“Although I wallow in the slime and muck of the dark age,
Still I aspire to see his face.
Although I stumble in the thick black fog of materialism,
Still I aspire to see his face.”
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Sadhana of Mahamudra
How can I even begin?
In the past week, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, visited Karma Thegsum Choling in Cicero, IL. For the unfamiliar, that’s an awful lot of consonants jumbled up against one another. I will do my best to explain.
The Karmapa is the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu lineage in Tibet. The Kagyu lineage dates back 900 years and is one of the four major lineages in Tibet. As best I can gather, it’s also the lineage that I was sworn into, although my vows were administered in Tibetan, and, well, frankly it gets a little complicated. For the past decade and a half I’ve been doing my best to make sense of things, hashing out my own liturgy as best I can, based on hearsay and observation. I have met some truly wonderful and inspiring individuals along the way, and I have also met with my share of deceit and betrayal. It’s been a bumpy ride, but the best intel I’ve been able to gather suggests that the Karmapa is the real deal, and for some time now I have hoped I might be able to make my own assessment of that situation. On Monday, I was granted that opportunity.
Given the extraordinary nature of international politics, the Karmapa is rarely free to leave his monastery in Dharamsala, India. For most of his two-month tour here in the United States, His Holiness has been visiting universities, packing auditoriums to capacity. Tickets vanished within minutes whenever they were made available. Karma Thegsum Choling is a modest Buddhist center, hardly an auditorium. As a carpenter, I even had to make some modifications to the building exits just so we’d safely be able to meet our expected capacity (of less than 100). The event was deliberately not publicized, and tickets were given out by invite only, just to ensure that things remained manageable. In short, it’s incredibly fortunate for those involved that His Holiness decided to visit us at all.
And it almost didn’t happen. The day before he was due to arrive, the Karmapa apparently became ill. His visit was quickly rescheduled for the following week. Not long after that announcement went out via email, an earthquake struck Nepal, on the very same date that His Holiness was originally due to visit Cicero. Certainly no one would have been offended if the Karmapa deemed it necessary to cancel his remaining itinerary and head back home. Several of us expected that he would do so. And yet he stuck with the revised schedule, despite the inconvenience it certainly posed.
The actual ceremony, the pomp and circumstance, the incredible tension and release, that I cannot attempt to explain. The majesty and grace that His Holiness presented will sound like horse hockey if I try and describe it here, but I had the experience of being near some sort of quantum distortion field, as if his presence were larger than anything else in the room, or in the entire universe. All of that was undercut by his incredible humility. Browse through the webcasts posted on kagyuoffice.org or on the Karmapa’s YouTube channel and you can get a sense of this quality. In person, it was overwhelming.
At the request of Lama Sean, center director at KTC, His Holiness offered some instruction for us that day on the practice of Chenrezik, or visualization of the bodhisattva of compassion. This is one of the main practices, or sadhanas, undertaken at Karma Thegsum Choling. While commenting on the 1,000 armed form of Avoliketeshvara, His Holiness related that he could personally empathize with the desire to manifest 1,000 arms, as he would need that many arms to fulfill all of the requests for help he receives each day from countless beings. Was there a hint of sadness in his voice as he said this? Was it resignation? Was he simply still feeling ill?
“His Holiness wants to see you. .”
After the ceremony had concluded, I waited to see if there was anything else I might help with. The room was filled with electricity. Some folks had already headed downstairs, but many were hanging around the main shrine room, chatting excitedly. As I stood there not knowing my place, a head poked out of the crowd. “Rob! His Holiness wants to see you.”
I was not expecting that the moment would become any more surreal. I suddenly felt like I had swallowed a ball of molten iron. I wasn’t sure what to do next, but I made my way through the crowd as quickly as I could and headed downstairs to the apartment where His Holiness was waiting. What was this feeling I was experiencing? Panic? Bliss? Terror?
