(April 14, 2015 – New York, New York) In his last event in New York City for this trip, His Holiness the Karmapa taught on the key issue of how we make true connections between the emotions of our hearts and the abstractions of our mind. The evening event was organized by the Karmapa Foundation, and took place at the New York Society for an Ethical Culture, whose mission closely parallels the Karmapa’s in a commitment to ethical relationships with others, social justice and stewardship of the environment. With its soaring arches and warm wood interior, the Society’s hall has a spacious yet intimate feeling.
The Karmapa was introduced by Daniel Goleman, the science writer famous for developing the term “emotional intelligence” and all that it implies. He noted how important it is that the Karmapa has been meeting with university students, “because these are the people of the 21st century who will shape the future, and hopefully it will be the compassionate world we are going to hear about tonight.” Goleman also took the occasion to thank the Government of India for its support in allowing the Karmapa to make this tour and expressed the hope that the Karmapa would return for many more visits.
The Karmapa approached tonight’s topic by discussing his traditional education, which emphasized listening, reflecting and meditating on Buddhist teachings. “The first two are rather artificial,” he noted, “involving the mind and thinking, while the third, meditating, brings the direct experience of what we have studied. This unmediated experience and our growing familiarization with it is the purpose of training our minds. When we say the word ‘meditation’, many think that it has to do with learning to sharply focus our minds or with teaching ourselves to relax. But actually it means a lot more. It is the process of bringing something into deeply felt experience so that it becomes an object of feeling, something we can actually apply to how we are.” Meditation will change our entire life and shape our path into the future, he said.
Drawing out the implications of this statement, the Karmapa explained: “Our spiritual practice, therefore, cannot be limited to our place of formal meditation. It must go beyond this enclosure and come out into our daily lives and work places; it must come to our aid when we are faced with problems. Practice generates the courage to deal with the challenges of our life.”
He then showed what takes us out of our cocoon: “The most important form of spiritual practice is the cultivation of love and compassion. There is no time restriction on the practice of love and compassion, for they are always needed and always applicable.”
How to meditate on love and compassion? The Karmapa clarified: “The practice of love and compassion consists of closing the gap between the practitioner and the practice. As long as there is a great distance between the two, meditation has not been very successful. We need to steadily close the gap so there is no difference between the person meditating and the love and compassion they are cultivating. In the end, this distance completely disappears so that the practitioner becomes the very nature of love and compassion.”
Having described the goal of meditation, the Karmapa turned to a discussion of what prevents us from achieving it. “Usually we are inextricably stuck in our fixation on ourselves,” he said. “We need to replace this identifying with our self with identifying with others. We should exchange our selfishness for altruism and seek to benefit others.”
Looking more into what this so-called self is, the Karmapa explained, “Our selfishness is based upon the misconception that this ‘I’ or ‘me’ has an independent existence; in fact, however, no one exists independently of others. It would be more accurate to say, ‘I exist in such dependence on others, that I am actually a part of them.’ We need not only to understand this connectedness but to really experience it.”
If one would wish for logical arguments to support the rationality of benefitting others, the Karmapa provided these as well. “It is obvious that it is worthwhile to cherish others for their benefit; it is less obvious but equally true that we must cherish others if we cherish ourselves. None of us can survive alone, for we survive in dependence on others. It is only by serving others that we can serve our own needs.” The Karmapa gave the example of going to a restaurant. “When we think of eating out, what usually comes to mind is the food we will enjoy, not the one who prepared it. Without the cook, however, there would be nothing to eat. It is the cook we depend upon for our nourishment. We do not see this because we usually ignore what does not relate to our immediate self-interest. If suddenly all the cooks disappeared, we would be concerned, but otherwise probably not.”
For those who wish to help others and move along a genuine path of practice, the downside of an obsession with the self is clear. The Karmapa advised: “It is often not obvious to us how connected we are to others. We do not see this because our self-interest creates a barrier. We need to extend ourselves and move beyond this block. This is the only way we can interact with others and benefit them.” An important step in this process is to recognize “the big difference between the apparent self or ‘I’ and what is actually there. We must learn to recognize the difference.”
The Karmapa concluded his talk with a call for action. In this prosperous country with so many resources and luxuries, we should be aware of how dependent and connected we are to others, he said. For example, the clothes we wear are made in distant factories where people toil in harsh conditions to make a bare living. “We need to become aware of these global realities,” he counseled, “and become responsible citizens of the world. A healthy sense of responsibility,” he added, “is grounded in compassion. We do not undertake responsibilities because we should, but because we want to. And along with our compassion comes joy.”
Lest we misunderstand what compassion really is, His Holiness defined it: “Compassion is more than mere sympathy or feeling something about another’s suffering. It is more involved—a willingness to undertake something and make changes. It is an active dedication based on the feeling that others are a part of you and you are part of them. This innate feeling, accompanied by the courage to joyously bear responsibility for others, is the root of compassion.”
Having illustrated how to connect with our deeper selves and to the interconnected global society of people on whom we depend, the Karmapa closed his formal talk, which was followed by a lively question and answer period.