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Monday, July 14, 2008

The gift of a profound family heirloom

"The Karmapa is supposed to be replete with good qualities and an enlightened Buddha, but I've still had a hard time in life. Hardships are inevitable for everyone, but the key is how we meet them. If we can maintain hope and optimism we will see hardships as opportunities to meet new situations and a new way to think about things rather than being weighted down by the burden of hardships." --- Karmapa Orgyen Thinley Dorje

The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Orgyen Thinley Dorje has never worn the illustrious Black Crown or performed the ceremony for which his lineage is renowned for transmitting the blessings of enlightened compassion and realization. The sacred Black Crown of the Karmapas which is said to have been woven by the dakinis themselves remains sequestered behind lock and key by the Indian government at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim where the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rikpe Dorje transplanted his Karma Kagyu lineage in exile half a century ago.

But Orgyen Thinley Dorje has demonstrated beyond any doubt that he doesn't need to wear the Black Crown to manifest as Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, of which the Karmapas are held to be an emanation. His very presence radiates impartial love and compassion towards all beings and a generosity of spirit that pervades space, illuminating the way to liberation from suffering.

As his parting gift on his first visit to the United States, His Holiness bestowed the empowerment of Avalokitesvara on Sunday morning June 1 to three thousand people at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle. Lama Palden Drolma, founder of Sukhasiddhi Foundation in San Rafael, Calif., gave a warm and insightful introduction about the history of Avalokitesvara and Tara's emanations. She encouraged us to open our minds and allow His Holiness' blessings and compassion to water our dry soil and moisten the seed of bodhicitta within each of us.

From the earliest times Avalokitesvara has been a central figure in Indian Buddhism and also has a special karmic connection with Tibet, the Karmapa explained. Amitabha Buddha commanded Avalokitesvara to take the people of Tibet as his special disciples. To benefit the Tibetans he emanated in many forms - as yogis, householders, and monastics.

"There is a special and profound connection between the Karmapas and Avalokitesvara," His Holiness said. The Karmapas benefit beings in the same way as the bodhisattva of compassion. Indeed Karma Pakshi, the Second Karmapa, proclaimed that the Karmapa is an emanation of Avalokitesvara.

All Tibetans have a strong connection with Avalokitesvara, and "no dharma teaching is considered more important than the six-syllable mantra" - Om Mani Padme Hum, the Karmapa stressed. "I truly believe that the love and compassion (of Avalokitesvara) runs through the hearts of all Tibetans," he said.

His Holiness' own nomad family in Kham was deeply devoted to Avalokitesvara, so from his birth the Karmapa has felt very connected to and has revered Avalokitesvara as his special practice. His Holiness' grandmother recited 10 million Mani mantras in her lifetime and was always cheerful despite being blind. "Her cheerfulness was related to her great hope for the future through her confidence in Avalokitesvara and the mantra. This confidence filled her heart with joy," he explained.

His mother likewise constantly recited the Mani and has accumulated nearly 10 million mantras herself. When His Holiness telephoned his mother in Tibet after he escaped to India she told him that she dedicated all of the merit from her Mani recitation to him.

"I feel very fortunate that this special inheritance has been passed down to me from my grandmother and mother. This is my most profound family heirloom. I would like to offer you this profound gift of love that has been passed down to me from my family," His Holiness told the assembly.

The Karmapa quoted the Kalacakra tantra's instructions that gurus should bring all of the students together into the mandala of compassion and grant them the empowerment. Our mere act of gathering together motivated by love and compassion fulfilled our prerequisites for receiving the empowerment, he said. For His Holiness' part, "I have the body, speech and mind connection with Avalokitesvara. From the side of the guru the blessings are complete to offer the empowerment of Avalokitesvara."

The empowerment - brief but exquisite - was one of the highlights of the Karmapa's Seattle visit. The blessings of Avalokitesvara and the Karmapa pervaded the Paramount Theatre, transforming it into the pure realm of Potala. His Holiness concluded by leading the assembly in an abbreviated daily practice of the Avalokitesvara sadhana.

* * *

"All things are connected, this we know"*

For his last public teaching in the United States His Holiness expanded on the themes of environmental protection and the interdependence of all living beings which he expressed so eloquently in his "Aspiration for the World."

The Karmapa was introduced by Lee Hartwell, president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle who received the 2001 Nobel Prize in medicine for his discoveries on cell cycle-control through his groundbreaking research on yeast cells (Dr. Hartwell repeatedly referred to the Karmapa as "Ramapa," which must have been quite embarrassing when he learned of his mistake).

"As a scientist I have had the privilege to study the external world," Dr. Hartwell said. However, "the Buddhist tradition has discovered some truly remarkable things like the source of happiness, peace of mind, and compassion," he acknowledged.

The Karmapa began by stressing that while we often take our physical world for granted it nonetheless provides the foundation for the survival of all life. "Even though we may not take time to really appreciate our world it still inspires us and provides us with comfort, sustenance, and well being," he said.

His Holiness said he often views the world as a great theatre and the beautiful scenery as stage props arranged just for him. "When I look up at night and see shining stars they are like stage lights," he said. "In this beautiful theatre we have complete freedom to perform whatever show or drama we want." Because of this freedom we need to recognize what is important to pursue for lasting happiness.

Yet today to gain even a little happiness for themselves people are willing to destroy the happiness of others and the common good due to pride and egotism, he said. "It's very important for us to recognize this tendency and pursue genuine happiness because if we don't we will destroy the theatre itself. The very ground of the theatre, the world itself is in danger of disappearing," His Holiness warned.

