Rome - In times of migrant crisis, economic and religious conflicts, Europe has a chance for a wholesome change of perspective to turn every challenge, every obstacle into an opportunity. Definitely "We cannot stop change... Life is change", says Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa in an exclusive interview to AGI.
The Karmapas are the leaders of the important Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. The first Karmapa was Dusum Khyenpa, born in 1110, before the first Dalai Lama, who was born in 1391. Trinley Thaye Dorje, the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, is the current holder of the Karma Kagyu lineage. He was born in central Tibet in 1983, then officially recognized and enthroned in March 1994. He lives in Delhi, India, and has the spiritual responsibility for over 900 monasteries and meditation centres all over the world. In Tibetan Buddhism, Karmapa represents the longest unbroken chain of reincarnate leaders. Our conversation took place a few days after Karmapa presided over the Kagyu Monlam in Bodh Gaya, one of the biggest events in the Buddhist calendar, at Buddhism's most holy site, where Gautama Buddha attained Enlightenment.
Your Holiness, Europe faces migrant crisis, million of refugees are traveling to Old Continent and it seems a growing spiral out of control. Isn't just an economic or political problem. The evidence shows that this change also involves the spiritual and ethical sphere of the western world. How to deal with this difficult challenge?
Yes, there is a crisis, and it is a worrying and saddening situation, and so we must find a way to solve this matter for the benefit of all sentient beings. Just like there are so many different valuable methods and approaches to solving this crisis according to various philosophies, religions, political viewpoints, economic systems, the practice of Buddhism also offers ways to address this matter, but not in the way we might imagine.
When we are born as a human being, we are naturally and inevitably bound by the condition of this type of existence, and this condition is described and summed up by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni as 'Dukkha' (usually translated as "suffering" or "unsatisfactoriness"). Of course, that statement may seem very negative and dismal, but the Buddha had a real point when he said that this life is suffering, because what he meant by that is that our human condition is somehow based on change. That is what he meant to say, but somehow due to our strong habitual patterns and instincts, developed over many years and matured due to our concepts and theories and views and religions, we somehow get a little disoriented, due to having too many kinds of advice, too many theories.
As a result of it, then somehow the challenge becomes accepting the nature of the human condition: accepting that it is change - that from the moment of birth it was change, and it is change still, and it will always be change in the future, too. This is our current condition, and there is no way to alter that. And we depend on religion, politics, different forms of morale, science, medicine, and whatever else it may be to somehow deal with this human condition. Although these means are valuable and beneficial in their own right, in terms of the human condition the only solution seems to be acceptance of that condition, which means accepting change as change.
And so I would say that the contribution of Buddhism would be the offering of this suggestion, which both the Buddha himself, as well as all those who have followed in his footsteps, had offered: pointing out that life is change, and that if we don't realise that life is change and accept that, then it leads to suffering. And so therefore, developing this kind of perspective and then persevering in actualizing this perspective in one's experience, in one's duration, in one's stay within the human condition, seems to be the purpose.
Of course, we all would love to have a remedy that tells us how to deal with these difficult challenges by following steps A, B, C, D... a permanent and quick-fix type of solution, but according to what Buddha understood, realised and shared, the only thing there is to do in terms of answering the question 'What is the purpose of human life or the human condition?' the answer seems to be that it is to realise the nature of our human condition and then find a way to accept it. This acceptance is understood as great courage, and as a result, someone who has accepted it is regarded as a great being. They are regarded as a great being not because that person is "The Chosen One" or "The Leader" or the head of a particular belief system: instead, the sheer simplicity of accepting that life is change brings immediate clarity, and therefore the base of all anxieties immediately right there and then diminishes. Because life is change - what that means is that there is a conceptual past, meaning that there is a conceptual history, and there is also a conceptual possible history, meaning that according to the past and according to what has happened today, that tomorrow it could be like this. One can draw theories, one can draw concepts, but nothing more. The reality is that past is truly past, and the future hasn't come at all, and even the present is just a mere experience of change? and as a result then there is nothing to fear, there is nothing to lose. All there is is a mere experience.
And so it is this kind of attitude, perspective and practice that has helped many beings to somehow turn every challenge, every obstacle into an opportunity. To do what? Basically, to do good, to be good, to be kind.
As a spiritual leader, how do you explain and judge the Islamist radicalization? Why did so many people join in this Islamic State?
If we ask ourselves, "Why did this happen?" most likely we will end up having endless questions of endless whys, and we will never hear the end of it, because there are endless causes for why this has happened. Relatively, we will find hundreds and thousands and countless whys concerning why this happened, all kinds of theories and concepts? We can have political views about it, religious views about it, scientific views about it. We can have countless theories and views about why this happened, and the thing is we will never find anything absolute in the end. We will not be able to explain, not be able to judge why this or that happened, and the reason why we will never find the absolute cause is because the very nature of human condition is change. That will always be the only and eternal guarantee: that as long as there is human existence or a human condition or human experience one thing we can always be certain of is change. We can always be certain that tomorrow will never be the same as today. And each day, no matter how similar they may be, or they may have been, in fact each of them are different. Why? Because they are just changing all the time; they are constantly impermanent. Not just from one day to another day, but from one moment to the other. So as a result, and probably from recognition of that fact - recognition that this is the case - we understand that each moment is entirely different from the other, no matter how similar they may seem.
