1 October, 2104 – Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery
On the second day of his visit to Dongyu Gatsal Ling—the nunnery founded by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo—His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, conferred Mahamudra teachings and granted White Tara empowerment. The entire local Drukpa Kagyu community turned out to receive the Gyalwang Karmapa and to take teachings and empowerment from him. The main shrine room was packed as the nunnery’s 92 nuns were joined by the monks of nearby Khampagar Tashi Jong, filling all the available space in the ample hall. Outdoors, the lay community watched the proceedings on a huge screen in the tented courtyard. Yet the offsite audience far exceeded the number of those present, as over 20,000 people connected to the event’s live webcast.
His Holiness opened the morning session by expressing his delight at the level of education and general welfare that the nunnery was providing to its nuns. He especially praised their monastic discipline, and expressed his appreciation to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo for all she had done to make it possible. The nunnery had requested the Gyalwang Karmapa to confer the oral transmission and commentary on the Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer by the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje. Rather than limit his presentation to this seminal text from his own Karma Kagyu lineage, the Karmapa gave an extensive teaching focused more broadly on Mahamudra, as the core practice common to Drukpa Kagyu, Karma Kagyu and all other Kagyu lineages.
The Gyalwang Karmapa’s discourse on Mahamudra ranged from historical contextualization to pith practice instructions to a discussion of its scriptural sources. Where different Kagyu lineages had differing interpretations, the Gyalwang Karmapa was careful to note what position on those issues had been taken by the luminaries of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage. The philosophical presentation was interspersed with pith advice and anecdotes from the lives of various masters connected to the Drukpa Kagyu lineage, including Gyalwa Götsangpa and Gyalwa Yang-gönpa.
His Holiness the Karmapa related a pith instruction that Lord Gampopa had given to Phagmodrupa, one of his three main disciples and a forefather within the Drukpa Kagyu lineage. Phagmodrupa had studied widely under Kadam masters, and had also received the Lamdre teachings from Jetsun Sakyapa. All the while, he was intent on finding a satisfactory answer to the question of what traps us in samsara. As he traveled around Tibet meeting the great masters of the day, everywhere he posed the question to them. He generally received the standard explanation that it is ignorance that binds us to samsara—an answer that is correct in itself, but too easily left at an intellectual level. However, it was Lord Gampopa who prompted a deep transformation within Phagmodrupa’s mind by replying that it is the consciousness that is present in this very moment—or our present awareness—that binds us to samsara. Phagmodrupa was deeply struck by the teaching that this is what binds us to samsara, but that this is also the basis for our liberation from cyclic existence.
Before turning to the oral transmission of the Mahamudra text by the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, the 17th Karmapa cited Lord Gampopa’s observation that his ability to be of such vast benefit was thanks to the Kadampa teachings. Lord Gampopa himself had immersed himself deeply in the Kadampa teachings before receiving the Mahamudra and Six Yogas of Naropa from Milarepa, two streams of teachings that flow through the Kagyu lineages that run through him. Naropa’s advice is very profound, Gampopa had said. But without the teachings of the Jowo Kadampa that can be applied to all levels of beings, the teachings of Naropa would be of less benefit.
“If you immerse your mind in the awareness of death and impermanence and the law of cause of effect first, for sure your mind will improve,” the Gyalwang Karmapa said, echoing the advice of Lord Gampopa. “But if you engage in a practice like Mahamudra without a prior foundation of contemplation on death and impermanence and karma, it is not at all certain whether you will get worse or better by practicing Mahamudra.”
“Tame your mind well,” the Karmapa urged the audience. “Then practice Mahamudra.”
Following the teachings, the Gyalwang Karmapa granted the oral transmission of the Mahamudra text composed by his predecessor the 3rd Karmapa. The entire assembly then took a break for lunch, and reconvened in the assembly hall and courtyard for an afternoon session at 2pm.
As he began the empowerment during the afternoon session, His Holiness noted that the original plan had called for him to grant a 21-Tara empowerment. However, he said he had decided instead to give a White Tara initiation in honor of the complete retreat he had done on this deity while still in Tibet. This decision had been inspired, he said, by the presence of the female deities depicted throughout the assembly hall. During the empowerment, His Eminence the 8th Dorzong Rinpoche, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, the 8th Drugu Chogyal Rinpoche and Nupgon Chogyal Rinpoche each approached the throne to receive the vase empowerment directly from the Gyalwang Karmapa.
After the White Tara empowerment was complete, the Gyalwang Karmapa took the remainder of the session to address the issue of bhikshuni ordination. He spoke at length on the importance of establishing a bhikshuni sangha within Tibetan Buddhism. He said that some people have the misunderstanding that making full ordination available to women is part of an effort to modernize. “Some people have the wrong assumption that because of the talk of gender equality, women are seeking to become more visible and demanding more respect,” he said. “Actually, I think the respect for women was there in the beginning.” He went on to make a strong case in favor of reinstating the opportunity for women to receive the bhikshuni ordination that the Buddha had originally granted them.
As he spoke, His Holiness the Karmapa used the Tibetan term “tsunma” (meaning “venerable”) to refer to nuns. He expressed his preference for “tsunma” as opposed to “ani” (meaning “auntie”) the colloquial term commonly used for nuns in Tibetan, saying it was not the best choice and commented that he himself did not know where the use of the term “ani” had originated. He reminisced that in the area of Kham where he was born, people used the term “jomo” to refer to nuns. Jomo was a high term of respect, reserved in ancient times for queens.
Continuing his explanation of the need for a bhikshuni sangha, the Karmapa explained that the ideal basis for practicing the Dharma is provided by the precious human rebirth, meaning a human body that is endowed with ten conducive conditions and free from eight adverse conditions. As is made clear in the sutras and shastra commentarial treatises, the Karmapa stated, this entails being born in a land where the Buddhadharma is fully available, which requires the presence of the four-fold circle of disciples—bhikshu sangha, bhikshuni sangha, upasakas (male lay followers) and upasikas (female lay followers). His Holiness joked that whereas democracy is built around the three pillars of executive, judicial and legislative branches, the Buddhadharma requires four cardinal pillars to be able to stand firm. In Tibetan Buddhism, because of the absence of one pillar, he said, the building is in a more shaky state.
He pointed out that women comprise more than half the world’s population, and among those practicing the Dharma the proportion is even higher. Although both women and men are needed as upholders of the teachings, only those with a male body currently have access to all the conditions needed to fully uphold the teachings. This needs to change so that women too have the full opportunity to become complete holders of the teachings.
In conclusion, he expressed his aspiration that the nunnery Dongyu Gatsal Ling become a place that produces important upholders of the Buddhadharma, and serve as a place where the Dharma is maintained fully.
As the Karmapa’s words of encouragement resounded in the hearts of all those present in the nunnery, they were echoed in the dozens of countries around the world where people connected to the live transmission. Along with the many people watching across Asia, students tuned in everywhere from Estonia to Zimbabwe and from Argentina to Morocco. Among the countries with a growing number of viewers were 1,000 connected from Germany, which His Holiness had recently visited on his first European tour earlier this year, closely followed by Mexico with over 800 computers connected.