On several occasions during the first part of his teachings in Germany, the 17th Karmapa has emphasised the personal responsibility we all share for protecting and preserving the natural environment. In 2009 he founded Khoryug, an organisation of Buddhist monasteries, nunneries and centres dedicated to protecting the fragile environment of the Himalayan region. In addition, the Karmapa has sponsored five conferences with training workshops to ensure that his own monks and nuns are fully briefed on environmental matters. Faced with worldwide deforestation, his active concern has led him to urge all monasteries and Dharma centres in the Karma Kagyu tradition, to plant as many trees as possible, and he has made it his own practice to plant trees wherever he goes.
His environmental commitment marries well with German tradition, where planting a tree is a particularly significant gesture. Germans love to quote Martin Luther: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” They commemorate all major events — the birth of a child, reaching adulthood, marriage, and death —by planting a tree.
Thus, on his final day at Kamalashila, the 17th Karmapa planted a Canadian gum tree [Liquidambar styraciflua], in the area in front of his own residence.
A hole had already been prepared for its root bole, but, as a symbolic gesture, His Holiness picked up a spade and began to dig. As he hefted the spade to enlarge the hole, he gasped in astonishment when it glanced off the sides of the hole.
“It’s very hard!” he exclaimed. “Like stone!” He was absolutely right. Unbeknown to him, the soil at Kamalshila had been in such poor condition, that the earth in this area had been mixed with stones in order to improve the drainage and was particularly hard to dig.
With assistance from three bodyguards, the Karmapa helped manoeuvre the tree into its new home, watered the roots, and began alternately refilling the hole with soil and pouring copious water. After the Karmapa had retired to his quarters nearby, Hannah Lore, who designed the grounds here and is head gardener, completed the work. As she tamped down the soil, her clear strong voice rose in a Native American song ‘The Eagle’, blessing the young tree and encouraging its vigorous and healthy growth.
At Kamalashila Institute the gum tree will remain as a symbol and a reminder for this and future generations of the momentous occasion when the 17th Karmapa visited his European seat for the first time.