Having said all that, meaning establishing such a philosophy or perspective of life, which may seem sophisticated, interesting, logical, but still, our main question here is probably not exactly why did this happen but rather what is there to do, which is more related to the first question: how to deal with it? And according to the Buddhist perspective what follows after establishing this view, one could say, this perspective, the conduct, or the attitude, the remedy, the practice, the approach, the application - whatever we call it - seems to be none other than letting it be. In many ways, this may sound illogical, but somehow if we look at it calmly and carefully that seems to be it. We can see that there is an opportunity, that there is a chance to do something, and so immediately we recognise that there is something to be done, but then if we ask ourselves and if we start to scratch and search what to do, we will not really find the answer in terms of what is the absolute thing to do. We will never find the absolute remedy. And it's not because we are not wise enough, we are not compassionate enough, or we are not experienced enough. I believe that the reason is because there is nothing to do. There is only to recognise, there is only to accept, nothing more.
The reason why the best approach is to let things be is because if we try to do anything more than that, then we will lose first of all our objective, and whatever approach we take will not accord with our aim. That it'll always go the other way. The bottom line is to explain that letting things be is the way to go.
It is important to understand what this perspective of letting things be means. It is said that the practice of letting be, which is the main practice of Buddhism, is a way to let the past be where it belongs. Right now our approach, our curiosity is based mainly on the past, rather than the present: when we say why did so many people join? So immediately the focus is on giving life to the past, and as a result then immediately we use this present moment, this present as a connector, to connect with the future, with what could happen.
So therefore, the past, or whatever has happened, we're not letting it be, we are giving life to it, we are breathing life into it and making it real. And then equally, doing the same with the future - we believe that somehow judging by the past that the immediate conceptual logic is a similar pattern of the future, and therefore we use that as a way to predict what will happen. And as a result of it then what happens is that we lose the present moment, which is a terrible thing, because in fact the present is the most important moment of all. And the present moment, of course, its own nature, as I said earlier, it's change. And so it is never supposed to stand still, it's supposed to continuously move on. And so therefore, instead of letting the past where it belongs, and doing the same with the future and the same with the present, we somehow jumble all of these three, and as a result of it, then we just don't know what to do. We can never find an actual way. And so therefore, we never let things be, we always do the opposite, we always continue to try to alter it, try to do something, and so although we have an aim of what we want to do, however our application is not in line with our aim. And so therefore, our aim is to put the spoonful of food into the mouth, but we miss completely. So therefore, there is constant anxiety.
And so therefore the practice of letting it be means that past belongs in the past: it's gone, and the future hasn't come. And even the present moment is also not something that is still, but it is a constant moving thing, changing thing, evolving thing. And so therefore all we do is just be aware of it, and not try to alter things.
Because the minute we try to alter it, we lose it. We lose our priority. Having said all of that, it is very important to understand that letting it be doesn't mean that one doesn't do anything about it? that one let's water boil on its own and eventually spill and cause damage or harm. What it means is to be in this present moment which is constantly moving - be there. Because the past is definitely a teacher for sure but nothing more, and using our logic, using our ideas, our systematic wisdom, we can expect some things that might come our way, meaning the future. We may be able to predict some possibilities maybe, but nothing more, There will never be any guarantees at all. Nobody can guarantee the future at all, because that's the nature and that's the beauty of the future. That it is always supposed to be like that. It was always like that, it will always be that, that we will never ever know the future. Thinking that we can see the future just like we can see the past causes anxiety. And so we let the future be in its own place, we let the past be in its own place, and we even let the present be in its own way. Because its nature is to move on, and we use the inherent ability that we all possess, which is to be aware of that present moment, and follow with the same current. If we do that then our priorities are set, meaning the three priorities: letting the past, present and future be, so as a result of it we are not overburdened by what has happened and what could happen, and what is happening now, one could say. And at the same time we are able to carry whatever responsibilities we may have thoroughly, to the dot, without being overburdened by things that we cannot control. And according to Buddhism it's not because there is something to control, and we don't control. But there is nothing to control. The past is really gone, the future never happened, and the present is also equally moving away. So there is nothing to do, except to be aware of this present moment, and do what's necessary, meaning do a little good, whatever good we can, and not be overburdened by what could happen and what could not happen.
Pope Francis' style is changing the relation between Catholic Church and faithful in a way closest to the reality of people's lives. Do you think it's possible to adapt the traditional religious systems to the contemporary world without the risk of loss in terms of rules and doctrine?
