Interpreting the Buddha Dharma for the 21st century
29th May, 2014
Teaching Day 1: AM Session 1
The mission of the 17th Karmapa in the 21st century is mainly Dharma activity. However, the Dharma must change in order to suit the time and the needs of society and its people. Itsessence will still be Buddha Dharma but I may give it a new external shape.
17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje
His Holiness The 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, began his first ever European teaching programme with a skilful presentation of a classic Buddhist contemplation, the four thoughts that turn the mind to Dharma. In an address which acknowledged the wide range of interest and experience in the audience of 2000 people, he rewove the ancient philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism in a way which was meaningful and accessible to all.
It was an amazing and moving moment for the Buddhist practitioners present, many of whom could hardly believe that finally their teacher was here in Europe.A feeling, it seemed, that was shared by His Holiness who began his talk by saying how long he had waited for this moment:
“It feels that it’s one of the most meaningful things I have done in my life. It’s like coming home to my family. This gives me great pleasure and happiness.”
The three days of teachings and empowerments are being held at the Bitburger Event-Center. Within this vast concrete and steel auditorium, the stage itself is set as a simple but stunning Pan-Asian fusion. Designed to represent a pagoda, the two lower tiers in blue depict the sea and the sky, whereas the uppermost tier, where His Holiness sits on a carved wooden throne, is red to symbolise sacred ground. The blue backdrop and lighting effects portray the translucent quality of light at the North and South poles, the purest places on earth. The eye is naturally drawn to a large thangka of Lord Buddha which hangs from one of the gantries behind His Holiness’ throne. It is painted in the colours and style of the Karma Gadri school of Tibetan Art, developed by the Karmapas, and depicts the moment, shortly after his enlightenment, when Shakyamuni Buddha asked the earth to be his witness. On either side of the stage stands a large white vase of traditionalJapanese ikebana[flower arrangement] in aspecial style known as rikka. The lines and images of deep red peonies,multi-coloured birds of paradise, stark branches andgreenery combine to symbolise the whole world of living things.
During the first two sessions, the 17th Karmapa provided a fresh and thought-provoking look at the four thoughts that turn the mind to Dharma, otherwise called the four common preliminaries:this precious human life; death and impermanence; karma: cause and effect; and the defects of samara.
Earlier this month, in another teaching, he emphasised the importance for Buddhist practitioners at all levels of thoroughly contemplating these four in order to “turn the direction of our minds”, warning that “If we do not effect some sort of change in our mind streams and how we think, no matter how much we do the main practice, it will not benefit us. It will not become an antidote for the afflictions; in fact it might even increase the afflictions.”
Contemplating these four is essential“in order to mix the mind with Dharma”.
Today, however, he presented them as a tool which could be used by anybody who wanted to make their lives meaningful, of benefit to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. He spoke frankly about his own experiences and encouraged people to assume responsibility for themselves, for others, and for the environment.
Beginning with the contemplation on this precious human life, His Holiness explained that traditionally, a precious human life is one which is useful, full of opportunities, and has few obstacles to the practice of Dharma. Dharma, however, should be understood in a context far wider than religion; the practice of Dharma is about fulfilling our human potential.
A precious human life, therefore, is one which ismeaningful; a life in which we can develop our innate positive qualities and act in a way which is beneficial both to ourselves and to others. It is a life in which we can become more compassionate and practise non-violence.
All human beings have some positive, innate qualities, such as loving kindness and compassion, and we have to develop these. It’s not that you have to become someone completely different; you need to bring out the natural qualities within you. That’s Dharma practice. We practise the Dharma within our normal everyday lives. To practise Dharma means to become a better human being.
From experience he recounted how he was no different from other people and had had to work hard to develop his own positive qualitiesin order to fulfil his role as the Karmapa.
In my case, I was just like any other child, a normal child. Then at seven, when I was given the name Karmapa, it was not like I was given an injection or an elixir, I had to study and practise. People came to see me with expectations, and they put their trust in me.Slowly I understood the duties and responsibilities attached to the title.
