Last July, several Tricycle editors interviewed Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The 26-year-old Karmapa, who lives in India, was visiting New York during a two-week tour of the United States—a significant trip for him, as his travels are strictly controlled by the Indian government. [Last week, the Indian Police filed criminal charges against the Karmapa for illegal possession of foreign currency, forgery, and conspiracy after police discovered $1 million in cash at the Karmapa's headquarters during a raid in January. The Karmapa's reps say that the money is from followers who had come to pay homage to Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Read more about the charges here.]
We arrived early for the interview, which was held in an immaculately decorated townhouse in the West Village. Inside, the atmosphere was tense. Staff members bustled from room to room urgently whispering to one another. The Karmapa was feeling sick, we were told, but the interview would go on as planned. We were ushered into a grand living room with large sofas where we sat and waited under the watchful eye of his handlers. At last, the Karmapa entered. In contrast to the high-strung nature of the group of staffers sitting in the corner, the Karmapa was calm and steady, he kept complete composure in the midst of the circus that surrounded him. He took his seat across from us and gave us a quick smile. Someone in the corner anxiously called out that we had to begin immediately and the Karmapa rolled his eyes. We began.
During the course of the hour-long interview the Karmapa gave us a sense of his daily life in India and his work as a poet and an artist. He talked about how the role of Karmapa has evolved since the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and we discussed spiritual bypassing, the role of social and environmental activism in Buddhism, and the importance of bringing intelligence and investigation to dharma practice:
Some people may think of spirituality as the practice of having faith in something. Some others may see the dharma as being like a spiritual massage. The way I see the dharma, however, is that intelligence and investigation are even more important than faith. To practice the dharma is to look into the content of one’s life in a very deep way. To do this, one must be able to discern between one’s strengths and one’s shortcomings. This is not possible through faith alone. Some people approach spirituality as a method by which, if their minds are feeling disturbed, it will calm them down. It is seen as a temporary benefit. There is no long-term view of bringing peace to the mind, or freeing the mind from disturbing emotions altogether. So in this way many people look for immediate results, some type of swift path without too many hardships. Since materialism is so prevalent these days, that approach comes into spirituality as well, with people wanting fast results. In this way we become spiritually materialistic. So what I mean by the dharma is living our lives deeply and knowing ourselves. One of the first contemplations that is encouraged when we enter into the dharma is that of the precious human birth—seeing our life as something very valuable. Seeing the value of our lives and of moral conduct, we can give our lives a strong direction. In this way, we become good spiritual practitioners by becoming good human beings. Without being a good human being, it is impossible to become a good spiritual practitioner. This is one of the reasons why we say, “The preliminaries are even more profound than the main practice.” First, one must get to know oneself. Then, having become familiar with oneself, one can live one’s life more deeply. Living one’s life more deeply is the meaning of dharma.
To hear more from His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, watch the full video interview below. To read about the controversy surrounding the naming of the 17th Karmapa, click here.
Q: Good morning, your Holiness. What would a typical day be like for you at home?
There’s nothing to solid about my schedule; it changes quite frequently. Usually, however, I have an English lesson in the morning, which is sometimes followed by private audiences. After lunch, I may give a public audience; that happens about twice a week. Occasionally during downtimes, I will write poems, make artwork, compose songs, and so forth, but not all the time. I also enjoy learning other languages,
Q: You already speak several languages, don’t you?
I wouldn’t say I speak any of them “already”, except for Tibetan. My classical Chinese, which is used in the old texts, is much better than my modern colloquial Chinese. I’m also in the early stages of studying Korean, Hindi, Japanese and Vietnamese.
Q: Your Holiness, so many people in the West are drawn to you. How can a Westerner be your student , and, since you visit so infrequently, how would a Western student sustain their practice while you’re not here?
I always regard myself as a student, so I never have a strong sense that I actually have students. I don’t see myself as someone who has formally taken on the role or position of being a fully qualified “guru”.
I see myself as being in the process of studying, in the process of improving. So since I myself am a student, I don’t feel that I have students in relation to whom I am superior in quality. However I do have friends in the West, and, from a Dharma perspective, there are many people who I offer support to and who support me as well.