Just as we need a healthy body as a strong physical foundation to survive and have a future the health of our world itself is of paramount importance to our collective survival. "If we don't have the basic ground of the world no one can survive and have any future," he stressed.

In order to lead happy and fulfilling lives we have to go beyond our limited perspective that focuses on "me and mine," His Holiness said. If we isolate ourselves we will not be happy. Just as children need toys to make them happy "we have to realize that the source of our happiness and well being lies outside of ourselves."

His Holiness learned that his own happiness depends on others as a young tulku growing up at Tsurphu monastery in Tibet. The monastic officials isolated him all alone with his tutor in his third floor chambers and prohibited visitors from entering. "I thought "why are my attendants who are disciples of the 16th Karmapa making my life miserable? Why are they locking me in a box and putting on the lid?""

He was happier when Western dharma students came to visit because they brought him legos and other toys to play with, the Karmapa said. "These childhood experiences taught me that my own happiness depends on others."

As the Karmapa grew older his perspective changed, and he realized that the door to any private or personal life had closed forever behind him. Today he no longer even has any favorite things, and his happiness depends completely on the happiness of others.

"I am aware that I grew up in a unique environment which is very different from yours," he conceded. Nevertheless, "the basic point is that all beings are connected to each other and depend on each other."

Technological advancements have made the world smaller and are like a rope tying humans closer and closer together. Since we live so close together the opportunity to help or harm others is greatly enhanced. Therefore we need to reflect on what can cause us happiness and what can cause us suffering, he said.

Unfortunately material and technological advancements have been accompanied by increased fear and unhappiness, particularly in the West. "These problems are because of our inability to cherish and focus on the welfare of others," the Karmapa said. If we are not aware of how our happiness depends on others we isolate ourselves and just pursue our own self-interest. If everyone does this we will have a society where people only care about themselves, he warned.

Everyone goes through hardships in life, and the Karmapa is no different from anyone else in this respect, he stressed. Some of his hardships were created due to spiritual traditions and some due to external circumstances. "The Karmapa is supposed to be replete with good qualities and an enlightened Buddha, but I've still had a hard time in life. I should bring a khata and offer it to the feet of hardships!" he exclaimed.

"Hardships are inevitable for everyone, but the key is how we meet them. If we can maintain hope and optimism we will see hardships as opportunities to meet new situations and a new way to think about things, rather than being weighted down by the burden of hardships." The problem is that we engage in excessive "self-talk" and conceptual explanations about our hardships, he said. If we limit this self-talk our sense of burden will be lifted.

Respect for and cherishing others becomes a strong condition for our own personal well-being. Love is very important for our relations with others and for our own lives. If we have love for others then if difficulties arise we'll have a support outside of ourselves. This mutual love and consideration of each other's welfare is very important, the Karmapa stressed.

One way we could approach how we relate to others is the way we work in the world. In our modern world people rush to work and are constantly worrying and in fear of losing their jobs and means of livelihood. "The fear of loss is ever present," as employees are reprimanded and given warning letters that they may be fired.

"We need to pay more attention to how we work, and relax," His Holiness said. "Our minds are like a meter running at full speed. We need to allow more space and openness into our minds."

From a vajrayana perspective the outer and inner worlds are interconnected. The outer world is composed of the four elements which are correlated to the subtle essences of pranas, nadis, and bindus in the body, and to the mind itself. If changes occur in our mind it can affect the subtle essences of our body which, in turn, can affect the external world, he said. Appearances, afterall, lack any abiding existence and are merely causes and conditions coming together to create an illusion that they truly exist. We perceive things to exist even when they don't, which is how illusion works.

Later that evening at a farewell ceremony at Nalanda West His Holiness pledged to return as soon as possible to turn the Wheel of Dharma for the benefit of beings. The Karmapa disclosed that he had come to the U.S. before visiting Europe because His Holiness the Dalai Lama urged him to do so and told him how important it was for him to teach the Buddhadharma in this country.

* * *

An Aspiration for the World

Like so many people who were fortunate to receive teachings from Karmapa Orgyen Thinley Dorje during his first visit to the West this spring I am overwhelmed by the power of his blessings and his unceasing love and compassion, which seem to permeate throughout space and open the hearts and minds of everyone he encounters.

For the first time since the Vidyadhara left us in his nirmanakaya 21 years ago I feel a totality of vision, and a genuine hope and confidence that the flourishing of the Buddha's teachings may yet dispel the dark clouds of aggression and ignorance and restore peace and sanity to our imperiled world.

My optimism has been fueled by some of the people I encountered along the way to hear the Karmapa's teachings. There was the handsome young Tibetan who sat across from me on the BART train to the Oakland Airport on my way to Seattle. I was reading John Avedon's "In Exile from the Land of Snows," so he asked me if I was a Buddhist. Then he told me how he had escaped with his family from Tibet when he was 3 years old. His uncle carried him on his back over the steep mountain passes to Sikkim where he grew up and attended school. He has just completed his second year studying computer science at the University of California at Berkeley. His brother is a monk at Sera monastery in southern India. One of his sisters is a nun, and the other has a professional career in San Francisco. His family has built wonderful new lives for themselves as exiles from the land of snow.

