Interview with Trinley Thaye Dorje

H. H. the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, 2000

Buddhism Today: Gyalwa Karmapa, you are just sixteen years old, and you have already traveled both to Southeast Asia and to the West. How was that for you?

Thaye Dorje: The main purpose of these journeys is to make Buddhism available to those interested in it and to support Buddhist practitioners. I’m trying to support people to develop peace and compassion so that they can progress on their path to enlightenment.

BT: During your journey you gave many empowerments to thousands of people. What is the benefit of doing this?

TD: Empowerments are to be seen in the context of Vajrayana Buddhism. The main point of them is that the student gets a dharma connection to the lama and a respective Buddha aspect. Spiritual support or blessing is transmitted to the student, enabling him to engage in a certain set of practices associated with a Buddha aspect. Therefore, an empowerment is like a key that opens the door to liberation. It is the gateway through which one enters the Vajrayana practice. However, the extent to which the individual participant personally benefits from such empowerments depends on him and his practice.
Empowerment (wang), transmission through reading (lung), and instructions (tri) are the pathways through which one practices the Secret Mantrayana or Vajrayana.

BT: You yourself will receive certain empowerments. Is this important for you?

TD: Generally, empowerments, transmission through reading and instructions are very important and just like the previous Karmapas, I have to receive all the transmissions. In the future it will be my responsibility to give these transmissions to others. This is the main reason for me to receive these empowerments.

BT: During your stay in Southeast Asia many Asian Mahayana monks and nuns came to receive empowerments. What is the relationship between the Mahayana and the Vajrayana?

TD: The Vajrayana belongs to the Mahayana. The methods are slightly different, but the goal is exactly the same. Since the 12th century, there has been a good relationship between the (Chinese) Mahayana traditions and the Vajrayana traditions of Tibet. This good relationship continues until today, and I always make prayers that this will continue.

BT: What is it that you want to communicate to people?

TD: The Buddha’s teachings with an emphasis on those teachings and instructions that are transmitted in the Kamtsang or Karma Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism. You are always expected to bless people, and you are used to thousands of people lining up for your blessing. Why do people come for your blessing?
I think people come for a blessing because they are looking for something. I’m giving them blessing in order to satisfy their hopes. This is how it is with most people. However, in certain individual cases it is not just that. In some cases, practitioners are able to receive the blessing of the dharma. In such cases they will get true spiritual support on their path. They really benefit from the blessing.

BT: How would you define blessing?

TD: Blessing – the Tibetan term for that is ‘jinlab’ – more or less means that one supports someone so that he develops on the right path without going into a wrong direction. This in turn will give the person confidence and therefore the ability to naturally proceed on the spiritual path. Therefore, blessing helps a person to be stable and to achieve the results of his practice easier and faster.

BT: What is happening when somebody is being blessed?

TD: It depends on the person. When someone maintains a pure vision, is very devoted, and has little karmic obscurations, it is possible that that person has unusual experiences while being blessed. In such cases, it is in fact possible that during the individual moments of the blessing a person progresses through certain stages and paths of spiritual development, and he therefore goes through various steps of realization. This is quite rare, however. In most cases people will rather feel some kind of general support.

BT: What is your main impression of Southeast Asia?

TD: I was very impressed by the strong belief that people have in the Buddha’s teachings. Of course, one cannot generalize. However, I met with many sincere dharma practitioners and with people who are simply interested in the dharma. I am very happy about this. It is great to remember this. This is what mainly comes to my mind when I think about the journey.

BT: You have already given a number of TV, radio and magazine interviews. How was that?

TD: The interviews I gave were related to Buddhism. Since I am the spiritual leader of one of the major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, I was asked about my views and my activities. Well, my activity is to teach the Dharma and to help people in this respect. At first I did not feel very comfortable in front of the cameras, but eventually I got used to it.

BT: In some places you were treated with very special honor, rather like a god, and not like a normal person. How was that for you?

TD: It is totally wrong to see a Lama like some kind of supreme being. A Lama is someone who shows the path to enlightenment, and that’s it. He is simply a teacher. It is similar with the Three Jewels: you can rely on the Buddha and the Sangha because they’ve been through this samsara, know what it is and how to overcome all this suffering. The Dharma is the path for this aim. This kind of special treatment that you mentioned, I really don’t expect it and I don’t want it; it is not important for me. All I want is to help people to find real happiness. And here I’m not just talking about happiness in this samsaric world. What I mean is the real happiness that is achieved in the state of liberation. I myself go through my spiritual practices in order to become able to guide others on this path. It is for this sake that I am getting the teachings from all the high lamas, the teachers, and professors.

BT: How is a Karmapa recognized?

TD: The main holders of the Karma Kagyu Lineage are the so-called Black Hat Karmapas and the Red Hat Karmapas. The first refers to my own line of reincarnations. The later refers to the line of reincarnations of the Kunzig Shamarpas. In many cases the Karmapas have recognized the respective next Shamarpa and the Shamarpas in turn the next Karmapa. This is also what has occurred with my recognition. It was the 14th Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche who confirmed that I am the incarnation of the 16th Karmapa.
Of course, the whole principle of reincarnation is not easy to understand, in particular if one is not familiar with Buddhism. Normally, samsaric beings are reborn through the power of their karma and their emotions. In the case of the successive lines of the Karmapa reincarnations this is different. Taking rebirth happens due to the wish to be reborn to help sentient beings. In this way I took rebirth as the 17th Karmapa.

BT: The Dalai Lama has not recognized you as the Karmapa. Would such recognition be important for you?

TD: The Dalai Lama is certainly a great man. The Karma Kagyu school, however, is an independent lineage and, according to our tradition, the Karmapas have to be confirmed in this Karma Kagyu lineage and not by the Dalai Lama. There is no need for that.

BT: What is your position regarding Urgyen Trinley?

TD: I hope that he will be able to help people by teaching Buddhism.

BT: Does that mean that you don’t mind that there is another Karmapa besides yourself?

TD: Within the lineage, there can, of course, be only one Karmapa. I personally hope that this issue will soon be resolved.

BT: How will it practically go on now that there are two factions in the Karma Kagyu School?

TD: Whether there are one or two groups doesn’t really matter. What matters is that people benefit, and for that it is essential that the teachings transmitted in the Kagyu tradition remain intact. In fact, there is no division. Many people talk about it, however; what matters is the Dharma as such, and the Dharma is not divided. People who don’t really understand the Dharma think there is a division; they think about institutions. For an authentic dharma practitioner, however, there is no split. For this type of person there is only the Dharma.

Buddhism Today Vol.8, 2000