8 June 2014, Berlin
The final public activity of the Gyalwang Karmapa’s historic first trip to Europe was an encounter with young people from around the world. His Holiness is the youngest religious world leader today and fittingly, the organizers had created a program where young people were able to ask him questions directly about concerns that they had living in today’s world.
Tickets were free of charge but admission was limited to people 29 years of age and younger. The audience ranged from toddlers who were accompanied by their parents to young adults. As the hall filled up, a music video of the rap song Karmapa Khyenno played on the screens, and young volunteers draped the stage with hand-drawn flags that were created by children and sent from all over the world. Everything from handprints to aspiration prayers were displayed on the flags.
His Holiness entered the stage lightly and settled himself in an armchair. The Karmapa reached out to the audience and described himself as a “strange kind of young guy.” He explained that although he was in his twenties, he had assumed responsibilities so young in life and had such varied experiences as he sought to fulfill them that inside he feels much older.
He called out to the youth to take a stand and address the major challenges of their generation with courage. “In the 21st century, he said, “we youth are living in a time of great pressure. We are pressured to do well in our studies, to be successful in life, and these pressures bear in on us from all directions, since the world today is much smaller. Things are progressing so quickly that it seems like we cannot even keep up with those changes, much less find a chance to rest. If we maintain this pace and continue our current way of life—based so heavily on the enjoyment of consumer products and on external objects—we will definitely use up the world’s resources. So we have a responsibility but also an opportunity to do something to ensure the happiness of future generations.
“When we talk about changing the future or protecting the world for the future,” he said, “we must understand that the future is not something that only happens tomorrow or some other day or year. The future is starting right now.”
During the question and answer session, a ten-year-old girl from Berlin asked, “How do I become a Buddha?”
The Karmapa laughed and shook his head saying that this was the real question. He replied: “What it means to be a Buddha is like a flower blossoming. And it also means waking up and being awake. Becoming a Buddha is not something that happens to us suddenly like having something injected into our blood or modified in our genes to give us superpowers. If you give someone a gift and make them smile, then you have already become a Buddha in a small way, because you knew what to do to make others happy and you did it.”
A twelve-year old from Berlin asked him, “How do you carry all the responsibility of being a Karmapa? It is more an honor or a burden?”
He replied, “The name ‘Karmapa’ raises a lot of expectations. People expect the Karmapa to be perfect and never to make any mistakes. That is beyond me. So instead of seeing mu having the name Karmapa as giving me some kind of power or authority, instead I see it as an opportunity, It means I have more opportunities to help others. I tell myself this is a very good opportunity and I must use this as a chance to help others and that makes it seem lighter.”
Replying to a teenager from Madrid who asked what she could do with her life to help the world, the Karmapa said: “When we look at environmental degradation, we see that what we can do with our life is to work to protect that world’s natural environment. By protecting the environment, you are not just helping one person but all the people who live on this earth.”
A 26-year-old from Austria asked the 17th Karmapa to describe how he sees the relationship between religion, spirituality and culture. While distinguishing between religion and spirituality, His Holiness said, “I think religion has to do with accepting a system of beliefs and following the tradition or rituals and customs that go with that system. Spirituality does not have to do with customs but with a deeper level of human experience. It is deeply connected to how you experience your own life, and also involves the cultivation of wisdom and compassion. I think all the major religious traditions started as spirituality—as real-life experiences, and not just customs, traditions or belief systems. If we take the Buddha as an example, from his childhood he had big questions about the meaning of his own life and he began to seriously seek out that meaning or that reality. For that purpose, he gave up life as a prince and went to solitary places and was constantly thinking over that question. In the end, he finally found the answer, and he really appreciated that answer and was satisfied with the answer that he found. After that, many people just followed that system or idea without ever really having that experience of discovery or encounter with that truth. That is why I think there is a danger for religious followers. Actually religious practitioners should have real experience rather than just adopting beliefs or knowledge. But to find that answer is not easy, so maybe some people end up taking the easy way. That is why I think spirituality is more effective than just religious belief or faith.”
Responding to one young woman’s question about gratitude, the Gyalwang Karmapa said, “If you are born in a developed country and a well-off family, you have access to many facilities and educational opportunities, it is important to cultivate a sense of appreciation and gratitude. You should know that there are many children around the world with no chance to go to school, even without enough food, clean water or access to medical care. When you think of this, and become aware of how relatively well-off you are, you recognize how fortunate you are. But rather than letting that sense of being fortunate make you proud, it should remind you that you have a responsibility to help those who do not have the same opportunities. Gratitude makes your mind more peaceful and more humble and inspires you to do something for those with fewer opportunities than you.”
A 23-year-old woman from Austria explained that her grandmother was old and sick. She asked how to help her grandmother as she came closer and closer to dying.
“The most important thing,” the Karmapa said, “is to accept death. As human beings, we are unrealistically selfish and want to defy nature. We want never to grow old and die. But once we are born, it is natural that we will die one day. If you do not accept this, it just brings more suffering. And anyway it will happen. It is much less troublesome if you accept it.
But we need training or exercise to help us accept death. There are lots of ways, and one is to consider one day as one whole life. When you wake up you can think that getting up from bed is like being born, and at the end of the day when you go to sleep is like dying. If you develop a habit of doing this, then you will naturally accept your final death, since you will know that it has been happening in a sense every day and you will know that it is not a final end. This is a way of training so that you do not have fear or worry about death. You can learn to see that it is just like going to sleep, and waking up to another life.”
The session concluded with several performances, beginning with a song by Kesang Marstrand from her latest CD. Born to a Tibetan father and European mother, Kesang accompanied herself on guitar and filled the hall with her exquisite voice and haunting lyrics.
With palpable reverence and emotion, Lobsang Dargye, a Tibetan singer living in Potsdam, Germany, stated that Tibetans see the 17th Karmapa as a special protector of the Tibetan people and a place of refuge for them, and explained that the Tibetan words of the song he would sing expressed precisely that sentiment. Other performances included a monologue in German using sock puppets by Captain Peng.
In their closing comments, one of the young organizers of the event requested His Holiness the Karmapa to come to Berlin again and again, so that more and more walls of ignorance could fall. Following a group photo with the young people which the Karmapa stage-managed himself with a great deal of laughter, he left the hall slowly, pausing to connect silently with many of the young people now glowing from their encounter with this messenger of responsibility and hope.