There was the bright and attractive young African-American State Department Security officer who I chatted with when I was on duty guarding the backstage elevator at the Paramount Theatre while the Karmapa was teaching on compassion and ngondro. She was the epitome of the Dorje Dradul's ideal of a Shambhala warrior: watchful and alert, with a relaxed mind and a gentle, kind heart. I asked her if she had worked on security for His Holiness the Dalai Lama's teachings in Seattle earlier in the spring. She responded that she had organized the entire six-day security detail. "It was a lot of work, but it turned out well," she said simply with humility and genuine appreciation.

There was the kindly old Buddhist nun from Taiwan who I sat next to on the plane back to Oakland. She had lived in a Karma Kagyu nunnery in Dharamsala and planned to return there for the Karmapa's 23rd birthday celebration June 26. She now lives in San Francisco with her son and his family who accompanied her to Seattle to meet His Holiness. When the Karmapa offered her mischievous young grandson a protection cord he handed it back to him and said he didn't need it. As our plane descended through the clouds she pulled out a small prayer wheel and began spinning mantras into space.

And there was the documentary on folk music legend Pete Seeger, "The Power of Song" which I watched with my old college friend Laurel who I stayed with in Seattle during the Karmapa's teachings. Laurel - who is one of the kindest, most generous people I have ever known -- is the ethnomusicology archivist at the University of Washington and studies Lushootseed, Chief Seattle's language. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the music of the Pacific Northwest Indians and teaches a popular class on the Beatles music at UW every spring.

As we watched the documentary about Pete Seeger's extraordinary life, music, vision, and huge, wide-open caring heart I realized that he embodied the universal love and compassion that His Holiness had talked about that afternoon. Pete Seeger is a true American bodhisattva, having devoted his life to uplifting and bringing together people all over the world, and opening their hearts and minds through the common language of music.

His Holiness must have seen this capacity for caring and compassion reflected in the faces of his American audiences. One of his attendants mentioned that he had never heard His Holiness talk about love and compassion in India as he had done during his teachings in the U.S. The Karmapa also remarked how surprised he was to see photos of himself smiling during the visit and assured us that he rarely smiles in India.

His Holiness' parting words at the Paramount Theatre echoed his earlier assurance that the Karmapa has never been apart from us since we first met despite having died and been reborn in Tibet:
"I aspire that I become a part of you, and whatever I am becomes a part of benefiting others and the world. I don't fear losing myself anymore. I want whatever is a part of me to be a part of everyone else. My body will return to India, but my mind will stay with you. My parting aspiration for you is that you will receive a part of me and know that we will never be apart."

Sarva Mangalam!

* These words are attributed to Chief Seattle of the Suquamish tribe of the Puget Sound in an 1854 speech to Isaac Stevens, governor and Commissioner of Indian Affairs of Washington Territory.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Compassion on the Wind

His Holiness Karmapa at Nalanda West in Seattle, May 31, 2008. Photographer: James Gritz. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.

"The world we live in is getting smaller and people's actions have tremendous impact. In the era in which we live people cannot get away with clinging to their beliefs. I don't have any personal attachment or clinging to being a Buddhist. We need to step outside the boundaries of Buddhism and really go out and share the benefits of our Buddhist practice with the rest of the world."


--- Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje

The line outside the historic Paramount Theatre in downtown Seattle snaked around the block by 8:30 Saturday morning May 31. The marquee broadcasting Karmapa In America 2008 was visible for several blocks away. His Holiness's first public teaching on the "left coast" of the United States wasn't scheduled to begin until 10 a.m., but everyone was instructed to come at least 1-1/2 hours early to clear the security check in plenty of time.

The teachings were entitled "Building a Strong Foundation for Spiritual Practice," and the entire day was devoted to practical guidance for practitioners on the path of buddhadharma. The Karmapa chose to teach a short ngondro text he composed in India on the preliminary practices of vajrayana Buddhism for the first time in the West. In the evening he gave a more intimate teaching for all of the Buddhist sanghas that had worked together on his visit.

The Karmapa's teachings had a boundless quality of penetrating through time and space to all realms simultaneously. By the end of the day it seemed like His Holiness had illuminated the entire Buddhist path, revealing that he is indeed the Knower of the Three Times and a true holder of the Karmapa lineage for the 21st century. While his words were heartfelt and exquisite and spoken with utter humility and equality toward his audience his teachings completely transcended any sense of duality. It felt like the utterance of the universe itself--the fearless proclamation of the buddhadharma.


His Holiness Karmapa teaching at Paramount Theatre in Seattle, May 31, 2008. Photographer: James Gritz. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.

After arriving at the Paramount Saturday morning and surveying the multitudes lined up outside the box office I cut in line behind some sangha members from Northern California. But my karma instantly caught up with me as soon as I passed through the security check into the theatre. Jack Elias, one of the security chiefs for the visit, immediately nabbed me to go outside again and stand guard at the "club entrance" for VIPs and people needing physical assistance.

I guided elderly and disabled ticket holders and Tibetan lamas to the side entrance. One of the early birds was Tulku Sang-Ngak Rinpoche, the former Dorje Loppon at Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche's monastery in Nepal, with his young American wife and baby. Tulku Sang-Ngak also presided over the consecration pujas for the Vidyadhara's Great Stupa of Dharmakaya in Colorado in August 2001.

