The 17th Karmapa’s heart advice for a meaningful life

by Wangdu on 7 June, 2014

Estrel Convention Centre, Berlin

7.30pm, 5th June, 2014

A crowded hall greeted the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, when he arrived shortly after 7.30pm this evening to deliver his first public address here in Berlin at the Estrel Convention Center. A few minutes earlier, Ringu Tulku, the 17th Karmapa’s Representative in Europe, had taken the stage in order to quieten the excited hubbub in the hall.  For the majority of European disciples awaiting his arrival, this was their first opportunity to see him in the flesh. Only twenty-eight years old, Ogyen Trinley Dorje heads the 900 year old Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and is already viewed as an authoritative spiritual leader for the 21st century.

The Karmapa’s first ever trip to Europe coincides with Sagadawa, the holiest month in the Tibetan calendar, when Buddhists commemorate and honour the life of Shakyamuni Buddha.  As Buddha’s birthday fell on 5th June this year in some traditions, Ringu Tulku reminded everyone that the first day of the teaching in Berlin was particularly auspicious. Tibetans believe that the merit of any good deeds that you perform during this month is multiplied by one hundred thousand, so it is an appropriate time to engage in all forms of spiritual activity, including studying Dharma and listening to teachings.

His Holiness sat down in the large armchair, kicked off his shoes and tucked his legs beneath him in a traditional cross-legged posture. Above him, hung a photograph of the Shakyamuni Buddha image in the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya; the earth touching mudra signifying the moment of the Buddha’s enlightenment. The thangka to Karmapa’s right portrayed Guru Rinpoche; the 17th Karmapa is regarded as a manifestation of Guru Rinpoche. To his left, was a thangka  of Shakyamuni Buddha.

A small wooden table beside his chair held a pot of pure white orchids, a glass and a bottle of mineral water.

Composing himself, the Karmapa sat in thought for a few moments. Then he began by welcoming everybody and saying how delighted he was to be here in Berlin.  He had  wanted to visit Europe for so many years,  and finally his wish had been realised.

In the Tibetan tradition, lamas usually wear a yellow shawl called a chögu during ceremonies and when they teach. Although he had one folded over his left shoulder, he wasn’t wearing it, which would have puzzled the Dharma practitioners in the audience. So he explained his dilemma in Berlin.

Referring back to the teachings in Nuerburgring, he said that there he had given formal Dharma talks and so had worn achögu. In Berlin, however, the situation was different and less formal, so he had compromised and dressed half formally and half informally.

The topic for his first public talk was to be “Ancient Wisdom for the Modern World: Heart Advice for a Meaningful Life”. “That’s too long for me,” he joked, and everyone smiled.

“How to live a meaningful life?” He screwed up his face and pursed his lips in mock puzzlement— the audience laughed.

Now, with everyone listening attentively, he began to share his thoughts and experiences in a very frank sometimes sobering account of his own life so far. There was humour and irony at times, but always an underlying seriousness. By examining his own life, His Holiness skilfully clarified what makes a life meaningful, and gave a thought-provoking insight into the reality of being the Karmapa.

The happiest days of his life were when he was a little nomad boy, free to run across the meadows of Tibet, with the snow mountains in view.  Then, everything had changed when, at the age of seven, he was recognised as the 17th Karmapa, removed from his family, and taken to Tsurphu Monastery, near Lhasa in Tibet. That was where he first encountered Europeans, he remembered, just a short way from  Tsurphu, at a place called Karmapa’s Summer Park. There he saw two rather tall and skinny Westerners. To the young nomad they seemed like people from another planet – aliens! Since that time, of course, he had met far more Europeans and now counted many as his friends, and finally, twenty one years later at the age of twenty-eight, he had been able to travel to Europe.

The greatest change in his life came about because of his decision to leave Tibet and go to India. His motivation in so doing was to be able to travel widely, which China would not allow. When he went to India, his main purpose was to be able to visit other parts of the world, meet his Dharma students and carry out the responsibilities and Dharma activities of the Karmapa. So, not knowing whether he would be successful or not, he embarked on a journey to India, a trek undertaken by many other young Tibetans. Though they were facing an uncertain future, he reassured his travelling companions that whatever transpired, because of their sincere and pure motivation, they had set their faces in the right direction towards India and should have no regrets.

During the fourteen years he spent in Tibet, and the fourteen years he has spent so far in India, he was not always able to do what he wanted, and has faced many obstacles and difficulties. “Everything that has happened to me in this life was not by my choice, it fell upon me,” he said. “If I’m to speak to you about a meaningful life, perhaps I should ask myself first whether my life is meaningful, and whether I am happy about my life or not.”

The first point to understand is that a meaningful life requires effort. There was no sudden transformation, he explained, when he received the title Karmapa, and he has no special power.  Instead, he has always had to work hard on his motivation, study hard, and put in a sustained effort to make his life meaningful.

The second point to understand is that living a meaningful life may carry a cost on the personal level. If someone has a job and a family, it might be different, but for His Holiness, his personal life and being the Karmapa cannot be separated: “It’s not like a normal life.  Personal life, personal rights, personal freedom, I don’t have these. So for me Karmapa is everything. What’s your name? Karmapa. What’s your job? Karmapa. Who are you? Karmapa…” The audience laughed. His Holiness had spoken with humour. But, in order to fulfil the role of Karmapa, he has had to give up a personal life and his personal freedom.

A meaningful life requires being able to fulfil the role you have in life, he explained. The title ‘Karmapa’, from the Sanskrit word for action, means the man or woman who takes action, the one who carries out the activities of the Buddha. “Its action man,” he quipped. “My activity is to accomplish benefit for the lives of other beings. If the Karmapa’s life is of benefit to others it is meaningful. If I can’t do that, my Karmapa life is a failure.”

We do not exist in isolation, and in order for our lives to have meaning, we depend on the existence of others whom we can benefit.  “Karmapa’s activity, and my aim, is to benefit sentient beings. My meaningful life is totally dependent on other sentient beings,” he elaborated. His Holiness spoke of his prime responsibility to reduce the suffering of others as much as possible. He spoke movingly of leaving his homeland, leaving his parents, and waiting fourteen years in India for this chance to travel to Europe.  “When I see the happiness and joy in the eyes of the people, I feel my life is meaningful. I feel that all I have done has had some meaning. I always think, from the bottom of my heart, my strength is coming from others, people like you,” he said, indicating the audience.

“Because you have so much hope and aspiration in me, I can become stronger even though facing lots of challenges. I can be more patient because of your aspirations.”

Finally, His Holiness tackled the question of whether he was happy or not.

“I’m not so happy,” he admitted, “But a meaningful life is more than happiness. Happiness is temporary.”  True meaning in our lives has to go much deeper than the feeling of happiness; the meaning and purpose has to pervade our lives. It has to be there even when we are sleeping.

“A meaningful life has to be purposeful,” he continued, “Not just for me but for other beings. We are interdependent so we live interdependently. So if I am to live a purposeful and meaningful life, I have to live it for the benefit for others.

“I can find meaning and dignity in working for the benefit of others. That is the essence and purpose of my life.”

As the meaning of his words sank in, many in the audience were stunned. This was truly the Way of the Bodhisattva.