At the conclusion of another very busy day in London, the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, arrived in the late afternoon at Watkins Books to attend the UK launch of his most recent book, Interconnected: Embracing Life in our Global Society.
The book is the second in a series based on exchanges between the Karmapa and young people and deals with topics, such as the way electronic connectivity is transforming the way we relate, loneliness, consumer culture, animal protection, and environmental sustainability. At a time when many factors work to polarize society, the book explores ways to build a global society based on our interconnectedness and our commonality as sentient beings. In the book, the Karmapa argues that though global economic integration and information technology are making our interdependence increasingly direct and undeniable, we also need to progress from this intellectual understanding into a deeply felt awareness of our interconnectedness. It is only then will we be able to transform both ourselves and the society we live in by encompassing the values of compassion, responsibility, equality, and respect for diversity. As the book states: “When our understanding of interdependence has moved from head to heart and into action, our lives become fully effective and meaningful.”
Located off Charing Cross Road, in the heart of London’s world-renowned district of booksellers, Watkins Books, the venue for today’s book launch, was established in 1893 with the specific aim of making the wisdom of the East available to the general reader. More than 120 years later, it continues to specialize in books from all spiritual traditions. The current owner, Etan Illfeld, welcomed the Karmapa warmly to the bookshop and spoke briefly about its purpose and history. His Holiness then invited questions from the audience.
The first questioner asked for advice on talking about the nature of mind to Westerners.
“It could happen that when we speak of the nature of mind, we give an apparently clear explanation, but it carries the flaw of causing people to have more thoughts and not truly discover the nature of their mind. It is important that we are aware of the many kinds of thoughts and old habits within our mind.”
The Karmapa continued, “The main point here is that we use our mind to observe our mind. This process starts when we loosen our habit of imposing our assumptions and projecting our thoughts. This will allow our mind to return to its empty nature. When this becomes possible, we will create space for a new intelligence to arise, and we can discover who we truly are.
The second question concerned morality and going beyond it.
The Karmapa emphasised the role of ethical discipline in the initial stages of the path to spiritual awakening. Since a Buddhist practitioner needs to follow the stages of the path, in the beginning it is paramount to practise what is to be adopted and what is to be abandoned. As we progress, we come to see that previously, we had clung to the true existence of things to be taken and given up. When we come closer to the true nature, the mind becomes freer of content about what to adopt and reject.
The realization that true reality is not some kind of form we can grasp is difficult to achieve, and we must be careful not to remain at the level of an intellectual understanding. From the perspective of ultimate truth, the phenomena of relative truth do not exist; however, we have not yet embodied that ultimate reality, so we must place a greater emphasis on relative truth.
Moving on, the next question was: How do we relate to the teachings in a way that is genuine, and not treat them as one more thing for our ego to consume?
His Holiness acknowledged that the information age was having a profound effect on spirituality. Information on different spiritual traditions is readily available over the Internet, encouraging a consumerist view of religions, and the abundance of information could lead to confusion. The main point of true spiritual practice is to learn about our own mind, he explained, and one of the things we learn is the ability to focus our mind so that it is not carried away by attending to things outside. Since mind is able to hold its own ground, we gain more focus and control over ourselves. A true spiritual path is about finding who or what we are by turning our attention inward. To do this, we must be able to stick with the fundamental question, the mother of them all: Who or what am I? Our entire attention is placed here.
The following question observed that interconnectedness could be used negatively as well as positively and asked how to counter its negative use. His Holiness replied that those who use interconnectedness negatively had not understood correctly: “The true meaning of the principle of interconnectedness is that we are a part of others and others are a part of us. Through that general understanding, we assume more responsibility for others, which is not felt as a burden but an encouragement, because it is rooted in compassion.”
Someone asked the Karmapa how he accessed memories of his previous lives. His Holiness answered directly: “I don’t have any particular memories of previous lifetimes. People expect me to have them, but it is closer to the truth to say that I have had to work very hard to be what people expect me to be. I regard this role as an opportunity I have been given to do the best that I can to help others.”
In response to a question on conflicting loyalties, the Karmapa said that such conflicts were usual in samsara, a normal part of cyclic existence, and advised us to use our own intelligence and discernment to see if these loyalties are based on emotions or reason. The Karmapa mentioned a slogan from mind training, which is carries a similar meaning: “Of the two witnesses, hold to he principal one.” It means at the end of the day, you have to trust your own observation of a situation, and not just rely on emotions or others’ opinions.
The final question echoed the sombre mood affecting everyone after the terrorist attack in Manchester the previous evening. It seemed, the questioner said, as if the world was about to enter a period of intense suffering. The question was how best to deal with it.
The Karmapa reflected a moment before responding. It was possible, he agreed, that the world was entering a period of increasing suffering. Though people had expected our situation would improve with scientific and material advancement, it could also become more disastrous. In addition, there were many conflicts centred on religion or ethnicity. “We must not allow our minds to be swayed by external factors,” he counselled. “However, much darkness there is in the world, we can see ourselves as a source of light.” With that message of hope and responsibility, the session concluded.