USIP Hosts His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa of Tibet

United States Institute of Peace
Published April 20, 2015

On April 16th, 2015, USIP hosted His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa of Tibet. At a roundtable discussion with USIP staff and invited guests from the religious peacebuilding community, he spoke about efforts to redress gender inequality within Tibetan Buddhism, the relationship between peace-building and the recognition of interdependence, and the causes that lead people to join violent movements.

Learn more about USIP's Religion and Peacebuilding program

Translator Lama Yeshe Gyamtso
Transcript by Ani Sherab

President Nancy Lindborg of the U.S. Institute of Peace:
Good morning and welcome to the United States Institute of Peace. We are very, very honored to have with us today the His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, the head of Karma Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism. I also want to welcome and to acknowledge some of the many who have accompanied His Holiness, especially Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche with whom we worked to organize this event. He has been a wonderful partner, very enthusiastic and wonderful to work with.

This is especially auspicious occasion for me as many years ago I had the great honor of studying with Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche in Kathmandu, who is part of the same school. This is just wonderful to have Your Holiness with us today at the USIP.

As many of you know, His Holiness has a truly dramatic story based on your escape from Tibet in 1999 when you traveled. Having lived in Nepal I know the difficulty of that passage over those mountains and it is truly wonderful that you were able to do that and now reside in Dharamsala next to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

We have had an important tradition here at USIP of trying to contribute to the ways in which faith leaders can be a part of the peace building process. We have with us David Smock, who for many years architected that program. And I am very pleased to have Susan Hayward, who runs that program now, and this is an important part of how we understand conflict needs to be understood, and voices of faith leaders and religious leaders like His Holiness are a special and influential way for us to think about these critical issues of how to build peace and how to use compassion and wisdom especially for understanding our way through the kind of conflict that continue to rip our world apart.

So, His Holiness will make a few remarks and then we will have an opportunity for people to ask some questions. And with that, thank you so much for joining us here today.

HH Karmapa:
First of all I want to thank everyone who here has made it possible for me to have this opportunity to visit USIP, and I’m very happy to be here.

I rejoice in the existence of the USIP, because this is, after all, a branch of the United States Government, specifically formed and wholly devoted to the cause of peace. I think its existence is also a proof of the recognition by this government that peace is of great importance. Of course the idea of peace and the understanding of the necessity of peace are not enough. To achieve peace will require a complete commitment, complete devotion, and even beyond that it will require that we first achieve peace within our own hearts. We also need to be able to extend ourselves to others and to other societies; we need more love, more compassion and more kindness, and much deeper sense of our interconnectedness, whether it be between different religions, nations or peoples. We need to come to greater awareness of our interdependence and our interconnectedness.

I don’t have too much else to say, except again I would like you to know how really delighted I am to be here and to have received an extremely warm welcome from your president and members of your board and all of you, thank you.

Interim Director Susan Hayward:
Thank you very much Your Holiness of your remarks, it’s truly an honor to have you here. I am Susan Hayward, the interim director of the Religion and Peacebuilding Program here at the Institute. I’ going to open it up now for discussion, so if you have questions, please just indicate by raising your hand. Please identify yourself and your organization. But I’m going to take moderators prerogative here and ask the first question if I could, to get us started.

So, Your Holiness… first of all let me say that what you have to say about the interdependence of people around the world and the need for us to recognize and to have the wisdom to see that interconnectivity between people is so important to the cause of peace. In USIP we recognize the ways in which multiple factors and drivers mutually feed one another and lead to the arising of violence and of suffering. In order to find effective and sustainable solutions to those problems we have to see how these drivers feed one another and how we all have to play a role helping to resolve them and transform them into peace. So, understanding interdependence helps us to understand the solutions, to really addressing the factors that drive in conflict. So, I really appreciate that and connect with that.

But I also wanted to ask you: you have spoken out recently and supported the ordination for women within the Tibetan monastic order. This is also in the religious program we put a lot of attention on: the role of women within religious traditions and the role that they can play particularly in supporting peace. So I wonder if you could speak al little bit about how you see women’s ordination within the Tibetan order as being an issue of peace.

First of all, the establishment of the support of community is of great importance. During the Buddha’s lifetime many women, who had experienced great challenges in their lives, were able to gather together and form a supportive community, a sangha of ordained women, female monastics. But the issue of the re-establishment of full ordination for women in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition goes beyond simply the establishment of the full ordination itself, because it is an important stepping stone in the restoration of women’s rights in using the religious or spiritual tradition of Tibetan Buddhism to do that.

For this reason His Holiness the Dalai Lama has over the last 20 or even 30 years been discussing how we can actually restore the bhiksuni or the full monastic ordination for women in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. And His Holiness has worked on this, his devotion on this cause has inspired me and caused me over time to begin to really understand and appreciate the great importance of the re-establishment of this ordination.

