The Karmapa, now a handsome 24-year-old with a shaved head, was born to a family of nomads in 1985. But then a party of monks, told to search “east of snow” for their new leader, found him in eastern Tibet. At the age of 7, he was enthroned as a living deity, the 17th reincarnation in a succession of Buddhist leaders of the Kagyu sect. At 14, he fled his native land in a dramatic escape over snowy passes to Nepal, and then India, where he attached himself to the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. Tibetans in the diaspora immediately saw something special in the Karmapa Lama—the deep personal charisma of his mentor, infused with the vigor of youth. Some saw, even then, a potential leader in his own right.
The Dalai Lama is without peer among living Tibetan deities. As head of Tibet’s biggest sect, the Gelug, he is the revered and recognized leader of his people. He has won the Nobel Prize and built a global following on little more than moral strength, somehow keeping a movement of rival sects and international pressure groups united behind the notion of justice for Tibet. Yet the Dalai Lama has failed in one key respect: China has rejected even his mildest calls for autonomy and cultural freedom. March will mark 50 years since the Dalai Lama slipped into exile. Some Tibetans now believe that the Karmapa Lama may be able to succeed where the Dalai Lama has failed—if, against all tradition and precedent, he is given an opportunity to lead.
But a change of power among the Tibetans, as among less mystical movements, is a tricky business.
Read more about the Karmapa via CDT.