The first image that comes to mind when someone says they met a monk is of an old Chinese man, in his 50s, clad in saffron robes, meditating in a secret cave near a waterfall, practising kung-fu moves and drinking herbal tea. Thanks to Hollywood, this was the image embedded in my mind, too. I didn’t know how to react when a handsome man in red robes greeted me with a warm ‘Hi’ instead and struck up a conversation about the Lord of the Rings. This is the pleasant bewilderment I underwent when I went to interview Trinley Thaye Dorje, the 29 year old Karmapa.
Buddhists believe the Karmapas to be re-incarnated teachers who take birth to disseminate the Buddha’s teachings. Thaye Dorje heads Karma Kagyu, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism – the other three are Gelug, Nyingma, and Sakya.
At a relatively young age of 20, in 2003, the Karmapa assumed spiritual responsibility for more than 800 monasteries around the world that follow the school. He can count the Royal family of Bhutan and the Burman family, owners of Dabur India, among his disciples.
The 17th Karmapa loves to blog, sketch, and keep up with the latest in cricket. He has a sizeable following amongst the youth, perhaps because he is one of the youngest Buddhist leaders to head an important school of Tibetan Buddhism.
But how relevant is Buddhism in the age of Twitter and Tumblr? Has it really struck a chord with a generation that changes its relationship status quicker than they can finish a plate of momos? Apparently, the Kagyu School is gaining a lot of young converts. "I can say there are quite a number of youth interested in Buddhism. It is not that someone is pushing them into learning spirituality but they want to learn by seeing the quality and seeing the benefits of Buddhism and applying these to their lives themselves," says Thaye Dorje.
Is one reason for Buddhism’s growing popularity among some of the young and the restless a quarter-life crisis? "I think terms such as mid-life or quarter-life crisis are something that started to exist in the beginning of the 20th century," he says. "Before that, there was no notion of break-ups and make-ups. There were no divorces, so it was a different time. Today, there is a mid-life crisis, a quarter-life crisis and who knows a quarter-quarter life crisis could also exist!" He believes, however, that "as long as we reflect on the negative experiences with less emotion and do our best to be honest – we won’t put too much energy into break-ups and other stressors."
Exile on main street
Escaping from Tibet in 1994 at the age of 11, Thaye Dorje has lived in New Delhi and Kalimpong for years. Naturally, he is a little reticent about the exact circumstances in which he had to abandon his homeland. "It all happened so fast. When I was recognised as the Karmapa, my father, a great Rinpoche, had to leave his people for the safety and secrecy of my recognition. My
ageing grandmother had to travel with us. Before her death I was hoping to see her once but I couldn’t."
How can one actually apply Buddhist teachings to the real world, where we need to be fiercely competitive to succeed? "If one has the right motivation behind even making money, like that of helping others by acts of kindness like buying a hungry person food, the person will meet with greater success and happiness," replies the Karmapa. "Caring about others would make your work-life much more balanced and fulfilling. Even if you have to fire an employee, if you do it with the right intention – of not winning an ego battle but of benefiting the employee and the company in the long run – it is all right," he adds.
Every year, thousands of devotees converge at Bodh Gaya – where the Buddha attained enlightenment – to conduct prayers for world peace. Why is Buddhism gaining millions of converts worldwide? "In Buddhism you don’t rely on a God. The transformation has to be of the mind. You have control of everything as Buddhism empowers you. That may be one of the many reasons people, especially the youth, are turning towards the faith."
Being pre-ordained a monk, does the Karmapa ever think of what else he could have been? With twinkling eyes, just as I saw them when I first met him, he says, "Everyone goes through the same thing: Once they have something, they wish for something they don’t have and again when they have it, they wish for something else. It keeps changing." The answer seems to have all the ancient wisdom of Buddhism, Taoism and Zen put together… The more you run behind things, the more they appear desirable.
After the interview, I know I’ve emerged calmer and wiser from my rendezvous with an ordinary person with an extraordinary perspective on life.
From HT Brunch, January 20
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