The KYC met with HH Karmapa on October 28th, 2012 at Dorzong Rinpoche’s Jangchub Jong monastery outside of Dharamsala. The Karmapa had just concluded a three-day empowerment and teaching on Chöd practice at the monastic institute. This program was initially requested by the abbot of the Tara Mandala center in Colorado, Lama Tsultrim Allione.
The monsoon had just ended, making the way for ample sunshine and cool, comfortable weather in the wooded foothills of the Himalayas. It was suggested that we conduct the interview outdoors, and Karmapa’s poise, humor, and clarity resulted in an exceptional interview.
Although this video interview has been posted online, we felt that these teachings should be more accessible to the global community. Since this may inspire those who wish to learn more about the Dharma and HH Karmapa’s views on common concerns for practitioners, we have transcribed and edited the interview.
The KYC interview with Karmapa was orally translated by Mitra Tyler Dewar, and transcribed and edited by Casey Kemp.
KYC: What Tibetan Buddhist teaching do you think is the most beneficial and appropriate for young people in the modern world?
HH Karmapa: That’s a very tough question. Certainly young people these days, in terms of finding peace, stability, and a meaningful sense of self, face a lot of challenges relating to things that are happening in the outer world, such as new challenges relating with technology. So it is really a big question in terms of what specific teaching would benefit the situation the most. But in general, there is a very vast and extensive presentation of the mind in Tibetan Buddhist teachings, presentations of how we go about developing peace in our minds, and how we go about having a meaningful relationship with our sense of self. Since that is the focus of Tibetan Buddhist teachings, I think there is definitely a lot of material there that will be relevant to young people and to the challenges they face. But in terms of what specific body of teachings speak best to their situation and most immediately, that is a very big question.
In general, if you are looking at the question from the perspective of formal practice and not having a lot of time to engage in that, and if you want to be a serious Dharma practitioner, then the main thing is that you need to put real effort into prioritizing Dharma practice in your schedule.
But apart from that, if you want to do just a little spiritual practice throughout the course of each day, then I think some Shamatha meditation would be helpful. This is because throughout the course of any given day we allow our minds to become wound up very tight, our minds become very heavy and busy. So Shamatha practice, allowing our mind to rest at ease in a calm and relaxed state, will help loosen this heaviness and bring more spaciousness into our minds, into our sense of being. That would be beneficial.
But really the matter goes deeper than that when we think about the long term. In regards to a short term way to practice, we might just devote some time each day in that manner, but when we look at it from the long term perspective, then we need to bring this sense of peace and spaciousness into all the activities of our lives so that Dharma practice isn’t something we’re just doing for one hour a day, but we are actually able to bring this sense of peace and spaciousness to our work, to our studies, and to our environment that we find ourselves in every day. That we are able to bring it into our emotional life as well as the emotional challenges we face. So, that’s the bigger question: In the long term, how do we bring our minds to a state where it is never moving from that peace or moving from that state of calm and spaciousness? If we manage to shift our perspective so that we are considering that question then I think that would be of greater benefit.
KYC: Most of us cannot or do not want to become monks or yogis in a cave. How can we bring our work and family life onto the path and make a positive contribution to society?
HH Karmapa: So in general when we look at the communities that are devoted to practicing the Dharma, there are two basic types of community: there is the monastic community and the community of householders. Both of these communities are the same in that both communities want to practice the Dharma and need to practice the Dharma. But of course they have different lifestyles and different ways of going about doing that. The monastic community’s emphasis is to place all of our focus constantly on the activities of hearing, contemplating, and meditating, and to the greatest degree possible we relinquish all other activities outside the immediate framework of hearing, contemplating, and meditating. Alternatively, the householder lifestyle involves doing some worldly activities that are directly connected to being a householder while also doing some activities that are connected to practicing the Dharma. So, from a certain perspective we can say that practicing the Dharma in a householder context is more challenging than being a monastic because there are some aspects of the Dharma that are difficult to reconcile with worldly life. It’s difficult to manage to bring these two groups of activities into complete harmony with one another. So from that perspective, householders have an extra challenge that monastics do not have.
