Thinking Beyond Ourselves
June 24, 2016 – New Delhi, India.
In the twenty-first century, the issue of the environment presents the greatest difficulty we face. If we do not deal with it well, it will become an immense problem for the next generation. Scientists have done a lot of research and gathered extensive data but this alone is not enough to change people’s minds. The information is stored in our brains but does not reach our hearts or minds to alter them. Knowledge alone is not enough: we must allow it to change the way we think.
The situation with smoking is similar. Everyone knows that it is dangerous to their health, and cigarette packages even have warnings printed on them, but that is not enough to break the habit of smoking. Having put a warning on the package, the cigarette companies do not feel responsible to do anything further. Their interest lies in promoting their own business, not in protecting people’s health.
To bring about change in the way we relate to the environment, it is important that scientists and religious leaders connect and work together; the scientists can provide the information and spiritual leaders can give advice for our hearts. This collaboration between the scientific and spiritual will support and augment the activity of environmental activists.
The Karmapa related that from the time he was born until he was seven, he grew up in a natural environment where modern development was unknown and a traditional life style was followed. People lived in harmony with their surroundings and had a natural respect for them. This way of living made a lasting impression on his mind.
For some years now, the Karmapa has been talking about the environment and encouraging people to be aware of the situation, but he said that he has not done all he wished to. These days many people live in cities far away from the natural world. The Karmapa mentioned that when he was in the United States, he learned that in books the words dealing with the natural world are decreasing. Researchers have discovered that when city dwellers go to the parks—the natural, though man-made environment available to them—it benefits their mental state and gives them a sense of ease. Nevertheless, in print, it is the words related to technology and machines that are increasing.
“As we have seen,” the Karmapa remarked, “to bring about change, information is not enough; we have to transform our motivation, what it is that really moves us. Since there is a relationship between the environment and the way we live our lives, until we change our motivation, it will be difficult to change our attitude toward the environment.”
The main point is that we need to restrain our wanting and increase our contentment. Of these two, being content is more important. When we talk of decreasing our wants, the question arises, how do we measure the extent to which we decrease them? What does the “few” of having few wants really mean? Further this does not mean that we have no wants at all? So there is also some difficulty with the wording.
In our modern world, consumerism has become the new religion in which we place our faith. Consequently, we see no difference between what we need and what we want. We actually need very little, but we want everything. Scientists have explained that we could have three or four planets and this would still not be enough to satisfy our desires. This creates a very difficult situation since our wants have no limit, but the natural resources do have limits and cannot possibly fulfill all of our desires. Therefore, we have to become more content with what we have.
The Karmapa explained, “In our daily life, whatever we do has a direct effect on the environment and we should consider this in a practical way. Being an activist, going to demonstrations, or several days of a conference by themselves will not really help the situation. Instead of this, we need to deal with the issue in our daily lives.”
Giving up eating meat and being a vegetarian is one of the best things we can do for the environment. The Karmapa said that he had only spoken about this officially one time and that was at the Kagyu Monlam. He had intended to talk about it on the first day, but was a bit reluctant to be telling people what to do, so it did not happen until the last day when a Tibetan animal rights group also asked him to talk about being vegetarian. He spoke about it perhaps more strongly than he had intended but then if one is going to talk about something, one should do it with conviction, otherwise it is not really worth saying.
If we are going to give up meat, we have to connect this decision with who we are, he said. In the Karmapa’s case, he is Buddhist and Kagyu, and then a link also has to be made to an individual’s way of living. In his talk he also mentioned that giving up meat would help his life force and vitality.
Previously in Tibet, it was difficult to be vegetarian as there were few places where vegetables could grow and people relied on dairy products. Nevertheless, some Tibetans gave up meat, and among the Kagyu, the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje, was vegetarian and even said, “If you eat meat, you are not a Kagyu.” When this citation spread beyond the Monlam, it somehow was attributed to the Karmapa, so it made for a very strong statement coming from him.
Even though his favorite food is meat, the Karmapa wanted to do something meaningful and so he became vegetarian, something that has given him great satisfaction. But he does not force people around him to follow his decision, for each person has to make the choice for themselves. In a restaurant he will even order meat for them. If we do eat meat, however, we should think about the animals and also the effect on the environment. Sometimes, he sympathized, it is difficult if you are the only vegetarian in the family and special food has to be prepared for you. Or if you have to cook meat for others, which can make us uncomfortable. He reiterated that we need to think about this and make our own decision. If we are concerned about the environment, not eating meat is one decision we can make.
The Sessions of Questions and Answers
The first question asked about blessings. What are they?
