William Mackesy’s account of this walk
We journeyed out to Tsurphu Monastery for an audience with the Karmapa, Tibet's third most important Lama. He is 17th leader of the Karmapa sect and a living reincarnation of the Buddha. Until recently, he was the only one of the three senior Lamas resident in Tibet but, in early January, he fled Tibet, making a miserable, dangerous journey over the high Himalayas at the worst time of year, and is now in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama is based.
Tsurphu is perched at nearly 15,000 feet up a beautiful valley west of Lhasa, beneath crags speckled with precarious meditation retreats. A stream rushes between brilliant green banks. As we ate our picnic in the bright autumn sun, beneath the prayer flag streamers which crossed the narrow valley, a curious yak came to inspect and a pretty young woman with a dazzling smile sat near us and shyly joined our meal.
The Karmapa's daily audience was at one o'clock. We waited with a motley group of pilgrims and a few foreigners. We deposited our bags and were frisked by grim-faced monks who were probably fancy dress (what is the opposite of plain clothes?) policemen. The Karmapa was an important figure for the authorities, the most senior "tame" Lama, and his departure has been a deep embarrassment to Beijing. A dispute is raging about the Karmapa's authenticity and he has received death threats.
We were alerted to the start of proceedings by a muffled pair of Tibetan horns (with a passing similarity to skirling bagpipes) from upstairs. We gingerly climbed a very steep and slippery flight of wooden steps, breathless by the top due to the altitude.
The Karmapa was seated on a throne to one side of a square room into which sunlight streamed from large windows. The roof was supported by four brightly painted columns. The trumpeters, crimson-faced and bulging-cheeked, blared throughout in one corner. The pilgrims repeatedly prostrated themselves at the entrance, which gave us some observing time, as we were otherwise efficiently shuffled past him, more for security than religious purposes, on suspected.
The Karmapa was around 15, but looked older, and was brightly clad in yellow and crimson. The pilgrims knelt one by one before the Karampa, who touched them on the head with a tassled sceptre (no need to shift his position) and murmured a blessing. His face was impassive, giving no clue as to what he thought of his position and the proceedings or his impending flight, which must have been in advanced planning. What sort of a childhood would he have had? What sort of human relations would he ever have? Apparently, the eyes of the current Dalai Lama "opened with surprise and delight" when presented, as an eight year old, with a toy train set and a clockwork speedboat.
We were ushered out, slightly dazed and our ears ringing, by the unusually charmless "monks" who had frisked us on the way in. Very much the minder-spies. We slithered down the neck-threatening stairs and blinked out into the brilliant sunlight.