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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.

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