Exclusive Interview: The 17th Karmapa and the Buddhist Nuns of the Tibetan tradition - Buddhistdoor Global

By Dominique Butet; images, Olivier Adam

His Holiness the Karmapa in Paris, 2016

Our initial motive for documenting the lives of Tibetan Buddhist nuns through our photography stemmed from the fact that for many years, the Western world has largely ignored their very existence. Other aspects have since emerged that have enriched this documentary approach as the question of gender equality was being played out before our very eyes with regard to the gradual emancipation of nuns through improved access to education and progressive changes to their status in society.
A number of contemporary Tibetan masters have taken a personal interest in empowering Buddhist nuns and in doing so have become spokespeople, communicating the importance of this cause throughout the world. Among them is His Holiness the Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, head of the Kagyu lineage, who we had the honor of meeting in Bodh Gaya, India in February. His Holiness overwhelmed us with the strength of his presence and won us over with the undeniable sincerity of his attention, patience, and commitment to supporting the cause of Tibetan nuns.
Dominique Butet: Why are you so deeply involved with the feminine cause?
His Holiness the Karmapa: The main thing, in terms of Buddhist teachings, is that men and women are the same. They have the same ability and the same opportunity to uphold the teachings of Buddhism. So looking at it in this way, I want to give the nuns this opportunity.
DB: What are your thoughts on the present situation for Tibetan Buddhist nuns?
HHK: Of course, a lot of progress has been made already. For example, support for the nuns is becoming much stronger, in particular support for their livelihood—that’s really a big deal. In the past, many nunneries in Tibet didn’t receive much support from laypeople and the nuns had to beg for everything. Now the situation is getting much better.
Also, in terms of education, the nuns are now able to study Buddhist texts and philosophy, which is a great advance—especially in India and Nepal, where they are about to receive the first Geshema degrees.*
What still needs improvement is, first of all, leadership. The nuns need to develop the ability to direct and lead themselves; to be able to provide their own leadership. Right now, monks provide a lot of leadership, and the [Geshema] classes are being taught by monks. In the future, nuns will be able to stand on their own two feet! Nuns who have completed the Geshema degree will themselves be able to teach other nuns.
The second difficulty for the nuns is the question of full ordination. This question has been discussed for more than 20 years, with a lot of meetings and talks. Now many people are saying that it’s time to actually put it into practice. So my hope and my encouragements are that we can create a situation where [full ordination] can happen quickly within Tibetan society.
DB: Could you explain why the lineage of fully ordained nuns died out in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya?
HHK: I think that there probably were communities of nuns in Tibet. They were established there but then later died out. The reasons why that happened are not clear, so it’s really hard for me to explain much about that. In any case, we would like to start the process of reviving the bhikshuni ordination next year—first within the Kagyu lineage. We had hoped to begin this year but it didn’t work out, so we will try to begin next year.
DB: At the Winter Dharma Gathering for nuns in Bodh Gaya last year, you said that the nuns would first receive the “vows of going forth,” then novice vows, and then “training vows”. Finally, in the fourth year, they would be given the bhikshuni vows. Who could confer these vows?
HHK: Actually there are three different ways we could follow: the first way would be for members of the bhikshu sangha to confer the vows. The second would be to have members from both the bhikshu and bhikshuni sanghas offering the vows. As there is no community of bhikshuni within the Tibetan tradition, we could invite bikhshuni from the Chinese Buddhist tradition, while the sangha of bhikshu would be representatives from the Tibetan tradition. In that way, we could have a dual-sangha ordination. In the third option, we could invite members from the bhikshu and bhikshuni sanghas of the Chinese tradition.
Of these three different methods, the one that has been chosen is the second because it is more in tune with the Vinaya. So we will invite a sangha of Chinese bhikshuni because in the Chinese tradition there is a lineage of bhikshuni vows. I think this would also be a nice way to restore the connection between the two sanghas within the different traditions—by bringing them together to cooperate, I think it will give more power to the full ordination of the nuns and will be very beneficial for all. As most of the nuns who will be taking ordination are Tibetan and Himalayan, I think they’ll have more confidence by taking the vows within the Tibetan tradition. And Tibetan society will also be more accepting of full ordination by having bhikshu of the Tibetan tradition involved.
DB: In Bodh Gaya this year, you mentioned that you would like to set up a common monastic college, or shedra, for Buddhist nuns. Could you tell us more about that?
HHK: Sixteen years ago, I came to India. And actually in these 16 years I haven’t been able to get a real residence of my own. My own personal situation is difficult; it’s mixed up with politics and other difficulties, and it’s sometimes hard for me to accomplish all my wishes exactly as I would like. So even if I wanted to build a shedra by myself it might be difficult. The main thing is that there are many nuns who are Indian citizens and I think that if they take on the responsibility and build a shedra, then it will be possible. Sure, we have many shedras within different nunneries, but it’s not like bringing all the energies together. As you know, it’s difficult to get enough teachers to teach the nuns. So if we had an institute for the nuns, we could give them a place where they would be able to study at a higher level. But it is not just a question of nuns; there are many other women who want to study the Dharma, so thisshedra would be a place for all women to study.
DB: You saw the nuns debating a few weeks ago—​what do you think of their ability?
HHK: It has been three or four years since I first saw them debating. The nuns were really beginners at that time—in the first year, there only were one or two who actually knew how to debate. In the second year it was a little bit better, and in the third year I noticed incredible improvements in terms of confidence as well as in the logic they used for debating. So when we saw this progress, we were very, very happy. I’m now sure that the nuns will further raise their level very quickly.
DB: How do you see the future for Buddhist nuns in the Tibetan tradition?
HHK: In Tibetan society we talk a lot about interdependence, we could also say circumstances or auspicious connections. Since we began working with the nuns, all of the connections have turned out very well, and because of this I have developed great confidence and courage. In the future, I’m sure that the teachings of the nuns will flourish.
DB: Your Holiness, thank you for your time and attention.
The Karmapa’s hopeful conclusion and optimism resonated within our hearts and minds for a long time after we took our leave, and we were reminded of a paragraph from His Holiness’ book The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out:
“We need to recognize that the most important qualities of today are those that most societies consider as being ‘feminine:’ communication, listening to the needs of others. The coming era will be more ‘feminine’ and women will make a greater contribution.”
His Holiness the Karmapa has been able to accommodate and overcome many obstacles and difficulties related to living in exile; he knows how to meet each day and rejoice in daily life, and is fully committed to wearing the colors of the feminine future.
For the benefit of all sentient beings!

