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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.

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