Blessed by the boy Buddha

It wasn’t what you’d call a pilgrimage.  In Tibet, pilgrims can cover marathon distances on foot to reach their destinations.  For the most pious this involves repeated prostrations each beginning where the previous one has ended.  I lost the opportunity to acquire merit by taking the bus.

Journey’s end was Tsurphu monastery in south central Tibet, seat of the long line of Karmapa lamas.  Until recent events the position of the Karmapa, head of the Kagyupa (or “Black Hat”) sect was little known by non-Tibetans.  At the time of my visit in 1993 the newly-enthroned seventeenth incarnation of the Karmapa, then only seven years of age, was the most important religious leader in Tibet.

The sixteenth Karmapa had died in exile in 1981 but his reincarnation was announced in 1992 under somewhat unsatisfactory circumstances.  Reincarnation is a tenet of Tibetan Buddhism but the method of discovering a reincarnate being can be more of an art than a science.  Urgyen Trinley Dorje had been named as the seventeenth Karmapa amid frustration at the length of the search and great pressure to announce the result.  A dissenting group violently opposed the appointment but the Dalai Lama gave his approval and this effectively settled matters.  Unusually and, for many, disturbingly, the announcement was also endorsed by the Chinese authorities.

I had been intrigued by the pictures of the child I had seen in Tibetan homes, shops and restaurants.  The living Buddha’s photograph appeared alongside or often in the absence of one of the Dalai Lama (this was before photographs of the Dalai Lama were banned).  When the opportunity arose to visit and be blessed by the Karmapa it was one not to be missed.

The unpaved road from Lhasa to Tsurphu cut along a valley floor past typically rugged Himalayan scenery and unexpected rape fields.  The monastery at its end was a shadow of its former self.  The picture-postcard setting with a crystal clear stream and grazing yaks was tarnished by the devastation wrought on the site during the Chinese invasion and afterwards by the Cultural Revolution.

Tsurphu was founded in the twelfth century and was built up with the riches and power that the Black Hat sect wielded at that time.  The position of the Karmapa was then considered by many to be loftier than that of the Dalai Lama.  Like the Dalai Lama, the sixteenth Karmapa had taken flight in 1959 as the Chinese tightened their grip on Tibet.

By 1993 the ruined buildings had been restored only to the extent necessary for shelter, worship and study.  Sadly, most were no longer needed because of the restrictions imposed by the Chinese on religious practice in Tibet.  An American Buddhist was teaching English to the Karmapa and, inevitably, also about the world outside Tibet.  It was clear that the monastery did not underestimate the political, as well as the religious, role that the Karmapa might have to play if Tibet were to have a future.

The blessing ceremony was to take place at 1pm and we joined the Tibetan pilgrims waiting in the courtyard.  White ceremonial silk scarves, or katas, were available for purchase for those, like us, ignorant enough not to have brought one to present to the lama.  We were grateful for the opportunity of avoiding a Tibetan faux pas and the monks were no doubt appreciative of additional contributions towards the slow restoration work.

For all his youth the Karmapa had an imposing presence.  He seemed mature beyond his seven years, perhaps because there were no novices of his age with whom he could play.  His teacher told us the story of how a visiting tour party had brought gifts of toys.  These had apparently gone down better than the more traditional katas and, in contrast to the deadpan expression he wore for our visit, he had not been able to hide his pleasure.

The boy was unquestionably the master of the ceremony and conducted it with authority and grace.  Before we were admitted he had seated himself on an elevated throne in a sparsely furnished but ornate reception room.  Pilgrims were led in one by one for their audience.  Each laid a kata before the lama and was blessed individually, touched on his or her bowed head by what can only be described as a gold teapot topped with peacock feathers.  A reverent silence underlined the solemnity of the occasion.  The ceremony was over quickly and we were each given a length of red wool to mark the occasion.

His public duties for the day finished, the boy returned to his gruelling studies: eight hours a day not including his English tuition.  We returned to the less demanding occupation of exploring the ruins and watching less burdened novices picnicking and play-fighting by the stream.

As we waited for our lift home, the katas were returned to the courtyard for resale.  I bought one again and still treasure it as a memento of the day I was blessed by a living Buddha.

Copyright  Nicholas White 2000