SHAMONG*-On the day the living Buddha first stepped onto New Jersey soil, weeks of rainy weather gave way to not one, but two rainbows - fitting symbolism for a man many consider a bright sun rising in the Buddhist sky.

And on the beautiful day that followed, more than 1,600 people from around the country converged on the Karma Thegsum Choling New Jersey (KTCNJ) Buddhist Monastery in Shamong to hear the teachings of Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the man viewed as the 17th reincarnation of a 12th century Tibetan lama.

Regarded as the human embodiment of wisdom and compassion, the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa heads one of the four family lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and is recognized as the third most important Buddhist figure behind the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

During his 18-day tour, which started May 15, Dorje traveled from speaking engagements in New York City and his North American seat at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, N.Y. to Shamong, then Boulder, Colo. and, finally, Seattle.

"This is my first visit to New Jersey, and as such I feel like a new man," he said to the crowd that had assembled under a massive white tent in the backyard of the KTCNJ, which sits on 150 acres off Atsion Road.

Nestled at the foot of the Pine Barrens, the house serves as a monastery as well as his official North American residence.

Given a quick glance, Dorje could pass for your average college student; minus the large entourage and flowing robe, of course.

But At 22, Dorje has quickly become a spiritual leader whole governments eye with an uneasy suspicion; his youth coupled with a life story that has every potential to become one of modern legend, has many scholars and social analysts believing he may become extremely instrumental as Buddhism's premier proponent of world peace and a free Tibet.

Only nine years ago at the age of 14, Dorje first made far reaching sociopolitical waves when he mounted a daring escape from China after the government restricted his ability to receive certain teachings in Tibet.

Over eight grueling days, he, along with a handful of assistants, traveled 1,000 miles by foot, horse, train, jeep and helicopter over the Himalayas from Tibet to Dharamsala, joining the exiled Dalai Lama in India. The Indian government officially accepted him as a refugee in 2001.

The much-publicized escape represented an embarrassment for China and strained relations between the Indian and Chinese governments.

But on that beautifully sunny day a few weeks ago, the culture of world politics was eclipsed by a message of understanding and empathy.

"The world seems to be shrinking," he said. "As the world becomes smaller, we have a new responsibility for greater harmony and greater friendship through greater communication and understanding of one another."

Sharing intimate personal experiences and anecdotes, Dorje conveyed the importance of understating and embracing the world's different cultures as the way to bring people together and achieve peace.

"The establishment of genuine peace and happiness, not just for one person, but for everyone, depends upon communication and understanding," Dorje explained through a set of translators; one English, one Chinese.

"For that reason, it is essential that we put great emphasison the understanding of one another's culture and language."

Dorje went on to acknowledge the obvious example of having his teachings translated into the two languages.

The message of peace through cultural unity held a special place for Devorah Devi, a New York City resident who has combined a Jewish heritage with Buddhist mediation.

"He spent 900 years perfecting peace and nothing else compares to his love and respect of earth and the fragility of life," said Devi, who made the trip south to hear Dorje speak. "I find that meditation helps me obtain a better sense of compassion for myself and others since one of the great things Buddhism teaches is that people can help themselves and I find that very refreshing."

According to Buddhist history, the first Karmapa attained enlightenment, breaking the cycle of rebirth, yet has continued to reincarnate himself generation after generation for the last 900 years in an effort to guide others along the path.

Each preceding Karmapa left letters, usually in a poetic form, indicating the location and parentage of their next reincarnation.

Many of the Karmapas are also said to have been self-recognizing, meaning at a young age they claimed to be the reincarnation of the Karmapa, recognizing associates and colleagues of the former Karmapa. Since it is these associates that knew the former Karmapa and are the ones responsible for teaching and raising the next one, they play a critical role in finding and recognizing the next reincarnation.

However, since the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981, two candidates have been put forth.

Both have been enthroned as the 17th Karmapa and have conducted ceremonies in that role.

The rival Karmapa, Trinlay Thaye Dorje, has toured Europe and continued to assert his own legitimacy. The issue has caused a division among followers around the world and has even gone to court in India.

Yet, this isn't the first time a debate has raged over the next 'real' Karmapa. Arguments over previous reincarnations have been contested through the centuries and eventually resolved.

Today, most Tibetans accept the recent U.S. visitor, citing his recognition as the 17th Karmapa by the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.

"We are very fortunate to have him here," Lori Volpe, a spokesperson for KTCNJ said about the visit. "To followers it is a lesson for an enlightened being and to be here in his presence is incredible."

* Shamong is North American home to a reincarnated Tibetan Lama

By Scott Holden

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