The Gyalwang Karmapa Reflects on the Cycles of Life
June 22, 2016 – New Delhi, India
In celebration of HH the Gyalwang Karmapa’s 31st birthday, the Karmapa Khyenno Foundation has requested him to give four days of teachings and an empowerment in New Delhi, India, from June 22 to 25. Karmapa Khyenno Foundation was founded in 2008 under the auspices of His Holiness and his Office of Administration, the Tsurphu Labrang. As a non-profit, charitable organization in Hong Kong, the Foundation seeks to support the aspirations of His Holiness for the wellbeing and happiness of this world through making Dharma teachings available and compassionate engagement in social and environmental activities.
With this motivation in mind, Lama Dawa—the chairperson of the Foundation, which coordinated the efforts of 13 Dharma centers in Hong Kong—worked with the Karmapa to set up a series of teachings in harmony with their goals. They decided on the overarching title of the seminar as Compassion in Action, and the four talks would create a path from compassion into activity. The first talk covers perhaps the most basic reflection, not only in Buddhism but other meditative traditions as well—impermanence and death. This brings into high relief what truly matters and urges us to take action before it is too late. The second talk is about love and compassion, the motivation that opens us to others and moves us to act. Thirdly, our decisions should be founded on wisdom and informed by intelligence. How to we do Dharma activity in a smarter way? And for the fourth, how do we develop inwardly while seeking to create social and environmental changes outwardly? In the context of Buddhism, how to we balance our inner and outer work so that they complement and nourish each other?
This program has drawn over 500 people to Delhi, mainly from Hong Kong and also from Southeast Asia. This afternoon, they all gathered in the Regency Ballroom of the Hyatt Hotel, its floor covered in row upon row of deep brown meditation cushions. They faced a stage with a wide sofa, covered in brocade down the middle, indicating the more informal nature of the talks. The backdrop was an evening image of Hong Kong’s brightly lit skyline as viewed from the waters of Victoria Harbor.
Carrying a long red and yellow incense holder, Lama Dawa led the procession accompanying the Karmapa into the hall. Once the Karmapa had taken his seat, he was offered an elegant mandala and the representations of body, speech, mind, qualities, and activities along with a heartfelt request to live a long life for the benefit of the teachings and living beings. The final two offerings were a lustrous, immense conch shell and a brilliant Dharma wheel, recalling the offerings of the gods Indra and Brahma, who supplicated the Buddha to rise from his deep samadhi after enlightenment and teach the Dharma for the first time. During the teaching, the two offerings adorned either side of a table set in front of the Karmapa.
He began by welcoming everyone and thanking the members of different centers in Hong Kong for creating this opportunity for Dharma teachings in India. He noted that some countries have many Dharma centers but they do not necessarily work together. It was wonderful that for these teachings different centers in Hong Kong cooperated, deepening and improving their relationships as well.
The Karmapa said that he would not be giving teachings based on a text; rather he would speak to the topic of how to bring practice into daily life and how it can help us deal with the problems we face. He lightly remarked that it was easier to teach from a text since he just has to explain what is there, and more difficult to speak based on his own thinking.
The topic for this afternoon was how to face life and death. These are events we all know, he remarked, we see them repeatedly in the news or in our own lives. “We see these instances of death,” he remarked, “but usually we do not think that one day, it will come to us as well. We are not aware of this. And using reasoning will not bring a true understanding. We must look into our own feelings and experience, which will allow us to understand what others are going through as well.”
“It is in the nature of things,” he continued, “that once we are born, we will die. We need to be very clear about this, for once we are familiar with this fact, our fear of death will diminish.” The Karmapa explained, “Especially these days, few people have patience for suffering or problematic situations. Comfort is promoted everywhere so we loose the mental strength and courage to deal with problems.”
Some people say that Buddhism is a religion of suffering because it is discussed so often in the texts, such as the explanations of samsara as suffering and the different types of suffering in the six realms. “Last winter in Bodh Gaya,” the Karmapa commented, “it took several days to explain the section on suffering the Ornament of Precious Liberation, but if I had gone into detail, it would have taken months. Some people might have thought, “We’re practicing the Dharma to find happiness, but there’s only talk about suffering.’”
“These days when someone gets sick,” the Karmapa observed, “they seek out every kind of treatment and also hope to avoid aging, convinced that some method will work. Some in the medical establishment make it seem that there is a solution and on the other side, the patients want to believe it. People are even trying to avoid death.” In the older generations, when someone tried different medical procedures and they did not work, then the person made up their mind that enough had been done and turned to accumulating merit and Dharma practice. So there is quite a difference, he noted, between the two approaches: one keeps trying and spending a lot of money, while the other sees that it would be pointless to pursue more treatment and engages practice for however much time they have left.
The Karmapa suggested a way to develop our patience for suffering. Physically, he said, we could not endure the agony of the hell realms, but we can practice mentally opening up to that suffering so that our ability and courage to endure suffering will grow.
