Interpreting the Buddha Dharma for the 21st century

by Karma Wangdu on 1 June, 2014

Teaching Day 1

29th May, 2014. Morning Session 1.
Nuerburgring, Germany.


The mission of the 17th Karmapa in the 21st century is mainly Dharma activity. However, the Dharma must change in order to suit the time and the needs of society and its people. Its essence will still be Buddha Dharma but I may give it a new external shape.

17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje


His Holiness The 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, began his first ever European teaching programme with a skilful presentation of a classic Buddhist contemplation, the four thoughts that turn the mind to Dharma. In an address which acknowledged the wide range of interest and experience in the audience of 2000 people, he rewove the ancient philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism in a way which was meaningful and accessible to all.

It was an amazing and moving moment for the Buddhist practitioners present, many of whom could hardly believe that finally their teacher was here in Europe. A feeling, it seemed, that was shared by His Holiness who began his talk by saying how long he had waited for this moment:

“It feels that it’s one of the most meaningful things I have done in my life. It’s like coming home to my family. This gives me great pleasure and happiness.”

The three days of teachings and empowerments are being held at the Bitburger Event-Center. Within this vast concrete and steel auditorium, the stage itself is set as a simple but stunning Pan-Asian fusion. Designed to represent a pagoda, the two lower tiers in blue depict the sea and the sky, whereas the uppermost tier, where His Holiness sits on a carved wooden throne, is red to symbolise sacred ground. The blue backdrop and lighting effects portray the translucent quality of light at the North and South poles, the purest places on earth. The eye is naturally drawn to a large thangka of Lord Buddha which hangs from one of the gantries behind His Holiness’ throne. It is painted in the colours and style of the Karma Gadri school of Tibetan Art, developed by the Karmapas, and depicts the moment, shortly after his enlightenment, when Shakyamuni Buddha asked the earth to be his witness. On either side of the stage stands a large white vase of traditional Japanese ikebana [flower arrangement] in a special style known as rikka. The lines and images of deep red peonies, multi-coloured birds of paradise, stark branches and greenery combine to symbolise the whole world of living things.

During the first two sessions, the 17th Karmapa provided a fresh and thought-provoking look at the four thoughts that turn the mind to Dharma, otherwise called the four common preliminaries: this precious human life; death and impermanence; karma: cause and effect; and the defects of samara.

Earlier this month, in another teaching, he emphasised the importance for Buddhist practitioners at all levels of thoroughly contemplating these four in order to “turn the direction of our minds”, warning that “If we do not effect some sort of change in our mind streams and how we think, no matter how much we do the main practice, it will not benefit us. It will not become an antidote for the afflictions; in fact it might even increase the afflictions.”

Contemplating these four is essential “in order to mix the mind with Dharma”.

Today, however, he presented them as a tool which could be used by anybody who wanted to make their lives meaningful, of benefit to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. He spoke frankly about his own experiences and encouraged people to assume responsibility for themselves, for others, and for the environment.

Beginning with the contemplation on this precious human life, His Holiness explained that traditionally, a precious human life is one which is useful, full of opportunities, and has few obstacles to the practice of Dharma. Dharma, however, should be understood in a context far wider than religion; the practice of Dharma is about fulfilling our human potential.

A precious human life, therefore, is one which is meaningful; a life in which we can develop our innate positive qualities and act in a way which is beneficial both to ourselves and to others. It is a life in which we can become more compassionate and practise non-violence.

All human beings have some positive, innate qualities, such as loving kindness and compassion, and we have to develop these. It’s not that you have to become someone completely different; you need to bring out the natural qualities within you. That’s Dharma practice. We practise the Dharma within our normal everyday lives. To practise Dharma means to become a better human being.

From experience he recounted how he was no different from other people and had had to work hard to develop his own positive qualitiesin order to fulfil his role as the Karmapa.

In my case, I was just like any other child, a normal child. Then at seven, when I was given the name Karmapa, it was not like I was given an injection or an elixir, I had to study and practise. People came to see me with expectations, and they put their trust in me.Slowly I understood the duties and responsibilities attached to the title.

All human beings have such duties and responsibilities, he argued, for their own welfare, and for the welfare of their families and friends, even for the whole world. We need the courage to assume these duties and responsibilities and to work to accomplish the full potential of this precious human life.