Voice of America Offices, Washington, D.C.
July 31, 2018
During his recent visit to the nation’s capital, His Holiness visited the offices of the Voice of America for an interview. The following is a slightly edited version of that occasion with the abbreviated questions in italics.
What was you reason for coming to Washington D.C.?
“I came to attend part of a ministerial on religious freedom,” the Karmapa replied, “which was sponsored by the US Department of State. The Vice President of the United States and others gave speeches and there were also talks about the need to focus attention on the freedom of the Tibetan people. On the third day, I took part in one of two panels convened as an addition to the two-day conference by the United States Institute of Peace and other organizations.”
The second question asked about the Karmapa’s direct connections with Tibet and the impact of his activity.
“I can’t communicate directly with people inside Tibet,” the Karmapa stated, “so it is hard to know exactly what the impact is. In India, we have been able to tighten the discipline and invigorate such traditional events as the Kagyu Gonchö (Kagyu Winter Dharma) and the Kagyu Monlam. This has occurred through changing the curriculum of study that is followed and the regulations regarding ritual procedures and personal conduct. All of these have been instituted following Tibetan traditions.
“Although I’m not in direct communication with our monastic communities in Tibet, what we are carrying out in India is becoming a model for the monasteries in Tibet. For example, we changed what is studied in the levels of the monastic colleges, and now those in Tibet are taking this program as a basis for their curriculum. Likewise, during the Kagyu Monlam, there was training in conduct for the monastics and these changes are benefitting the ordained sangha in Tibet.”
The next query concerned the preservation of the Tibetan language.
The Karmapa responded, “The Tibetan language is the lifeline that links us to our culture, our arts, and our spirituality. When we are children, we fly kites, holding onto the string that connects us to the kite. Language is like this kite string, so I fear that if we lose our language, the line to our rich culture will be cut. One could also say that language is our life force: without it, our culture is a corpse. It is critical, therefore, that Tibetans all over the world emphasize the study of their written and spoken language. Many Tibetans in Tibet now speak Chinese or a mix of Chinese and Tibetan. At the same time, there is a large population of Tibetans in the Tibetan area, the language is used widely, and people are making efforts to preserve it.
“However, the number of Tibetans living outside of their homeland has decreased considerably and they are quite influenced by the non-Tibetan world around them, so there are fewer people who speak Tibetan well. There are many in the Tibetan diaspora who do not even speak or read Tibetan. In such a situation, we must be extremely prudent. Looking at this from the outside, people say that they do not have the freedom to establish groups or organizations to study language. And if we look at it from inside the Tibetan world, it is clear that we have not done enough. Parents do not sufficiently emphasize the importance of learning Tibetan. It is also true that language study is available but there is no interest in it.
“For Tibetans living abroad, we have classes on the weekends to preserve Tibetan culture, but I wonder how much benefit can come from one or two days of study per week. The main influence is what happens inside the family. The parents need to take a real interest in Tibetan and teach their children (there is no one more important, is there?) what it means to be an authentic Tibetan and how to read and write their language. In the texts that deal with the characteristics or definitions of things, a human being is defined as “one who knows how to speak and how to understand meaning.” If we transpose this into a Tibetan context, we could say, “a Tibetan is one who knows how to speak Tibetan and how to understand the meaning of Tibetan.” Therefore, to have the identity of a true Tibetan, we need to be able to speak and understand our language. For this to happen, it would make a big difference if parents placed a strong emphasis on studying Tibetan.”
The next question was about the environment, in which the Karmapa has taken a strong interest.
“The Tibetan environment has a special importance,” he stated. “The Himalayan mountains with their snow mass and long glaciers along with area of the vast Tibetan plateau are called the Third Pole, the water treasury or water tower of Asia, because they are the source for many of Asia’s major rivers. This means that 4 billion people, more than half of the 7.6 billion population on this planet, depend on water from Tibet. For this reason, the Tibetan environment takes on an importance that far exceeds the size of its actual territory. It is vital not just for the Tibetans, but also for the peoples of India, China, Laos, Cambodia, and many other Asian countries that are nearby. For all these reasons the protection of the Tibetan environment is essential.
