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.
Karmapa took his seat on the morning of Day 2 with a large paper fan in hand, and continued to make very expressive faces. We had been told to expect an empowerment of the 1000 Buddhas, but once again, Karmapa changed course.
Empowerments are given too frequently these days, Karmapa said, and this has caused empowerments to lose some of their value or to depreciate. He announced that today, he would give an empowerment into the blessings of the Buddha Shakyamuni—a meditation transmission, not a full empowerment. And first, he would explain the vow of refuge.
From what do we seek refuge? Who protects us? Who gives us refuge?
While The Buddha protects us by showing the path away from suffering, and the Buddha and Sangha are sources of refuge because they facilitate the path to liberation, in terms of direct protection, “One must become one’s own protector.” Responsibility rests with each of us. The Holy Dharma is the method or means of protection.
We have the ability to make moral choices; this is the basis of spiritual practice. “It is because we have this ability that we hope for liberation.”
We are fortunate to be able to learn dharma from an experienced teacher: Buddha Shakyamuni, who actually appeared in this world “and is our good teacher.” We have the intelligence we need to learn dharma, or what was taught by the Buddha. And this dharma has a provenance; it’s not “like a sound heard from the sky.” Buddhahood is experiential wisdom, a “great understanding of the nature of human experience…understanding the origin of dharma is really important.”
From the Buddha comes the dharma. From the dharma comes the sangha. We need friends and partners to bear the burden of our lives; providing this friendship is the role of the sangha.
In the Sutra tradition, we view our teacher as a friend or advisor who is totally trustworthy and reliable. In the Vajrayana tradition, we’re taught to view our teacher as Buddha; however, we might not be able to do this at first.
Why imagine our guru as Buddha? Karmapa suggested one reason I’d never thought of: Because of how much we fantasize about the Buddha, “to close the gap” between fantasy and our human experience because Shakyamuni Buddha was a person, after all, much like us—not a superhuman.
Karmapa mentioned that it’s easy to assume buddhahood is something unattainable when we learn, for example, about the special marks a buddha carries, such as the webbing between fingers and toes. Karmapa said he had thought about this, and how strange it might be for a person to have webbed fingers and toes, but then he said, “I think these were webs of light”…otherwise Buddha couldn’t have worn flip-flops, as everyone did in India! I gasped when he said “webs of light” because I realized, Of course! Why wouldn’t these be webs of light? I can’t explain why or how, but there was a most definite ring of truth to this statement, something I had never considered before.
And while the remark about flip-flops was amusing, I wrote in my notebook for a friend to read: “He is helping everyone here see him as a buddha” without the fantastic overlay we usually put on such beings.
The method of our protection is to properly practice the genuine dharma. We protect ourselves through practice, but we need a spiritual teacher as “a matter of practical necessity.” This is our “outer spiritual friend,” the individual who teaches us. We also have an “inner spiritual friend” (I’ve heard another teacher, Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche, refer to this as our “inner lama”) who is the one within us who practices correctly.
“In the end,” Karmapa said, “all fingers are pointing at us…It sounds heavy, but no pressure.”
Karmapa then answered some of the questions that had been submitted in writing. In response to a question about whether our thoughts could affect the behavior of others or harm others, he explained that acts of body and speech harm others, while unvirtuous mental states harm ourselves. He said that he had recently learned of studies that seemed to indicate that changes in body chemistry due to anger can cause changes in the chemical composition of saliva, so that otherwise “healthy” saliva can be chemically transformed to the point that it will “kill small beings.”
Someone asked if emptiness and compassion were contradictory. Karmapa explained that emptiness is the relativity of all things, possibility or opportunity. Other than relative comparison, there are no inherent attributes. In this way, everything is interdependent. “I arise dependent on others,” he explained. Understanding of this interdependence leads to a recollection of the kindness of our mothers and all beings, and a good recognition of emptiness leads to an understanding of our ignorance—we realize beings are ignorant of the causes of happiness and suffering, which leads to more compassion.
The afternoon of Day 2 began with the empowerment and ended with the answers to some additional questions. In response to a question about whether the new, shortened ngondro carries the same benefits as the longer form, Karmapa said he developed the short form for the benefit of busy people who don’t have a lot of time to practice; however, you can’t assess the benefit of a practice based on the liturgy alone. Much depends on how people practice.
In terms of balancing family life with compassion, Karmapa made reference to the Six Perfections. He also said, “Don’t leave dharma in the shrine room.” Formal practice needs to spread into our daily life. “Dharma practice is not supposed to be fun.” It’s exertive, like physical exercise. (Note from A Word Witch: Even the pitiful amount of practice that I do, which is mainly involved with bringing dharma into daily life, is the hardest work I’ve ever done.)
“Dharma is mental exercise,” Karmapa said. We need formal practice to “recharge our batteries.” We can tell how well trained we are by how well we get along with others.
Karmapa’s closing remarks were, for me, very powerful and very, very moving. In addition to developing technology and understanding the brain, we need to pay attention to the heart, mind, and spirit. America is a country that has a responsibility and can be a powerful force for peace. Karmapa said he is placing his hopes in us, as a force for good in the world.
He then thanked Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, and everyone who has worked to build the structure and organization that is Karma Triyana Dharmachakra.
“I see everything you do,” Karmapa said. “I have the great hope to help you and support you in every way.”
And, finally: “Thank you, Yeshe Gyamtso.”