Asia Sentinel: An Interview with the Karmapa Lama

(Photo: Tashi Paljor/OHHGK) 

by Saransh Sehgal, Asia Sentinel, 31 August 2010

Dharamsala, India -- Many in Dharamsala, India, the home of Tibetan Buddhism in exile, believe the 17th Karmapa Lama, whose name is Ogyen Trinley Dorje, represents the future of Tibetan politics in exile as well.

Tibet's young lama seeks a role for Buddhism in environmentalism

He is extremely popular among young Tibetans, partly because of his 1999 escape from Chinese hands, but also because he possesses rare charisma. The Karmapa passes much of his time in the protected top floor of Gyuto Monastery near Dharamsala, guarded by Indian policemen and intelligence officers who keep a constant watch on his activities. He has busied himself by becoming increasingly knowledgeable about environmentalism.

The Indian government, virtually since the Karmapa Lama arrived in Dharamsala, has been careful to not annoy the Chinese by allowing him unfettered movement, although he was allowed to visit the US in 2008. Revered as the third-highest spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism, the Karmapa escaped from Tibet and enraging the Chinese, who thought they were grooming him to be their docile face of the Tibetan religion.

Last year he established an environmental protection group - the Khoryug (Environment in the Tibetan language), a network of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries which have jointly made the commitment to help protect the Himalayan region from environmental degradation. The participating Kagyu Buddhist monasteries are carrying out environmental projects under his leadership from India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Calling it Eco-Buddhism - Pure Aspiration, Bodhisattva Activity and a Safe-Climate Future, the 25-year-old Tibetan monk's efforts are regarded as a Buddhist response to global warming. Tibet is the third-largest store of ice on Earth -- nicknamed the "third pole," and it is an endangered one The Himalayan region's glaciers are the source of drinking water for much of Asia. He is reaching out to his followers to seek to revive the ecological consciousness of the Tibetan people.

"In order to save the Himalayas and Tibet from the threats of deforestation, climate change, and pollution, we have to be full of courage and believe whole heartedly that this endeavor is winnable" he says. "The alternative is unthinkable".

The Karmapa Lama sat down in late July at his temporal residence in Dharamsala to talk about his life, activities, recent restrictions imposed, and his need to travel overseas. Excerpts from the interview follow.
Saransh Sehgal: There has been great interest in your study of environmentalism, psychology and foreign languages. Is it because the restrictions on your overseas travel prompted you to spend energy on these subjects? What relations do you see between Buddhism and these subjects?

The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa: Generally, there are many people using different languages and studying different languages is to overcome the lack of language skill and have clear communication when interacting with some of those people who come here; it is sad when misunderstandings remain with those people who come here from faraway places.

Therefore, I put my best efforts into having, at the least, formal conversations with them. Studying modern psychology and Tibetan Buddhism, with ancient and modern going hand in hand, is to deepen and brighten my knowledge. In the case of environmentalism, the environment has become an important issue and therefore it is important to understand it. I do all this voluntarily to fulfill my personal and social responsibilities of leading a society. It is not at all a new topic I had begun because of overseas travels.

Q: You have been handling an environment protection group. What has the group actually done- what are the findings?

A: This environmental protection group we have here deals with basic issues such as raising environmental awareness, discussing environmental issues, finding and propagating the means and methods to protect the environment, waste management, cleaning the environment, the use of solar power for conservation of energy and planting trees. Generally speaking, we are able to raise new environmental awareness amongst our Tibetan community. What we have been doing deals with very basic issues; we have not yet reached a very high standard concerning protection of the environment.

Q: Will you try to help Tibet and China tackle pollution problems?

A: Our hope and request, which I think is important, is to consider environmental issues such as disruption to the natural flow of rivers, harm to river ecosystems, shortages of water and floods in numerous localities caused by construction of hydro-electric dams on the rivers of Tibet. The two nations, India and China, the most populous in the world, are facing the problems of water shortage and floods. This is becoming a very big issue.

It is not at all appropriate to treat the issues on which the very existence of humanity depends as political issues. As environmental issues should not be political issue, I urge everyone to deal with them sincerely and responsibly for the sake of humanity.

Q: Recently you have been denied permission to travel to the west where your teachings are being requested by your dharma centers and followers. Can you explain how this affects you personally and what would you say to those devoted to you who are feeling very disappointed due to your political restrictions?

A: In a recent development, I was to visit Europe and then the United States. There are people who have been waiting for this to happen for 20 years. But when it didn't happen, it broke their heart. Therefore, I both directly and indirectly tried to comfort them; with spiritual means I tried to bring peace and stability to their minds and expressed to them my hope for a visit to happen in the very near future. It appears that they are still harboring huge hopes.