“And the Tibetan people are the ideal ones to preserve this environment, because we have lived on the land of Tibet for thousands of years. We know how to look after it and are naturally devoted to caring for it. Further, in our traditional culture, preservation of the environment is emphasized. I remember being taught as a child to see the environment not as a collection of stones, earth, and mountains but as a living system that also contained the places of the nagas, the palaces of gods, and other realms, which had an influence on what happened, for example, with the weather. Therefore it is important to consider the Tibetan environment in conjunction with Tibetan culture.
“In sum, the Tibetan environment is important not just for the people of Tibet, but also for most of Asia and, therefore, for the whole world.”
The fifth question concerned the rumors about the Karmapa’s return to India.
The Karmapa replied, “It is true that after living some eighteen years in India, I have been in the West for slightly more than a year, which is the longest I’ve stayed outside of India. Actually, the reason was to seek medical treatment. I did have plans to return at the end of June, but then there were many rumors gong around, saying I was going to stay in the US or I was going to China, and also in some departments of the Indian Government’s secret services were giving out confusing reports about me.
“I have no plans whatsoever to return to China, and I will return to India in the near future. “Before I go, however, I must clarify my situation with the Indian Government. I have made connections with their representatives and we are now having discussions. Once we have spelled out my situation, I will go back. In November there is a meeting of major lamas and I should go to that, so I will probably return sometime in November.”
The following question was about the Karmapa visiting to Sikkim.
The Karmapa responded, “It is true that the people and the government of Sikkim made repeated requests for me to come. However, what really changed this situation is that officials in the Ministry of Defense became better informed and changed their opinion about me. Previously I was held to be a Chinese spy and there were other false accusations. These we cleared up and the Ministry of Defense adopted a new position, so I was able to visit places, such as Sikkim, where previously I was not permitted to go. So the main reason for my being able to travel to Sikkim was that the officials in the Ministry of Defense changed their previous opinions and instituted a new policy.
“The Gyalwang Karmapas have a long-standing historical connection with Sikkim, including the fact that the previous Gyalwang Karmapa established his seat and built his monastery in Rumtek, Sikkim and lived there, so in recent history as well, the Karmapas have a special relationship with Sikkim. However, whether or not I will be able to visit Rumtek will depend upon the resolution of the current lawsuit related to the monastery. The Central Government has given me permission to visit everywhere else in Sikkim, and I am very glad that I will be able to visit Sikkim and meet with its people.”
The Karmapa was then asked about creating a place of his own in India.
“In general, I usually think of India as the place where my headquarters are located,” the Karmapa responded. “I have petitioned the Indian government for permission to return to Rumtek, but that request was refused. Despite the great kindness bestowed on me by Gyuto Monastery, the main difficulties there are that the size of Tsurphu Ladrang Offices is somewhat restricted, and further, there is not a space big enough to accommodate teachings and meetings with large numbers of people. So I asked the Indian Government for a place to build, and they made available about five acres in the Delhi area, and I’m very pleased about this. Due to the great expense of the land, however, I am unable to buy it all immediately, but I will purchase what I can and intend to set up headquarters there. However, I have also become used to living in the Dharamshala area and Delhi tends to be polluted and hot, so it would be better to stay most of the time in the Dharamshala area. If I can build an office on the new land, then sometimes I will go there.”
The next question asked about the significance of the division of Greater Tibet into what are called the three provinces.
“It is said,” the Karmapa explained, “that Drogön Chögyal Phagpa (1235-1280) gave the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan (1215-1294) the Hevajra empowerment three times, and in return received three gifts from him. The second gift was the three provinces (chol kha gsum) and this seems to be the source of the designation. There are different explanations for the term, some saying that it is Mongolian, and so forth, but to put it briefly, do we really know what it refers to? Not being able to identify it clearly, one can use the term in the wrong way. We need to investigate to find its historical truth by looking into the writings of Chögyal Phagpa, his biographies, and also the historical references to the term. We should also take a step further and look into the Chinese records and general histories as well. These days, we must follow rational procedures and investigate objectively by looking into numerous sources to find out, for example, if the emperor really made this gift, and if so, how did he do it?
“There is also the question of which land areas this label actually refers to. How were they divided? It is said the land was divided into three, but most probably not on the basis of different peoples or languages. These days, however, when “three provinces” is mentioned, people understand that Utsang, Kham, and Amdo refer to separate peoples, and that, for example, the character and way of being in the world of a person from Kham is completely different from that of a person from Utsang and that Amdo belongs to a separate people and world as well. However, the cultural and linguistic differences are slight, and in the larger picture, we are one people, all equally Tibetan. If you are from Kham, you are Tibetan. If you are from Amdo, you are Tibetan. If you are from Utsang, you are Tibetan. It is critical for us to emphasize our unity as one people, and extremely detrimental to misuse this division due to narrow and localized prejudices.