But at the same time, the Buddha taught the Dharma for the benefit of all sentient beings and was bearing all sentient beings in mind when he taught and from among these sentient beings, most of them were lay householders as opposed to monastics. So the possibilities are certainly there for lay householders to have a very meaningful practice life.
In particular, if we can manage to focus on the Dharma as householders and mix the Dharma with our day-to-day activities, then in some cases our relationship with the Dharma can be very powerful and meaningful. This is because of the quality householders have in that their lives are seen in an immediate way. They see directly the problems of the world and challenges of the world and thus experience the world in an immediate way. They have a very rich experience of reality as it is in the world. Monastic practitioners are a bit separate from what’s going on in the world so to speak. They keep themselves at more of a distance from the activities and movements of society so there are some realities that they don’t have as clear an access to on an experiential level. They might have an understanding of what is going on but without the direct experience in the same way that householders do. For that reason, if householders are able to mix the Dharma with their day-to-day experience then it is possible that their Dharma practice can bring beneficial and effective results.
KYC: Some students have a great passion for art, music, or sports. How can they use these as part of their spiritual path instead of a distraction?
HH Karmapa: There are many ways in which we can use the same outer activity. The full picture of that action will depend on the attitude you bring to it as well as whether or not you know how to do it properly. Also, depending on how we think about the action that we are engaged in, it will have a different meaning for us. For example, someone who doesn’t know how to practice Chöd might be able to pick up a damaru and bell and play them correctly, but they will have a different meaning in mind than someone who does know how to practice Chöd who picks up a bell and damaru and plays them. It’s the same thing with playing sports, playing music, or creating art. There is the outer aspect to the action but then there’s the inner attitude and way of thinking that you bring to that action. That way of thinking is going to change the way the action effects you.
If we can give things like music, sports, and art an extra meaning so that they are not just outward oriented activities, then I think it is possible for these to become an extension of our Dharma practice. For example, for one who wants to create art, from a mundane perspective, you could just have an outward motivation of making something beautiful or making something new and innovative. But from the point of view of practice, you could go further than that and have some type of connection with the inner beauty of mind and wanting to bring that forward as an extension of your practice of making art. So, bringing our inner world to bear on the things we do in our outer world can be very transformative.
KYC: The West emphasizes individuality and freedom, and some have a problem with the concept of authority. This can make it difficult to understand the role of the lama and to develop devotion. How can we in the West better understand this?
HH Karmapa: One thing that comes up when we look at this question is the difference between eastern and western cultures regarding relationships to teachers or the concept of authority, individuality, and individual freedom. Actually I very much appreciate the way westerners talk about individuality and the importance of individual freedom and individual rights. I am a big fan of those concepts and I think that they are important. But on the other hand, we also need to be aware of the context in which individual freedoms can flourish in a healthy way. That context is that of interdependence. Individuality and individual freedom is important but we have to remember that those things take place in the broader context of an interdependent world. So the question becomes how do we balance these two things: our individual freedom and the greater interdependent world?
Basically, we have to figure out a way to set a limit to our individual freedom or acknowledge the fact that our individual freedom does have limits. The meaning of individual freedom isn’t simply that we do whatever we want and even if we didn’t internally acknowledge this limit ourselves, we would come up against that limit in a practical way in the world. So, this is a great question that we have to contemplate: how to balance these two principles?
In terms of relying on a teacher or a guru, the important point to understand is that this is a relationship that we enter into voluntarily and we have full control over choosing what type of relationship we enter into with our guru and the way in which we want to rely on a person as a teacher. There is no instance in Buddhism of a teacher forcing someone to become their student and then forcing them to do things. If there is, that is certainly not the correct Buddhist understanding of how to rely on a teacher. One voluntarily enters into a student-teacher relationship. One also voluntarily chooses what type of relationship that is going to be and how to rely on someone as a teacher. The student has to agree to the ground rules before anything starts happening, so it is basically their own choice.
For example, there are some people who are very adventurous and like to go to dangerous places. Other people might be surprised at the choices they make and say, “I would never do that,” but the person who goes to those dangerous places is making their own decision and we have to respect that to make that choice is their own individual freedom. So, when we enter into a relationship with a teacher, we are entering out of our own free will.
