In 1992, a crowd of 25,000 gathered before a seven year old boy, each hoping for a personal blessing. In 2011, among an auditorium of 600 New Yorkers, I sat patiently waiting to hear what that boy – now a 26 year old religious leader – had to say about compassion and the nature of mind.
Within the ranks of Tibetan Buddhist teachers, the most senior teachers are purported to be reincarnations of great teachers of the past, and within the Kagyu lineage – one of Tibetan Buddhism’s main streams – the single most senior figure is the Karmapa, a title meaning something like “the embodiment of all the activities of the buddhas.” Before the 16th Karmapa’s death in 1981, he left a letter predicting where he would be reborn, an instance in a tradition of prophesy of the whereabouts of one’s own reincarnation that began with the first Karmapa 900 years before.
According to the 16th Karmapa’s prediction, his rebirth would occur “to the north in the east of the land of snow.” Kagyu officials understood this to mean somewhere in Eastern Tibet, and in 1992 the subject of the prediction was located – a seven year old nomadic boy by the name of Apo Gaga, living in the Lhatok region of Eastern Tibet. He was deemed to be the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa, and later that year, Apo Gaga was enthroned at Tolung Tsurphu Monastery in Central Tibet as His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa.
I’ve practiced Buddhism most of my adult life, although in the Zen tradition, which differs from Tibetan Buddhism. I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of reincarnation and I’ve never been attracted to the Tibetan style of Buddhist practice. But when my wife, a senior Zen Buddhist teacher herself, suggested during a visit to New York that we attend a talk – a teaching – to be given by the 17th Karmapa, I agreed to go along.
I’d heard encouraging things about him – that he was savvy, substantial and unpretentious, and that he was starting to talk about the need for changes in his tradition, including the importance of putting women on a footing equal to men as practitioners and as teachers. He was also emerging as the likely successor to the Dalai Lama as spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people.
In addition to these generally positive reports, there’s been controversy related to the young Karmapa. The day before his scheduled teaching, a New York Times article about him mentioned that earlier in the year he was investigated by the Indian police who found more than $1 million in foreign currency in his residence, including more than $166,000 from China. According to The Times, “The Karmapa’s aides said they planned to use the money to buy land for a monastery in India. But the Indian media fanned rumors that he was a Chinese spy.” What’s more, he is not the only claimant to the title of 17th Karmapa. Someone else has been enthroned as 17th Karmapa, and both of them have been performing ceremonial duties. Apparently they’ve never met and which is the “true” Karmapa seems to depend on whom you ask.
The venue for the teaching was small and we had seats close enough to get a good look at the Karmapa: a tall, solid-looking, handsome young man, calm and composed. The stage set was simple with the Karmapa seated in red and orange robes on a white couch, a glass of water on a small table in front of him, flowers and greenery on one side, and his translator seated on a cushion on the other. An enormous, brightly painted scroll of a Tibetan Buddha hung above and behind the couch.
The Karmapa spoke fluidly, pausing for his translator to do his job, the two occasionally conferring in a mix of Tibetan and English. The topic – Compassion and the True Nature of Mind – had been suggested by the evening’s organizers. Neither element by itself is an easy subject but the Karmapa dove right in. The Karmapa’s teaching was basic Buddhism and he taught with ease and confidence, occasionally introducing elements of contemporary American life – the iPhone was a favorite – to the delight of his audience.
The teaching lasted an hour and a half and concluded with a short Q&A with the audience. There were two moments in the Q&A that stuck with me as far and away the most interesting parts of the evening. The first was an involved question requiring several minutes of back and forth between the translator, the Karmapa, and the questioner before arriving at a consensus about exactly what was being asked. Early in his talk, the Karmapa spoke poetically about love and compassion as a moon always shining and the idea of a loving connection enduring even when people are not together in the usual literal ways, when we’re separated by time or space, and how that loving connection is always available to us, even though we may not realize it.
The questioner wanted to know, did this mean Karmapa himself was always available to his followers, or to every person for that matter, for this loving connection, depending only on a given individual’s ability to “tune in” to it? Or was the Karmapa simply expressing his own aspiration in that direction? Was the Karmapa available for a loving spiritual relationship with the questioner himself any time he was able to tune in? It was a question full of longing.
The Karmapa replied that he didn’t purport to be available 24/7 for such relationships, as though waiting by a transcendental telephone ready to pick-up whenever someone dialed his number. I was relieved at his answer, but kept thinking about the longing palpable in the question, the longing that this young man in robes might have an ability to transcend time and space, with the power to nurture, instruct, heal, or somehow save a distant stranger, or a distant people, or a whole world.
The second moment came later in the Q&A when, in response to another complicated but unrelated question, the Karmapa shrugged and said, “I don’t know,” quickly following up with, “I want to say ‘I don’t know,’ but I’m the Karmapa so I better say ‘I know, but I can’t tell you.’” This got a big laugh and he went on to answer the question at some length. But in his disarming “I don’t know but can’t really say that” I thought I detected another kind of longing. It was a longing I’d gotten a taste of in the Times article the day before, where the Karmapa was quoted as saying in response to a question about his role in the future of Tibet, “I don’t need more pressure… It’s hard enough just to be the Karmapa.”
I’ve reflected on these two companion moments – one which I interpreted as a longing to be saved and the other as a projected savior’s longing for relief from the burden of salvation. As a Zen person, I put a lot of store in something called “Don’t Know Mind.” It is a mind that is wide open with a combination of humility and a fierce inquiring spirit. So I wonder how long the young Karmapa will be able to keep his own “I don’t know” candor alive, both to the world and, more importantly, to himself, and I think about the weight of the burden of projection teachers and leaders have to bear. It’s clear that people have always harbored a wish to be saved – by a leader, a teacher, a lover, a system or a spell, but by something – and it seems clear people always will. And if you’re looking to be saved, what could be more attractive than a willing savior?
I’ve known this impulse in my own life, having lived for four years in a spiritual commune with a leader who was quite willing to accept and promote the savior projections of the community. Now, as a developing Buddhist teacher myself, I’m on the lookout for such projections and for any unconscious leanings of my own to take them on. Fortunately, at 65 I’m pretty well aware of these hazards and am not challenged by auditoriums full of adoring followers hanging on whatever I have to say. But it’s tough to imagine what it must be like to walk in the Karmapa’s shoes, surrounded since the age of seven by worshipful mentors and followers and under the weight of an enormously complex system of philosophy which he has had to absorb and master.
The Karmapa seems cool and confident. For his followers, these must seem like natural expressions of 900 years of Karmapa wisdom reincarnate. My own inclination is to attribute his settled quality to temperament and training. In any case, the world will have a chance to see how he develops, and even though it’s clear, as he has noted, that he doesn’t need more pressure, I’m sure the pressure will only increase, and I for one will be watching to see if he’s able to keep the “I don’t know” flame burning. I hope so.