All human beings have such duties and responsibilities, he argued, for their own welfare, and for the welfare of their families and friends, even for the whole world. We need the courage to assume these duties and responsibilities and to work to accomplish the full potential of this precious human life.
Teaching Day 1 : AM Session 2
After a short break, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa continued his teaching on the four thoughts that turn the mind to Dharma. He began by discussing the dangers of being self-centred and of misunderstanding the true nature of self.
Because we lack courage and confidence or because we are trapped in the prison of our own self-centredness, we ignore opportunities to make our life meaningful and to fulfil our human potential.
When reflecting on his own experience, he had reached the conclusion that at those times when we feel stressed by our responsibilities or under pressure, the root cause is that we do not have sufficient compassion. Thus, we need to develop our love and compassion in order to release this power to benefit others.
This focus on ourselves is based on a misapprehension of what the ‘self’ and ‘I’ really are. Although there is, of course, a sense of self, if we reflect, we understand that the self is dependent on many things, whereas we mistakenly perceive it as independent. Just as the different parts of our body depend on other parts, we cannot survive without the environment around us or the support of other people and living things. Interdependence is far more than a philosophical view. A realisation of our interdependence has to become a basis for action. It has to become a way of life. Understanding interdependence will not just affect our relationship with other people, but will affect our relationship with the whole living world. Also, when we understand interdependence we realise our duty and responsibility to protect the environment.
The second contemplation on death and impermanence is a message of hope for everyone, he asserted. There is no need to dwell only on the death aspect. Everything changes, moment by moment. Nothing stays the same. But instead of seeing this as a loss or being fearful of it, we should regard itas a potential for limitless opportunities. None of us needs to be trapped by the past. If we have done a great wrong, we can change. Whatever was done to us, we can leave it behind and move on: “If we meditate on impermanence, we can see that every moment there is an opportunity to start again.”
If we understand impermanence and the moment-by-moment nature of our own existence, we can cherish each moment of our lives and use them to the full. Even a person with only five minutes left to live can use those five minutes effectively to become a better person and make their lives meaningful. The message of this contemplation is: While we are alive, it is never too late to change.
Moving on to the third topic, His Holiness commented, that the idea of karma may often seem very complex and difficult. However, he gave a simple analogy which everyone could appreciate. Referring to his first impressions of Germany, how green and healthy the trees were, he explained that when we see those trees, “we know that they are being cared for. We don’t need to be told this. We know what kind of people live in the area. That’s how karma is.”
Whatever we do, we need to do with a good motivation. We need to assume responsibility and take action. That is karma.
And karma is linked to interdependence. “One individual’s small aspiration can affect the whole world,” he said. Mistakenly, people often regard the Buddha as superhuman. We underestimate the power we each have, the innate potential to become a Buddha.
We all have an inner Buddha. “Our Buddha is like a child, it hasn’t grown sufficiently, so we need to nurture it.” This is our great responsibility.
Finally, the Karmapa used the fourth topic, the faults of samsara, to highlight several of his concerns about life in the developed world. These include the dangers of consumerism and unchecked greed and their devastating effects on the environment.
Although everyone knows that they want to be happy and don’t want to suffer, they don’t know how to achieve this, he said. We are often confused, thinking that something will lead to happiness when in fact it leads to suffering. We believe wrongly that the enjoyment of luxuries and sensual pleasure will lead to happiness. But this will always be impossible because eventually we become dissatisfied and want more and more.
This thoughtless chasing after our own material benefit has led us to be totally oblivious of the needs of the other creatures with whom we share this planet.
The world’s resources are limited, but our desire and greed know no bounds. So, because of this mismatch, we are heading towards environmental disaster. The Earth itself has been like a mother to us, providing us with all our needs: she is the source of life and well-being. But in our reckless race to exploit all her resources, we have totally disregarded her and are on course to destroy her. If she is to survive, we cannot continue to live as we do. When we realise this, we have to take action. We cannot stand by and do nothing.
Everyone has to take responsibility for what is happening to the environment. As individuals we have to make radical changes in our lifestyles, choose to live more simply, and be content with less.