Q: Were you given any particular reason for your trips to the west being canceled? If not - Is there a sense of frustration in you since most of your tours, well prepared by your followers, are being cancelled at the last minute without any reasons given by the Indian government?

A: I think you can ask government officers or other authorities about this. Maybe it's because the time allotted for the European trip is quite long; one month. Maybe this is a reason. This is a small reason, but perhaps for the main reason it would be best for you to ask them.

Q: Is it due to pressure from Beijing?

A: I don't know. The one reason we were given is that it is not possible. For details you should ask the concerned government authorities.

Q: Since your tour of Europe was refused in April, there has been a petition and campaign developed by some of your students in America to bring attention to your situation. How do you feel about your students taking an active role in bringing more awareness of your situation to the public?

A: As far as I understand, unlike we easterners, the westerners are strong-willed and have high hopes and expectations; with these characteristics they have undertaken such activities. Concerning the facts behind the cancellation, we have officially produced documents of clarification. Without clear knowledge of the situation and reasons given, and upon seeing me forbidden to make the trips, most of the westerners appear to have become worried.

Q: Can you explain why it is necessary for you to travel and teach the message of Buddhism and environmental studies to other centers outside India and Tibet?

A: Amongst the Tibetan Buddhist masters, the Sixteenth Karmapa was probably the first senior Tibetan master to visit western countries and establish dharma centers. He also sent disciples to establish dharma centers. He was the first to establish dharma centers propagating the Secret Vajrayana Vehicle in western countries. As the Sixteenth Karmapa visited western countries many times for the purpose of propagating the teaching, it is my responsibility to follow the path, and as the number of such dharma centers is much more than before, the need for making visits grows.

Dharma centers are not the only ones inviting me; there are universities, societies working in the field of Tibetan culture and religion, groups promoting interfaith dialogue, and organizations advocating protection of the environment who have also invited me. Being looked upon as a leader of a society, I intend to use these invitations as a platform for the expression of my views and for reminding people of the importance of issues such as environmental protection.

In Tibet, in the past, we did not have the necessary conditions for making trips to faraway places such as the west, but the lineage of Karmapa with its long history of around 900 years have been following a rule of performing activities by visiting various places in Tibet; not staying in a monastery but always in constant movement with tents as accommodation.

This manner of performing activities is a unique characteristic of the successive reincarnation of Karmapas. Not living in a specific place, but rather moving about everywhere and having face to face communication with disciples, has become a rule followed by Karmapas.

Q: Would you play a role in finding the real successor of next Dalai Lama?

A: According to the tradition Dalai Lamas and Panchen Renpoches choose each other's successor; if a Dalai Lama has passed away whilst a Panchen Renpoche is alive, the latter will choose the reincarnation of the former, and if a Panchen Renpoche passes away whilst a Dalai Lama is alive, the Dalai Lama will choose reincarnation of the late Panchen Renpoche. This is the way the process of choosing reincarnations works.

Q: What would you like to comment about the growing influence of China's picked Panchen Lama, Gyaincain Norbu?

A: I met him on many occasions when he was very young. After his maturity, I saw some videos of him; he is calm and humble. Quite recently, I saw a newspaper reporting His Holiness the Present Dalai Lama's hopes of him. For us, he is someone born as a Tibetan given the title of Panchen Renpoche by the Chinese government, and it is my hope that he will use the advantages he has to bring changes inside Tibet.

Q: What direction do you see the dharma taking in the 21st century? As spiritual teachings and holy texts are said to be 'Living Words,' do you see Buddhist teachings growing and evolving?

A: In my opinion, in the 21st century mental peace has become a necessity; it is pursued even more strongly than before. It appears that everyone of this century is aspiring for inner peace much more strongly than before; it is not a matter of different religious beliefs. Being very profound and extensive in the practices related to the mind, Buddhism is full of skills to bring about mental happiness.

However, being a religion, for some individuals it is bit hard for some individuals to derive benefits from Buddhism. On one hand, one can follow Buddhism sincerely as a dedicated devotee, and on the other hand, in the 21st century, I think it is important to bring about a change to Buddhism and turn it into a social education, and not just remain as a religion, so that even non-Buddhists can study Buddhist teachings on bringing about mental peace and the practice of compassion.

I think it is important not to impose restrictions for them in doing so. For example, as a religious matter, in ancient times yoga was kept secret, as something that not everybody could practice. But now it has become open and accessible as a method to bring about physical health. Some of the skills that we Buddhists have, such as finding inner peace, and developing love and compassion, can be taken as general education.

