Sunday, Jan 16th, 2000
Life section

An intimation of timelessness


The recent defection of Tibet's 17th reincarnation of the Karmapa, a 14-year-old, brought back memories of a 1981 meeting with his predecessor

WHEN I first saw the Tibetan lama, he was laughing, his bald head thrown back.

He was seated on a sofa, obviously enjoying a joke with the small group of women devotees who were gathered on a rug at his feet. There were several other people milling around nearby.

Downstairs, too, were many other devotees.

This was a two-storey house in Geylang, recently converted into a Tibetan Buddhist centre.

The lama was in my line of sight the moment I came up the staircase, and I thought I saw a brilliant aura of white light around his head.

But it was gone the very next instant, as though at the flick of a switch.

He was the Karmapa, the leader of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and third in the spiritual hierarchy in Tibet, after the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama.

Rangung Rigpe Dore was the 16th Karmapa. Like the present Dalai Lama, he had fled Tibet in 1959 when the Chinese took over.

Whereas the Dalai Lama established a kingdom-in-exile in Dharamsala in the foothills of the Himalayas, he had settled in Sikkim instead, and acted as the official spiritual adviser to the king of neighbouring Bhutan.

My brief encounter with him took place in 1981, on the second morning of the new year, and I remember it was drizzling. I had gone to interview him for The New Nation, where I was a reporter.

Seated on the rug before him, as my colleague Steven Lee hovered nearby, popping his flash, I asked the Karmapa silly questions like what was karma, what was nirvana, and did he believe in supernatural powers.

What I got was a lot of laughter and, through his interpreter, "non answers" such as, "You don't know it until you have experienced it," in response to my query on nirvana.

I noted the incongruous Rolex watch on his left wrist; the right hand worrying the prayer beads even as he gesticulated with his left; the immaculate deep-maroon robe which he wore over a yellow shirt; and the large man that he was, his neck as thick as my thigh.

At the end of the short interview, he gestured for me to go forward to him. I knelt in front of him, and he touched my head and put a white scarf around my skinny neck. He had blessed me and it was not something the Karmapa did freely, the local leader of the centre told me as he led me downstairs and out to the gate.

I left the house in an exulted state. The drizzle had stopped. The sky was a vivid blue. I had rarely felt so joyous.

Of course, I did not put in the bit about the light I thought I saw around the Karmapa's head in the story I filed that afternoon. In fact, over the years, I had little occasion to relate this anecdote.

I've done so now, because I guess I can take some liberty in a personal column, and because the memory of that meeting was stirred by news reports of the defection of the current 14-year-old Karmapa to India two weeks ago.

I didn't know then, because he had looked so strong, but when I had the audience with the 56-year-old Karmapa, he was dying from cancer. He died in the United States in the same year.

The present Karmapa was approved as the 17th reincarnation by both the Dalai Lama and Beijing in 1992. In the case of the Panchen Lama, joint efforts to find the new reincarnation failed, resulting in each side choosing a different boy in 1995.

But I'm not going into the politics of it here.

On Thursday night, when I called the Karma Kagyud Buddhist Centre, now relocated to another house but also in Geylang, a member who identified herself as Margaret told me that the boy lama had come to Singapore just last November, for about a week. So many people came to see him, she said.

"He will come back again," she assured me. "Come and visit us." WAS the light I saw around the Karmapa's head for just an instant only my imagination?

In London, in May 1992, one of the first books I bought as soon as I hit the bookshops was Andrew Harvey's Hidden Journey, which had just come out.

In it I found whole passages describing the light the author saw emanating from an Indian teacher, Meera.

"All around her, as she stood there..., was a blaze of Light -- white Diamond light -- all the brighter for being in the darkness of the doorway," he records of his first meeting with her in Pondicherry in 1978.

Harvey, whose earlier book A Journey In Ladakh (1983) was such lyrical ecstasy that I submitted myself to it several times, is not your New Age touchy-feely type. He has both intellectual rigour and a literary sensibility, as the journalist Mick Brown notes rightly in his own book of spiritual quest, The Spiritual Tourist (1998).

The Economist said of Hidden Journey: "His story is that of every modern man longing for enlightenment, stumbling, worrying and -- just occasionally -- glimpsing what he hardly dares look for." Of course, the light and the lifting of spirits can be explained easily by those not so inclined as the result of a sudden surge of the naturally occurring chemical, serotonin, the slightest shift of whose level in the brain dictates how happy or how miserable you are.

Some scientists have even suggested that the Buddha had his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree only because the tree carried a high level of serotonin in its leaves.

He had, in effect, just a brain boost.

Whatever the case, in a week when I should be writing about my brief encounter in Atlanta with Ted Turner and Jane Fonda -- first, they announced a trial separation, then he was in the news again when America Online bought CNN-Time Warner -- I have chosen to write about the Karmapa instead, because at a time when time itself has become a commodity, I wish to share what I believe was an intimation of timelessness.

By the way, I cannot not tell you this about the Turners: Ted was the prankster with the laughter (the light on his head wasn't turned on); Jane was the one worrying the beads in one hand, behind her back, as she shook the hands of her stream of guests with the other, at the two CNN receptions I attended in 1996.E-mail your comments to or visit Richard Lim's home page... ...

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