It’s said that the visit of a great teacher produces a lot of ripples, like dropping a stone in a still pond. How those ripples come to fruition is interesting,” said Kathleen Wesley, communications coordinator of the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD) Monastery in Woodstock, where community members are preparing for a visit from the leader of their Tibetan Buddhist lineage. His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, of the 900-year-old Karma Kagyu school, will give a public teaching on compassion, along with bestowal of refuge vows, on Saturday, April 18, at Kingston’s UPAC Center.
The 29-year-old religious leader is in the midst of a two-month tour across America, giving teachings at universities and Buddhist communities on his third visit to the U.S., following trips in 2008 and 2011. Deki Chungyalpa, spokesperson for the tour, said the Karmapa’s focus this time is to meet college students, while addressing issues of environmental sustainability and women’s empowerment.
“He wants to learn what student life is like and what the younger generation cares about,” said Chungyalpa. The tour includes visits to six universities, including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.
“Karmapa” literally means “He Who Performs the Activities of the Buddha,” and the lineage is known for putting Buddhist principles into action, according to an online biography. In January 2015, the Karmapa made the historic announcement that he will establish full ordination for women, a long-awaited step within Tibetan Buddhism. “In the past, women have not been able to take the most important vows,” said Chungyalpa, “so they could not take a leadership role. This step will allow women to be seen as equals in the religious system.”
In India, where he lives in Dharamsala, the same town as his mentor, the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa has organized annual conferences since 2009, gathering representatives of the 55 Himalayan Tibetan monasteries to address issues of climate change and fresh water. “The Himalayas contain the headwaters of seven great Asian rivers,” said Chungyalpa, “including the Ganges, the Indus, and the Mekong. The glaciers are melting, causing flooding and drought, so these two issues are interconnected.” The Karmapa also speaks on wildlife protection and the vanishing of species, urging people not to buy ivory or the fur of endangered animals.
“The 17th Karmapa was born in 1985 to a family of nomads in the remote highlands of the Tibetan plateau,” states his official biography. The boy was seven when he was recognized as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa and left his nomadic lifestyle behind. Once installed at Tsurphu Monastery in central Tibet, at the age of eight, he delivered his first public religious discourse to an audience of over 20,000 people.
The Karmapa was 14 when he realized that Chinese authorities were likely to prevent him from meeting his religious obligations. He escaped from Tibet and settled in India. A citizen of the 21st century, he is no stranger to technology as a means of spreading Buddhist principles. When he delivered a talk at a TED conference in Bangalore in 2009, he was the youngest speaker to have done so at that time. His teachings are often webcast live with translation into a dozen languages.
Attendees at the UPAC presentation will be able to take the Buddhist vow of refuge, which is usually given in religious settings and rarely at a public venue where anyone present may take the vow that launches the aspirant on the spiritual path. Wesley is affiliated with a monastery located in Columbus, Ohio, where the previous Karmapa offered refuge vows at a teaching held in a public ballroom in 1980. “Even the janitor came forward and took refuge,” recalled Wesley. “He was watching the ceremony from a doorway and became a Buddhist. I’m sure not what he planned when he went to work that day. Even if person can’t totally follow up on it, taking refuge is still a great blessing, turning the mind toward the spiritual.”
Mantra rolls and relic pills
While His Holiness, the Karmapa is in town for the UPAC teaching, he will reside at KTD, which was established in 1978 under the auspices of the 16th Karmapa. The 20 resident monks and laypeople are busy making preparations for his arrival. “For people at the monastery,” said Wesley, “it’s like having a parent return home — someone who cares for us and has been always there for us, has been an inspiration.” Residents are painting rooms, cleaning, locating silverware and linens, unfurling welcome banners, and organizing a fundraising luncheon for members and donors.
The Karmapa will bless statues of the Buddha and religious figures, known as bodhisattvas, for some of the members and donors to take home to their shrines. Residents have been filling the statues with sacred items, including mantra rolls, relic pills, juniper, and semi-precious stones. Mantras, or sacred phrases, are written on strips of paper and rolled up. “When a great master dies, there are often relics left in the ashes,” explained Wesley. “Small pinches of those relics are made into spherical pills and placed inside the statues. The Karmapa will say prayers of consecration over them, spreading the blessings of the Buddha over a large number of people.”
Wesley said that just seeing or hearing the Karmapa can convey blessings. “Some people take advantage of this opportunity to make resolutions for their lives or improve habits. It’s a special chance to renew one’s spiritual life. He brings a blessing to the locality as well.” She compared his presence to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Woodstock in 2006, when a substantial crowd attended an impromptu teaching at Andy Lee Field. “Even today,” observed Wesley, “they may remember it fondly for spiritual inspiration.”
His Holiness the 17th Karmapa will bestow refuge vows and give a teaching on “The Development of Genuine Compassion” on Saturday, April 18, 10 a.m.-noon and 3 p.m.-5 p.m. at Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC), 601 Broadway, Kingston. Tickets range from $30 to $180 and may be purchased at https://www.bardavon.org.