Root Institute: An Elephant Meets a Spiritual Friend
Root Institute, Bodhgaya
January 10, 2015
The Karmapa's annual visit to Root Institute in Bodhgaya is a natural welcome to the beginning of a new year, like the first buds of spring. Orange and gold marigold flowers inside rings of offering bowls surround a dominant statue of Nagajuna; and a chalk drawn mandala of auspicious symbols strewn with petals at the entrance to the temple awaits the Karmapa's footsteps.
Ragnini, an elephant, stands to the side of the mandala, richly caparisoned in the tradition of temple elephants, in a silver head-dress and a red embroidered tapestry on her back. Her trunk is adorned with painted symbols. The mahout on her back does not carry an iron pick as he usually does, and there are no chains on her ankles. She is waiting patiently, possibly in anticipation of the abundant fruit basket filled with bananas and apples which His Holiness bought specially for her and sent before his arrival. Recently she completed an extended outer kora of the Bodhgaya temple. Right now she is enjoying a respite from her work life as a captive animal. The hope is to buy enough land to let her and her elephant sister, Bodhicitta, live unchained.
The sound of sirens pierces the profound stillness, heralding the arrival of His Holiness. As the door of the black Audi opens, Indian school children from the Tara School Project established by Root, greet him with posies of flowers. The head nun, Thubten Labdron, beams a warm smile and presents a white offering scarf. ''Is this the fourth or fifth time I am at Root?'' asks the Karmapa as he settles comfortably on the throne. ''Seven? I can't think how many; it doesn't matter. You all made lovely elaborate preparations for me. There is no need since I've been here so many times but thank you for that.''
This launches his talk on impermanence, inspired by a verse in the Diamond Cutter Sutra. We can see impermanence every day, but seeing and hearing about it isn't the same as incorporating it into our being. The first thought that changes the mind towards Dharma is contemplating the precious human body, which we have right now.
Our body is a phenomenon that arises and perishes in a second. If we have a great task we need to fulfill, we have to embark on it immediately. It's not okay to procrastinate. If we're going to do something great, and we put it off for a few days there is no certainty we will do it.
Meditation on impermanence, he emphasizes, is not to cultivate a fear of death. The fear of death is natural, even to animals. It's to make us realise that with this bodily support we have a great task to accomplish and if we die before completing it, we will regret it.
If someone were to say, you have only one hour left in your life, what would you do? We spend most of our time doing all this busy work but we are relaxed about the things that are most important. We are not really aware what we need to accomplish. If we had only one hour left, we'd have to think about what we're going to do. If we think we have time, we will spend our lives being lazy and slothful.
The essence of meditating on impermanence is that it inspires us to use this opportunity by becoming aware of it and valuing it more highly. This will produce diligence. Such an opportunity to benefit ourselves and others will not happen again.
Rather than seeing impermanence as bad, we should see t it as positive. If things were permanent old situations would continue and nothing could change. Impermanence gives room for things to improve.
It's like music; sometimes the melody goes up, sometimes down. If there were no change it would always stay on the same pitch. Change allows us to have beautiful melodies.
In every minute there is opportunity for change. This morning's misdeed we may regret and rectify by the evening. Everyone can follow the example of Milarepa who accumulated great misdeeds in the first part of his life and changed completely in the second part.
Take ownership of opportunity and strive hard to use it, he exhorted the audience. Habitual patterns lock us into believing we don't have the chance.
We say the situation isn't right and we blame others. He or she blocked me. When there's a new government, we think we have a new leader who will effect change. We always look for someone outside to make changes.
What happens when things don't work out?
We think things always work for other people, rich people, but for myself, nothing works out. When difficulties come we give up. Great beings have emerged from their difficulties. They used them as a source of learning, and then they became great beings. It's because of hindrances that we become great; we don't become a great being by living in comfort. If someone offers you a delicious meal, you don't need to be patient. If things are always good, we can't improve.
It is important for us to have difficulties in order to bring out who we truly are. Obstacles are our friends, not our enemies because they bring out our strengths. If an expert karate or judo master has a mediocre opponent, he has no chance to bring out his powers. Only if they have opponents who are better do they have an opportunity to train. The biggest obstacle to change is pride. We think we're okay as we are. We need to win, to transcend, to be victorious and triumph over pride. If we are self satisfied, there's no opportunity to change.
In closing, the Karmapa praised the Maitreya school and the medical clinic for the benefit it brought to the local area. Thanking all the workers and supporters involved with these projects, he said,
This is the land of Magadha, the noble land of the Aryas, the source of wisdom, where all Buddhas awaken to enlightenment. Twenty five hundred years ago the Buddha awoke to enlightenment in this place. In future, many great buddhas will come to guide sentient beings. Many people from all over the world come here, so it is your responsibility to be an example and lead them to a good destination. Thank you all very much.
As the Karmapa leaves the shrine room he goes straight to Ragnini whose moment has come. He smiles as he feeds her the fruit from his hand and waves the last banana in the air before offering it, watching with delight as she curls her trunk playfully into her mouth. He then goes to the statue of Nagarjuna and tosses petals in consecration.
Behind him the elephant is smiling. May this be the moment that liberates her from the chains of existence.