Menlo Park, California, September 2003
On a warm autumn day in Northern California, the Buddhism Today team was privileged to meet with the twenty year old 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. We drove south from San Francisco to the estate of Sandy and Chris Yen, Karmapa’s sponsors in the US, to conduct the first formal interview the 17th Karmapa has ever granted.
Buddhism Today: It is a great pleasure to speak to you during your very first visit to the United States. What are your impressions of America and American people?
Karmapa: In America everything is very big country! I see big roads, big cars, even big people.. (laughter). But generally, people have open minds, which is very important for Buddhism.
Since I was very small, back in Tibet, I always wanted to travel. The possibility of seeing different places made me very excited. When I was traveling in Europe, or anywhere else, this gave me a learning experience, and it has been the same here. Even though I’ve been staying in one place for two months now, I am still learning a lot. All in all, it’s been a great experience.
BT: What are the most essential points of Buddhism?
K: Buddhism is not a religion or a philosophy. What makes Buddhism so special, and different from all the other religions, is the fact that it is a method that enables us to connect to our true essence. Based on Buddhist methods, we can realize the nature of everything. One can say realize the nature of mind, because mind creates this samsaric world. For that reason, mind is quite important, but otherwise, in a simple way one could say “the nature of everything.” Whatever we see, whatever we feel, whatever we create, Buddhism describes the nature of it all.
Buddhism is just a method. It is not based on what someone said or on faith; it is based on facts. When using this method, as we try to get to the truth, we not only use the dharma but also all other resources, whatever knowledge we can gain from this world without clinging to any of it.
BT: Where does bodhicitta (the bodhisattva mind) fit in?
K: For us Karma Kagyu practitioners, who follow the Mahayana and Vajrayana paths, bodhicitta is very important. Bodhicitta makes everything very different. Whatever we do, even though we still do it thinking of ourselves, we should do it with the intention of benefiting others. This is essential for Vajrayana Buddhism.
Both Mahayana and Vajrayana work with bodhicitta.
The Mahayana way is broader and clearer, but it goes by the book, following instructions. Vajrayana uses more direct tools; it is more risky and tempting. We go directly to the last stage, and from that point we try to look back and see how we reached there.
The Hinayana and the Mahayana schools will first plant a seed, then water it and give it more soil, and then they will get fruit. They use a very systematic approach. Within the Vajrayana we try to combine the planting of the seed with the fruit itself. We try to bring them closer and use every possible way to have that fruit within days.
BT: So you take the goal as a starting point.
K: Yes. That’s how we use the most effective tools.
BT: It’s like adding fertilizer and using genetic engineering.
BT: Could you explain more about bodhicitta?
K: Bodhicitta is a Sanskrit word. In Tibetan we use the terms monpa sem khyed and jukpa sem khyed. Sem means mind and khyed means to generate, to generate the bodhicitta mind both in an intentional and actual way. Monpa sem khyed is the intentional practice of bodhicitta, and jukpa sem khyed is active bodhicitta.
First one has to see the samsaric world as suffering, then see that sentient beings are caught in this suffering. On the basis of this understanding, one then develops a commitment to remove suffering and give happiness instead. In Tibetan we call it jampa and nyinje. Jampa means to give happiness, and nyinje means to take away suffering. This is quite simple and basic. I think the English terms are “loving kindness” (jampa) and “compassion” (nyinje).
To give lasting happiness does not mean doing charity work but teaching the dharma and helping beings understand the meaning of the dharma, how to use it and how to practice it. Both intentional and active bodhicitta are necessary.
Bodhicitta is important when it comes to dharma activity. We have to help others as well as ourselves. By helping others we will gain more understanding, and by helping ourselves we will be able to help others more. It works both ways.
BT: What exactly is active Bodhicitta?
K: Aspiring or intentional bodhicitta is a commitment to reach the state of enlightenment, while active bodhicitta is to actually engage in the path to enlightenment. Active bodhicitta is courage. It is not just making wishes and then running away, but putting them into action, taking the situation into your hands and getting into it. Active bodhicitta involves the Six Paramitas (liberating actions).
BT: For example, when you give teachings or initiations, or when someone starts a Buddhist meditation center, is that active bodhicitta?
K: Active bodhicitta is a combination of both intention and action. Without an intention, what would one do? When building a center, giving teachings and initiations, or even meditating, we need the intention of doing it to help others, don’t we?
BT: You are the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage. What is the Karma Kagyu lineage?
