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Free to bless the faithful

Local Tibetan Buddhists find a spiritual connection with His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, a 14-year-old who is believed to be the incarnation of a Buddhist saint and who recently escaped from Chinese-controlled Tibet


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 19, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- The recent escape of a 14-year-old Buddhist leader from Chinese-controlled Tibet has been cause for rejoicing by a tiny group of his devotees in the Tampa Bay area.

Thursday, they watched a video of the teenager, believed to be a reincarnated Buddhist saint, as he studied, prayed, performed a sacred dance and blessed the faithful at Tsurphu monastery, the secluded site from which he made his daring December escape to Dharamsala, India.

"We all found out the day it happened," said Wayne Bonner, a systems analyst who lives in Belleair Bluffs.

"It was very exciting."

For Cralle Hall of Tampa, the escape of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, as the 14-year-old is known, was particularly poignant. Hall was granted an audience with the Karmapa during a 1998 pilgrimage to Tibet.

"Actually being in his presence is something that is quite overwhelming. Not only is he a very learned being, he is also quite powerful," Hall said. "I don't know how to describe it, except to say that he is quite a dynamic person."

Head of the Kagyu lineage or order, one of four in Tibetan Buddhism, the Karmapa arrived in Dharamsala on Jan. 5, after what has been reported to have been an arduous 900-mile journey across the Himalayas. His escape from Tibet, which has been under Communist rule since the 1950s, follows a precedent set by the 16th Karmapa and the Dalai Lama, both of whom fled Tibet in 1959.

Like the Karmapa, the Dalai Lama is believed to be the incarnation of an enlightened being. The Dalai Lama, though, is part of the Gelug lineage, which consolidated power in Tibet almost 400 years ago. Since then, the dalai lamas have been considered the spiritual and temporal leaders of the country. The present-day Dalai Lama heads a Tibetan government-in-exile in India.

The 17th Karmapa, born Ugyen Trinley Dorje, to a family of nomads, "is an incarnation of the great Indian saint Saraha," said Michael Doran, secretary of the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, the Woodstock, N.Y., monastery that is the Karmapa's seat in the West.

Saraha, said Doran, was one of the great figures of Buddhism in India and lived about 600 years after the Buddha, who is believed to have dispensed his teachings sometime between the fourth and sixth century B.C. Doran added that members of the Kagyu lineage believe the Karmapa was one of the Buddha's students during his lifetime.

Hall's recollection of his 1998 visit gives a glimpse of the restrictions imposed on Tibetan Buddhists.

"We spent almost a week with the Karmapa. We had to get clearance with the Chinese government in order to stay there, because even though you are part of the lineage, they don't let just anyone stay there," Hall said. "They actually have planted Chinese there as monks, so it's not a totally open situation."

The purpose of the visit to Tibet, said Hall, who traveled with Tenzin Chonyi, president of the New York monastery, was primarily to tell the Karmapa about programs offered at the facility.

In addition, "We were able to ask him questions particularly related to our own lives," Hall said.

"For instance, I had the aspiration to do a three-year retreat, which is a basic step in the practice to becoming a monk. I asked him, should I do it. He basically said, "No, you should continue to live in the world.' "

For now, that means working with the local Tibetan Buddhist center, known formally as the Tampa Bay Karma Thegsum Choling, and one of four in Florida. Hall, 52, a trained massage therapist, said he was drawn to Buddhism during the early 1970s.

"It gives you a focus, a stability in life. It's a very direct path," he said. "It merely is putting into practice what the Buddha has taught."

The local center, which has a core membership of 15, meets twice a week. At 9 a.m. Sundays, members gather at 13515 Lake Magdalene Blvd., in north Tampa. At 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, they meet in a second-floor classroom at First Unity Church, 469 45th Ave. N.

Last week eight practitioners gathered for an hour of silent meditation and chanting before a temporary altar bearing seven brass bowls of water, sticks of incense, a bell and other religious objects. Also sitting on the colorfully draped altar were photographs of two spiritual leaders based in North America. They flanked a large gold-framed image of the young Karmapa.

Devotees, who left their shoes by the door before settling down, sat in the lotus position on plump, round red and orange pillows. At the sound of a gong, they closed their eyes and attempted to still their minds. The position was maintained for about 10 minutes before the group moved in unison into a series of soothing chants.

Such sessions have a purpose, Hall said.

"What the meditation practice is designed to do is for you to begin to see your negative, habitual patterns," he said. "Through meditation, you're able to get rid of these negative patterns."

Mike Thomas, a construction manager who lives in northeast St. Petersburg and is the center's director, guided the session.

"The meditations really help me stay calm. They help me stay centered," said Thomas, 41, who grew up as a Catholic but has been a practicing Buddhist for about six years.

Joan Scovill, one of four women present Thursday night, was drawn to Buddhism 13 years ago.

"I was struck by the sincerity and openness of the teachers that I came in contact with," said Ms. Scovill, who lives in Largo.

Specifically, she added, "I felt that the Tibetan Buddhist path offered a technique for spiritual development that I found very effective in connecting to all of my life."

Speaking by phone from the New York monastery, Doran explained that Tibetan Buddhism, "believes that all beings have the full potential to attain full buddhahood, (which) means that people have the capacity to completely purify all of their confusion and they have the capacity to completely purify all of their negative emotions. . . . All of that is accomplished by following the teachings of the Buddha and doing the practices that lead to that end."

The Buddha's 84,000 teachings are not easily simplified, Doran said.

"If you wanted to boil it down to one thing, the teachings would be to do nothing whatsoever harmful to a living being."

Tibetan Buddhists believe in many enlightened deities, all of whom manifest the qualities of Buddha, Doran said.

Thursday evening, for instance, members of the Tampa Bay center dedicated a portion of their chanting to Chenrezig, the four-armed god that represents love, compassion, empathic joy and impartial benevolence.

"Buddhists don't insist . . . that there had to be a single creator at one point in time," Doran said.

A belief in reincarnation is, of course, part of the Buddhist tradition. The Karmapa, for instance, is believed to foretell his rebirth.

When a person dies, they are reborn "in whatever form that is consistent with the life preceding their death," Doran said.

That form can be human or animal. Their destination also can be any number of heavens or hells.

Buddhism teaches, however, that man's inherent nature is good, an attribute, believes Ms. Scovill, personified in both the Buddha and Christ. Followers of the Karmapa believe he too has reached this state of perfection, choosing continuous rebirth only as a way to free all beings from suffering. They believe as well that a single glimpse from him is sufficient to ensure a fortunate rebirth.

It follows then, that the Karmapa's recent escape from Chinese-controlled Tibet is seen as a great blessing to the world's people.

"There are so many people in the Western world," said Doran, "not to mention India, all over Asia, who are disciples, devotees of the Karmapa. Without his ability to travel, most of us in the world would never get a chance to see him. We would never get a chance to receive his direct blessing."

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