Q: The Dalai Lama has been in exile for more than 50 years, and we now see much less hope in seeing him return to Tibet. What about you? Do you see any hope for you to end your exile life?

A: As His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, and I believe, truth will always prevail. It is the hope of, we, Tibetans to see His Holiness return to Tibet and for the nation to enjoy peace and happiness. If His Holiness is unable to return to Tibet after the nation gains some sort of independence, Tibetans will face a day of both happiness and sadness, and it will be a half fulfillment of our hopes. I have great hopes that His Holiness will return to Tibet, and being of young age I have a hope that I will be able to return to Tibet. Even if I have to wait for 50 more years, I will wait.

Q: What advice would you give to young Buddhist practitioners who are concerned about the impact of recent environmental disasters?

A: The distance between humans and the environment is becoming wider and wider and likewise, we are bringing more and more harm to the environment by using it indiscriminately. Actually, before using the environment, we should think; it is very important to think of the consequences of indiscriminate destruction of the environment. Lack of mindfulness is creating a lot of problems.

Therefore, it is very important to be mindful of what we are using now and from where those resources come from. For example, sweet cheeps of birds and lush green forests are beauties; they are not something that we have created; rather those are naturally created beauties. However, if we cut down forests and harm animals, we are depriving ourselves of the natural beauties we enjoy; it is as if we are destroying the very sounds, smells and good tastes that we enjoy. Therefore, it is very important to be mindful.




August 26, 2010 - Kolkata

His Holiness Gyalwang Karmapa arrived at the Indian city of Kolkata on Thursday to pay tribute to Mother Teresa on her birth centenary.
His Holiness visited the Mother House in the afternoon where Sister Prema, the Superior General, Head of the Missionaries of Charity, received him. His Holiness offered a floral tribute at the place where Mother Teresa was laid to rest.
Later in the evening, His Holiness inaugurated a photo exhibition entitled "Spirit of Peace". The Exhibition has contributions from 11 international and 4 national photographers. The Karmapa was the chief guest of the Mother's birth centenary celebrations, organized by the Young Men's Welfare Society.
His Holiness has arrived back to Dharamsala on the 29th of August, completing his visit to Kolkata.



August 21, 2010 - Dharamsala

His Holiness Gyalwang Karmapa led a special prayer at Tsuklag Khang temple in Mcleodgunj.
Hundreds of devotees including Tibetan Government officials, monks, nuns, and lay followers came to pay their respects and express their condolences and sympathy towards the victims and families of those affected by the natural calamity in the Drug Chu Zong area of Tibet. The calamity occurred on the 8th of August, 2010.
The prayer lasted two hours. All the attendees made deep prayers and were touched by the presence of His Holiness who was leading the prayer.




August 11, 2010

On the 11th of August 2010, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa visited TIPA (Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts) Dharamshal as a Chief Guest on the occasion of the 51st Yarkyid (Summer Festival) and celebration of its establishment. The celebration was opened by His Holiness by lighting a lamp in front of a glowing Buddha Statue, which was also a symbol of respect to those who had died in the tragic natural calamities in Tibet, Ladakh and other parts of the world.
His Holiness presented the award cups to the winner and the runners up, and other special prizes to the artists, and he blessed the gathering with the opening of a new book about TIPA’s historical records.
Judging the admirable presentation given by two troupes during the celebration, His Holiness expressed appreciation to the artists and concerned staff members for their tireless service and dedication. He further encouraged them to continue their good service in preserving Tibet’s unique culture and tradition, the combination of modern arts and the world of music.
The celebration was also graced by the presence of other dignitaries and officials of the Tibetan Government in Exile and many officials from different organizations and associations.




August 10, 2010

On the 10th of August 2010, His Holiness The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje called for a special prayer and ritual performance of Buddha Akshyobhiya. In His presence at Gyuto Temple, in His private residence Hall, prayers were conducted for the recent tragedy in Ladakh, during which more then hundreds of people had died and many had become homeless.
Two special members from the Karmapa’s Office of Administration have been sent to Ladakh with material gifts of clothes, medicines, and cash contributions to the befallen people in need.
A condolence and sympathetic message by His Holiness was also dispatched with the Office members headed for Ladakh, expressing His sincere prayers and blessings to all concerned.


