© Gene Hsiao, KTC-New Jersey
© Gene Hsiao, KTC-New Jersey

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.

In person, the Karmapa cuts a striking figure—tall and handsome, with gold wire-rimmed glasses like the Dalai Lama’s and a regal bearing, befitting of someone who has been recognized since the age of seven as a kind of king. Under the tent in Shamong, seated upon a flower-strewn dais, he touched on familiar Buddhist themes—the power of desire and aversion, the false distinctions between self and other, the possibilities for peace in the world. “There is a fundamental level,” he said, “on which all of us want the same thing: each of us desires happiness and turns from unhappiness. Since we all share this same fundamental need, we can be supportive and empathetic toward one another.” Perhaps owing to the long delays in his talk—his Tibetan was translated first into English and then Chinese—he never quite hit the heights of rhetorical flourish, but his comportment before such a large crowd confirmed much of the hope that has been placed on his shoulders: he was, by turns, worldly and witty, charming and self-effacing.

But it was the crowd itself that was the most remarkable thing about the afternoon, for it was not just Tibetans and Western devotees in the audience but scores of Chinese as well; their presence hints at the Karmapa’s possible role as a transitional figure in a future Tibet. Unlike many in the older generation of exiled Tibetans, he grew up in a Tibet far more assimilated with China, and he was witness to a cultural sea change forced by Beijing, which directly or indirectly encouraged millions of Chinese to relocate to Tibet (a policy that the Dalai Lama and others have likened to cultural genocide). The Karmapa speaks fluent Mandarin, and he remains one of the only Tibetan reincarnate lamas ever to be recognized by both the Chinese and Tibetan governments. Even today, despite his embarrassing defection, Beijing has not spurned him, as it has so many other Tibetan leaders. And in Shamong, on the heels of both the violent clashes in Lhasa and the devastating earthquake in western China, the Karmapa took pains to embrace, at least in part, the Chinese influence in his native land: “Chinese culture and language have become widespread in Tibet,” he said, “and supplement Tibetan culture and language rather than take away from it.” How this message will play in the streets of Lhasa will be another story, but in New Jersey, at least, it seemed a notable admission of realpolitik—a quiet recognition that, whatever becomes of Tibet in the coming years, the entanglement of Tibetan and Chinese cultures is destined to continue.

THIRTY years ago, the Sixteenth Karmapa, on a tour of the U.S., was asked by a reporter why he had come, and he famously answered: “The Lord Buddha preceded me. If there was a lake, the swans would go there.” His reply came at a time when Buddhism was still just gaining a foothold in America, but if the scene in Shamong is any evidence, things have changed since then. Buddhism has become considerably more popular, and the lake of the dharma, such as it is, has grown. How else to explain a Buddhist tent revival in rural New Jersey, with a crowd numbering in the thousands and as varied as on any street corner in Brooklyn? Perhaps it was in recognition of this—of the growing fortunes and influence of Buddhism in America, and of the seeds sown by his predecessor and others—that, as the Seventeenth Karmapa ended his talk, he paused, looked out upon the audience, and said, “You are all my brothers and sisters. I don’t tend to smile very much, but I smile much more since I’ve come here.”

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