Born into a nomadic Tibetan family in 1985, Apo Gaga was 7 years old when he was proclaimed the 17th Karmapa: the latest reincarnation of the head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. That made the child the religion’s third highest leader, after the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. He soon began a rigorous training program. Then, at the age of 14, after the Karmapa started to find Chinese control suffocating, he made a daring escape by helicopter and horseback to Dharamsala, India, seat of the Tibetan government in exile. There he’s continued his training in earnest. Given the Dalai Lama’s age, he’s just 73, the length of time it will take to name a successor and the disappearance of the Panchen Lama in 1995 (China was anxious to control the selection of his reincarnation), many assume the young Karmapa could soon become Tibetan Buddhism’s most-senior figure. On the eve of his 23rd birthday, the monk spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Sudip Mazumdar about his recent trip to America, the global pro-Tibet protests and boycotting the upcoming Beijing Olympics. Excerpts:
MAZUMDAR : How has your recent trip to the United States changed your perspectives on the world?
THE KARMAPA: It was a big change for me, because I had only seen pictures of America. Now I have seen America in real life, and I was amazed. The Western world is so different from the Eastern world. I feel that I can learn so much from the Western world.
What are conditions like inside Tibet today?
I don’t have any news. My understanding is only through television. It is difficult to get the real picture. This is a problem not only for me but for the entire world.