Practicing the dharma in our day to day lives is in a way similar to exercise. The oral instructions of the gurus, as well as the scriptures of the Buddha, merely provide a general understanding of what true spiritual practice is. The real details are filled in by our actual life experiences, meeting them face to face. It is important to understand the dharma in this way. In my case, I don’t have many opportunities to spend time with my teachers, so it is up to me to practice the dharma as best I can as much as I can. Sometimes there will be things that we really do not understand and need more clarifications about. But the real practice of dharma is relating to our emotions. Practicing in this way is similar to the need to have regular exercise in our lives.
Q: In the West, there’s a lot of cross-fertilization between the different Buddhist traditions: Zen, Theravada, Tibetan. What do you think Tibetan Buddhism in the West can gain from this exchange?
In terms of the scriptural layout of Tibetan Buddhism, this tradition is very vast. Within this tradition we have the presentations of the “three vehicles”, as well as sutra and tantra. So we find elements of the Theravada tradition within the Tibetan Buddhist presentation of the vehicles of the hearers and solitary realizers. And we can find elements of Chinese Buddhism and the Zen of Japan within the Tibetan Buddhist presentation of the Mahayana. We can also find elements of Japanese Vajrayana within the Tibetan presentation of Vajrayana. So in terms of scriptural structure of the Tibetan Buddhist path, it is very vast. However, when it comes to actually putting the teaching into practice, in Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrayana is emphasized more. So, we don’t practice in exactly the same way the path is laid out scripturally. These days, the world is getting smaller. Spiritual traditions are coming into closer contact with each other, as are the different traditions of Buddhism. I think that this could have the effect of bringing Tibetan Buddhism still further in line with the scriptural presentation of its paths of practice.
Q: When you were teaching at KTD, the translator used the term “bypassing”, which I think was a reference to “spiritual bypassing”, as Chogyam Trungpa used to say. You mentioned this idea that sometimes we students get caught up in the higher teachings and the feeling that if we do the higher teachings that we will embody those teachings. And yet, we are bypassing the very basic teachings and learning that we need to do. Can you say something about that? Do you see that a lot in the West?
I think there are probably some people who practice in this way in the West, but actually this issue isn’t limited by geography. On the one hand, some people may think of spirituality as the practice of having faith in something. Some others may see the dharma as being like a spiritual massage. The way I see the dharma, however, is that intelligence and investigation are even more important than faith. To practice the dharma is to look into the content of one’s life in a very deep way. To do this, one must be able to discern between one’s strengths and one’s shortcomings. This is not possible through faith alone. Some people approach spirituality as a method by which, if their minds are feeling disturbed, it will calm them down. It is seen as a temporary benefit. There is no long-term view of bringing peace to the mind, or freeing the mind from disturbing emotions altogether. So in this way many people look for immediate results, some type of swift path without too many hardships. Since materialism is so prevalent these days, that approach comes into spirituality as well, with people wanting fast results. In this way we become spiritually materialistic. So what I mean by the dharma is living our lives deeply and knowing ourselves. One of the first contemplations that is encouraged when we enter into the dharma is that of the precious human birth—seeing our life as something very valuable. Seeing the value of our lives and of moral conduct, we can give our lives a strong direction. In this way, we become good spiritual practitioners by becoming good human beings. Without being a good human being, it is impossible to become a good spiritual practitioner. This is one of the reasons why we say, “The preliminaries are even more profound than the main practice.” First, one must get to know oneself. Then, having become familiar with oneself, one can live one’s life more deeply. Living one’s life more deeply is the meaning of dharma.
Q: You have been quoted as saying you’d like to spend two month a year here. If you spend more time here, what would you like to focus on?
I haven’t had much time to think about that, since that type of permission seems so far out of reach at the moment.
Q: The Karmapa’s traditional role is to transmit the teachings, but you seem to be called to a sort of wider role. How do you see your role in Tibetan Buddhism today?
