Just over a year since His Holiness the 17th Karmapa’s first visit to Europe, students gathered from across the continent to join him in Bonn on his second visit. The venue chosen for this year’s teachings was the Maritim Hotel’s grand theatre-like auditorium which lent itself well to the atmosphere of a second-year reunion. As Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche, Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, Chime Rinpoche, Tanpai Gyaltsen Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, Lama Gyurme and other dignitaries took their seats in the front row, the ample space filled with the joyful buzz of the 1,300 people eager to hear this first teaching of the tour.
The theme for this, the Karmapa’s second visit to Germany, is “Love, Compassion, Rejoicing and Equanimity: Without Limit.” Inaugurating the teaching series, the Gyalwang Karmapa offered two sessions today devoted to the practice of Chenrezig, as part of the cultivation of the four immeasurable thoughts mentioned in the theme.
He immediately drew his audience into the topic by referring to a matter of great concern and controversy across Europe at the moment which challenges our ability to empathise and act compassionately —the influx of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. He pointed out that he himself could be called a refugee. Many Tibetans have fled to India and other countries in order to practice and preserve their religion, language and culture. There are others who seek refuge for economic reasons, he added. Noting that armed conflicts have driven many people from their home countries, His Holiness described the need of those displaced by war as “more urgent and important” because their very lives depend on their receiving refuge in other countries. “Should we think of what is best for such people, or should we think only of the welfare and security of our own country and citizens? The time has come to give this issue our careful consideration,” he said.
With the real-world suffering of refugees as the context for his remarks on compassion, His Holiness the Karmapa addressed the cultivation of compassion through the practice of Four-Armed Chenrezig. As he did, he gave the topic his characteristic emphasis on implementing compassion in action.
The Karmapa explained that Chenrezig is considered to condense all the energy of compassion of all the buddhas, embodied in this case as a deity with four arms. Engaging in Four-Armed Chenrezig practice is a means of tapping into “a source of limitless power: the power of compassion.”
His Holiness explained that the four arms of Chenrezig symbolize the four immeasurable thoughts of love, compassion, joy and equanimity. However, he stressed that he sees these four as not merely qualities, but especially as the activities associated with each of the qualities.
Reflecting on the significance of depicting compassion in a form that has four arms and one head, rather than four heads, His Holiness stated, “I personally think that the fact that Chenrezig has just one head and four arms sends us a clear message: Stop thinking so much and start doing more to benefit beings. Think less and act more.”
Before concluding the first teaching session, His Holiness expressed his concern that the information era tends to overload us with a great deal of information that we do not know how to respond to or process. “Information alone is not enough,” he said. “The key practice in this information age is to learn how to allow the information to transform our heart.”
After an hour-long break, when the audience stretched their legs and refreshed themselves with tea and coffee, His Holiness resumed his exploration of the four immeasurable thoughts. He noted that people with no previous exposure to the practice are free to follow their own sense and start with whichever quality best suits them. However, in terms of the order in which they are traditionally cultivated, he said that equanimity comes first and forms the basis for the remaining three.
The Karmapa devoted much of the session to equanimity. He began by acknowledging that while perfect equanimity is possible in principle, for most people a more realistic aim would be to begin by simply seeking to reduce their indifference or hostility towards those they dislike.
His Holiness made an appeal to our shared sense of humanity and the principle of equality as a foundation for the cultivation of such equanimity. Equanimity comes down to recognizing and respecting the most basic level on which we are all the same in terms of wanting happiness and wishing to be free from suffering, the Karmapa argued. “It is important to cultivate a deeper acknowledgement of the fact that all sentient beings have the freedom and the right to be free of suffering.”
Among the many different religions, different races and traditions that share this world, he said, there often seems to be remarkably little sense of unity. “It has been my experience that we could eliminate a great deal of unnecessary fears and doubts of others,” he said, “if we could just remember the basic reality of our fundamental human equality.”
Evoking his comments in the morning regarding the plight of refugees, His Holiness observed that we frequently fail to connect with the suffering of others unless their problems impact on us. In this regard, he said, a greater awareness of the principle of interdependence can help, as can our training in the conscious cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion.
Directing his comments to personal practice, His Holiness cautioned against embarking on a spiritual path in the expectation that one will feel comfortable and happy as one develops one’s compassion. “Training in love and compassion is not always happy and cheerful,” he warned. “If we expect to feel comfortable as we train, we are in danger of becoming discouraged when we face adverse conditions”. He described the expectation that our practice will be comfortable as the main reason we become stuck and fail to progress. Instead, His Holiness said, we should actually hope for adverse conditions so that we can learn to overcome them and truly strengthen our love and compassion.
He pointed out that bodhisattvas are considered to be heroic precisely because they do not shy away from the challenges presented by adverse conditions on the path. “Anyone can be heroic and brave when things are pleasant,” he said. “It takes a true hero to be brave in the face of difficulties”.
The Karmapa reflected that a key quality of bodhisattvas is that they are able to encourage themselves and sustain their own determination. He went on to note that the practice of Chenrezig is a method that allows us to learn how to similarly encourage ourselves. When we visualize ourselves as Chenrezig, he said, we are effectively uplifting ourselves as we contemplate that we are the expression of the power of compassion of all the buddhas. “This serves as a method for giving yourself a superpower or supercharge of compassion”, he said.
As he closed the first day’s teachings, His Holiness announced that rather than give an empowerment which many of the audience had already received possibly several times, tomorrow morning he would lead a meditation session while simultaneously conferring the reading transmission of the Chenrezig practice.
Heartfelt applause broke out across the auditorium; His Holiness rose from his throne and left the stage with a farewell wave of acknowledgement. Slowly the audience rose and dispersed, as if reluctant to leave the hall. Their faces beamed as they talked excitedly about the teaching which had just finished and the prospect of more tomorrow.