Sunday, December 7, 2008

Hearing the Lion's Roar of the Dharma

Notes from the Karmapa’s Teachings in New York and Seattle

N.B.: This article also appears in the current issue of Bodhi magazine, Vol 10, No 1. Additional information about the U.S. visit of His Holiness Karmapa can be found at the visit blog.

Saturday, May 17th, 2008 was a monumental day for Buddhism in America: His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, gave his first public teaching in the West, at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. Before an audience of nearly 3,000 people, a giant three-story-tall thangka image of Shakyamuni Buddha hanging behind him, Jumbotron screens on either side of the stage, His Holiness taught about the inseparability of self and other. He cited Shakyamuni Buddha as an example of someone who completely transcended any notion of difference between self and other and was the complete embodiment of altruistic compassion. Although the historical Buddha walked the earth 2500 years ago and is no longer living, His Holiness said, the Buddha’s love and compassion are very much alive and we can still feel their repercussions today.

His Holiness Karmapa at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, May 17th, 2008.
Photo by Gregg Rock. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.

Remarking on the strong connection that the Sixteenth Karmapa established with America during his visits here in the 1970s and 80s, His Holiness said that this connection lives on in the deep love and affection he feels for the American people.

“The American people have never been outside the mind of the Gyalwang Karmapa,” His Holiness stated. “The Gyalwang Karmapa has never forgotten the people of America for an instant.”

His Holiness also taught about patience, and how to work with challenging situations and afflictive emotions such as anger and desire. The problem, he said, is not that we feel attraction or revulsion towards something — it’s that we go too far, and one-sidedly adopt or reject an entire thing on the basis of one (or a few) attributes — we confuse the attributes with the thing that appears to possess them.

Two weeks later, in Seattle — after visits and public teachings in upstate New York, New Jersey, and Boulder, Colorado — His Holiness gave his first West coast public teachings at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, concentrating on the themes of compassion and interdependence. Because the world we live in is getting smaller due to technology and globalization, His Holiness said, people's individual actions therefore have a much greater effect on the global village and the whole of humanity. In this era, people can no longer afford to cling to their particular views or self-centric identities — not even the limited notion of "being a Buddhist." We need to think in larger terms.

Due to technology and external advancements, we have obtained the power to cause a lot of changes in the world, but for a long time we were not mindful about how we used this power. Now people are becoming more mindful, but so much damage has already been done, and we are on the verge of destroying our planet and our own ability to live here. In this day and age, His Holiness said, the practitioner's motivation to attain his or her own personal liberation is "no longer sufficient whatsoever" — instead, we need practitioners who can benefit the whole world while also engaging in their own personal practice. The old tradition of a yogi going off into isolation for many years and then working in a limited way with only a handful of students is no longer particularly practical or helpful. Rather, we need practitioners who are out in the world, working for the benefit of all beings.

His Holiness also spoke about the need for continuity of practice, which requires firm resolve. We need to remind ourselves again and again of what it is that we wish to accomplish through our practice and refresh that resolve every day to keep the momentum of our practice going. This resolve, the Karmapa said, cannot be a mere thought in our heads, but must be a strong building up of energy and intention within ourselves. His Holiness suggested that we could set one clear goal and work with that goal for an entire month, reminding ourselves of it each day.

Most of us, His Holiness said, are not lacking in pith instructions from our gurus and teachers; what we are lacking, rather, is pith instructions from ourselves. We need to learn to look within, listen to ourselves, and seek out instructions from our own minds.

Because we need to depend on things and people other than ourselves for every benefit that we experience in life, the Karmapa taught, our happiness is intimately connected to other beings and their well-being. However, our habitual "me and mine" mentality of self-centricity does not bring us happiness. Rather, the source of happiness lies in working for the benefit of others, since our own happiness cannot come from anywhere else.

His Holiness Karmapa shared many personal stories from his own life to illustrate his teachings. Although the Gyalwang Karmapa is regarded by some students as a fully enlightened and faultless Buddha, nevertheless this has not prevented the Karmapa from experiencing hardship in life. The key, His Holiness said, is how we meet the hardships we encounter: we can embrace hardships as opportunities to grow and think in different ways and create more benefit for ourselves and others. But often, we simply create a lot of negative "self-talk" about our situation that compounds more suffering onto the original hardship. We can learn to allow hardships to happen (since we cannot, in many cases, prevent them) but limit the self-talk about them.

Although in the West we have seen many external advancements and technological benefits, we have also seen a corresponding increase of fear and suffering in people's minds, His Holiness said. This is related to our inability to cherish others -- our pattern of clinging solely to our own concerns, the habitual "me and mine" mentality. If we are not aware of how our happiness depends upon others and we do not work to benefit others, we end up with a society full of people who think only about themselves and act in ways that cause harm to themselves and those around them.

His Holiness expressed his profound gratitude to everyone who helped make his first visit to America possible, and confided that he was very happy during his stay here. He said that he didn't quite realize this until someone showed him some of the photographs from his travels here, and he saw that he was smiling in many of the pictures. This surprised him somewhat, as he does not generally smile a great deal. His Holiness said that his happiness during his travels in America came from the fact that everyone around him was also happy and smiling — a further illustration of his teaching that our happiness depends upon others.

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