The reason we have been waiting for so long to do this is we wanted to put enough research into the matter, so that when it is done it will be done in an indisputably valid way, so that all the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism accept it. However, at this point, 20 or 30 years into the discussion it’s evident that it would still take a long time to get everyone on board. So I feel that if one lineage begins, then the others will follow, that is my hope. So therefore I will begin this.

It’s important, however, to understand that the purpose of this to establish not to only the right to full ordination, but equal rights in all aspects of Tibetan religious culture: education, status and rank fully equal to that of male monastics. Another reason why this is so important is that women innately have a little more wisdom and little more kindness than men. And so, to put it bluntly…

HHK correcting translator in English:
I didn’t say “little”.

All right, I’m trying to be… women are a lot wiser and a lot kinder than men, and therefore giving them the authority to use their innate wisdom and kindness will do the Buddhist tradition a great deal of good.

Your Holiness, thank you very much. My question is personal, and I actually have two if I could be greedy about this. I’d like to know in your personal journey you are in relationship with your teacher. If you could talk a little bit about that; what your teacher has meant to you and I think I connected with that and connected with your last statement about the fact that women have so much to teach us, one of the things that I look at – sometimes there are concerns about the process of taking the young child from their mother at a very early point in life and just surrounded by these men, who I’m sure can share many teachings and many empowerments, but I think there are also challenges involved in that process. And I wonder if you could reflect on that little bit for us, thank you?

Thank you. When you become a monk or nun – especially if you become a monk, which can happen really in somewhat early childhood, you are separated from your parents. I was separated from my parents at the age of seven, when I became the Karmapa or was recognized as the Karmapa. And after that I was surrounded by tutors and other old people. Of course, we all know that in general women are more affectionate than men they are more skillful.

Yes, detail.

I don’t know how detail would fit in that. Women are more affectionate than men. Men in general have a hard time showing or displaying affection.

Most of my tutors and most tutors in my tradition are pretty tough, but gradually students come to an appreciation of how kind their tutors are and what a tremendous contribution their teachers have made to their lives, although usually we come to this appreciation after we have grown up and we have the perspective to realize what we gained under their guidance and teaching.

So, in a sense teachers become even more kind and even more influential in some ways than our parents. Another thing is that there are different ways of showing love, and in general I would say that the way Tibetans show love is less expressively demonstrative than is true in the west. Westerners, not all but typically tend to be more openly demonstrative. They demonstrate their love for others in their facial expressions, gestures and so forth. Tibetans do this, too, of course, but it’s far more common for Tibetan to demonstrate their love for you by scolding you and trying to help you in that way.

As I gradually came to understand this it wasn’t really too hard for me. For the first year after being separated from my parents at the age of seven it was difficult, but then I became used to it and have not suffered too much from it.

Susan Hayward:
We know that you remain separated from your family; they are still back in Tibet, except for your sister who is with us here today. Other questions?

Hi, my name is Ariana Barth, I work here at the US Institute of Peace and again, I’m very grateful that you are able to join us. There are probably 40 – 45 people in this room and 40 or 45 opinions, but I’m very curious of what you think about why people choose violence to achieve what they want and what we can do about that, thank you.

I don’t think that people are born terrorists, they become terrorists through the influence of environmental factors, education and training, pure pressure and all sorts of other social influences. And I think that people are changed into terrorists by those conditions. Nowadays a principal factor in active violence and terrorism is ignorance. People are intentionally misled by leaders or teachers, who don’t tell them the truth, deceive them with distortions or one-sided explanations of complex situations, and by doing so repeatedly convince their followers, who subsequently become fanatics willing to engage in acts of violence and terrorism. Also many terrorists are living in a state of desperation: their hopes have been dashed and they conceive of the idea that the only way to get what they want or get what they want done is through violence. They conceive of the common way of misconception that violence is more powerful that peace.

So, I think these are the major factors, especially ignorance and prejudgment, prejudice and one-sided knowledge of a complex situation. Beyond that I don’t have much more to say about that.

Hello, I’m Susan Lawrence from the Educational Research Service. I wonder if you would tell us a little bit more about your plans of the ordination for women in your lineage, what’s the timeline is for this. Do you have a timeline and what are the steps you have taken already? What do you anticipate you will need to do to make that happen? Thank you.

There is a definite timeline for this. We are going to begin by creating a committee to oversee and record all proceedings in this, since first time we do this we will establish a presidency that will be of some influence if not actually binding for the future. We’ll have to do it very carefully. Specifically in the year 2016 probably in March or April we will begin.

Now, the full ordination for women has two steps. There is the post novitiate but pre full ordination, which is done first, and then those women who have received that and lived according to it for two years then become eligible for the full ordination. So, we’ll do the first step of this in 2016 and the second step therefore in 2018. Then we’ll have to wait for ten years, after which those women who received full ordination in 2018 will become elders and authorized to bestow that ordination on other women. Because what we want to establish is a community of Tibetan women fully ordained who can bestow the ordination that they themselves have received, on other women.