In general, 900 years have passed since the birth of the First Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa. From Düsum Khyenpa through the Sixteenth Karmapa, the Karmapas have mainly performed activities connected to the dharma. Their role was as spiritual leaders. However, during the time of the Sixteenth Karmapa the Chinese came to Tibet, and many Tibetans had to part from their homeland. For this reason, Tibetan society was split into two groups: those living in Tibet and those in exile. But both of these groups of Tibetan society need to rely on leaders, in order to protect the spiritual teachings and culture of Tibet. The most powerful and beneficial leaders are the ones who are universally respected and admired. In our case, this type of leadership is embodied by non other than His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This is the case not only within the exile community but within Tibet as well. Through his leadership, Tibetan dharma and culture have been able to survive. In the future as well, when His Holiness is no longer with us, we will also need the presence of strong leadership, both political leadership and general leadership. Of course, we Tibetans haven’t yet had the political success that we have wanted to have, but, on the other hand, most Tibetans do not have an intricate knowledge of politics. Nor are Tibetans very political people. What is very important, therefore, is overall societal leadership. His Holiness has emphasized many times that strong leadership for youth will be very important for Tibet’s future. In my opinion, I’m just one part of those who are ready to provide leadership, not just in a spiritual way, but in a societal way, in terms of serving the people. If I continue in that way, I think that this will be very harmonious with the spiritual role of the Karmapa. The Karmapa’s role is to benefit others in a way that befits the dharma. I don’t see any other role that I could take on. I’m already supposed to be the Karmapa, and the Karmapa is supposed to be someone who accomplishes the activity of all the buddhas. If you look seriously at that responsibility, you can see that it is a very heavy one. So I don’t need any more roles than the one I already have.
Q: On that note of this new generation of Buddhists stepping into roles of leadership, traditionally social activism and environmental activism haven’t been a part of Buddhism. But, especially in the West now, engaged Buddhism is very popular among young practitioners. What role does activism play in Buddhism today and in the future?
I always say that the practice of dharma can’t be something that we just compartmentalize or set off to the side. The true practice of dharma involves bringing about change, change for the positive. Therefore, the dharma must end up affecting both our loves in general and the work that we do. So, for example, if one is a Buddhist business person, then if one’s business activities and one’s dharma practice become separate things, that is what we call “the dharma becoming separate from the person.” If conversely, you allow your business practices to be guided by Buddhist principles, and if you undertake them with a pure motivation, then your work will be dharma practice. The same thing applies to activists. Activists in general want to bring about positive change and make the world a better place. The same goes for environmentalists. Depending on what our individual interests are and what kind of work we do, we can bring Buddhist principles to bear in a way that fits our own specific situation. When we endeavor to benefit others, we shouldn’t just be thinking exclusively about those in our immediate environment. I think that it is also important for us to think about bringing positive change to the larger society in which we live, and to our communities. However, the situation for lay practitioners is different from that of monastics. Ordained practitioners have their own way of engaging, a style that is suitable to them. This falls in line with what His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been saying: that we must separate religion from secular life in order to have a genuine democracy. So the ordained have some specific requirements that apply to them, but apart from that it is fine for them to engage in activism as well.
Q: Your Holiness, you are the first Karmapa, and maybe even the first major Buddhist leader, to come of age in the age of technology. In face, a Newsweek reporter called you “a self-professed Facebook stalker.” How do you use technology? You have warned about it and said that it has both its good sides and its bad sides, and one of the down sides of it is that it increases our fixation on the self. So we wonder how you use technology, how you think we should use it, and how we can counteract this effect of technology in terms of fixating on the self?
It’s kind of funny: since I am in some ways a “traditional lama”, if I use technology a little bit, then some people make a very big deal of that saying, “He uses technology!” If I wear traditional robes and then put a camera around my neck, perhaps people would react the same way: “Look! He is using a camera!” It seems that the clothes I wear make the fact that I use technology a big deal, whereas if ordinary people did the same thing, it wouldn’t be seen as momentous. So it really isn’t a big deal. In terms of technology itself, in general I think that, on the one hand, it is something that can ease burdens for us and make certain things more conveniently accessible. For example, because of the Internet, we can keep in touch with even our friends who live far away from us. And even in terms of dharma, those who cannot afford to travel long distances and so forth can listen to teachings that are taking place. But on the other hand, even as technology makes it easier for us to do certain things, it also in some ways makes us less knowledgeable about how things work. Whereas previously we may have had to get up and walk over to the window to close the blinds, perhaps now we have a button to press so that we don’t have to get up at all. Before, we knew how the blinds worked because we related directly with them. But now, our opportunity to get to know the blinds has been taken away. So I think technology can have this type of effect sometimes. Technology can make things easier, but it can also increase our ignorance. If we invest our lives and our experience too heavily in technology, it is difficult to say whether we be able to continue onward in a stable way. I do not know!