HH the Karmapa in Bodh Gaya, March 2016

* The Geshe (feminine: Geshema) is a Tibetan Buddhist academic degree for monastics, emphasized primarily by the Gelugpa lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism, but also awarded in the Sakyapa school. It is equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy and is awarded after a 17-year course of study. Until recently, the qualification was only open to monks.
Olivier Adam is a freelance photographer and teaches photography in Paris. He is a contributor to various magazines and works regularly for The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as a photographer during the Dalai Lama’s visits to Europe.
Dominique Butet is a teacher and a journalist. After meeting Olivier Adam in 2010, she joined his project to document the daily lives of Buddhist nuns across the Himalayas. Dominique contributes to various media outlets, and in 2016 co-wrote a book on meditation for children, Yupsi le petit dragon.

Monks intensify stir to press for Karmapa's visit to Sikkim - nezine.com

Ugen Bhutiya
Date of Publish: 2016-08-19

While the whole country was celebrating its 70th Independence Day with fervour, monks in Sikkim celebrated it in a novel way; they celebrated it with black armbands. These black armbands were the sign of despair and discontent against alleged insensitivity and indifferent attitude of the government towards their demand, even after their hunger strike of more than a month.

The monks, supported by the Buddhist communities in the state, have been demanding that the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje should be allowed to visit Sikkim since soon his escape from Tibet in 2000 to India. Since then various cultural and political groups in the state have been raising their voice for it. The monks from different monasteries in the state organized a rally- ‘Peace and Aspiration rally’- in Gangtok on July 10, 2016. The government’s response was not a positive one; it ignored it completely.  Reading from the first signs,  Denzong Lhadey Tsopa, an organisation of the monks, had decided to fast till the demand was accepted.

Karmapa is the highest order in the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Majority of the Buddhists in Sikkim belong to this sect. Rumtek Monastery in East Sikkim is the abode of Karmapa. It was built by 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje in 1966 and was named as Pal Karmapa Densa Shed Drub Cho Khor Ling meaning ‘The seat of His Holiness The Gyalwa Karmapa’. Hence demands were raised to get permission for the 17th Karmapa to live in Rumtek Monastery. But there was a major problem in this demand.