When we were finally summoned into the auditorium for the teachings to begin everywhere I looked were familiar faces, old and new alike. Mark and Becky Hazell, now living on Vancouver Island, sat right behind me, and Shambhala Sun editor Melvin McLeod was on my right. The couple on my left had flown up from Ashland, Oregon on the California border early that morning. The auditorium was alive with an electric current of excited anticipation, from the seats closest to the front of the stage to those in the highest balcony above.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche introduced His Holiness, remarking that the Karmapa was like the movie "Groundhog Day" in returning to this world and taking rebirth over and over again (in His Holiness' case for the benefit of all beings). When His Holiness was escorted onto the stage the entire audience rose in thunderous applause and cheered loudly in a true American welcome.

The Karmapa began by stressing that we live in an ever shrinking world and can no longer cling to our belief systems; we need to find harmony and common ground among all religious traditions. "I don't have any personal attachment or clinging to being a Buddhist," he candidly declared, establishing a non-doctrinal view for his ngondro teachings.

Relying on a qualified spiritual teacher who possesses the essential qualities of pure conduct and motivation is the foundation of the path, he stressed. However, it is better for beginners to view the process as a straightforward education rather than trying to find a perfect teacher. One should approach the preliminary practices as building blocks that create a firm foundation for more advanced practices in the same way we learn how to read and write in school.

Taking refuge in the Three Jewels

The motivation for taking refuge is confidence in the sources of refuge, which is of three types: trusting faith, longing faith, and inspired faith. We need to understand and have certainty why we should take refuge in the Three Jewels or it won't benefit our mind.
These three refuges provide us with the basis for perfecting all good qualities on the path.
  • We take refuge in the Buddha as our teacher because humans have sharp intelligence so teachers are very important for us to rely on. Our guru acts as the Buddha.
  • We take refuge in the dharma as our path because humans have a great variety of lifestyles choices so they need a special path to follow. Our own virtuous states of mind act as representatives of the dharma.
  • We take refuge in the sangha because we need friends to be able to follow our path. Our dharma friends act as representatives of the sangha.
However, it is not enough to take refuge in external sources. The genuine motivation for refuge is the resultant or ultimate refuge: taking refuge in our own (potential) achievement of buddhahood.

His Holiness told us how he experienced this inner ultimate refuge during his daring escape from Tibet in December 1999. "When I began my escape from Tibet to India I set out with strong confidence that I would gain freedom and reach India. But as I progressed I developed doubt and uncertainty," he recalled.

"Oftentimes at our most desperate times we pray the most fervently." His Holiness prayed to the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas of the three times to help him. At every mountain pass he chanted and made offerings to the protectors. But the more terrified he felt the more scared the gurus, yidams, and dakinis became. And as His Holiness developed greater certainty and confidence the gurus, yidams, and dakinis he prayed to did also.

"I learned to supplicate the Three Roots not as external but as manifestations of our own bravery, courage, and inspiration," he said. "There are no Three Roots except for our own inner bravery, courage, and inspiration. We rely on the Three Roots as inspiration and friends to help bolden our own hearts."

Generating bodhicitta and boundless compassion

His Holiness confided that his most intense experience of compassion was as a small boy growing up in a nomad community in eastern Tibet. In the fall hunters killed wild animals, and he became aware of their great suffering and felt deep empathy for the animals. "The root of bodhicitta is Great Compassion. When we cultivate Great Compassion we need to take all sentient beings as our focus," the Karmapa stressed.

Even though Tibetans lived isolated from most of the world and had a limited knowledge of other countries they had boundless compassion for all sentient beings. A Tibetan saying expresses this universal value: Wherever there is space -- a blue sky -- there are sentient beings; wherever there are sentient beings they are worthy of our compassion.

Ironically, in today's world technology and communications have expanded our awareness of the myriad sufferings worldwide, and we are constantly informed by the global media about the latest crises and disasters. Yet we are unable to feel unbearable compassion in our hearts for sentient beings who are suffering. It is not enough to be aware of suffering in the world, the Karmapa stressed. We need to have unbearable compassion towards beings who suffer and want to free them, to share their suffering and take it upon ourselves. To develop compassion we need to take that fear and suffering and make it meaningful in our daily lives.

"Compassion is not just about feeling suffering. Compassion is the willingness to never abandon sentient beings, to hold them dear, to cherish them," His Holiness stressed. "Cherishing and loving sentient beings is really the root of compassion. The basic love and cherishing we have will naturally cultivate compassion towards them. We need to cultivate this compassion in our hearts on a daily basis."

We should use our creativity and imagination and our senses to cultivate compassion and extend it to all sentient beings, His Holiness said. "We should try and free our compassion so that it can travel beyond our own bodies and seep throughout the environment. If we use our imagination in this way then our compassion can help beings."

For example, when the wind blows we can imagine that our compassion is spreading throughout space to benefit beings and enter their hearts. We can also imagine that our compassion is flowing out on the clouds towards sentient beings.

If we train ourselves in this way there will come a time when our compassion is natural and benefits beings. This is what happened to Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, His Holiness explained.

Vajrasattva and visualization

Meditating on Vajrasattva and reciting his mantra is the method for purifying negativities
and infractions in our practice. Visualization is just bringing an image to our minds. After seeing all of the illusions created by the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, His Holiness surmised that Americans are better at visualizing than Tibetans. "I saw all the illusions created on the Indiana Jones ride and realized that it was so complicated it would give me a headache to visualize," he said.

The seed of visualization practice is to contemplate that all phenomena and the deities we visualize are of the nature of emptiness. For most people, visualizing a deity in front of us is easier than visualizing oneself as a deity because our attachment to our own body, speech, and mind is much stronger than our attachment to outer phenomena, His Holiness said. Because we fear losing ourselves we have difficulty letting go of our own identity to visualize ourselves as a deity and develop the deity's pride. "This strong self-clinging acts as an obstacle," he cautioned.