Buddhadharma: "I Will Do It"

Llundup Damcho reports on the Seventeeth Karmapa’s vow to reinstate full ordination for women in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
The Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa stunned an international audience in Bodhgaya last winter by making an unprecedented declaration of commitment to ordaining women as bhikshunis in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. when there would be bhikshuni ordination in the Tibetan tradition, he leaned forward and said, in English, “I will do it.”
As applause broke out, he cautioned against expecting quick results. “Be patient,” he said. “Be patient.”
This proclamation by Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the Seventeenth Karmapa, was groundbreaking, for it was the first time that a Tibetan Buddhist leader of this stature had publicly committed to personally making bhikshuni ordination available. His declaration came after intensive research into the feasibility of establishing full ordination for women according to the monastic code that regulates Tibetan Buddhism. More broadly, it reflected the Karmapa’s dedication to addressing women’s issues, especially regarding nuns.
At present, women in Tibetan Buddhism may take ordination as novice nuns (Tibetan: getsulmas), but they do not have the opportunity to take the highest level of ordination that the Buddha created for women: bhikshuni, orgelongma, ordination. While full ordination for women is available in Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese traditions, and has recently been reestablished for nuns in the Sri Lanka Theravada tradition, Tibetan Buddhism lags behind in the movement toward providing equal spiritual opportunities to women.
For several decades, the Dalai Lama has consistently spoken out in favor of bhikshuni ordination, but progress toward that goal has been incremental, consisting mainly of conferences and discussions. The Karmapa’s acceptance of a personal role in extending the opportunity of full ordination to women is a decisive step forward on a path that the Dalai Lama first asked Tibetan Buddhists to traverse.
The Karmapa traces his involvement with the bhikshuni issue to the time when he instituted new discipline rules for monastics attending the Kagyu Monlam Chenmo. “We were deciding how to organize the gelongsandgetsuls, and there were some gelongmasfrom the Chinese tradition. Then we needed to think: Where do they sit? How do we make arrangements for them?” Since that time, bhikshunis have been given a prominent place at the annual Kagyu Monlam events in Bodhgaya, with special invitations issued to bhikshunis.
As well, the Karmapa has taken on the task of translating a volume of biographies of Chinese nuns from Chinese into Tibetan. While that project is ongoing, he also has plans to translate a collection of narratives of the lives of Buddha’s direct female disciples from the classical literary language of the Tibetan canon into colloquial Tibetan so the examples of these early nuns’ lives are more accessible to modern Tibetan readers.

Not Just a Women’s Issue

The Karmapa explained during an interview in Sarnath, India, that the ordination issue was not only a concern to women. “It affects the whole teachings,” he said. “There are two types of people who practice the teachings, women and men. There are two types of holders of the teachings, male and female. So what affects women automatically affects the teachings, and impacts the flourishing of the dharma.”
Just before his public statement in Bodhgaya, the Karmapa presided over a five-day Vinaya conference he had convened during the Kagyu Winter Debates. He spoke at length to the gathering of Kagyu khenpos, monks, and nuns about the importance of establishing bhikshuni ordination in Tibetan Buddhism. He pointed out that the Buddha himself offered bhikshuni ordination to women as a means to bring about their liberation from samsara. The need to offer women all the conditions to achieve liberation, he said, is particularly clear from the Mahayana perspective of compassion and sense of responsibility for the well-being of others. Nowadays, he noted, the majority of those seeking teachings in dharma centers outside India and Tibet are women.
The Karmapa went on to explain that bhikshuni ordination was needed to enable the teachings to spread and become fully accessible to everyone. He said the four circles of disciples that the Buddha created— bhikshus, bhikshunis, female holders of lay precepts, and male holders of lay precepts—were like four pillars in a house. And since the bhikshuni order was one of those four pillars, the Tibetan house of Buddha’s teachings was missing an important condition needed to remain stable.
He suggested that although there were procedural issues to be resolved, any obstacles needed to be weighed against the great need to offer bhikshuni ordination to qualified female candidates. As such, he stressed, research into the surrounding issues ought to take place with an appreciation of the need to offer women the opportunity to follow the complete path to liberation that the Buddha created for them.