Ogyen Trinley Dorje supported by Tibetan religious head Dalai Lama is not the only one who claims to be Karmapa. Trinlay Thaye Dorje who came to India in 1994 from Tibet because of the threat from the Chinese government is also another candidate for the post. His candidature is no less than the Ogyen Trinley because he is supported by Shamar Rinpoche, the second highest rank in the Kagyu monk’s hierarchy. The disagreement about the real 17thKarmapa has reached judiciary and is presently subjudice.

The monks and Buddhists in Sikkim consider Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the original 17thKarmapa. But now the matter is subjudice,  they changed their demand from reinstating Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa to permit him to visit Phodong or Ralang Monastery for the Drukpa Tsheshi prayers instead of Rumtek monastery. Drukpa Tsheshi is one of the important Buddhist festivals in the state. Since this demand was also ignored, lamas who were in hunger strike since 10 July are now demanding that he should be allowed to visit any place that the government suggest at the least.

The issue of Karmapa visit to Sikkim became one of the major political issues in the State. By and large every political party in the state promised that they will bring him to Sikkim in every election since the year 2000. State legislative Assembly election in 2014 was no way different. The issues is more important for the candidates who are contesting for Sangha seat. Article 371 (f) of the Indian constitution gives space for the Sangha seat to give monks representation in the governance of the State. Only the monks from different monasteries of Sikkim can vote for Sangha candidates. Needless to say, the trusts of monks on the candidate in bringing Karmapa greatly influences their choice while voting. Moreover, the adequate numbers of voters from Buddhist communities make the issue undeniable for any political outfits in the State.

In 2014, State Legislative Assembly passed two resolutions urging the Central government to allow Ogyen Trinley’s visit to Sikkim.

But the present contradiction between the monks and the state government is about the place of his visit. According to the protesting lamas the government is trying to confuse and manipulate the situation by requesting Central government to allow Ogyen Trinley to visit Rumtek Monastery. While knowing that this could not be achieved because the case is in the judicial process, such insistence by the government has desolated the monks. 

Moreover, rather than heeding to the grievances of the citizens, those in power are adding into their misery by eschewing the issue. Various Bhutia Lepcha Buddhist organisations of Sikkim and a Joint Action Committee (for restoration of Democracy in Sikkim) submitted the memorandums on 10 and 11 august respectively to the Governor requesting him to look into the matter. To date no reply has been received from the gubernatorial office.  

While governor maintained the silence and ignored the issue, representatives from the government visited the protestors on 11th August 2016. But the insensitivity and callousness attitude of the government towards their demand was increasingly leading to desperation. The protesters have been sitting on a hunger strike since 33 days in the Bhutia-Lepcha House in the Tibet road, Gangtok. According to the protestors when the ministers visited them they had shown concern on water and electric supplies in the BL house than discussing the issue for which they were protesting.

However, even such attitudes of the authorities could not deter the monks from their steadfast protest. And on 15th of August more monks joined them to celebrate Independence Day with a black armband. They are now planning to the march towards the Nathula, Indo-Chinese border and one of the favorite tourist spot in Sikkim, if authorities continued such attitudes. And for the government the need of an hour is that it should understand the situation and start the real dialogue with these monks rather than beating around the bush.

Ugen Bhutiya  
(Ugen Bhutiya is a Doctoral Fellow at the Department of History, Sikkim university. He can be reached at bhutiaups@gmail.com )