What I believe as a Buddhist, although Buddhism doesn't really have a belief system at all, so rather I should say what I understand, is that philosophies, religions, rituals, science, medicine, politics, economic science, agricultural science, all of these are just tools, nothing more, and at the end of the day, what we are supposed to do with these tools, or the nature of these tools, these methods, these means, is to bring awareness, to provide awareness to those who seek. All of these means are just a medium; all of these are languages. And we use these languages to make everyone aware of what is what, how things function, what is the nature of things, in the simplest of ways and the most elaborate ways, and that's about it.
And so therefore, whoever practices being an example of awareness is an object of gratitude and respect, genuine gratitude and respect. Because what they are doing is bringing the inspiration that no matter where we come from, no matter who we are, no matter our background, no matter the language we speak, we can become aware of the meaning of this existence, the purpose of this existence, and so eventually, or in absolute, in ultimate, there is no doctrine to be lost, because there never was one.
All there is, and all there will ever be, is clarity, clarity meaning excellence in a way, like beauty or truth, which is not a doctrine at all but the nature of the way things are - that a person practicing compassion or loving kindness on one side of the world, and another at the opposite end of the world - both in their own ways, their own language, their own culture, no matter how different they may be, no matter how different they look - that excellence has no border. That quality, that beauty, that truth has no border at all. There is no difference - we cannot separate that excellence in any way, and therefore it is sometimes described as timeless. However, we do have lots of different tools, languages, mediums to describe that excellence. And so of course the languages or the tools or the means that we utilise will always be different of course. As life is always changing, that language will always change. For example, the English language has always changed, ever since its conception, one could say; and it will continue to change - in a hundred years time it will be very different from how we use the English language right now - very, very different.
So therefore, deep down there is no real need to worry that we will lose the doctrine as such, because there never was one - it was just a means, it was just a language. All there is is that excellence, which is, in one way, clarity - clear, transparent.
We cannot be bordered or gapped or separated by anything.
Compassion practiced by a mute individual and a very very literate one is the same. One might not be able to express it in words, but the experience and the expression is the same.
What would you say to the Pope?
I would like to express to him my deepest respect for carrying his responsibility for others' benefit.
Climate change, poverty, armed conflicts, an increasing loss of spirituality, the challenge of new technologies? For the Buddhist order it's time to take up the struggle to improve the life of the people and to engage in politics and social commitment, or it's better hold on to traditional idea of abstinence from such activities?
If we examine the Buddhist perspective and its practice, it's based on accepting the way things are. Both the perspective and the practice are based on that.
As a result, phenomena such as climate change, poverty, war, and so on? just as a human body changes from the moment it is conceived, meaning the inevitable ageing, the inevitable illness, the inevitable death, in the same way, on a larger scale, as a whole, one could say, the human condition is seen in two parts, one part being the container (the outer world) and the other one the content (the beings within it). So therefore, in both aspects, since they are interdependent, meaning that they are very intimately connected to each other, it is inevitable that they will change, they will decay, they will deteriorate.
This cannot be labelled as good or bad in absolute terms. The only way we can somehow label it is that it is change. So therefore, both the practice and the perspective is based on that understanding. So therefore, in a way there is no real absolute cause to try to alter things, to try to change things in absolute. Why? Because it's impossible; one cannot do it.
Of course, having said that, it doesn't mean that one doesn't bother about it and create more pollution - physical pollution and mental pollution. Not in that sense, of course. Rather, one will do what one can, according to one's capacity, but not overburden oneself with an impossible task.
Because the nature of it is to change so it is for sure that we can never stop it from changing. Maybe one can postpone, by finding various methods and ideas, using whatever technologies we have, using whatever modern science we have. We may be able to find a way to maybe lengthen it a little bit, postpone a little bit maybe, but in absolute there is no real way to alter it.
And it's not that there is something to alter but the task is too great, and so as a result then one gives up, but it's because there is nothing to alter - it just is change. We cannot stop change. Change is change.
So therefore, the greatest contribution from the Buddhists is first of all being responsible oneself - everything begins from oneself, that being responsible oneself in terms of trying to let go of the futility of causing physical and mental pollution. According to Buddhism, one sees that these concrete or materialistic forms of pollution originate from a lack of awareness, lack of understanding, which is translated as afflictive emotions and karma. The lack of awareness and the activities that follow after the lack of awareness. So therefore one actually deals with the root of pollution, so that there is no form of pollution to begin with.
But whatever pollution there, that's something that one cannot change. All there is to do is to accept it, to let it be, to not try to change it and alter it.
Such practice is taught and shared in this way exactly according to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, that his way of sharing his wisdom, his experience, his understanding was on the basis of courtesy, meaning that he never imposed his understanding, his realisation on anyone. Instead, he did give suggestions from time to time, but usually only when he was asked. So maybe the reason why we don't see so many of the Buddhist organisations around the world so prominent in being involved in these activities has something to do with that.