In mid-May, a serious young man of 22 who is revered as the 17th Karmapa – now the second-most-important figure in Tibetan Buddhism – will make his first visit to the United States. The trip comes eight years after his dramatic flight to India from a monastery near Lhasa at the end of 1999, when he was just 14 years old. This is the first time that a skittish India has allowed him permission to travel abroad. His flight from Tibet was a considerable embarrassment to China.
The Karmapa Lama, spiritual head of the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, is now the only major Tibetan lama recognized as a reincarnation of his lineage by both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government since it overran Tibet in the 1950s. The Panchen Lama, the third of a triumvirate and previously the second-highest ranking among the three lamas, vanished into Chinese custody as a boy in 1995 and has been replaced by Beijing’s own political appointee.