The Karmapa replied that from one perspective, people think of blessings as something secret that we cannot see, but actually there is a simple way to understand them. We could think of a little child in the lap of its mother or being near someone whom they know loves them. That feeling of being secure and happy is like a blessing. Even though there is nothing we can see, due to the power, charisma, or the love of that person, the child’s experience is transformed.
Sometimes when I’m on the way to visit a lama, my mind might feel a bit tight or not peaceful, but when I leave and go home my mind feels more calm and joyful. That is what blessings are like. Someone else’s powerful, caring presence can change our experience. Blessings do not refer to being struck by some powerful energy, as some people describe it these days.
The second question was about Buddhist Dharma becoming commercialized. What does the Karmapa think about this?
The Karmapa replied that it is not just Buddhism that is becoming more commercialized but everything—politics thinks about the bottom line, hospitals look to make money from their treatments, and so forth. Since Buddhism is embedded in this world, naturally it will be influenced by it. It is also true, he said, that not all Buddhists are wealthy, so sometimes they have no choice. When we think about Buddhism and business, we have to consider the overall situation as well. One cannot say right off that this is good or bad. What is important is not to lose the essential Buddhist principles and to hold these more important than any business you might be doing.
“What I’m more concerned about,” the Karmapa stated, “is that Buddhist meditation, especially abroad, is being taught outside the context of faith and devotion to the Dharma. People just think in terms of how they can benefit themselves by creating happy states of mind.” Meditation, he cautioned, is becoming a product for the market or a subject of research projects. This resembles what happened to yoga, which in ancient India was not just physical exercise, but profound mind training. For Buddhists, it is key that we do not lose the essential principles of Buddhism.
The following query asked about donating our organs after dying.
The Karmapa responded, “This question relates to the Vajrayana. Whether to give or not depends on our bodhicitta, our resolve to donate for the benefit of others. If this is strong and in place before we pass away, then I do not see a problem. The bodhisattva Great Being gave his body to the tigress when he was still alive without any thought for the state of his prana, nadi, and bindu.” It really depends on our altruistic resolve to donate our organs.
The next question dealt with divination and astrology. Can a divination change your karmic destiny?
The Karmapa replied that sometimes he has done divinations, for example when he was leaving Tibet. Performing divinations is a special Tibetan tradition. They can be helpful when people are stuck and cannot decide on something. At the Kagyu Monlam, we had numerous meetings about whether or not to give donations during the pujas or not. We simply could not make up our minds. So I was asked to do a divination, and however it turned out would be accepted. In modern western management, there’s nothing like this, so issues have to be dealt and talked about with until there is a final decision.
Whether a divination will change our karmic destiny or not is difficult to say. What really has to change is our character. If we can transform this, then our karmic destiny will be altered. Changing our character does not mean modifying how we look or behave or talk; it involves a basic shift in our way of thinking and being. Once a person changes like this, it is possible for our karma to shift as well.
Divinations are related to specific individuals and situations, so whether it is suitable to make divinations or not is a very difficult question to answer. In Buddhism the teachings on karma are complex and subtle, and it is not at all easy to predict what will happen in the future. It resembles the difficulty in forecasting the weather, given all the changes due to global warning, or the problems in predicting earthquakes.
After this, there was a question from parents who asked about difficulties they were having in relation to their homosexual child.
The Karmapa replied that he had spoken about this several times. Many religions, and probably Buddhism as well, prohibit homosexuality. However, to say it simply, whether people are of the same sex or not, what really matters is the actual love they have for each other. If people meet and their hearts are moved, and if they live together with love and affection, there is no problem. In Buddhism we encourage people to be loving and affectionate toward each other, so if hearts and minds are attuned, living together is fine.
However, it can be the case that on an individual level, people get together mainly on the basis of lust and attachment—a relationship will not last long because these feelings are unstable, ready to change at any moment. More deeply, in Buddhism generally, we are seeking to give up lust and attachment, so relations that foster these feelings would be opposed. In sum, on one side there are religions that oppose homosexuality, which is also problematic in Buddhism; on the other hand, if there is love and affection, I think it is fine.
The final question was: How do we prepare for death while we are still alive?
The Karmapa responded that there are many ways, and one of the most effective is to imagine that one day is an entire lifetime. In the morning when we wake, we are born from our mother’s womb and in the evening when we lie down to sleep, it is on our deathbed. Another meditation on death is to think about what the situation around us will be when we die. What will happen to our body? What will the situation be? In working with this, there are even people who get into a coffin and spend the night with the lid closed.
Every day we meet birth and death, which always come together, just like the rising and setting of the sun. If we can meet death on a daily basis, it will become familiar to us, and the more familiar it is, the less fear we will have. That is a benefit stemming from meditation on death and the impermanent nature of our existence.