K: Ka in Tibetan means all the instructions, and gyu means the transmission that has been passed on from one realized master to the next. The transmission is pure, clear and without fault. The Karma Kagyu lineage comes from Tilopa and Naropa. Tilopa received the transmission directly from Dorje Chang and from the realized masters of the four directions of India. It was then passed to Marpa, Milarepa and down to Gampopa. Gampopa gave the transmission to his three main disciples, especially to the first Karmapa Dusum Kyenpa. They used to call the first Karmapa “Khampa Use.” Khampa is a region in eastern Tibet, and use means gray hair.
Our Kamtsang Kagyu starts with the first Karmapa. Our main practices are the Six Yogas of Naropa and Mahamudra. Mahamudra is the Sanskrit term we use in the Kagyu school. In Tibetan it is Chag Gya Chenpo, and it is a specific teaching to our lineage of meditating directly on the nature of mind. Of course there are other terms for Mahamudra within the Nyingmapa and Gelugpa schools, like Tawa Chenpo, Uma Chenpo and Dzogpa Chenpo.
BT: What is the difference between Mahamudra and Dzogchen?
K: These are just different methods. There are different approaches for different people, whatever is suitable for them. In the end, it does not matter which methods we use to attain realization. The fruit is always the same. It’s like saying, “Now I am going to Frankfurt, and I can get there with Lufthansa or with United.”
BT: In our Diamond Way Buddhist centers, the main practice is Guru Yoga on the 16th Karmapa. Will you explain the benefits of this practice?
K: One must first understand the meaning of Guru Yoga. Guru Yoga is the practice on one’s own teacher. Normally, one could visualize a peaceful or a wrathful deity, but the reason for doing Guru Yoga is that the teacher is a human being, just like us. In this way, it is easier to relate to him or her; we can have a stronger link and a better connection. In fact, without the teacher, one would never know the dharma. A guru is the best guide, the best way. Both deity practice and Guru Yoga are essential, but the reason Guru Yoga is so special is that without a teacher one would never even know the deity. The teacher shows us everything. We are taking all of his or her qualities and using them to reach the same level of realization.
When we think of a teacher, because he is human like us, we can more easily relate to him and gain something. So when we practice Guru Yoga, the blessing we receive will be even greater, simply because our mind is more open. Otherwise, we could just do Guru Yoga on a stone. It’s the same. But with the teacher we feel more confident.
On the other hand, we should not think of a teacher as only being human, but also think of his qualities. These qualities are the Three Jewels; the teacher has all three. Like the Buddha, he is not simply a person but someone who shows the path to enlightenment. Secondly, he possesses and knows the dharma, and thirdly, he or she helps us on our way, and that is the sangha. If you think that Guru Yoga is a practice on the teacher’s body only, then it will be a source of samsara. There is no lasting quality in a human body; it’s just flesh and bones.
Through Guru Yoga, the teacher enables us to understand the last stage, that final piece that makes everything clear as crystal. The teacher has such a quality.
BT: Guru Yoga seems to be a much more convenient practice for our lifestyle than, for instance, the Six Yogas of Naropa.
K: Every part of Buddhist practice is essential. Whichever practice you do is important, and they are all effective. If you feel more confident, and something is more suitable for you, you will attain results more quickly. It is a matter of what is most suitable for each individual, for his or her situation, for the time, and even for the culture.
BT: Can we achieve the realization of the great masters without long retreats and such practices as The Six Yogas of Naropa?
K: When we talk about the Six Yogas of Naropa, we think of so many things we have to do, and it feels like a huge burden. Then we hear that if one simply does Guru Yoga, one can achieve the same result. One says, “Yes, Guru Yoga is very short, and I can do it.” But slowly one comes to understand the special qualities of the methods of the Six Yogas of Naropa, like for instance the Phowa, that without doing them one cannot go as deep and cannot actually realize the truth in such a short time. So at some point one wants to practice The Six Yogas; it becomes a necessity. Through Guru Yoga, one will get closer and receive bits and pieces of the Six Yogas of Naropa. One will get a taste of it but not the complete experience.
BT: Could you say something about the power of mantra? What are the benefits of using the Karmapa Chenno mantra?
K: We use the Karmapa Chenno mantra in the Guru Yoga practice on the 16th Karmapa to get closer to Karmapa’s level of realization. In Tibetan, karma means activity, and pa is the person who performs activity. Karmapa means simply the man of activity. So, even the mantra is a form of Guru Yoga.
BT: Just saying the mantra is Guru Yoga?
