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No Ordinary Teenager - An Interview With The Karmapa
May 31, 2000

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His Holiness the XVII Karmapa
His Holiness the XVII Karmapa is a remarkably handsome fourteen year old boy, who is one of the most powerful spiritual leaders in Tibetan Buddhism. I had the rare privilege to spend the morning chatting with this extraordinary young man in his temporary residence at the Gyuto Tantric Monastery, in northern India.

His Holiness the Karmapa surprised many and gained global recognition when he escaped Chinese occupied Tibet in January of this year. He walked to freedom in India where he was greeted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in exile.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama recently said that "From a young age Karmapa has displayed the ripening manifesting of various latent qualities inherited from his previous lives... now, regardless of obvious dangers, he arrived here in good health... the main reasons he escaped was with the hope and aspiration to be able to benefit and serve the cause of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan people, which was impossible to accomplish while staying in Tibet."

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Andrew outside of Gyuto Tantric Monastery, wearing white scarf and red ribbon, presented by H.H.
H.H. the Karmapa can often be seen, even if it's from a great distance, on the roof of the monastery. There he stands, with a multi-colored umbrella to protect him from the sun, looking down through binoculars at the people who are looking up at him. When I first arrived, he was leaning over the side, watching the people below and looked as playful and curious as any shaven headed 14 year old might. He looked at me when I walked up the stairs. I greeted him with namaste and he returned the greeting.

When I entered the monastery, Lama Phuntsok, assistant to H.H. the Karmapa, greeted me. He is a kind man with smiling eyes and a helpful way about him. H.H. the Karmapa does not, in general, give interviews, but when I explained to Lama Phuntsok that our students are H.H.'s age and would be very interested to learn more about him, he smiled and agreed that it would be a good idea.

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Andrew with Lama Puntsok, deeply spiritual man and nice guy
I waited with Lama Phuntsok in his private quarters where we chatted while waiting. As one might expect of a lama, he lived simply in a small room that he shares with one of his fellow lamas. Soon it was time to go up. The Indian military, which is in charge of security for H.H., searched me and my bags before leading me up several flights of stairs to the top of the monastery.

When I reached the top of the stairs and was mentally preparing myself for entering his audience hall, I realized that the young man skittering past me was none other than His Holiness! I waited a moment before being brought into his room, and by the time I entered he was composed in his throne and looking kind and gentle. He also looked slightly amused. I first bowed to him as he placed a red ribbon around my neck, which is the custom. His interpreter, Lama Tennam, then gestured for me to be seated and begin. I was told I would have 15 minutes.

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I sat kneeling on the floor in front of a table and his raised chair. H.H. really is a magnificent sight, with his clean-shaven head, dark brown skin, and piercing, almond shaped eyes. He wore a gold-colored sash over the traditional maroon robes, which leave one arm exposed. He is tall for his age. When he looked at me, although his eyes were filled with a childlike joy, I also felt the wisdom of his many incarnations. If this was based upon my expectations or reality, I cannot say, but it is believed that if you get the chance to meet His Holiness, you will be purified for seven rebirths.

So what would you ask a teenage boy who is the third most powerful figure in all of Tibetan Buddhism? This Karmapa is the seventeenth Karmapa, meaning that he is believed to have been reincarnated seventeen times. Well, most of the questions I asked H.H. were sent to me by you, the students, so there are questions of all types. All of the answers were given through an interpreter since H.H. speaks Tibetan and Chinese and has not yet learned English. (In fairness to your humble Trekker, I did try to speak to H.H. in Tibetan, but I did not get much further than a butchered try at "My name is Andrew. I am a teacher" before H.H. started to laugh!) So to the questions and answers:

Andrew: Can Your Holiness remember past lives?


manifesting - made clear, evident
latent - hidden
namaste - a greeting, with hands together fingers facing upwards
skittering - scamper, move hurriedly
lama - spiritual teacher
incarnations - past lives
purified - refined, cleared
defilement - disgrace, corruption
precarious - uncertain

His Holiness The Karmapa: I have some memories from past existences, though often it takes the prompting of my teachers to bring out these memories. There are many disturbances because of temporary defilement, but through blessings of lineage, masters (teachers) submit instructions through which I may recall important information or events.

A: What advice does Your Holiness have for the youth of today?

K: One should have pure and sincere motivation. One should have that foundation to help humanity and to help one's own self. Even if one cannot help large numbers of beings, one can help those beings nearest.

A: Who or what experience has been the most influential in this life?

K: Individuals who conduct a misdeed or negative action... I believe that that sort of negative behavior influences me to bring positive behavior, or positively, because when I see that kind of action or attitude, I want to build positively. When harmful things are done one can see the misfortune that it brings. Therefore, it gives beings encouragement to do positive things.

A: What has been Your Holiness' greatest difficulty?

K: My main wish is to help every being to bring mind, heart, and conscience to peace. That is a challenge.

A: What would Your Holiness like to do, but is unable to do, due to Your Holiness' position?

K: In general, any position allows an individual certain privilege that others cannot enjoy. In a high position, there are many restrictions and there are many things one cannot do. There are sacrifices to be made in any position. There are also defilements that go with a high position, such as jealousy and pride. If it were better for me to be in a simple position, if it would be of a greater benefit, I would pursue that.

A: Is Your Holiness clairvoyant?

K: I cannot claim that I am or not. Sometimes when I tell things to people they come true.

A: Can Your Holiness fly? (This question was asked since, in many old records and testimonies, certain high lamas and Tibetan masters have demonstrated abilities that go against our understanding of reality.)

K: Personally, I am a human being, and cannot fly. However, in the history of my predecessors, it has happened, and I respect that.

A: What are Your Holiness' hobbies?

K: As a spiritual master, my hobbies are to study, contemplate and meditate. My position requires much study of me, and I am happy to do it.

Related Links

Karma Triyana Dharmachakra:
The North American Seat of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa
Our conversation lasted forty-five minutes instead of the planned fifteen. During that time I also learned that H.H. enjoys many types of music and sometimes watching sports. He rarely watches television, and then usually the news. He likes all kinds of animals but especially cute ones that are not too hairy (that would exclude the white fluffy dog that lives at the monastery.) He does not go to school exactly, but he has private tutors who train him hard. His results are very impressive, with his math and geography skills at a high school level, and his knowledge of literature compares to that of university students. He enjoys reading, especially books on history.

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H.H. seated on his Lion's Throne in formal attire
It is my opinion that H.H. the XVII Karmapa will in time become one of the most recognized and influential figures for the Tibetan cause. He will be a very persuasive spokesperson for the Tibetan people. He is striking and speaks well, with an obvious deep belief in the spiritual values that he represents. I will always be grateful for having met him, especially at such an important time in his life, when the international community is just coming to know him. I hope you all follow his progress as well as the cause of which he is a part. I'll end this dispatch with a quote from His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama to remind us just how precarious that cause is:

"This is the worst period in our 2,000 year long history. This really is the most serious period. At this time, now, there is every danger that the entire Tibetan nation, with its unique cultural heritage, will completely disappear ... the present situation is so serious that it is really a question of life and death. If death occurs, nothing is left."


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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