The other important thing to acknowledge is that even if we offer our whole being, our body, speech, and mind to the teacher, if the teacher gives us an instruction that we aren’t capable of fulfilling, then it is ok for us to just say that we are incapable of doing that. There is nothing barring us from responding in that way. So with a teacher there is never really a sense of being forced to do something. But the main question that we have to contemplate further is how do we exercise individual freedom in an interdependent world.
The other thing that should be noted about having a teacher-student relationship in Buddhism is that there are different levels of teachers and along with that, there are different kinds of relationships that we enter into. For example, if we are studying English and we’ve committed to studying with someone as our English teacher, then it is appropriate for them to be concerned with matters that are related to studies of the English language. We would expect that. If they heard us using an incorrect grammatical construction, then it would be appropriate for them to correct us on this. But we would consider it inappropriate, a violation of boundaries, if they then started telling us who we should marry or where we should live because that doesn’t have anything to do with why we are relying on them as a teacher.
In the same way with Dharma, in the general sense of having a Buddhist teacher as a spiritual friend, it’s appropriate for us to expect that teacher to give us advice about our spiritual practice and things connected in an immediate way to our spiritual practice, but we wouldn’t expect our teacher to go beyond that and say you should marry this person or you should live in this or that place and so on. However, when we get to the level of a Vajrayana teacher-student relationship, then we are getting to a higher level of teacher and we are voluntarily entering into a relationship where anything the teacher says to us we are going to receive with respect and give it consideration. But that is also something that depends on our own mental capacity and our own interests. There is also no type of encouragement that we should enter into the highest levels of teacher-student relationships right from the very beginning.
KYC: Many western practitioners associate love and relationships as a hindrance to practice. This can become a source of conflict for those who desire intimacy but do not wish to create obstacles to their practice. In what way should we view personal relationships in relation to our practice?
HH Karmapa: So before, we discussed a healthy notion of boundaries in our relationships with our spiritual teacher and we talked about how if something was connected in an immediate way with a spiritual practice then our teacher would have an appropriate avenue to give advice to us about that topic. So, for example, if you ask a teacher about the appropriateness of having a relationship with a certain person specifically in regards to your spiritual practice and the effect your relationship would have on your practice then, since it is very connected to your spiritual practice, it would be appropriate for your teacher to give advice on that if they were requested to. In the same way, when we are entering into relationships as spiritual practitioners, it’s appropriate for us to be concerned about the effect that relationship has on our spiritual practice.
In particular, we can actually see our romantic relationships themselves as a spiritual practice. We don’t have to view them as two separate things. In fact, if we can practice the Dharma well, we will be able to be a source of true love, but if we can’t practice the Dharma well, then we won’t be able to give any genuine love at all. Therefore, our romantic relationships are actually a genuine practice of the Dharma and they don’t need to be viewed as separate from the Dharma whatsoever because relationships are in essence a relationship between two minds. Whether it is a romantic relationship or family relationship, everything happens in terms of working with our minds and the way we respond to events and other minds. So it is a mind-to-mind relationship that we are working with.
We can try our best to practice a relationship as a Dharma practice, as a practice of understanding our mind better and of working with our minds. But sometimes even if we try our best we still fail and the relationship doesn’t work. Nevertheless, if we approach it as a practitioner, then we must view the relationship as a spiritual training. We must not view our relationship as separate from the Dharma. As a spiritual practitioner, if we view our relationship as separate from the Dharma, then that is a strange situation to be in, because then what relevance is the relationship to you? We also don’t need to be free from attachment. Some people think that they might be going against Buddhist teachings if they are in a relationship because the relationship is about attachment, but we don’t have to be free from attachment from the beginning. We can slowly work on freeing ourselves from attachment.
The important point to underscore here is that it is freedom from attachment that produces true love. Often what we think is that if there is no attachment then there can’t be any love. In order for there to be love, there has to be attachment. That’s the logical formula that we set for ourselves. But from the Buddhist perspective, if we free ourselves from attachment, that’s the only way we will be able to provide true love. So therefore the Buddhist practice and the spiritual exercise that we bring to relationships is to gradually free ourselves from mundane attachment and to offer true love. If we are able to do this as an authentic Dharma practitioner, then our relationships will go well and even though they might not always work out, then we will be able to say that we had a relationship in which we did not harm the other person and that was beneficial for both people.