Celebrating Dharma Connections

August 18, 2016 – Gurgaon, India

The last afternoon of the Heart Sutra teachings saw a celebration of the entire seminar. The hundreds of low meditation tables in the hall had been set with a plate of the famous Taiwanese pineapple cake and a cup of renowned high mountain tea, both of which had been brought from Taiwan to India.
After His Holiness entered the hall and took his seat on the stage, the event began with twenty people taking three minutes each to share their experience of the seminar. Standing near the stage where the Karmapa sat in a high backed chair, and facing hundreds of people, they passed the microphone from one to the other and spoke of how they had been touched by the Karmapa’s presence, by his teaching so clearly and directly in Mandarin, and by the profound words of the sutra. Some people cried and the audience, which had paid rapt attention to all the stories, responded by clapping to give them support to finish their story.
These stories were followed by a male singer and a female musician playing the Chinese lute. They performed a version of the Heart Sutra, and then the Dalai Lama’s long life prayer for the Karmapa, which appeared in Chinese on the large screen behind them so that everyone could participate.
Ani Miao Rong then introduced a slide show so that people could see what the organizers were doing behind the scenes. It also presented many images of the Karmapa as he taught and of the disciples as they listened to the teachings and shared this time together.
Afterward the Karmapa was invited to speak. He began:
    Last year after the Monlam, I had the thought that I’d like to teach the Heart Sutra and do it in Mandarin. So I told Khenpo Tengye and Ani Miao Rong, and asked them and Hwa Yue Foundation to organize this course. The final decision was made merely 5-7 months ago. In giving the teachings, I have tried my best and really hope that they have inspired and benefitted you.
He continued:
    At this time, I feel very grateful that when I was young, the government had arranged for some teachers to come and teach me Chinese…. I am deeply grateful to my Chinese teachers since, due to their hard work, I am able to teach the Dharma in Mandarin, so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my teachers.
The Karmapa spoke eloquently of his relationship to China:
    In my heart I have a deep feeling that in the past I had a very deep connection with China. In my mind, sometimes there appear some of the old places I have lived in… and I can even smell it.
    I’m deeply grateful to all of the past Karmapas, because I feel that who I am now and my connection with the Chinese disciples today, it is not due to myself but to the past Karmapas and their compassion. And now I feel a lot of gratitude to them, especially the second Karmapa, because he dreamt of Chienbo Wenshu (Thousand Bowl Manjushri) who gave him this prophecy: “In the future you should make everywhere in the east your land.
    With such a prophecy, I feel that the Karmapa has made many aspirations, especially the fifth Karmapa. Perhaps during his time is when the Han Chinese truly made a connection with Tibetan Buddhism. It is said that it started with the fifth Karmapa. No matter what, this time around, I am grateful to all of the past Karmapas who gave me this opportunity to be able to connect with you and spread the Dharma in Mandarin. Thank you.
After the applause subsided, the Karmapa continued:
    Since the teachings were given in Mandarin, we had to prepare the subject matter ahead of time, and this has to be done well. We were lucky to have had a group of great masters to help: Yang Ting Tulku, Geshe Rinchen Ngodup, Khenpo Lodro Tenzin, Lodro Rinchen, and Ani Miao Rong. I’d like to thank them for helping me.
He continued with his thanks:
    From a young age, I have met many great lamas and received their teachings and their compassion, and have also been supported by so many Dharma brothers, sisters, and friends. I feel that due to them, I have been able to get to where I am today. It was not easy, so I would like to thank all these lamas and all these friends.
    In this lifetime I feel very honored that I’ve been able to learn Mandarin and feel that I can use it and also learn more languages so that in every lifetime I will be able to speak more beneficial things to all of you. Thank you everyone, thank you.
Ani Miao Rong then offered her remarks saying that now everyone who has had the opportunity to listen to the Karmapa’s teachings, should pray that His Holiness will be able to give us teachings every year and to teach in Mandarin to benefit his Chinese disciples. Three representatives of the organizers then made offerings to the Karmapa and the ordained Sangha. And for the final event, the Karmapa came down from the stage and passed among all the rows of participants giving each one a scroll of the Heart Sutra that he had calligraphed, which was printed in gold—a perfect ending to a perfect teaching.

2016.8.18 法王噶瑪巴2016年亞洲講經法席《心經》課程.感恩茶會

Live Webcast Announcement - The Gyalwang Karmapa Teaches the Heart Sutra

Dates: August 15 to 18, 2016
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa has kindly agreed to teach on the Heart Sutra from the 15th to 18th, this August. The special event will be webcast live on the website and translated into various languages.

Webcast Link:

The Heart SutraIndian Time
Delhi, India   -   August 15
  15:00 - 17:00The Heart Sutra 1 / 7 / El sutra del corazón 1 / 7
Delhi, India   -   August 16
  10:00 - 12:00•  The Heart Sutra 2 / 7 / El sutra del corazón 2 / 7
Lunch Break
  15:00 - 17:00• The Heart Sutra 3 / 7 / El sutra del corazón 3 / 7
Delhi, India   -   August 17
  10:00 - 12:00• The Heart Sutra 4 / 7 / El sutra del corazón 4 / 7
Lunch Break
  15:00 - 17:00• The Heart Sutra 5 / 7 / El sutra del corazón 5 / 7
Delhi, India   -   August 18
  10:00 - 12:00• The Heart Sutra 6 / 7 / El sutra del corazón 6 / 7