Mandala offering

The real mandala offering is immense--we are offering the entire world to the gurus and buddhas. Puja means "to bring joy." The most joyful offering we can make to the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and gurus is the entire world and sentient beings transformed in their purest form free from all negativities and disharmony. We imagine that we clear away all the problems of the world, transform it, and offer the whole environment and sentient beings in their purest form to the buddhas and bodhisattvas. We have to have great hope for the world and in our ability to transform it into a pure and joyful place.

Guru Yoga

We need to go through the proper stages of finding an authentic guru. It's important that devotion not come too soon. But once we have accepted our guru as authentic we should rely on him or her as being fully enlightened and have unchanging devotion toward them. We should not trust our confused perceptions of our guru's faults, which are usually our own projections. The faults and shortcomings of the guru are the guru's business, not the student's. We need to focus on our guru's positive qualities and take them into our mindstream.

Accumulating Merit for the World

While we waited for the all sangha audience to begin Saturday evening the giant video screens in the Paramount Theatre beamed a slide show of scenes of His Holiness' visit to the U.S. "Those are my kids! That's the Milarepa's Children Chorus," Rochelle Weithorn, the chorus director exclaimed excitedly as slides of the children singing Milarepa songs for a delighted Karmapa in New York danced repeatedly across the monitors above us. Rochelle was so inspired after seeing the Karmapa in New York that she decided to fly out to Seattle for his West Coast teachings where she filled numerous security shifts during the four-day visit.

Rochelle related how she had asked Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche for his blessing to form the children's chorus under his auspices and perform the English translations of Milarepa's songs which his translators had put to music. The Tibetan children in the chorus love singing Milarepa songs and take pride in one of Tibet's yogic heroes and national treasures, she said.

Finally His Holiness arrived and began his teaching to the West Coast sanghas with an unusual welcome and greeting to the western branch of his Kagyu lineage family. "The greatest joy we could ever experience is to meet with a loved one again after he has died. Therefore on behalf of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa it is good to see you again."

"My mere presence in this world is to help you find love and encouragement. We should not waste these opportunities to meet again but make them meaningful so that the connection of love and affection will be nourished and sustained," he stressed.

The Karmapa addressed four pre-selected questions. The first question was
what are the most important dharma practices and teachings for this age in which we are living?

His Holiness stressed that our world is in such peril today that we need to focus on practices that will benefit the entire world. The old approach of seeking enlightenment as solitary yogis meditating in secluded mountain caves is no longer applicable in today's modern world. "The motivation of personal liberation is no longer sufficient. We need to have practitioners who are also working to try and help the world," the Karmapa said. "We need to go beyond our limited realm of Buddhist practice and not cling to being Buddhists. We need to step outside the boundaries of Buddhism and really go out and share the benefits of our Buddhist practice with the rest of the world."

While technology has given human beings the power to make great changes in the world we have not been mindful of the destruction we have wreaked upon our planet. This mindless abuse of technological power has brought our world to the brink of ecological collapse. "We are too late for many of the dharma practices. But if we engage in practices to accumulate merit it will provide tangible benefit for the world," the Karmapa assured us.

His Holiness was next asked what are the most serious obstacles western dharma practitioners face. His answer was unequivocal: distractions are a great obstacle for us.
"We practice meditation to protect our minds from distraction," the Karmapa stressed. We often get distracted by possessions and other external objects. The extent to which practitioners are influenced by distractions and how well we are able to protect our minds from them depends on each individual. However, if we are mindful of distractions we can keep them from becoming obstacles. His Holiness said he would pray that we don't have obstacles, and if obstacles arise for us he will help take them on himself.

A third question concerned the relationship between study and practice. We engage in study to develop our intelligence but study is connected to the brain, not our hearts or minds. After we have studied the dharma we practice meditation to try to create a genuine shift in our hearts. Through our practice we should pacify the impure aspects of our minds on a daily basis while increasing our positive qualities. If we fail to do this we are only studying the dharma and not practicing it, His Holiness stressed.

To practice genuine compassion our minds and hearts have to be completely engaged and take on the shape of compassion itself. If we leave it at a mere understanding we are not actually practicing genuine compassion, he said.

Finally, the Karmapa was asked how western lay practitioners can best establish meditation practice in our busy lives with limited time for formal practice. His Holiness responded that it is very important for us to have strong continuity in our practice. We need to have a firm resolve of what we want to accomplish and refresh this resolve every day. In this way we can progress on the path. We need to have this continual resolve and strong intention so we can make our body, speech, and mind the servant of our practice.

We need to have mindfulness as a support, either internally or by using external objects as reminders. In the same way that we take breaks from working on computers to rest our eyes we should take care of our minds by refreshing these reminders of mindfulness and check in on ourselves periodically throughout the day.

His Holiness' final advice was to become our own teachers and cultivate instructions for ourselves by listening to what is happening in our own lives. We are not lacking instructions from our teachers but from ourselves. His Holiness advised us to do as he himself did when he came to India after escaping from Tibet: we should rest our minds and relax, and wait and see what is the best course to pursue.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Tale of Two Chiefs




His Holiness Karmapa teaching at

Paramount Theatre in Seattle,

May 31, 2008. Photographer:

James Gritz. Copyright 2008

by Karmapa Foundation.



