In Madison, Karmapa Meets with Wisconsin’s Tibetan Community

(May 4, 2015 – Madison, Wisconsin) After consecrating land for a commemorative stupa in the morning, followed by a teaching in the early afternoon at the Chicago KTC, His Holiness the Karmapa drove north to Madison to meet in the evening with the city’s resident Tibetans, at the invitation of the Wisconsin Tibetan Association. Evidently, so did many Tibetans, as the number of people attending the event exceeded the entire Tibetan population of Madison.
The Tibetan community of Wisconsin that had turned out in force included several rows of monastics, most of whom affiliated to Deer Park Buddhist Center, a monastery founded by Geshe Lhundub Sopa just outside Madison in the 1970s.
The event took place on a balmy May evening, with masked dancers and leading members of the community awaiting the Karmapa’s arrival outdoors, and a long line of young Tibetans extending their khatas indoors. With Wisconsin Tibetan Association board member Jampa Khedup serving as master of ceremony, the vibrancy of the community’s efforts to keep their Tibetan identity alive were on full display as the first portion of the evening was given over to a cultural performance.
After the entire gathering of just under 500 people stood to sing the Tibetan anthem, the US national anthem followed in acknowledgment of their host society. With traditional Tibetan instruments providing live musical accompaniment, groups of children and elders came forward in turns to perform song and dance from various regions across Tibet. Even the younger children watched the proceedings attentively, performers themselves burst into laughter as they danced and smiles abounded among those of all ages in the audience, making clear that Tibetan culture remained alive and joyfully well in the hearts of all the generations gathered.
After words of welcome by WTA president and a mandala offering, His Holiness the Karmapa was requested to address the assembly and confer Chenrezig and Guru Rinpoche oral transmissions.
The 17th Karmapa did so, and expressed his delight at having the opportunity to meet and connect with the Tibetans living in the Midwest, noting that it was his third trip to the United States but only his first visit to the country’s heartland. As he noted, His Holiness the Karmapa has been meeting with Tibetans throughout his two-month trip, primarily out of his personal feeling that it was of great value to connect with his fellow Tibetans.
Underscoring the tremendous importance of ensuring that young Tibetans born in exile retain full fluency in the written as well as spoken Tibetan language, the Gyalwang Karmapa remarked that strenuous efforts needed to be taken to address the real danger of losing the Tibetan language in diaspora. His Holiness noted that they had better experience of this than he did, and there was little need to clarify a point already clear. Indeed, the Wisconsin Tibetan Association has been providing weekly Tibetan language classes to area children since 1999, and also offers instruction in the use of Tibetan keyboard and fonts. “There is good work being done through the Tibetan Association,” he said, “and there is great work still to be done.”
The Karmapa went on to reflect on the traumatic course of events that has resulted in the rending of Tibetan society into those living within Tibet and those who have had to now settle outside. That has had the effect, he said, of opening a new chapter in Tibetan history. The Karmapa commented on how extraordinarily fortunate Tibetans have been to be living this new chapter under the guidance of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Speaking movingly of the deep significance of having such a unifying leader to hold Tibetan society and culture together in a time when they are painfully separated into those still in Tibet and those scattered in diaspora, the Karmapa urged them to recognize the value of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s exceptional leadership not only in words, but in the depths of their hearts.
Although Tibetan society is more united in some ways today than it had been in the past, he said, still there does exist a certain element of sectarianism. Given the challenges that the Tibetan people and environment are facing, he remarked that it is crucial that we think carefully and find ways to guard against divisiveness.
In terms of the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karmapa said, “Whether one has more or less strength, whether one is larger or smaller than others does not matter.” Rather he said, all need to flourish and all need to join together to keep the Dharma alive.
Sounding a serious note of warning against the effects of jealousy and sectarianism, His Holiness the Karmapa cited scriptural sources that indicate that the teachings of a previous dispensation, that of Buddha Kashyapa, degenerated and were finally lost due to the laziness of his followers. By contrast, the Karmapa said, Buddha Shakyamuni foretold that his teachings would be brought to ruin by disputes among the holders of his teachings.
“Strife between religious lineages is the worst, the most serious form of strife,” the Karmapa said.
“The lineages of Tibetan Buddhism carry different names based on the lama or monastery transmitting them,” he said, “but the actual content that is being transmitted is essentially the same: the realization of emptiness, the cultivation of bodhichitta and the unification of sutra and tantra. When we speak of it, we often make it sound as if there were huge differences, but  at heart we are basically all the same.”
Elaborating on the theme of diversity and unity, His Holiness recollected that when a search party arrived looking for the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa in the valley where his family lived, they were not able to understand each other because of language barriers, since he lived in Kham in eastern Tibet and the search party had come from central Tibet. Stressing just how remarkable it was that Tibetans have now managed to forge a sense of shared identity as Tibetans, the Karmapa urged all those present to look within themselves to find the courage and fortitude to ensure that they were making positive contributions toward preserving that identity rather than serving as sources of division.
He concluded his comments by expressing the hope and the belief that he would return in the future “again and again” to meet with the community of Madison. In the meantime, he said he would hold them all with affection in his prayers.
Geshe Tenzin Dorjee, the current abbot of Deer Park, then offered a mandala and made extensive concluding remarks in praise of His Holiness the Karmapa’s activities both in  Tibetan cultural preservation, as well as on behalf of the Dharma and sentient beings in general. After the Karmapa departed, parents slowly bid their friends farewell and set about locating their children as this extended family gathering drew to a close.
Tibetan settlement in Madison has a longer history than many other cities, with Geshe Lhundub Sopa relocating here in the 1960s when he was invited to teach at the university. Sharpa Tulku and Khamtrul Tulku also settled in Madison, instantly giving this city in the heart of the country a relatively high concentration of reincarnate lamas. In 1981, His Holiness the Dalai Lama conferred the first ever Kalachakra initiation to be given in the West at Deer Park Buddhist Center outside Madison. In the 1990s, when the United States was offering immigrant visas to Tibetans, Madison was selected as a city well equipped to serve as a host. Initially, 82 Tibetans were assigned to immigrate to Madison and its environs. As those initial refugees were gradually able to reunite with their families, the city’s total population of Tibetans has now swelled to about 400.

 Photography by Lama Sam.


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