Escaping from the prison of self-centredness

by Wangdu on 10 June, 2014

Estrel Convention Centre

6th June, 2014

For the second day’s teaching in Berlin, the venue had changed into a bigger auditorium which seats 1600 people.

His Holiness took time at the beginning to reiterate his great delight in finally achieving his wish to visit Europe, after three failed attempts.  However, now that he was here in Berlin, it was “like a dream that fills me with great joy” and he thanked everyone from the bottom of his heart. In fact, he added, the stage set was so beautifully decorated by the Berlin Rigpa Center, that he would have preferred to sit facing it with the audience, “So that I could see it all.”

The stage set was indeed even more impressive than that in the smaller auditorium. Oblong tubs  of marigolds edged the front of the stage, two large vases of flowers graced the back, and the pot of white orchids still stood on the table beside His Holiness’ chair. Two trees in tubs had been added to the front corners of the stage, lit to reflect the colours of the seasons: the bright, luscious green of spring and early summer, the red of late summer and autumn, and the soft yellows of leaf fall.  The larger stage afforded space on the deep blue backdrop for additional thangkas , and one of Jetsun Milarepa, the great Tibetan mystic and forefather of the Karma Kagyu tradition, now hung alongside that of Guru Rinpoche.

Once more, in his teaching, the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje emphasised that all of us possess positive innate qualities.  We all have great potential. We all have a ‘Little Buddha’ inside. But it’s up to us to nurture and develop it.

He began by exploring the role of love and affection in our lives. Human beings, from the time they are born, rely on the loving kindness and care of others. We are not independent. Our very survival depends on others.  In the first instance, our parents cared for us, and not only do we owe them gratitude for the gift of this precious human body, but their care ensured that we survived.

More important even than the gift of our physical body, our parents gave us the gift of love and affection. Those children who are deprived of love and affection are often seriously damaged and have a very difficult life. They are stressed, and feel lonely, unhappy and unloved.

The Karmapa spoke touchingly of his own parents. “In my own life, due to fortunate circumstances, I was born to very good parents,” he said.  Neither of his parents has had a formal education. His mother is illiterate, though his father can read. Yet, he considers them as his first teachers. “They showed great loving kindness towards me, but moreover they taught me how to be kind and loving to others,” he explained. He described them as his “spiritual friends”, who taught him to treat all living beings, even the smallest insect, with kindness and compassion. They lack education in Buddhist philosophy, yet they are very devoted Buddhists; theirs is a Buddhism which comes not from logic and reasoning but from the depths of their hearts. As His Holiness acknowledged, “My spiritual journey started with the help of my parents. They taught me by example, through the way they lived.”

The title of the teaching was “mind training”, but the Karmapa warned that mind training should not be understood as an intellectual exercise. Rather it involves ‘emotional intelligence’ as well. There is always a danger of over-intellectualisation which is incapable of transforming anything. He quoted a saying:

“Although your wisdom didn’t grow, lots of thoughts developed.”

As human beings, we are all born with positive innate qualities, such as loving kindness. Some people have more, some have less, and our capacity may change because of our environment and circumstances. His Holiness gave an example from his early childhood.  When autumn came, the nomads would kill some of their yaks and sheep. Life in Tibet was very hard, and his family depended on their animals for cheese, butter, yoghurt and meat, because, as he explained, there were no vegetables, or staples such as rice and potatoes.  The nomadic practice was to suffocate the animals to death, but often it would take an hour for an animal to die.  He  was about three or four years old at that time, and, seeing the great fear and pain of the animals, he would become very distraught, and run around crying for the people to stop the slaughter. But, he admitted, when the meat was cooked and served, he enjoyed eating it as much as anyone. “I gave up eating meat six years ago,” he said, “But if you ask me ‘What is your all-time favourite food?’ I would still say ‘meat’. Ask me what my favourite food is these days, and there’s nothing.”

Loving other people, animals, and pets such as cats and dogs, comes to us naturally. Our task, therefore, is to start with that feeling of affection, then expand and extend it to include all other beings, so that it arises naturally. “This is the most important thing; to extend this natural feeling of love and affection to more and more beings.”

When love and compassion are absent, the consequences for a society can be devastating. “Germany is a great nation,” he said, but in the 20th century, there were the First World War, the Second World War and the Holocaust.  At that time, people still had an innate capacity for love and compassion,  but they didn’t show it. Why? Because, it seems, we always have a choice; we human beings can learn to switch our compassion on and off. We can become desensitised to the pain of other living beings. We can distance ourselves or we can become apathetic and say, “It’s nothing to do with me.”

When we consider the mass killers in this world, we might think of illnesses such as malaria or water-borne diseases, we might think of air pollution, but, if we really think about it,  lack of compassion and apathy are two of the main killers. “We cannot do without love and compassion in our human society,” he reflected.

Our lack of love and compassion arises out of our egocentricity.  No one sets out with the intention of becoming a killer, but the potential danger is there.  Sometimes, driven by our own needs and selfishness, without wanting to and without recognising it, we can become a very dangerous person.

The Karmapa gave an analogy:

An elderly mother and father had just one child.  The boy got into trouble with the police and was put in prison. Without their son, the elderly parents became very unhappy, and consequently fell ill, so they were put in hospital.  They desperately needed their son’s help but he was in prison and even though he might want to was unable to help them.

Our self-centredness is like that prison, the Karmapa explained. We have created that prison ourselves, and all our mother sentient beings are on the other side of the prison walls. Stuck inside this prison we are unable to help anyone. We have to break down the walls. How can we do this?  By developing our innate qualities, our natural kindness and compassion.

We live in an interdependent world, so we cannot ignore the suffering of other beings without consequences for ourselves. The only way forward is to work for the mutual benefit of all.