K: Maybe not exactly just saying it, but also thinking about its meaning. When we repeat this mantra, we are very close to Karmapa’s essence; we invoke his body, speech and mind. These words carry the essence of the three forms of Karmapa: past, present and future. One can simply say that Karmapa, or any other teacher we do Guru Yoga on, embodies the Three Jewels.
When reciting the six syllable mantra of Chenrezig (skt. Avalokitesvara), Om Mani Peme Hung, we open our minds to his timeless qualities. When Avalokitesvara took the Bodhisattva Vow and began his activity, he made strong wishes that all who repeated this mantra would receive his blessing. It is the same with Karmapa Chenno.
BT: Every Karmapa proclaims himself to be the Karmapa, and we understand you did the same when you were a small child.
K: Yes, though I was very small at that time.
BT: Would you say that it was a strong conviction?
K: Yes, and I had a strong feeling that I could do something good, simply put, that I could perform the activity of the dharma and take up the challenge to teach. I had very strong confidence. At that time, I was very small and I didn’t know exactly what that feeling meant. It was very strange, and I only began to understand it when I was six or seven years old.
Through my practice, I can now say that I can take up and perform whatever the previous Karmapa did, and that I have the capacity to do it. That is what I feel. In that way, yes, I can say that I am the Karmapa. Karmapa simply means the person who carries out activity.
BT: You are very confident that you can take over his task.
K: Yes, otherwise I am just another version of those people claiming to be Karmapa.
Just saying, “I am Karmapa” is not enough. To recognize the Karmapa, one needs proof. It takes a lot of work and intense meditation on the part of the person who is responsible for recognizing him.
BT: In this case Shamar Rinpoche?
K: Yes, Shamar Rinpoche with the help of another lama.
BT: Now you are in a completely different environment from Tibet. Do you miss the place where you grew up? Do you have the feeling that you might go back there?
K: Who knows, I might go back there freely one day. I spent most of my childhood in Lhasa, but I do not miss it that much. What I do miss is the quietness of Eastern Tibet, the grasslands, the mountains and nature.
BT: Do you think Buddhism in Tibet is in decline?
K: Not completely. Many teachers are still there, and there are many people working with the dharma. If we look at history, the teachings originated in India, later were brought to Tibet, then to China, to Europe, and so on. In India, there are still traces of Buddhism left. There is definitely a strong base in Tibet. At some point in time, Buddhism may again flourish there.
BT: Your father is a high Nyingma lama. Can you tell us how he influenced you when you were a child?
K: He was a very strong influence. I think that having him as a father, and also my mother, gave me easier access to the dharma. Especially because my father was a high Nyingma master, a Rinpoche, his knowledge of the dharma was very deep. I learned much more and advanced faster than regular kids.
BT: Did he teach you to meditate?
K: No, not exactly meditate. He taught me how to read and write. I did not have a tutor at that time. I did not go to school because my parents did not think it would be safe. Since the time I was very small, they somehow had some understanding about who I was. So it was my father and my uncle who taught me everything.
BT: You had the option of learning at home?
K: Yes, I was lucky. By the time I came out of Tibet, I knew quite a lot. Of course, I had no computer, but I had memorized a lot of texts.
BT: Who are your main dharma teachers now, and can you say something about their qualities?
K: Well, almost every teacher has his own special qualities, and I have been very fortunate to have many dharma teachers. I received empowerments from Shamar Rinpoche, Chobje Thri Rinpoche, Ludhing Khenchen Rinpoche, Beru Kyentse Rinpoche, Khen Trinley Paljur Rinpoche and Peba Tulku. Topga Rinpoche, Sempa Dorje and Khenpo Chodrak taught me Buddhist philosophy. Sometimes I spend several months meditating in retreat. This is quite important because knowledge is not enough; one has to have the experience of it.
BT: Where did you get your Western education?
K: I have not gone to any school, but I learned a lot from my previous English teachers. I learned English from several people, including Mark Tschelischeff, an American, Lucy, a lady from the New Zealand Embassy in New Delhi, Professor Sprigg, a Scotsman with a strong British accent, and Shona and Stewart Jarvis from Australia.
Today, one can also learn a lot with the help of modern technologies like the Internet. Even though I have learned quite a lot already, it is still not enough. I must learn more, there is unlimited knowledge in this world. It is an ongoing process, and there is no end to it.
BT: Can you tell us about the most recent initiations into the lost Marpa tantras that you received from Ludhing Khenchen Rinpoche? Why are these tantras considered so precious?
