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Young Spiritual Leader Arrives in New York, Ready to Teach and Be Taught

Chris Ramirez for The New York Times

Lama Pashi Gawa of Tibet in the main shrine room of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra center in Woodstock, N.Y., where His Holiness, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, is ecstatically anticipated.

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writePost(); new_york_times:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/16/nyregion/16karmapa.html
Published: May 16, 2008

The 22-year-old living Buddha seemed joyfully aware to feel no jet lag whatsoever. So far. “Maybe ton\ight,” he said in English on Thursday. “But not yet.” He had just arrived at a Midtown hotel with his security detail after a 14-hour flight from New Delhi to Newark.

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Fred R. Con\rad/The New York Times

Ugyen Trinley Dorje, 22, widely admired as an enlightened being, arrived in New York to start an 18-day American tour.

“It is the first time I’ve ever visited the United States, and it’s a bit like a dream,” said His Holiness, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ugyen Trinley Dorje, on\e of the most import!ant leaders in Tibetan Buddhism.

Despite his youth, he is revered by followers as a master teacher, and on Thursday he began his whirlwind tour of the United States, an 18-day visit to New York, New Jersey, Boulder, Colo., and Seattle.

Yes, he is that Karmapa: the young master who made headlines across the world at age 14 with his daring escape from China to India across the Himalayas in 1999.

His followers regard him not on\ly as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, who died in 1981, but also as the 17th incarnation of the first Karmapa in the 12th century, in an unbroken lineage going back 900 years. They revere him as leader of the Kagyu sect — called the black hat or black crown sect — on\e of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

To believers, he is the embodiment of wisdom and compassion, a “reincarnate lama,” or teacher who has achieved enlightenment yet returns to the human world, lifetime after lifetime, to help others do the same.

“The passing of the previous Karmapa was like the sun going behind the clouds,” said Michele Martin, a Tibetan translator who is the author of a 2003 biography, “Music in the Sky: The Life, Art and Teachings of the 17th Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje.”

She added, “With the new Karmapa’s arrival, it’s like the clouds have cleared away, and he is the sun in the sky.”

Thousands of people have attended his public appearances in India, and some 20,000 more are expected to see him in America. In Manhattan he will be speaking to the faithful on Saturday at the Hammerstein Ballroom (tickets: $30 to $108), and Sunday in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria (tickets: $35 to $175).

On Mon\day he will visit his North American seat at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra center in Woodstock, N.Y., where he is ecstatically anticipated. The shrine room was used for scenes in “Kundun,” the Martin Scorsese film about the life of the Dalai Lama.

Americans have been preparing for the visit for a year and a half, said Dzogchen Pon\lop Rinpoche, the organizer of the American trip, who is president and founder of Nalanda West in Seattle, on\e of the speaking stops. “There is great joy and delight that they can finally see him,” he said.

So little is easy, however, on the noble eightfold path of Buddhism, and Ugyen Trinley Dorje is but on\e of two claimants to the title of Karmapa in the Kagyu tradition. A rival, Trinlay Thaye Dorje, made a tour of Europe several years ago. There have been legal battles in India. Rival faction\s of mon\ks, those emissaries of loving kindness, have come to blows over the con\flict.

But the American followers of Ugyen Trinley Dorje point to his recognition as the 17th Karmapa by both the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama, a world figure and a spokesman for Tibetan Buddhism who has been a teacher to Ugyen Trinley Dorje.

In an interview, the Dalai Lama’s United States representative, Tashi Wangdi, said, “We welcome the visit” of Ugyen Trinley Dorje, adding, “We are very happy that he will be here.”

Robert A. F. Thurman, professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, said, “The guy who’s here is the official on\e,” adding, “The other Karmapa is a nice person, and he has followers in Europe and Asia, but almost all of the Tibetans accept the Karmapa who is here now.”

Asked about the rival Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje said that “on\e person is appearing at a time, who is the reincarnation of the previous Karmapa.”

He added, “Being its current incarnation, as I am, it is my greatest respon\sibility” to embody the succession.

His great escape from China, in December 1999, was a grueling eight-day, 1,000-mile trip by foot, horse, train, jeep and helicopter that led him to Dharamsala, India. The government accepted him as a refugee in 2001.

Ugyen Trinley Dorje’s age, spiritual presence and dramatic escape have made him a rock star in certain precincts of Tibetan Buddhism, and some have invoked a Barack Obama parallel. Elle Magazine named the meditative master on\e of its “25 people to watch.”

“He could become a spokesman for Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet itself, if he chooses to,” said Dr. Thurman, the author of a new book, “Why the Dalai Lama Matters.” He is also the father of the actress Uma Thurman.

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