Meeting the Karmapa

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The Black Hat Lama and the Future of Tibet

We ascended the monastery steps leading to his private meeting quarters at a snail’s pace, waiting patiently as His Holiness met with individuals and groups ahead of us in line for what seemed exactly the appropriate amount of time - nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps all of our time in India so far had been but a preparation for our audience with His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage and one of the most revered spiritual leaders in Tibetan Buddhism.

Waiting in line, the suspense aroused curiosity. What was the expectation? We had spent days trying to attain a permit to interview and film His Holiness. Although meeting with the Karmapa isn’t particularly unique—he holds regular public audiences and is, after all, a public servant—arranging a filmed interview with the young man who is a political and spiritual leader, living in exile, and holding hope for the future of Tibet, requires a few more security checks and administrative procedures than the average blessing.

We wanted to interview the Karmapa on the importance of having a consciousness of oneness in general and what role it can play in politics in particular. Through translators, we had spent hours attempting to explain and translate “oneness” into Hindi and Tibetan. The entire scenario akin to an existential cartoon or a good game of “telephone”, we ultimately failed to adequately describe the ineffable. And yet our inquisitors, sufficiently confused and reasonably satisfied, granted our permit. We weren’t CNN or BBC but we were an international team with an American project and we had lots of gear. Our cameras and their officials seemed to legitimize things on both sides of the cultural divide. Publicity, it turns out, despite the danger of bad press, is an international language with universal appeal.

While mixing politics and spirituality has long been a practice in the East, the combination is seen as volatile and something to shy away from in the West.
We are, however, beginning to bring together subjects that traditionally function separately. Science and spirituality, ecology and spirituality and even politics and spirituality are coupling on the outskirts, edging their way into the collective consciousness of well-meaning secular societies. Tibetan Buddhist culture, although almost destroyed, has never separated spirituality from government, and in the face of current world issues and trends, there may be something to learn from this.

According to tradition, the Karmapa is the 17th emanation of an enlightened master belonging to a lineage over 700 years old—the oldest tulku lineage in Tibetan Buddhism. Born fully conscious to a Tibetan nomad family just four years after his previous incarnation, the Black Hat Lama, as he is known, is anything but ordinary.

To begin with, some intrigue and controversy surround His Holiness as two people claim to be the reincarnation of the 17th Karmapa, but the Dalai Lama and the Chinese Government recognize only one. In the year 2000 and at just 15 years old, the recognized Karmapa escaped from Tibet to India where he was given refugee status. Although from different traditions, His Holiness is seen frequently with the Dalai Lama—head of the Tibetan government-in-exile—and similarly, is even considered an embodiment of compassion. Now, in his early 20’s, traditionally trained and steeped in spirituality and politics, the Karmapa seems well placed to be a future voice of Tibet.

Finally our moment to meet His Holiness had arrived. We entered the simple meeting room and stood before three grand thankas and three less noticeable robed guards. His Holiness walked in from the sunny balcony wearing traditional robes and modern sunglasses. It was difficult to read his expression. Was he slightly bored with the prospect of yet another meeting? Or was it the cool calm of a man in constant meditation? Perhaps the restrained poise of one who has mastered his energy and the correct Buddhist attitude of not too happy, not too sad?

Removing his sunglasses, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa stood before us, tall and powerful, and elusive. He received us formally. He presented as an interesting mixture of youthful innocence and a wise old man; his intelligent visage and handsome charm carefully tended by the men at his side and the weight of 700 years on his shoulders.

After a momentary pause and meeting of the eyes, the interview proceeded for almost an hour as he thoughtfully answered in Tibetan our pre-approved questions, reflecting on the role of spiritual leaders and spiritual consciousness in the world today.

When asked about politics and his possible future role on the world stage, he was cautious, eloquently guiding the conversation to more acceptable and nonspecific examples of public service. Customarily, the Karmapas aren’t involved in politics and not everyone would welcome the change.

He did however hint at an underlying knowledge of politics and revealed how, from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, spirituality and politics can come together in relationship. According to His Holiness, as much as we must work on ourselves from the inside to have an effect on the world outside—for the betterment of society as a whole—so must society work for the good of the individual. “When society and the individuals that make up society are mutually supportive, mutually self-sacrificing, social unity and harmony is possible.”

The Karmapa further explained that spiritual leaders have a part to play in the world. Due to a life of meditation and altruistic spiritual practice, spiritual leaders have a clarity and naturally holistic perspective, which in turn fosters “unity consciousness” and a “broad, universal vision”. But, says His Holiness, they are only part of the equation. People need to be included. Spiritual teachers need to be in contact with ordinary people and ordinary people need to be in contact with spiritual teachers in order for the benefit of their mutual work and faith to be useful. Additionally, it is the role of society to develop in such a way that this relationship can be cultivated.

During the interview His Holiness was modest, diplomatic and didn’t venture far beyond what was expected of him. And yet, a twinkle in his eye suggested something else was alive behind all the formality. The Tibetans, after all, are not boring. They believe in magic, oracles and deities; they are colorful and imaginative, even tricksters. And most importantly, they know that nothing is as it seems.

It has been suggested by some that the recent adversity facing Tibetans is a (very Buddhist) lesson on the impermanence of human existence and all of manifestation. As a friend recently said of the current changes in the world, it is not the earth that is in trouble or in danger of being destroyed, but rather our world as we know it. Perhaps the role of the Karmapa, translated from Sanskrit as “the movement of karma”, is to reflect this change through the dharma (Buddhist teachings). And, as the current Karmapa said during our interview—possibly pointing to his personal future role—it is our view of the world that is changing, and religion needs to adapt to this change, while at the same time keeping its essence, which is timeless.

In a recent Newsweek article, His Holiness responded to similar questions about his future:

"I have no goals, nor any ambitions to be of great influence…but if circumstances make me a force for change, then I am a force for change."

At the interview’s end we bowed deeply to receive our customary silk prayer scarf before his assistants hurriedly ushered us out, past the next in line. As we descended the steps, we re-entered monastery life and heard the deep-throated puja chant of hundreds of young monks dressed as dakinis, the Tibetan female deities symbolizing primordial wisdom. According to historical convention, a dakini gave a black hat to the third Karmapa (1284 – 1339) and it became the emblem of the lineage.

With clashing cymbals and heavy horns, it was a ceremonial ending to our day, and perhaps this ancient ritual invoking feminine wisdom hinted at the underlying formlessness of our outwardly formal encounter with His Holiness.

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