Grappling With Procedural Issues

Earlier in 2009, the Karmapa summoned khenpos from the major Karma Kagyu monasteries for several months of study and research under Vinaya experts at his residence in Dharamsala, and was directly engaged in exploring the various options for conferring valid full ordination of women. According to the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya followed by Tibetan Buddhism, standard ordination practices stipulate that a sangha of bhikshus as well as a sangha of bhikshunis be present at the ritual ceremony to fully ordain women. Yet a bhikshuni order does not appear to have been brought to Tibet from India. This absence of bhikshunis in Tibetan Buddhism has been a stumbling block for those seeking to establish full ordination for women.
Although it did not result in the formation of a bhikshuni order in Tibet, a number of great Tibetan masters of the past did fully ordain some of their female disciples. Such masters include no less authoritative a figure than the Eighth Karmapa, Je Mikyö Dorje, one of Tibet’s greatest Vinaya scholars. “We rediscovered an old text on rituals in the collected works of Mikyö Dorje,” the Seventeenth Karmapa said. “In that text, Mikyö Dorje said that in Tibet there was no bhikshuni lineage, but that we can give bhikshuni vows using the bhikshu rituals. I thought, ‘Oh! This is news!’ I thought, okay, maybe… This was a sort of small beginning.”
These days, two major options have been considered in Tibetan monastic circles. One is ordination by a bhikshu sangha alone, which would consist of monks from the Tibetan Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition. Another is what is known as “dual sangha ordination,” in which the sangha of Tibetan bhikshus conferring the ordination would be joined by a bhikshuni sangha from a separate Vinaya tradition, the Dharmagupta lineage that has been preserved in Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese Buddhism.
“I do not think there are major obstacles or challenges,” the Karmapa said. “But we do need to develop our views on the matter. There are some old views and old ways of thinking, and people who hold them are not prepared to accept bhikshuni ordination. But I do not think this is a big obstacle. The main need is for some leader to take a step, to move beyond conferences and discussions. What is needed is to take full steps.”
Many Tibetan Buddhists have looked to the Dalai Lama to take the initiative in organizing bhikshuni ordinations. When the Karmapa was asked why he was now willing to accept the responsibility for doing so, he said: “His Holiness the Dalai Lama always takes responsibility. But he has lots of activities and is very busy, so he cannot devote a great deal of his attention to this issue and try to find sources and join every conference himself. He cannot simply focus on this issue. Maybe I have more time, and so more opportunities to find some sources and hold conferences. And I also have some sort of personal interest in it myself.”
The Karmapa articulated his personal connection and commitment at the conclusion of a series of teachings at Tilokpur Nunnery in India in 2007 by stating: “My body is male, but my mind has lots of feminine qualities, so I find myself a little bit both male and female. Although I have high aspirations to be of benefit to all sentient beings, I especially have a commitment to work for the welfare of women and especially of nuns. As long as I have this life, I would like to work one-pointedly and diligently for their cause. I have this responsibility as the head of this school of Buddhism, and from that point of view also, I promise that I will do my very best to see that the nuns’ sangha will progress.”

Llundup Damcho (Dianna Finnegan) was ordained as a getsulma, or novice nun, in 1999. She studied Buddhist philosophy for seven years with Geshe Lhundup Sopa, her preceptor, and produced the English translation of the Sanghata Sutra. In 2009, she received her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, working on Sanskrit and Tibetan narratives about Buddha’s female disciples. She is a student of the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa, and lives in north India in the Dharmadatta Nuns’ Community (www.nunscommunity.net), which was founded by and for Western women and is guided by the Karmapa.



August 7, 2010

I feel deeply saddened to learn of the recent calamity that struck Leh in Ladakh in the early hours of the 6th of August resulting in the loss of many lives and property. I understand the sudden cloudburst triggering raging floods have resulted in the loss of lives of more that 100 people of Leh and surrounding areas and over 400 people have been injured and many more are missing and have been rendered homeless. I have personally visited Leh and other places of Ladakh on two occasions and have been deeply touched by the warmth and hospitality the people of the region extended to me and others with me. I truly feel distressed that the peace loving people and the Buddhist community of this region have had to experience this tragedy.
On this sad occasion I would like to extend to the people of Leh and Ladakh my prayers and condolences to the bereaved families. I would also like to request all my monasteries and organizations to offer prayers and special pujas and extend any future help to the people of Ladakh who have had to suffer this tragedy.
My thoughts and prayer will be with the people of Leh and Ladakh and I pray that the pain arising out of this incident will ease swiftly and they develop the fortitude and strength to shoulder this loss and devastation.
17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje
7th August, 2010




August 6, 2010 - Gyuto

Dagyab Kyabgön Rinpoche met with His Holiness Karmapa at His Holiness' residence in Gyuto. Loden Sherab Dagyab Rinpoche belongs to the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. As "Kyabgön" (Lord Protector) of the Dagyab region in Eastern Tibet he is - like his predecessors since the 17th century - the spiritual and political head of the area. After the traditional study of Buddhist philosophy, Rinpoche graduated from the Drepung monastic college. Later Rinpoche joined the monastic communities of Nyagre Khangtsen of Ganden, and of Ratö Monastery.

The meeting between Dagyab Rinpoche and Gyalwang Karmapa lasted about half an hour. Rinpoche arrived in Dharamsala a week ago.