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.
His Holiness Karmapa began his speech by saying that there are many different spiritual traditions in America—he used “America” frequently to refer to the United States—and that we have the freedom to choose which of these we will follow; we may also choose to follow no tradition at all. From one point of view, this makes things easy; from another point of view, choosing a tradition becomes difficult when confronted with so many different choices.
Sprinkling English words and phrases throughout his Tibetan, Karmapa explained that “religion” is different from “spirituality.” Spirituality is the cultivation “of the fundamental goodness or virtue of which we are all capable,” and does not need to follow any specific tradition.
Adherence to a spiritual tradition or religion is a choice that we have. The evolution of the spirit includes benevolence, an understanding of interdependence, and a sincere wish to help others along with the development of the means and insight to do so. “The basic idea is to be a good person.” These remarks reminded me of things that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said over and over again, many many times.
I wrote “-RAIN!-” in my journal here, and was thankful for the breeze and the lower temperatures that followed the shower.
Although religious practice is a personal choice, what must underlie this is recognition of the self, meaning: We have all been born as humans, so we have unique, innate abilities. Something that is very special about humans is that we have the capacity for ethical choice (italics mine). We know the difference between right and wrong, and between what is helpful and what is not—not only for ourselves, but also for others. “This is the first step,” Karmapa explained.
At this point I wrote again in my journal, “~He seems more animated now that rain has cooled things down considerably.~”
When someone has faith in the dharma and becomes a practitioner, they are supposed to become a better person—but sometimes they become worse! This is a problem. Karmapa cautioned us about falling into “too much fantasy” because we are so inspired by the dharma. “We must never allow the practice of dharma to ignore our innate human abilities.” Instead, faith in the dharma must be based on practicalities—as in the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind and “contemplation of what it means to be a human being.”
With regard to the foundation of Vajrayana practice, “We can’t start by imagining ourselves as gods…we must become good, decent people before we can realize Mahamudra” or the Great Perfection.
“We must not allow ourselves as human beings to become isolated from the dharma we practice.” (Again, italics are mine.)
We need a stable foundation for dharma practice: “This is important.” Karmapa suggested that maybe it is more important for beginners to become a good person than to cultivate faith in the sources of refuge.
Every time Karmapa spoke about “being a good person,” I was reminded of my mother and how, growing up in the American South, I was taught from the time I was very young to consider the wishes and needs of others before my own, and to cultivate good manners. It was the traditional Southern woman’s blessing or curse (take your pick) to learn to put others first, to anticipate the wants and needs of guests especially, and—at all costs!—to avoid being rude.
Like most children, I chafed under this code of conduct when I was very young, but later I began to notice how practical and helpful the code proved to be in different social situations. Over time, I developed what I think is a fairly good ability to assess the states of mind and needs of other people around me—an ability that has proved useful in any number of work-related situations. I’m not always a shining example of politeness—I’m too impatient and I tend to interrupt conversations, which I know is a bad habit, for one thing (and there are more)—but I do think my traditional Southern upbringing had a lot to do with why, when I first started studying Buddhism with a teacher, the dharma resonated with me so strongly. Of course it didn’t hurt that my first dharma teacher was a Southern woman who had been raised with the same code of manners!
Karmapa went on to explain that the term for “spirituality” in Buddhism is “dharma” (Sanskrit) or “cho” (Tibetan). While there are 10 different definitions of dharma, what is important is how we understand the term: Dharma refers to “fixing” or “transforming” our minds. The essence of dharma is ahimsa or nonviolence, which refers to a state of mental nonaggression or peace.
The principal result of dharma practice is to develop peace of mind.
Here, Karmapa held up a large teacup with a lid and said, “This is American size,” eliciting laughter from the audience. I thought his remark was simply an aside, but as I look back on my notes now, I realize it was actually a part of his teaching—what in literature we would call a foreshadowing of points yet to be made.