(April 24, 2015 – Wappingers Falls, New York) On a brisk afternoon, the road into the monastery was lined with the bright colors of tall banners in a formal procession to welcome His Holiness. This was his third visit to Kagyu Thubten Choling, founded in 1978 and set on a gentle cliff above the Hudson River. Following the lineage of Kalu Rinpoche, who emphasized the importance of three-year retreats, Lama Norlha Rinpoche has guided students through eight of them here in upstate New York.
After a traditional welcoming ceremony of tea and rice during which he consecrated and offered lamps to several sacred images, His Holiness was invited into a spacious white tent where five hundred people waited to hear his talk and receive the transmission of the Medicine Buddha mantra. The Karmapa began by noting that during hisfirst visit there, in 2008, the weather had been cold and now it was also chilly―the blessing of the Kagyu lineage with its austere practices transmitted by the yogi Milarepa who spent his life in mountain retreat. Along the walls of the tent, paintings of the “golden lineage” of Kagyu masters were displayed and the Karmapa joked that not only was he himself cold but the whole lineage was freezing.
Earlier in the morning, the Karmapa had also spoken of the Medicine Buddha, and here in Wappingers Falls, he further emphasized the role of deeply engrained mental habits that follow us from lifetime to lifetime as the fundamental cause of our disease. Running deeper than mental illness, these imprints cannot be cured by traditional medication, he said, yet they are the cause of our more coarse physical ailments. Essentially, the practice of the Medicine Buddha is to cure us of these and the afflictive emotions they engender. The primary instruction for the practice of the Medicine Buddha is to point out these habitual patterns so they can be uprooted.
The Karmapa explained that through our training in identifying our own afflictive emotions as forms of illness, we become better able to empathically recognize the mental afflictions of others and see them as an illness. He drew the analogy of a doctor who is treating a mentally unbalanced person. Since doctors know the person’s condition, they are not overwhelmed by the unusual behavior. In the same way, His Holiness commented, we can work with others who are overpowered by their afflictions and take them in stride. The understanding that our illness is not caused externally allows us to see that Dharma practice is essential to our lives. At this point, he said, we can take our spiritual teacher as a doctor, the afflictions as our illness, and the Dharma as the cure.
When we engage in Dharma practice, we need to feel that it is an integral part of our lives, he counseled, so that there is no gap between practice and the lives we lead. Usually when we engage in formal practice, we set aside a time for it and that is good, because it means we will do the practice. The Karmapa noted that setting a particular time for practice is especially important for Americans who are so busy; otherwise, they might not find the time to meditate at all.
He continued, “For Dharma practice to be truly effective, however, we cannot just leave it on the seat, but must bring it outside into the world of our daily lives.” He clarified that this does not mean that we carry a mala everywhere and hold our hands in the meditation mudra while sitting at our office desk. “What we do need all the time,” he remarked, “is the spirit of Dharma, the courage that Dharma gives us, the vast openness of mind and the power of love. We need these all the time and throughout our lives.” There should be no separation between the person we are and the Dharma we practice, he said.
“Dharma practice has to accompany us outside our shrine rooms and temples,” he stated. “It must be more than sitting on a soft seat for some time and dreaming that deities are showing themselves to us. It is not like taking a recreational drug. Practice has to help us make changes in ourselves and become less rigid and more loving.”
After receiving symbolic offerings for his long life, the Karmapa left the tent for a tour of the Maitreya Center, an impressive new building that is being constructed next to a large stupa overlooking the Hudson River. The shell of the new structure is complete and Lama Norlha led the Karmapa on a tour of the shrine halls that will shelter a 34-foot image of Maitreya and 10-foot images of Guru Rinpoche and Shakyamuni Buddha. The underground floor is home to the kitchen and dining room while the top floor includes a suite for the Karmapa and his attendants. When he was invited out onto the veranda of his quarters, the Karmapa joked, “Oh, now you’re taking me into the cold again!”
After the Maitreya Center, the Karmapa entered the men’s and women’s retreat centers, walled off from the world with high wood fences, painted a brown that blends into the forest around them. He spent about twenty minutes in each retreat center, and then partook of a sumptuous meal in a private dining room with a view of the Hudson River flowing by.