"I aspire that I become a part of you, and whatever I am becomes a part of benefiting others and the world. I don't fear losing myself anymore. I want whatever is a part of me to be a part of everyone else. My body will return to India, but my mind will stay with you. My parting aspiration for you is that you will receive a part of me and know that we will never be apart."
-- Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje, the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa
June 1, 2008 Seattle, Washington


The only known photograph of Chief Seattle, taken in the 1860s.


One hundred and fifty years after Chief Seattle implored the white conquerors of his Suquamish people and homeland to honor the sacred connection between all living beings a young Tibetan dharma chief came to this emerald city to proclaim his Aspiration for the World in the 21st century.

It was altogether fitting and auspicious that the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje's first visit to the West which began a continent away amidst the skyscrapers of Manhattan concluded in the Puget Sound city that bears Chief Seattle's name.

It is a watery land infused with dralas and buddhadharma, surrounded by spectacular snow-capped volcanoes, the rugged Cascades, and the stunning Olympic mountains on the edge of the vast Pacific. An ecosystem graced by temperate rainforests of old-growth Douglas fir and cedar, orcas and salmon cavorting in the ocean and rivers, eagles and osprey soaring through the heavens. A landscape that inspires vast vision and profound reverence for the natural world. Gateway to the Pacific Northwest, and birthplace of Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks Coffee, and Jimi Hendrix.


Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at Nalanda West in Seattle, June 1, 2008. Photographer: James Gritz. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.


Seattle is home to the oldest Sakya center in North America and headquarters of Nalandabodhi, the international Buddhist organization directed by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Karma Kagyu heart son and principal organizer of the Karmapa's U.S. visit. In the past year Seattle has also become a respite for the ailing maha yogi Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Ponlop Rinpoche's guru and beloved teacher of thousands of Kagyu practitioners worldwide.

With their ecological consciousness and vigorous lifestyle Seattle residents were a natural audience for His Holiness' imperative of environmental preservation which he proclaimed half a world away at the 25th Kagyu Monlam prayer festival in Bodhgaya in December: "We will not give up on the Earth! May there be peace on Earth! May the Earth be sustained for many thousands of years!"

Indeed the Karmapa's words echoed Chief Seattle's warning: "The Earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons of the Earth. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family."

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Ning-Su Ong and I flew up to Seattle from Oakland, California on Wednesday May 28 for a meeting that evening for everyone working security for the Karmapa's visit. Nalanda West was in a flurry of activity to prepare for His Holiness' arrival the next day.

As soon as we walked in the front door we encountered many old dharma friends and veterans of the 16th Karma's three visits to the West half a lifetime ago assuming their posts after a 28-year hiatus. Juanita Evans, Walker Blaine, Susan Drommond, Eric Salter, John Fox and many others were immersed in preparations for hospitality and service.

Upstairs the shrineroom was already set up for the tea and rice ceremony to greet His Holiness and his party the next afternoon. Snooping at the guest cards my heart leapt when I saw a seat reserved for Khenpo Rinpoche in the front row directly before the throne just in case he decided to come (which he didn't). I had visited Khenpo Rinpoche in Seattle in late January, having the good fortune of one of his last interviews before retreating back into seclusion because of his health. There was also a front row seat reserved for the action film actor Steven Seagal, allegedly an incarnate lama (another no show).

Loyal kasung, many with graying locks or receding hairlines, assembled in the shrineroom for the security meeting, dutifully signing up for overnight shifts to protect His Holiness while he slept. Jack Elias, John Harding, Jesse Miller, Alan Alioto, and Bob Salskov were conscripted into service as lieutenants under the command of Will Quan, a martial arts expert and Seattle Shambhala Center member. The only mental sign of our aging force was some muddled confusion over how best to distribute the security badges.

The younger generation of practitioners enthusiastically stepped forth into leadership posts, too: Jeannette Miller, a Bay Area transplant to Seattle, assumed the mantle of head of security for His Holiness' teachings at the Paramount Theatre with her able lieutenants Rianne Reichner and Greg LeClair.

Consummate kusung Bob Salskov was in charge of security for the inner mandala of His Holiness' residence. After the meeting he led his volunteer conscripts up the backstairs behind the shrineroom to show us the guard posts outside the newly-built apartment for His Holiness. The pungent smell of fresh paint permeated the air. Like the paint, my memories were still fresh of riding up to the 1979 Kalapa Assembly in Big Sky, Montana with Bob and Samten Nagarajian and spending the night in Jackson Hole, Wyoming when the ball bearings on his car broke.

His Holiness Karmapa's welcoming ceremony in Seattle, May 29, 2008. Photographer: James Gritz. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.



In an alcove above the shrineroom Margaret and Jim Drescher, household managers for His Holiness' visit, were sorting through boxes like church mice in an attic. Seeing the Dreschers working together again on a new Karmapa's visit -- this time as grandparents -- stirred the storehouse of my memory again. We had served together at a reception for the 16th Karmapa at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco in November 1976 the night he arrived for his second tour of North America. Jim was head of service for His Holiness' entire visit, an auspicious beginning for his and Margaret's life together.

My most vivid memory of that evening was His Holiness' hearty laugh and broad smile when a reporter at the press conference asked him if he could make it rain and bring an end to California's drought like he did at the Hopi Reservation during his first visit in 1974.

