Religion

The journeys of a prophet in his sixteenth lifetime

MIKE MACBETH May 30 1977
Religion

The journeys of a prophet in his sixteenth lifetime

MIKE MACBETH May 30 1977

The journeys of a prophet in his sixteenth lifetime

Religion

Jesus Christ, Muhammad and Confucius are dead, as are the holy men of most major religions. Only Buddhism, with its belief in reincarnation, has holy men who walk the earth today, teaching, blessing, prophesying and performing miracles. The sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, revered leader of 20 million Asian Buddhists, is one of them, and he has just completed a tour of North America that went almost unpublicized yet attracted more than 50,000 participants. Speaking through a Tibetan interpreter in an interview with Maclean’s, the spiritual head of the Kargyu order of Tibetan Buddhism said Tibet’s annexation by the Communist Chi-

nese in 1959 and the forced exile of its religious leaders to India have been “a blessing for the West.” The expansion of Tibetan Buddhism happened to coincide, he said, with the search for a new meaning of life that grew up among North American youth during the Sixties—and it was inevitable both journeys would collide.

Because Buddhists tend to seek enlightenment (a final blessed state marked by the absence of desire or suffering) in a private way, it is hard to determine how many Canadians have turned to the religion. More

than 1,000 students are studying full-time under the direction of a lama (monk), and part-time followers number at least 10,000. These are people drawn by word of mouth to ceremonies performed at shrines across Canada during the Karmapa’s visit here from February to May.

Though it is difficult for the Westerner to fathom such practices, centuries of religious study made prophecies, reincarnation and miracles facts of life for the isolated Tibetans. They believe “His Holiness,” like the previous 15 Karmapas, was discovered as an infant through a letter left by his predecessor predicting the time and place of his next incarnation. They also believe he will be reincarnated as the sixth Buddha.

At 54, the Karmapa is a large man whose face—sour in repose—is beatific when he smiles. When questioned about the many miracles attributed to him, he explains that as soon as any man “learns to control the five physical elements and realize the inner nature of the mind” it becomes natural to perform miracles “spontaneously.” He is serenely ignorant of the complex economics, politics and technology of Western life, but says he was impressed, instead, with the natural beauty and tranquillity of Canada (the Rockies remind him of his homeland). As for Jesus Christ, he confesses he doesn’t know much about him, except that “the idea of Christianity is the same as Buddhism, which is to be separated from the causes of sorrow.”

The prophecies say the Gyalwa Karmapa will travel widely, and he certainly has. He first came to North America for a brief tour in 1974. This second journey is part of a worldwide tour that began last September and will include an audience

0 with the Pope. While in Canada, besides 1 traveling to Buddhist study centres in I every province, he met with 400 followers in the Yukon, Blackfoot Indians in Alberta, an exiled Tibetan king and queen in Ontario—and even stayed at the home of Petro-Canada chairman Maurice Strong.

Among the ancient buddhist scriptures is an uncanny prophecy, written in the year 747: “When the iron bird flies and the horse is on wheels, Tibetans will be spread like ants throughout the world, and the dharma [Buddhist teachings] will come to the land of the red-faced man.” Believers say that prophecy was fulfilled by a 747 Jumbo jet—the “iron bird” that brought the Gyalwa Karmapa to this continent, making him a living symbol of the coming of Tibetan Buddhism to North America. MIKE MACBETH