Up to now what has happened is: some women have received the full ordination in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, but it has not yet been re-established in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Now, if you do the math, I’ll be forty by the time these women can bestow the ordination on other women, which is another reason I feel we can’t wait any longer, otherwise I would wait until I’ll be fifty or sixty, you know, so I want it done now.

Susan Hayward:
I noticed people started getting less shy and we have number of hands going up. So, I’m going to collect few questions now so His Holiness can answer.

Question 1:
Good morning Your Holiness, the first time I met you was in your monastery in Tibet more than 15 years ago, and that gets to my question. What do you think are the prospects for you actually returning to Tibet, either to visit or possibly to relocate, and I suppose that brings in the question of the various circumstances that you see will need to happen for a peaceful resolution between Tibet and China?

Question 2:
Good morning Your Holiness. In the speech that you did in Boston you talked about cultivating compassion and even amongst the Buddhist community and the world in general, oftentimes we really struggle with how do we cultivate that in our lives? So, what can you share that maybe insightful, how do we cultivate this compassion in our personal lives, in our organizations, and how we interact with world in general?

Question 3:
Good morning, it’s a pleasure to meet you and members of your community, sir. I’m just curious when you speak about the full equality of women within the hierarchy, how will that affect the search for reincarnation?

HHK, answer to question 1:
Before I left Tibet I left behind a letter in which I wrote. “If it will help Tibetan people I will soon return. So, it was not my intention when I left – it has never been my intention to never return to Tibet. It has not been my intention to leave my homeland permanently. It would be a problem for me to return certainly under the current circumstances, but I was born in Tibet and I feel great responsibility in supporting Tibetan spiritual and secular culture, and I have never been separated from them.

It has been many years since His Holiness the Dalai Lama left Tibet and in that time, over the last several generations he has been joined in exile by many Tibetans. All of us who live in exile want to return, but what prevents us from returning is the issue between China and Tibet. The Chinese Government sees this as a political issue and an internal issue, but in fact it is a human issue, because it concerns the plait of wellbeing of an entire nationality and entire people. If the Chinese Government can come to recognize that this is an issue that in various ways impacts and concerns all humanity, and if on that basis a dialogue happens between Dharamsala and Beijing, then that might be the beginning of our being able to return.

HHK, answer to question 2:
The next question dealt with compassion. First of all I would say that compassion is much more than sympathy or the mere understanding of others’ suffering. Compassion is much more dedicated, much more involved, much more active; so the difference is in the degree of dedication, involvement and action. In particular compassion has no subject and object. There is no sense in true compassion: “I, the feeler of compassion am feeling compassion for you or them, the objects of my compassion.” There is no distinction made, no difference felt. One sees oneself in true compassion as part of others. One is able to put oneself in the position of others and feel their suffering.

In this world we are all interconnected. Each one of us depends upon, relies on and is connected to all others. This connection is so profound, so central to the very value of our lives that it goes far beyond being philosophical conversation; it actually is the central factor in our whole way of life. So, self and others are not as separate as we think they are. We are each part of others.

It is by understanding this that we can become willing to undertake responsibility for others’ wellbeing, and furthermore undertake that responsibility with enthusiasm and courage. I think that enthusiastic courage, that inspiration to undertake responsibility for others is the basis of true compassion. We need to break down the wall of selfishness that usually surrounds us, and we need to change in that way, because without doing so true compassion will not arise in us.

HHK, answer to question 3:
The next question was about whether the empowerment of women in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition will have an effect on the tulku system, the reborn, reincarnated lama recognition system. There actually already are female tulkus or reincarnated lamas, but proportionally they are so few compared to the number of male tulkus that you could almost say there aren’t any. There actually are some but they are so few.

But this is primarily I think for social reasons, and therefore as women are more empowered, given more respect, more authority, more empowerment, they will naturally have a much greater opportunity to become religious leaders, including the recognition of them as tulkus. There has never been a rule in Tibetan Buddhism that women could not be tulkus, but because the outlook in the society towards women in general was not especially positive, there have been very few. Nevertheless, as you indicated in your question, once women are afforded full support for leadership roles, there will be more.

Susan Hayward:
I’m cognizant of the time and of the DC traffic and I want to make sure that we honor His Holiness’s schedule and the need for them to depart shortly.

Nancy Lindborg:
I just want to that you again Your Holiness for joining us today, we are deeply grateful for the words you have brought to us, for the opportunity for us to come together and reflect again the importance of compassion and how we might as individuals and in various organizations contribute in bringing greater peace to the world and ending violent conflict.

Thank you especially for your leadership and real inspiration on bringing women to full ordination; this is the kind of conclusion that globally will have enormous impact. Thank you very much, we wish you peaceful and wonderful journey for the rest of your time in United States.

Thank you


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