I entered the room and bowed, completely unsure of what to do next. Should I approach him? Keep a respectful distance? Time was an abstract. Seconds were frozen, and at the same time they raced by. It was as if the room were on fire. Here I stood face to face with the Karmapa, and still I could not gauge his presence. Was he seven feet tall? One hundred? Up close, it was apparent that whatever illness had plagued His Holiness was lingering with him. He appeared a bit fatigued, a little sweaty, and yet he stood larger than life. I’ve met Presidents who didn’t have as commanding a presence. The Karmapa extended his hand and I approached. We shook hands. “Thank you,” he said. Apparently Lama Sean had related that I was essential in preparing the center for the Karmapa’s vist . “Thank you!” I gushed in return. I did not know what else to say. “Rob is a carpenter,” Lama Sean repeated for His Holiness. “Let’s build a stupa!” I exclaimed, stupidly. A stupa is a traditional buddhist monument of sorts, and plans had been announced earlier that day for a stupa in Zion, IL, the site of the 16th Karmapa’s passing. His Holiness had explained that this was, in fact, the main reason for his visit to the region, that he might recall his previous experience here. Suddenly I was embarrassed. I had spoken half a dozen words and I felt I had overstayed my welcome. “Yes, stupa,” the Karmapa repeated in his halting English. The next visitor was already on his way in, carrying a small child.
I left hurriedly, unsure whether or not I was going to pass out, fall over, or wake up. In the days that have passed since, I have tried to make sense of all that happened, and I am at a loss. At first it was as if I was in some sort of post-karmic depression. Not so much a feeling of sadness, but a sense of the weight of the world, of everything that the Karmapa must bear on a daily basis. Despite his limitless burdens and obligations, he not only went out of his way to visit our little dharma center in Cicero, IL, but he took the time to thank me personally for installing some door hardware and laying some carpet. Who knows how many thousands are praying for him this very moment to relieve their very real suffering, and I installed some carpet. The dude rolls with Secret Service escort, and he took the time to thank me. I have worked harder for guys who drive cargo vans, and they have not so much as said “nice job!”
As I reflect upon it, I realize that even my exclamation about the stupa was in a sense, selfish. Certainly I would like to see a stupa in Zion, and certainly it would bring joy to many others, but currently, I am without a full-time job, and if there were some work to do to prepare the stupa, I might have something to do for a little while, and then I could feel useful. It isn’t for the sake of all beings that I want to see a stupa. It’s just so that I might gain some personal satisfaction, or perhaps deepen my own spiritual practice and connection in some way. After the Karmapa left, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche answered some questions from those who had stayed behind, and he spoke about the benefits that a stupa could bestow. Many who visit a stupa wish that they might gain material satisfaction, win the lottery, or some such thing, and that is the wrong approach. If one instead visits a stupa and makes a sincere aspiration to be of benefit to others, the stupa will speedily grant that wish.
If there is an overriding theme to the Karmapa’s many public comments and teachings on this tour, it is the importance of developing compassion. When he spoke to the crowd at KTC on the practice of Chenrezik, he told us that if we want to know if our practice is truly deepening, we need simply look at our own compassion, and see how it is developing. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. As I think back on the few seconds I had to share with His Holiness, I regret that I didn’t simply ask him, “how are you?” or wish him a speedy recovery from his illness. I am sure that he took no offense, and admittedly I was overwhelmed and more than a little off guard, but it remains a valuable lesson nonetheless. How many times have I walked into a room and been too distracted or hung-up on my own agenda to acknowledge that anyone else was present? This being human business takes constant practice, but it is an opportunity worth perfecting. Some years from now I may be able to judge what effect meeting the Karmapa had upon me. In the meantime, I will be paying more attention to how I pay attention to others. That may be the greatest teaching he could grant me. For now, it is what I will be working on. It’s a start, anyway.
UPDATE: A wonderful article was posted on karmapaamerica2015.org, complete with photos, which does a much better job of describing His Holiness’ actual visit and the content of his teaching than I have done here.
Some edits for clarity and factual correctness.