“In brief, when speaking of birth and death,’ he explained, “we can see that birth actually has the nature of death, so we could say that birth equals death. Once we are born, we do not need another cause or condition for dying. Having been born, we will die for sure.” All things are impermanent, he reminded us. Their nature is to change instant by instant.
When we say that all things arise and perish, impermanence is a problem for us if we cling to things. On the other hand, this fact of coming in and going out of existence is part of the very beauty of life, giving it more forms than it had before. The Karmapa illustrated this with the shifts of landscape in the changing seasons, which make our lives interesting and beautiful.
Therefore, he remarked, the fact that all things have the nature of impermanence can be reframed in a positive way: each moment of impermanence also brings with it a new opportunity, a new life, a new feeling, another chance. “Explanations of death and impermanence, “the Karmapa stated, “are not meant to instill fear, but rather to point to a continual opportunity for change.”
“We tend to think of death as a final ending, a single event,” the Karmapa explained, “just like a movie that comes to an end and that’s it. There is no second chance. But this is not the case here. The progression is not linear, beginning at one point and stopping at another. Birth and death go around in a circle.” With each moment come birth and death, or we could see one day as a whole lifetime. In the morning a new life begins, in the evening it passes away, and the next day another life begins. Thinking in this way, we become very familiar with death; it resembles an old friend.
In general, we fear death for many reasons he continued. While we are living, we cannot really know when or how death will come so we fear the unknown. Further, we also fear the suffering that death could bring. The Karmapa recalled that when he was recently at a university in Switzerland, he spoke with medical students about death, and a topic was the best way to die. One student said that to die during sleep would be the best. You would simply not wake up the next morning and there would be no suffering or fear.
However, he explained to them, “In Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, when dying, we hope to have a clear consciousness that is at ease. This is different from your wish to die unaware. For us the occasion of death is important, because it is a time when the signs of our life of practice are revealed.” Our state of mind at the time of death is crucial, he continued, especially if we have not practiced a lot in this life. How we think while passing away is key, so to die unaware and without mindfulness is considered a negative thing.
We may think that we will die one day, but we do not think it could happen now, the Karmapa said. But actually, we do not know when we will die nor the cause or circumstance of our death. As a result, we do not prepare ourselves, especially these days when people think “everything is possible” including warding off death, which makes it difficult to face the fact of dying.
“Meditating on death and impermanence, however, is not to create fear of death. We all have this fear even animals,” the Karmapa noted. “We meditate on death and impermanence so that we do not waste our time, so that we treasure the life and friends we have, and so that we live a life we will not regret.”
Reprising his main point, the Karmapa stated that at all times, in each moment, a new opportunity presents itself; it is up to us, however, to take advantage of it. The choice is ours. For example, Milarepa killed many people, accumulating tremendous negative karma, but Buddhism does not say, “You did something evil, so you cannot practice the Dharma.” Once you make the commitment to practice, you are a practitioner. Some people might think that because they have done something very negative, they have become an awful person, and since that will not change, they might as well continue their negative ways. But this is not the case: we have a choice, and it is up to us not to lose the opportunity that offers itself.
Meditating on death and impermanence can also lead us to appreciate the beauty of change. When summer comes, we enjoy the fullness of its landscape; when winter comes, we can admire its special beauty.
Some people find it difficult to deal with the death of a loved one. However, if they had clearly faced their own death beforehand, they would experience the passing of someone close to them in a different way. In another example, we often pray, “May I not be separated from the perfect guru,” and in spiritual terms the glorious or root lama is like our father, so his passing away would bring great suffering. But as we have seen, death is not an ending. So if we can take to mind a good understanding of death, when it does occur to others, we will experience their passing in a different way.
The Karmapa closed the teachings with repeated praise for the Hong Kong Dharma centers and their work together. He said that the centers belong to the Sangha, and this word means “to be in harmony” or “to have harmonious aspirations,” such that these relationships are indestructible like a diamond, impossible to break or shatter. This is important. It is also critical that the holders of the teachings are in harmony with each other. The Karmapa told the story of how Mara, a negative spirit, said he would take the guise of a Dharma teacher and sow discord so that the Buddha’s teachings would disappear.
To counteract this, the Karmapa counseled, “We should genuinely praise each other. This does not mean flattering someone by saying they have realization or qualities they do not possess, but giving authentic praise, based on what is real. We should see our faults and others’ qualities. Through praising and respecting each other, the teachings will last a long time.”
On this positive note, the Karmapa concluded his first teaching, which was webcast live to over 3,500 devices, each of which could also be connected to a mobile phone, iPad or TV screen in a Dharma Center. In another form of outreach, near the Regency Ballroom entrance, the Tsurphu Bookstore from Sidhbari, HP, made available books, DVDs, and images, either by or related to the Karmapa.