“One of the problems is that this threefold division has become the basis for various Tibetan organizations and in political divisions as well. Further, people and organizations profit from these separations, which is completely unacceptable. It would be good if we could consolidate our thoughts of the three provinces and conceive of them as one. We need to make real efforts to create harmonious relationships among all three areas.”
The next question was about the causes of these difficulties and who is responsible for them.
“The leaders and elders carry the greatest responsibility,” the Karmapa commented. “The younger generation living abroad has a saying, “It is the elders who tell us not to cause problems, but then it is the elders who create them.” The elders advise the younger ones to respect His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s wishes and so forth, but those creating the worst problems are the elders themselves. While each person may have their personal affairs, I think political, social, and religious leaders must set these affairs aside and never use their position to accomplish their personal goals or profit.
“In the sad circumstances of Tibet, over 150 people have sacrificed their lives for the sake of the Tibetan people. Abroad, not only do Tibetans not study their culture and language, they cannot even get along with each other. Their situation is so disgraceful that, as the saying goes, the dead cannot close their eyes and the living are depressed.
“In my personal experience, the three provinces are inseparable. Actually, I think it is better not to use this label, which is just a verbal convention. But I cannot be alone in doing this. Prayer by itself is not enough, and you cannot force people either. Every single person has to make a real effort, and especially those with influence and power have to be very careful.”
Why do people still cling to this concept of the three provinces?
“There is no real reason for this that is based on clear thinking,” the Karmapa explained, “but there can be apparent reasons. People can have diverse reasons for regional allegiances, but if we truly examine these, we will see that actually, they are superficial and do not have the real weight of an authentic justification.
“These allegiances are basically the continuation of entrenched prejudices that have come down to us from the past. If each of us analyzed to see if this concept benefits us or not, we will find very little to celebrate. If it does benefit us, then it is not a prejudice but a concern and we should preserve it. However, the benefit will turn out in the end to be an illusion. In addition to this, people generalize from one person’s bad behavior to condemn all people from that area. If one person from Kham makes a mistake, then all people from Kham are at fault. These generalizations are used to denigrate an entire region, but they are based merely on some minor thing or they are simply prejudice. As I have said before, we must remember that ‘the three provinces’ is merely a concept.”
To what do you credit you interest in painting and poetry?
“The successive Gyalwang Karmapas have traditionally had a lively interest in the arts and many were artists among them, too. In particular, 10th Karmapa, Chöying Dorje stated that he came into the world for the sake of poetry and painting. These days his paintings and sculptures are treasured throughout the world and bring high prices at auction.
“I could not say that there is some special reason for my own artistic bent or that I am an authentic artist, but since my childhood, I have loved poetry and painting. It is also true that if one enjoys one of the arts, that interest can spread to another art form.
Of course, my time to pursue these is limited, as we say, “The arts are many and the days are short.” Or you could put it another way and say that I’m lazy. However that may be, I do practice these arts as best I can. It is also true that while many are interested in the Buddhism of Tibet, few are aware of our artistic traditions, so I am seeking to promote them and make them more visible.”
The next question asked the Karmapa to speak about his studies.
“I have done a good bit of study but have not been able to study as thoroughly or rigorously as one would in a monastic college. While living at Gyuto, I have received direction in my studies from many rinpoches and a few khenpos. As many of them are quite busy and have their own responsibilities to fulfill, I cannot say that their guidance has been as rigorous as one would find in a standardized curriculum. However, I would say that a main issue for me has been the lack of fellow students who would have created a lively atmosphere for study. One of the things that happens with a group of students at schools or monastic colleges is that they encourage and stimulate each other to study.
“For these reasons, I could not honestly say that my studies have been perfect, but I have done what I can to study my own and other traditions. Especially since it is taught in the mahayana that it is the responsibility of all who would be bodhisattvas to study and learn everything that could possibly help others, I continue to study everything I can and not remain satisfied with what I already know. For example, I have studied and continue to study many languages. Some think that I do this for the sake of appearances but that’s not the case. I study languages so that when I meet people who have come from a great distances, I can at least communicate with them directly. I feel it would be a shame if I couldn’t talk with people.”