RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Dalai Lama is the most recognizable face in Tibetan Buddhism, but another face is becoming known in the West. He is a 22-year-old monk whom followers revere as a reincarnated living Buddha and a master teacher. He's the Karmapa, one of Buddhism's most important spiritual leaders, and he's on an 18 day tour of America.

Robert Thurman is a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University and joins us to talk about it.

Good morning.

Professor ROBERT THURMAN (Columbia University): Good morning, Renee. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. Tell us about the school of Buddhism led by this young monk - Ogyen Trinley Dorje.

Prof. THURMAN: Yes. Well, he is the third highest Lama in Tibet, traditionally. Nowadays, in exile, he's the second highest, because the Panchen Lama has disappeared somewhere in China. And he's very - already very well learned. He's recovering some of the knowledge of his previous life, according to the Tibetan view.

He's a wonderful young fellow, the Karmapa. He escaped on millennium eve from China and reached India and has been there ever since with the Dalai Lama.

MONTAGNE: That escape you just mentioned, it's quite interesting. It was dramatic in the way he left Tibet and arrived in India. Tell us a little about it.

Prof. THURMAN: Yes. It was very dramatic. He had to escape at night pretending to be on retreat. And he had arranged from different followers in the utmost secrecy that he would be taken to the border. Then he had to hike over the high cliffs. And then on the Nepali side it was arranged to have a helicopter meet him. And they took him to India.

So in a way he had a little bit easier time than the normal Tibetan refugee who has to go on foot. But in a way it was more dire, because if he'd been caught it would've been very severe, the consequences.

MONTAGNE: The Karmapa was in New York last week, in Bolder, Colorado, over the weekend, and heads for Seattle later this week. Now, he's been talking about spiritual matters, not politics.

Prof. THURMAN: Yes.

MONTAGNE: But is this trip politically significant, given all that's been happening?

Prof. THURMAN: It is a little bit significant in the sense that the hard-line faction within the Chinese leadership that wants to continue to pursue a cultural revolution in Tibet and sort of wipe out Buddhism because they decided that Tibetan Buddhism makes Tibetans feel like they're Tibetans, that leadership is just sort of waiting for the old Dalai Lama to pass away.

So the fact that there is a young, very vibrant, very intelligent, very articulate and very charismatic Lama coming up who could step in should something happen - heaven forbid - to the Dalai Lama, this is something that should give those leaders pause.

And the India government, therefore, is under pressure to restrict his movements, which they have done. And he's kind of under a pledge not to say anything very stirring that would embarrass the Chinese and that would then annoy the - make the Indians feel pressured.

MONTAGNE: And do you think that because of his youth and charisma, the Karmapa will become a leading representative of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism in the years to come?

Prof. THURMAN: Oh, absolutely. In any case, he'll become a great teacher within Tibetan Buddhism, I hope. I'm a little worried that because he's so charismatic and so nice and so young, that his followers will push him to rush around and teach everywhere. And I think he needs another few years of more seclusion and study and developing his sort of full understandings before he's overstretched.

Then if the Chinese are intelligent, which I think they are, and they decide to dump the hardliners' approach and start a more modern approach and more gentle approach, everything will be solved by the time the Karmapa gets bigger, even before the Dalai Lama goes. And there will be a much nicer, happier relationship between Tibet and China. I'm very confident.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.

Prof. THURMAN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Robert Thurman is a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University.

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