New York City, and yet it feels about as far from Manhattan as Kansas. The creep of the suburbs doesn’t quite extend here, and you can still find large tracts of pinewoods and farmland, as well as diners and trailer parks and Baptist churches. It’s a quiet place, unaccustomed to much excitement, which might explain the mystified reaction of some townsfolk as they motored down one of their rural roads on a Friday afternoon in May.
There in a meadow, assembled in long, orderly rows, were hundreds of cars with license plates from all over the East Coast and as far south as Florida. Nearby, a crowd of nearly two thousand was gathering under a giant white tent. At a glance, the scene looked vaguely likely a country fair, but if so, it was unlike any other that had been held in Shamong: hundreds of bright Tibetan prayer flags were strung about the meadow, Tibetan women in traditional chuba dresses were tromping across the high grass, and here and there in the crowd were bare-headed monks and nuns in maroon robes. To the unwitting, Shamong appeared host to a small Tibetan invasion, and several passersby stopped their cars alongside the road to stare in wonder.
As it happened, the crowd had come to see the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, head of the Karma Kagyü lineage, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. (Another contender for the title, Trinley Thaye Dorje, lives in Kalimpong, India, and is likewise referred to by his followers as the Karmapa.) All of 22 years old, this Karmapa captured the world’s attention eight years ago, when, as a teenager, he managed a daring escape over the mountains of Tibet, slipping his Chinese minders and fleeing to India. Back then, it seemed an American visit by the young Karmapa was imminent: The Kagyü school is well established here. Inaddition to a residence and temple in Shamong, the Karmapa has a North American seat in Woodstock, New York. But years of immigration limbo kept him sequestered in India. His long-awaited arrival in the States, a whirlwind two-week tour in May, came thirty years after several visits here by his predecessor, the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, who developed a strong connection with the U.S. late in his life and in fact died on American soil, from cancer, in 1980, in a hospital in Zion, Illinois.
At a time when much of the Tibetan leadership is nearing retirement—the Dalai Lama himself is seventy-three—the Seventeenth Karmapa has been touted as a future standard-bearer for the Tibetan cause. (Indeed, the Dalai Lama hints at a greater role for him in a clip, circulating on YouTube, from the new documentary The Unwinking Gaze.) One measure of the Karmapa’s importance to the Tibetan government in Dharamsala was the retinue of security guards that accompanied him on his American tour, including former Secret Service agents, who trailed him at all times and flanked him on stage at his appearances. He was surrounded as well by a small army of handlers and ushers, and the careful orchestration of his appearances resembled a presidential campaign: at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York he was introduced by Lou Reed (singing, dharmically, “You’re going to reap just what you sow…”), and at moments during his talk a camera on a giant boom swept over the crowd, as if filming a football match.
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