Gyalwang Karmapa Brings to a Close his Commentary on the Heart Sutra

18 August 2016 – Hyatt Regency Gurgaon,

The final session of the 17th Karmapa’s commentary on the Heart Sutra began with a brief explanation of the variations in the view of emptiness among three schools of thought: the Middle Way, Mind Only, and Empty of Other. His Holiness explained that the differences among these schools are to help living beings dissolve their various afflictions. It is hard to say which schools are good or bad, higher or lower. It is important to understand this, he emphasized. We should focus on learning their teachings, which will help resolve our doubts. Otherwise, people might say that the Middle Way is the best compared to the Mind Only school, which does not seem to be quite true.
However, whether Middle Way is good or not really depends on us. If we are truly inspired by its thought, and it caused us to change or improve, then it is good. If we haven’t changed, even if we learn the famous teachings like mahamudra or dzogchen, they will all be useless. “In the past in Tibet, there was a great practitioner who said, ‘Knowing the teachings of Dzogchen is not enough. The people themselves must become Dzogchen.’ I feel that this is a very important teaching to be remembered in our hearts,” the Karmapa said.
Returning to the text of the Heart Sutra, he turned his attention to the section that introduces the twelve links of dependent origination:
There is no ignorance and no extinction of ignorance, up to no ageing and death, and no extinction of ageing and death.
These twelve links can be followed either clockwise, in which case they describe the process which traps us in the suffering of cyclic existence, or anti-clockwise, which reverses the process and frees us from samsara.
This process is visualized in the Wheel of Existence. A sutra tells that the Buddha manifested as a painter and drew this image, which can still be found at the entrance to a monastery’s shrine hall. At the centre of the Wheel are the symbols of desire, anger and ignorance—the rooster, the snake, and the pig. The next circle depicts virtuous and non-virtuous actions, shown as a white path leading upward and a black path leading downward. Next are depicted the six realms of existence, and finally in the outer circle, the images for the twelve links. Yamantaka, the Lord of Death, holds the wheel while biting down on the top. Through visual allegories, the painting illustrates how the twelve links work. On the outer rim from the top clockwise, they are as follows:
1. Ignorance—a blind old woman holding a walking stick
2. Formation—a potter moulding pottery
3. Consciousness—a monkey in the treetop
4. Name and form (mind and body)-either a boat with a boatman or a tent inhabited by someone
5. The six sense bases—an empty house with six windows
6. Contact—a couple embracing
7. Sensation—a person struck in the eye by an arrow
8. Craving—an alcoholic drinking from his bottle
9. Grasping—a monkey plucking fruit from a tree
10. Becoming—a pregnant woman
11. Birth—a woman in childbirth
12. Old age and death—an old man carrying a corpse on his back
His Holiness explained that the first stage is our
(1) ignorance, or wrong perception, which shapes the many actions of the second stage,
(2) formation. This leads in turn to our
(3) consciousness being involuntarily trapped in samsara and to having
(4) a mind and a body, or name and form, which gives us the
(5) six sense bases or sources. We start to have
(6) contact with the material world in the form of the six sense objects, and experience
(7) sensations, which bring on various
(8) cravings. These in turn, lead to
(9) grasping, which engenders
(10) becoming, and the sufferings of
(11) birth, followed by
(12) old age and death. By reversing the process, we dismantle it stage by stage, all the way back to (1) ignorance and so free ourselves from samsara. The Karmapa added, “In these images we can see our lives. They feel really familiar, don’t they?”
The Heart Sutra continues to list the negation of Four Noble Truths:
Likewise, there is no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation, and no path.
The Buddha taught these during the first turning of the wheel of Dharma, and they form the core of his teachings. The first two truths explain samsara as (1) suffering (the result) and (2) its origin (the cause). The second two truths explain nirvana as (3) cessation (the result) and (4) the path (its cause).
The Heart Sutra continues:
There is no prajna, no attainment, and no non-attainment.
This section refers to the merits of practice. In brief bodhisattvas practicing on the path will gradually increase their prajna, attain realization, and eliminate their afflictions.
Whereas the five aggregates, the twelve sense bases, and the eighteen dhatus are the ordinary foundation and relate to samsara, the twelve links of interdependent origination, the Four Noble Truths, and the merits of practice make up the special foundation and relate to nirvana. Those seeking liberation tend to cling tightly to the special foundation, but they should recognise that the twelve links and the Four Noble Truths are also empty. They should cling neither to samsara nor to nirvana.