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The next afternoon Jesse Miller stationed me on the middle landing of the stairway leading up to the shrineroom as a procession of invited guests arrived for the tea and rice ceremony. I was getting vertigo watching the guests trudge up and down the stairs awaiting His Holiness' arrival. The ever present Peter Volz escorted VIPs up the stairs and to their seats, handing them plastic bags for their shoes. Outside the shrineroom several Nalanda West members fervently attended to a crucial last minute errand for Ponlop Rinpoche. As they bolted down the stairs I heard the ominous word "Starbucks."


Two monks play Tibetan instruments at the welcoming ceremony in Seattle, May 29, 2008. Photographer: James Gritz. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.


Suddenly the sound of Tibetan horns echoed up from the street, and I rushed to the window with the crowd to catch our first glimpse of the 17th Karmapa. Several Nalandabodhi leaders were overcome by emotion that His Holiness was finally arriving at their center after so many long months of organizing his visit.

Unfortunately Jesse Miller came up the stairs in time to catch me derelict in my duty. "You left your post! Don't leave your post!" he chided me, shaking his head as I slunk guiltily back down to the landing below. But when His Holiness entered the shrineroom from a back staircase Jesse waved me off my post in resignation and motioned me to stand outside the shrineroom next to Ning-Su where I could see. When I looked back Jesse was dutifully standing at my post true to his Shambhala name, Great Eastern Yak.

We recited the refuge, bodhicitta, mandala offering and other chants as a fleet of servers moved deftly down the aisles offering saffron rice with currants and Tibetan tea to the guests. Jacek, a good-humored Polish disciple of Khenpo Rinpoche who was cooking for His Holiness, stood at the shrineroom door wearing a white chef's uniform. Jim Gritz, the official visit photographer, moved deftly around the overflowing shrineroom snapping photos while documentary filmmaker Mark Elliot artfully wielded his video camera.

His Holiness Karmapa contemplates his first sip of Starbucks coffee at the welcoming ceremony in Seattle, May 29, 2008. Photographer: Gregg Rock. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.


Suddenly two young women barristas wearing green Starbucks' aprons marched down the shrineroom aisles up to the throne and presented the Karmapa with a mug of freshly-brewed Starbucks coffee,* a welcoming drink to Seattle from Ponlop Rinpoche. His Holiness gingerly took his first ever sip of coffee, screwed up his face, and pronounced it "strong."

To repay his host the Karmapa told the overflowing shrineroom of devotees and dignitaries a few tales about Ponlop Rinpoche's predecessor who he described as a very large man. One day the previous Ponlop Rinpoche lost his favorite spoon which he used for eating tsampa. After searching everywhere the missing spoon was finally discovered tucked away securely in one of his ripples of fat.

His Holiness also animatedly recounted his trip to Disneyland earlier in the week where he went on the Indiana Jones ride and caught a bad cold after being doused with water. He apologized for being under the weather and cutting short his welcoming remarks.

Out in the foyer I offered cups of Tibetan tea to two of the thirsty State Department Security officers assigned to His Holiness during his U.S. visit. They asked if it had salt; when I answered yes they grimaced and rejected my offering, having had their fill, no doubt, after nearly two weeks of guarding the Karmapa.

When the welcoming ceremony was over and we finally cleared all the guests and dishes from the shrineroom and foyer John Harding assigned Ning-Su and I to the guard posts at the front of the shrineroom for the next event, an audience with western teachers.

His Holiness was introduced to 36 teachers, predominantly from Nalandabodhi and Nitartha Institute, lamas from Kalu Rinpoche's centers, and Khenpo Rinpoche's preeminent translators Karl Brunnholz, Elizabeth Callahan, and Ari Goldfield.

The Karmapa stressed the importance of belonging to an authentic unbroken lineage and teaching from a genuine transmission rather than an eclectic approach. He observed that western Buddhists tend to regard all dharma teachings equally, failing to recognize that some teachings are more important than others and should be given greater priority.

Nalanda West, Seattle, May 29, 2008. Photographer: James Gritz. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.



Paul and Jenny Warwick had driven down from Bellingham for the audience, and afterwards we went out to dinner at a nearby sushi restaurant. Their car was stuffed with sleeping bags and tents because the Warwick clan, including Jenny's sister from Wisconsin, was converging on Seattle for the Karmapa's teachings and planned to camp out in Jenny's cousin's backyard.

It was the first time that Ning-Su and the Warwicks had seen each other since leaving their three-year retreat at Gampo Abbey in August. They had plenty to catch up on since Ning-Su had recently returned from a pilgrimage to sacred Buddhist sites in India and China, including Bodhgaya, Tso Pema, and Wu T'ai Shan mountain.

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Friday morning I arrived for my 7:30 security shift just as His Holiness and his party were preparing to depart for his eye doctor appointment followed by sightseeing in Seattle. The drivers and attendants were buzzing around outside with earphones and short-wave radio communications. Jim Gritz and Mark Elliot were poised with cameras ready to record the Karmapa's departure from Nalanda West.

Gregg Conlee, now living on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, rushed around packing provisions for the day's outing, stepping back into the familiar role of attendant and front man that he had performed in his youth for the 16th Karmapa. Once again vivid memories drifted back of Gregg and Ludwig Turzanski gleefully holding tall water glasses filled with scotch in a Boulder backyard in winter 1977 as pungent juniper smoke billowed from a Gesar of Ling lhasang the Karmapa performed for the sangha's prosperity at the end of his visit (the tsok torma was probably 90% scotch). "His Holiness gave this to us and told us to drink it," they grinned.

