Note from A Word Witch: I paraphrase Karmapa’s speech, except in sections marked with quotes. Any errors in meaning or transcription are, of course, mine and mine alone.
One thing Karmapa did that was interesting and different from other teachings I’ve attended was jump from subject to subject; this happened frequently throughout his talk, and was sometimes preceded with a statement such as, “Now I am going to jump,” and sometimes not.
So we jumped from meeting the challenges of body, speech, and mind to Karmapa’s next point: “So, what do we need?”
Karmapa explained that we identify strongly with the material circumstances of existence and construct our lives based largely on this identification. “We identify too much with these externals”—things like our professions—so that when we lose our jobs, we lose our identities. If our identities involve love and compassion, however, this is “conducive to healthy self-esteem” and we will be okay.
Here I wrote in my notes, “! mentions: ‘social construction of reality’!!!” I was shocked (in a good way) to hear this phrase coming from Karmapa, since I had a two-semester course in graduate school that dealt with “The Social Reality of Human Organizations.” This was my favorite course and the reason I stuck with the program, which I was negotiating on top of a full-time job, because it was all about how we human beings are largely the creators—not helpless victims—of the kinds of social structures in which we live during the eight or 10 hours we’re at work.
The course looked at all the models that have been used to explain how organizations function, from ecosystems to families to machines and just about everything in between, leading to a point that is very similar to the Buddhist idea of interdependence: We are each responsible for creating both the positive and the negative atmospheres we experience at work. My instructor had a vivid grasp of the kinds of things that can and do go wrong in organizations, and when he said—at the first class meeting—that “Issues of power and authority in organizations are never issues of power and authority, they are issues of fear and insecurity,” I wanted to stand up and cheer because this was a situation I had witnessed many times, yet I had never had the words for it, or a context in which to place it.
So I wanted to stand up and cheer again—this time for Karmapa, when he mentioned the social construction of reality—because here was a strong connection between the dharma teachings, which can sometimes seem ethereal and otherworldly, and what my mother always referred to as “the real world.”
Our technological resources are increasing our pressures and stress, Karmapa said, and we are being seduced by this increasing self-fixation that is pushed on us by technological messages; we need to talk about this learned self-fixation that is making our lives so heavy and filled with pressure. While we have access to almost limitless information, we are moving farther and farther from the truth. We are like people who are “dying from thirst on the shore of the ocean” (Karmapa explained that whoever coined this phrase evidently didn’t know that you can’t drink ocean water).
We need to think about our relationship with everything and everyone else. We are part of a net or web that connects everyone.
Karmapa then explained that when his personal hopes are not fulfilled, this does not mean life is meaningless because “perhaps I am fulfilling the hopes of others.” We need to “assess our own lives through the lives of others.” I surmised that doing this might well be an antidote to the increasing technological pressures and self-fixation that Karmapa had mentioned earlier.
Referring to the Karma Kagyu lineage prayer, Karmapa explained that “revulsion” with this life does not mean “life has no meaning” and that nonattachment/revulsion is not the same as detachment, which can lead to dull neutrality or dullness. Rather, nonattachment/revulsion means we must separate ourselves from our conventional view of life as primarily concerned with material prosperity, affluence, and possessions. As long as we identify happiness with possessions, we will never be happy; Karmapa specifically mentioned “iPhone, iPad, iAnything.”
“I know this,” Karmapa said. “People give me these things all the time. They don’t make me happy; they cause a storage problem.”
Rather than constantly acquiring new things, it is contentment that makes us happy. If we do not transcend the idea that we must constantly be acquiring “stuff” in order to be happy, then we risk applying that same fixation on acquisition to our dharma practice. We become “someone who has given up barley but is attached to rice.” To illustrate his point, Karmapa told of reading a news story about someone who sold a kidney for an iPad! In order to deepen our lives beyond the search for material acquisitions, we need to let go of this craving for “stuff.”
The innate aspect of our fixation is the idea of “I” or “me.” When I use this word, I think I am speaking about an independent entity, but this is a mistaken notion because “I” exist only in relationship with others. Yet I continue to think “I” and “my” out of habit: “my iPad, my iPhone, my documents, my computer.” (I wonder if Karmapa uses a Mac or a PC? Anybody know?)
This “I” thought process is like being in prison—solitary confinement. We get only a few visitors, such as “my parents.” But since our happiness really depends on others—not “stuff”—we should be concerned with others. This concern is the starting point for love, compassion, benevolence—the idea of being helpful to others and to ourselves. “The most efficient selfishness is concern for others.”
New jump: “This brings us to emptiness, which is very, very practical…emptiness is possibility.” The idea of emptiness widens our view and outlook; it’s interdependence, interconnectedness, vast openness, mutual love, compassion, affection, with “great practical implications for our lives.”
Here, at the end of the first day’s teaching, Karmapa said he would take written questions, so people hurried to write them down and turn them in.
Karmapa also said that KTD is “not a second home, but my home, and you are my family—except Yeshe Gyamtso.”
I love a teacher with a sense of humor!