Therefore, Shariputra, since bodhisattvas have nothing to attain, they abide relying on the perfection of prajna. Since their mind is free of obscuration, they have no fear; completely transcending all error, they reach the ultimate nirvana.
How do the bodhisattvas train? On the path of seeing, they realize the nature of emptiness, and since this fundamental realization of emptiness continues on the path of learning, bodhisattvas will not acquire any new realization of emptiness. This is the meaning of “no attainment.”
They abide relying on the perfection of prajna.
Their fundamental prajna will not have any mistaken experience and so their confusion comes to an end. Hence:
Since their mind is free of obscuration,…
Bodhisattvas training on the path rely on the practice of the perfection of prajna, which is what they will ultimately attain. “The mind free of obscuration” refers to the mental obscurations that affect us and lead to confusion. Bodhisattvas gradually eliminate these cognitive obscurations and liberate their minds.
Bodhisattvas in training are not the same as an ordinary being, a Listener, or a Solitary Realizer. The difference is that bodhisattvas can endure profound emptiness, accepting it completely and fearlessly; hence
…they have no fear;…
They are also able to rid themselves of the subtlest confusions and therefore:
…utterly transcending all error, they reach the ultimate nirvana.
The text continues:
By relying on the perfection of prajna, all the buddhas dwelling in the three times, come to the unsurpassable, authentic, and complete awakening of manifest, perfect buddhahood.
These lines explain the path of no more learning, the attainment of buddhahood. Nagarjuna’s disciple Aryadeva once said, “The perfection of prajna is the one single thing that leads to door of liberation, and this is what makes the perfection of prajna supreme.” All the buddhas of the past, present, and future rely on this prajna that realizes emptiness to attain unsurpassable buddhahood: There is not a single buddha who did not practice such prajna to become a buddha. “The three times” means that it does not matter who it is or when a person attains buddhahood; they have no choice but to reply on the perfection of prajna.
“Awakening” here translates the Sanskrit word bodhi meaning “to awaken” or “to wake up from.” Right now we wander through a dreamscape created by our confusion. When we become a buddha, we will completely awaken from this dreaming. This is
…the unsurpassable, authentic, and complete awakening…
“Authentic” here distinguishes the Buddha’s realization from that of the Listeners and Solitary Realizers: they also have realization, but only the Buddha’s realization is the authentic, deep realization of emptiness, the perfection of prajna. And therefore, it is naturally “unsurpassable,” because no other result is superior to it. This realization is
…of manifest, perfect buddhahood.
The Buddha’s realization is “perfect” because it is utterly free of error. This means that not only does the Buddha understand the profound truth of things, but also his knowledge is vast and omnipresent—only the Buddha has such an awakening. And he has not just a perfect understanding of the profound truth of all phenomena, but vast and omnipresent knowledge. Having come to full awakening, a practitioner will attain the essence of the dharmakaya and realize thoroughly the truth of all phenomena. This perfect realization—the ultimate, penetrating realization of truth—is attained through relying on the perfection of prajna.
The Karmapa then turned to the topic of the five paths—accumulation, joining, seeing, learning, and no more learning. When this subject comes up, he noted, people often wonder which one of them they have achieved. But it is not that easy. To even enter the path, beginners need to start with listening and contemplating, taking refuge and then the bodhisattva vows. After these, we cultivate bodhichitta through engaging in mind training. Here “mind” refers to bodhichitta, so we are training in developing bodhichitta. If we work hard at it, bodhichitta will naturally arise within us, and at that point, we have entered the path of accumulation. On this path, according to mahayana practice, a practitioner maintains bodhichitta while contemplating emptiness.
“If you do not have uncontrived bodhicitta, you have not started on the path. It requires great courage to have uncontrived bodhicitta. If it were easy, the bodhisattvas would not be called heroes,” the Karmapa remarked. “Bodhisattvas have tremendous courage and are able to sacrifice themselves. This kind of courage is very hard to find, so we must practice more if we want to rouse bodhichitta. If we train our mind, there is a possibility that we will have such courage.”
“Why is the Heart Sutra called the quintessence of all prajna paramita sutras?” the Karmapa asked. For its all-encompassing structure and for the emphasis the main text places on the single, most important question for all mahayana practitioners: How do we practice the perfection of prajna? From the perspective of the structure of practice, Avalokiteshvara first gives the four-fold emptiness and the eight profound meanings to explain how to understand and train in the thought of the perfection of prajna. (This represents the ground.) He initially applies the four-fold emptiness to the five skandhas, and then relates both the four-fold emptiness and the eight profound meanings to the twelve sense bases, the eighteen elements (dhatus), the twelve links of dependent arising, the Four Noble Truths, and the merit of practice. (This represents the path.) Lastly, he states that by relying on the perfection of prajna, all buddhas attain full awakening. (This represents the fruition.) Therefore in a very short space, the sutra condenses the whole of the mahayana into its ground, path, and fruition.