K: Shamar Rinpoche had asked Ludhing Khenchen Rinpoche several times to pass on these initiations, but it was difficult to find the time for it in India because of Ludhing Khenchen’s numerous activities there. When he planned to travel to Seattle, we decided it would be the perfect opportunity to receive these important initiations here in America. These are hidden teachings, which have not been taught in our lineage for two centuries. Fortunately, they have been practiced in the Sakya lineage, and this was a golden opportunity to get them back. I received twenty-two of them; there are some that due to our schedule we could not manage. It took a lot of energy on the part of Rinpoche just to give these twenty-two. He had to practice everyday for six hours in order to prepare for each initiation, and then another two hours or more to give it. The longer initiations took two days.
BT: Why is it important to pass these tantras on?
K: It is important that a large variety of methods are preserved. They are all of the same essence but have different qualities. In order to transmit an initiation to the public, one has to receive oral instructions and transmission, and then achieve a certain realization. There always has to be someone who has the time to practice it, realize it and pass it on.
BT: Do you think there are students who will be able to practice these tantras today?
K: I would say yes, everybody could do it. We have to use them, not just preserve them for the future.
BT: But practically, is that possible?
K: Everybody has to find the right moment and the right time to do it. It is the same thing as saying that everybody has the Buddha nature. For example, there are different types of fruits in a garden, but one can only eat them when they are ripe. If one eats them before, they are bitter and difficult to digest.
BT: So it depends on the individual practitioner, whether he or she is ready for it or not?
K: Yes, even if students are not yet ready, as a teacher one would still try to create the best possible conditions for them to practice. That’s why we have dharma centers.
BT: How do you see your activity as the 17th Karmapa?
K: It is still quite a long road, and there are a lot of challenges ahead. I am making the first step, and I think that it will be quite interesting.
BT: Is it important for the Karmapa to perform the Black Crown ceremony?
K: It was important. It was a tradition kept until the 16th Karmapa, but still only a tradition, no more than that. For me it is not so important. We can have it, but if we don’t, it will not make a big difference.
We say that the Black Crown is a symbol of Karmapa’s activity, and it was true for that time. Now, given the right moment, even a baseball cap could open someone’s mind. It’s like a door handle that opens a door.
BT: There are different styles of practice within the Kagyu lineage, which sometimes lead to divisions within the sangha. As a head of the lineage, do you see your role as someone who will unite and unify various approaches, or do you welcome the variety of groups and practitioners and consider it a natural way of things?
K: It is natural to have small divisions. At the time the Buddha taught, there was just one understanding of his teachings. After he passed away, more and more approaches appeared.
Different ways of practicing are good if they are effective and help people. However, if divisions appear and difficulties arise, they should be solved. Modernizing the way of teaching may also be required. The idea is not to bring anything new, but to use different terms while preserving the same essence.
BT: What makes Diamond Way methods unique?
K: I would say that this is not a proper question. You can find something unique in all other Buddhist methods as well.
Diamond Way is a very modern method, especially effective for the West, and we already have seen a good deal of results. For instance, in Europe there are many practitioners, many centers, and people don’t just follow but understand, which is most important. In that way, Diamond Way is very effective for modern times. It is probably better suited for the Western mind, so in this way it is unique.
BT: The development in Europe is mainly due to the activity of Lama Ole Nydahl. Why do you think he was able to achieve such results?
K: I think he is a great example for everybody. You can see how one individual can accomplish so much. Before he became a Buddhist, he was very wild. But once you tap into your Buddha nature, you can move mountains.
BT: Can we ask you a personal question? Is it difficult for you to always be the focus of everybody’s attention?
K: In a way I am getting used to it. (Laughter) Sometimes it can be irritating, but in some cultures it is a way to show respect, and it is done with best intentions. In the US or in Northern Europe, it is easier and more relaxed.
BT: What is the best way to address you? Should your students call you Your Holiness?
K: I would not mind whatever name is being used. Karmapa is fine; it is very simple. I think that I would prefer a name to a title.
BT: What about prostrating before a teacher?
K: Prostrating as a greeting depends on the situation. In Asia, it is part of the culture. In the West, sometimes it would look rather awkward and we can skip it. For myself, whenever I receive initiations, prostrating is a must. In the right context, it is a sign of respect. We should not do it without a reason. Whatever we do in Buddhism, we should do it with a proper understanding.
BT: How do you see the future of the Karma Kagyu lineage?
K: The future looks very good. (Karmapa smiles.) Within our lineage, there are many people interested in the dharma who are not simply followers but have an intellectual understanding as well. This is a good basis for further development.
BT: Thank you very much.
– The interview was conducted by Gosia Pellarin, Alyson Talley, Tomek Lehnert and Brooke Webb