After His Holiness drove off in the limousine Mark expressed a filmmaker's satisfaction about getting a nice artistic shot of the 17th Karmapa through the tinted car window. Mark was shooting a documentary of His Holiness' historic first visit to the U.S., just as he had directed the celebrated "Lion's Roar" documentary about the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. Mark was also one of the chief people responsible for building the 16th Karmapa's stupa in Crestone, Colorado. Although the 17th Karmapa has been eager to see Crestone and his predecessor's stupa his two-day visit to Colorado was too brief to squeeze in a trip down to the remote San Luis Valley this year.

Mark was clearly exhausted, having flown to New York to film the Karmapa's arrival in the West from Nepal where he had just spent four months shooting a documentary about Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and his tulku who will be enthroned at Shechen monastery this fall. After weathering the frenetic New York scene Mark recruited his son to serve as his right hand man in documenting His Holiness' visit in Boulder. The young man provided the assistance and support his father badly needed. "It was a father's dream," Mark said proudly.

While His Holiness and his party visited Seattle's signature Space Needle and enjoyed a ferry ride around Puget Sound the visit staff at Nalanda West prepared for two large audiences when he returned. The audiences for Nalandabodhi members and the Tibetan community turned out to be the most devotional events during the Karmapa's Seattle visit.

Once again John Harding stationed me and Ning-Su in the front of the shrineroom for the Nalandabodhi audience. Jesse Miller came over and instructed me to look at the audience and not His Holiness, and not to recite the chants and songs (I kept an eye on Jesse during the audience to make sure he didn't see me chanting). This time I had the best post stationed right next to Ponlop Rinpoche who entertained me with his humorous gestures and funny faces.

The shrineroom was overflowing as Nalandabodhi members and other devoted Kagyu students from all over North America gave His Holiness a rousing Karma Kagyu welcome to Seattle singing Milarepa's Song of Meaningful Connections. It was truly a family affair as Nalandabodhi translator Tyler Dewar joyfully carried his two-year-old daughter into the shrineroom.

Many of these people had devoted months of their lives to organizing the visit. Now the Karmapa was actually sitting on the throne right before them in their own shrineroom, the culmination of all their hard work. Sitting next to Ponlop Rinpoche I was overcome with gratitude and appreciation for his compassion and skillful means that had broken through the Indian bureaucracy's recalcitrance to finally grant His Holiness permission to visit the West.

His Holiness expressed his gratitude for Nalandabodhi's hospitality and remarked that they had built him a nicer apartment for his short visit to Seattle than his residence at Gyuto monastery in Dharamsala, India.

The Karmapa spoke of genuine devotion and noted that while Ponlop Rinpoche may not look like Vajradhara -- lacking blue skin and the marks of a Buddha, and barefoot to boot -- he nonetheless is an authentic guru. At this remark Ponlop Rinpoche impishly wiggled his feet as the shrineroom erupted in laughter.

Addressing a gnawing concern on everyone's mind the Karmapa said he's convinced that Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche is in complete control of his body and can get well and be restored to good health if he is supplicated to do so. His Holiness said he is supplicating Khenpo Rinpoche to get well and urged all of us to do the same.

He said he couldn't speak for the West but patriarchy continues to be a problem in the East and must be abolished.

Tackling another hot topic the Karmapa spoke of how Asian countries have misinterpreted the Buddha's teachings to sanction patriarchy and oppression of women. He said he couldn't speak for the West but patriarchy continues to be a problem in the East and must be abolished. This was a truly remarkable breakthrough that left many of the audience stunned by His Holiness' frankness in denouncing a controversial subject which other Buddhist teachers have skirted for years.


His Holiness Karmapa teaching at Paramount Theatre in Seattle, May 31, 2008. Photographer: James Gritz. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.

His Holiness' overt feminism marked a clear demarcation from his predecessor's generation and signaled an egalitarian vision bringing ancient Buddhist wisdom in line with contemporary social values. When the 16th Karmapa visited the West women were prohibited from serving him or even wearing pants in his presence. The sight of the two young barristas serving His Holiness a mug of Starbucks coffee during the welcoming ceremony in Seattle underscored this generational shift.

Nalandabodhi officers presented carefully selected gifts to the Karmapa: an Air Mac laptop computer, music software in honor of Seattle's music culture, a bronze and copper eagle symbolizing the U.S., and the keys to his Nalandabodhi apartment as an open invitation to return.

The audience concluded with Tyler and several other musicians leading the assembly in singing their musical composition of Karmapa's exquisite Aspiration for the World.
When the song was over there probably wasn't a dry eye in the shrineroom.

Afterwards during our de-briefing I noticed a Seattle policewoman talking with Jesse Miller in the foyer. When we went outside I saw why she was there. Some 500 Tibetans of all ages were lined up the length of an entire city block on the street in front of Nalanda West waiting patiently for their audience with His Holiness. Seattle police officers confined the large but peaceful crowd to the sidewalk, and patrol cars blocked off the entrance to the street.

It was truly an inspiring sight to behold. So many Tibetans had arrived to receive His Holiness' blessings that he had to give two separate audiences to accommodate the crowd.

My heart and mind broke wide open as His Holiness' wisdom and compassion perforated through my thick skull and self-clinging. It seemed the Buddha himself had returned to our world realm.

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*On its website, Seattle-based Starbucks Coffee Company boasts of being "the leading retailer, roaster and brand of specialty coffee in the world."