Further, the Karmapa remarked, in the mantra, the sutra links the five paths of the bodhisattvas. The Heart Sutra is structured into the three divisions of the prologue, the main text, and the completion. In sum, the Heart Sutra is faceted like a radiant jewel, precious and rare, that can be viewed from many angles.
This section concludes the first part of Avalokiteshvara’s answer, (which is section 6, from among the eight sections in the first talk) aimed at those with lesser capability. The second part of his answer for those of higher capability (section 7, the explanation) is the mantra:
Therefore, the mantra of the perfection of prajna is a mantra of great awareness,
an unsurpassed mantra, a mantra equal to what cannot be equaled, a mantra that
utterly pacifies all suffering. It should be known as the truth since it does not deceive. [The Chinese adds, “It is a secret mantra.”]
Those of higher ability are able to understand the prajna of perfection’s entire ground, path, and fruition upon hearing the mantra. Often mantras are classified as belonging to vajrayana, and sutras are classified as belonging to the mahayana, but here we find the two together. The Sanskrit word mantra can be divided into man meaning, “to understand” and tra, “to rescue” or “to protect.” Since all buddhas rely on the perfection of prajna to attain full awakening, the mantra can carry both meanings of understanding the truth and of rescuing beings. The mantra is termed “secret” because it is so profound that ordinary beings are unable to understand it.
In general there are different types of mantra, the Karmapa noted. Worldly mantras help to accomplish short-term goals and to grant specific requests. They are found worldwide and employed to cure disease, avoid ill fortune, pray for rain, and so forth. Another kind of mantra is the dharani (Sanskrit, dhāraṇī), which means “the essence of” or “to hold.” A dharani is usually found at the end of a sutra and encapsulates its very essence. Each bodhisattva, such as Avalokiteshvara, has their own dharani that embodies the aspiration, prajna, compassion, and all the other virtues that are the essence of that bodhisattva. The text speaks of the mantra as:
…a mantra of great awareness, an unsurpassed mantra, a mantra equal to what cannot be equaled, a mantra that utterly pacifies all suffering. It should be known as the truth since it does not deceive.
“Great awareness” refers to prajna, the prajna directly perceiving emptiness; vast and omnipresent, it sees the empty nature of all phenomena. No other prajna can match the prajna realizing truth, and so it is “unsurpassable.” “What cannot be equalled” is emptiness and “equal to what cannot be equalled” is “full awakening.” That is the distinguishing feature of this mantra. What is its effect? The mantra “utterly pacifies all suffering,” which indicates that prajna severs the root of suffering. The description of the mantra ends by stating that the prajna and truth such a mantra embodies is not deceptive, so it should be known to be the truth.
The Heart Sutra continues:
He then uttered the mantra of the perfection of prajna:
Tadyathā, oṃ gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā
In an aside touching on the modern world, the Karmapa commented that some people think they are doing great things by just reciting the mantra. The mantra does represent prajna but if we do not have that prajna active in our mind, just repeating the words is nothing special. If we are reciting the mantra and feel inspired, it can help, but just parroting it is useless.
Returning to the text, the Karmapa explained that the mantra is made up of six Sanskrit words. When translators were bringing the sutras into Tibetan, they kept some words in transliteration and just preserved their sound. Similarly we saw earlier that if a word had too many meanings, it was also left in its original language.
The individual words of the mantra, the Karmapa explained as follows: Gate means, “to go forward,” para means “the other shore” (in paramita “perfection” as well). Sam means “already” and bodhi means “buddhahood” while soha is given many meanings, such as “vast” or “perfection.” The entire mantra would then translate as:
Go forward, go forward, go forward to the other shore, arrive at the other shore, and quickly attain buddhahood.
The Karmapa discussed a medley of interpretations for the mantra, noting that since it holds the essence of whole sutra and of profound prajna, its meaning is very vast. Tibetan masters in the past, for example, explained that gate, gate refers to going forward to the realization of the Listeners; paragate refers to the realization of the Solitary Realizers and parasamgate points to arriving at the realization of the mahayana. Other masters looked at the mantra through the lens of the three doors or openings to liberation: Gate, gate refers to the first opening of emptiness; paragate points to the second opening, being free of characteristics; and parasamgate alludes to the third opening, being free of wishes.
Dromtönpa, a lay Kadampa master, wrote that the first gate referred to the path of accumulation and the second gate, to the path of joining. Paragate referred to the path of seeing and parasamgate, to the path of learning. Finally bodhi svaha indicated the path of no more learning.
Faxian, an early Chinese translator of the sutra, wrote that gate, gate stands for spirit of the mahayana, because we cannot not go forward alone, but need others to progress. Gate, therefore, is said twice: the first time for ourselves and the second for the others. Paragate indicates the other shore or where we are headed. “And if you are a boatman,” the Karmapa noted in passing, “the benefit is greater if you take others along with you.” Parasamgate is the other shore itself or bodhi. Finally, through the practice of the perfection of prajna, we can arrive at full awakening, and therefore, svaha.
Master Kukai (Kobo Daishi, or Hong Fa in Chinese) brought the vajrayana (known as Shingon) to Japan. He explained that the first gate referred to the Listeners and the second one, to the Solitary Realizers; paragate indicated mahayana practice and parasamgate, vajrayana practice. Bodhi svaha referred to how all these practices will lead to the perfect awakening.
Since this is a secret mantra, many masters in the past did not speak of it. Why would Avalokiteshvara what to change that? “The mantra is secret yet it is spoken about, isn’t that contradictory?” the Karmapa asked. Actually, buddhas and bodhisattvas do not have anything they want to keep secret. The difference between the foundational school and the vajrayana lies in the people and their understanding. If they understand, the mantra is not secret; if they do not understand, the mantra remains secret. Buddhas and bodhisattvas are waiting to teach and benefit living beings; the problem is that they have closed the main door and so the buddhas and bodhisattvas cannot enter.
In a lighter vein, the Karmapa shifted to the present day: “People ask me, ‘Where is my Guru?’ They want me to give them his name, address, and telephone number. If it were so easy, I would have given you all Amitabha Buddha’s phone number!” The problem, he advised, lies within us. Our desire for the Dharma is not pure or correct enough, and therefore we are unable to find a guru. We need to know that all the bodhisattvas and buddhas are waiting to benefit living beings, he stated. They are there waiting outside the door, but we have closed it shut. “If the door of our faith and confidence is open, I am sure they will rush in to help us,” he reassured, adding, “our desire for Dharma should be straightforward and not too complex or strange.”
Continuing his explanation, the Karmapa remarked that those who understand Buddha’s meaning by simply listening to the mantra would be very few, which shows how difficult it is to understand its message. Avalokiteshvara then concludes his response on how those of lower and higher capacity should practice:
“Shariputra, this is the way that bodhisattvas mahasattvas should train in the profound perfection of prajna.”
This line completes Avalokiteshvara’s explanation, the seventh section, and leads into the eighth section, that of rejoicing.
Then the Bhagawan arose from samadhi and proclaimed to the noble Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva mahasattva, “Excellent! Well done, well done! Son of a noble family, it is exactly so. It is just like that. The profound perfection of prajna should be practiced just as you have taught, and all the tathagatas will rejoice.”
This quotation can be divided into two parts. The first part, from “Then the Bhagawan rose” to “as you have taught,” shows the Buddha’s support for Avalokiteshvara’s response. The five paths of the bodhisattvas should be practiced just as he had accurately taught. The second part of the quotation, “and all the tathagatas will rejoice,” shows that not just the Buddha and bodhisattvas endorse what Avalokiteshvara said but all the tathagatas do as well.
Finally, the Heart Sutra concludes with the eighth section on rejoicing:
After the Buddha spoke these words, the venerable Shariputra, the bodhisattva noble Avalokiteshvara, the entire gathering, and the world with its gods and humans, the demi-gods and the gandharvas, all rejoiced and praised the words of the Victorious One.
All those who had gathered for the teachings received the answer they had sought—a cause to rejoice and praise what the Buddha had said. With this, the Heart Sutra draws to a close.
As these teachings on the Heart Sutra also came to their conclusion, the hall resounded with appreciative applause. After thanking all the people who had helped him prepare for the teaching, the Gyalwang Karmapa then gave a short refuge ceremony and concluded his four-day commentary on the Heart Sutra by giving the oral transmission of the text in Tibetan.
The four days have been an awe-inspiring demonstration of His Holiness’s grasp of the complexities of the Heart Sutra, coupled with his ability to get to the heart of the text and express its meaning in terms that everyone could understand. For all those present, listening to this direct exposition has been the most extraordinary privilege.

2016.8.18 法王噶瑪巴2016年亞洲講經法席《心經》課程 (6)