Being Human Ain’t Easy: Unexpected Lessons from His Holiness the 17th Karmapa - Compassion Games

We surely can’t complain about the mystery and thrill of being alive. Yet, regardless of one’s walk of life, it just isn’t easy being human.
Like the tilted spinning of the Earth traveling through the Milky Way, having balance in one moment does not necessarily mean we will have it in the next. Life is messy. We are each challenged by the struggles of maintaining harmony in our relationships, by the incessant demand of finances and making a living, and of nurturing the physical and mental health of ourselves and those we love. We each desire meaning, belonging, and purpose in our lives.
These challenges in life, in their various forms and magnitudes, are a given. It is how we respond – not react – to life’s challenges that truly matter, transmuting them into all the more reason to love harder and be more compassionate toward others and toward ourselves, knowing we all suffer in one way or another.
Unfortunately, this is far easier to say and know than to do.
Which is perhaps why thousands of people flocked like weary birds to Seattle Center on May 9th, to receive a drink of the cool,spring water that is the presence and teachings of His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. He is, after all, a shining example of compassion and love in a tumultuous world.
What we got, however, was something far different than expected. Something, I believe, that was far better.
First of all, His Holiness had a cold, leaving him visibly and admittedly drained. To top this off, Seattle was the last stop on his journey of events over the course of two months, which was extremely exhausting in itself.
Buddha or not, I thought, the Karmapa is human. This lesson, which had only just begun, was the greatest gift he could have given us. Here was a moment for us to have deep compassion for him. Curiously and unexpectedly, it wasn’t the last.
After forty-five minutes of his teachings about compassion from the Kagyu Buddhist tradition, a young panel of change-makers sat on stage with the Karmapa and asked him, each in turn, some very difficult questions.
One such question was from a young woman activist from a group called Love City Love, a nonprofit that creates open spaces for artists to create art in community for one another for the sake of joy. She asked him:
“How do we have fun without using it as a way to escape from the suffering in the world, as a way to remind ourselves of the positive things in life?” She paused, almost forgetting to ask him the next part of her question with a sheepish but twinkling smile on her face. “And also, what do you do to have fun?”
The moderator quickly finished translating her question with a smile himself, and the Karmapa’s eyebrows went up in surprise. He put his hand to his chin in deep thought. He was, as clear as day, stumped! The audience laughed with him. To our surprise, here is some of what he said:
“It’s important in life, to not take things so seriously all the time. It’s important to remember to enjoy life to celebrate the good things… I remember when I was a young boy, my family would celebrate Losar, the Lunar New Year of Tibet. I remember that I would get so excited the day before that my siblings and I couldn’t sleep… We still honor Losar, but now I must follow set itineraries, the day is full of ceremony and ritual that I must fulfill. Sometimes I wish I could just lay in bed and sleep through it… As for what I do for fun now, I don’t know. I’ll have to give this more thought.”
As the last words of this were translated, the Karmapa unexpectedly began to speak again, which was translated to us once more:
“I really enjoy music and the arts. When I have time, I like to paint and make music. The arts are very important. That is all I have to say on the matter.”
It was an astonishing revelation, I think, for all of us. Quite simply, the Karmapa didn’t experience much of what it was like to simply play, to have fun.
This appears to be a common issue for everyday people and change-makers alike. We often feel guilty regarding the moments of joy in our lives when we know there is so much suffering in the world. Yet, play is an essential human need that allows us to connect with one another, building authentic relationships that can lead to sustainable action rooted in compassion. When we don’t take time to honor what is good and beautiful in life, we burn out. We lose our sense of wholeness. We actually becomeless effective at making positive change happen.
It is actually this concern that lead to us being invited to the event with the Karmapa at Seattle Center, to represent the CompassionGames and teach attendees about it. The Compassion Games are a social tool designed to ignite, amplify, and catalyze compassionate action in communities around the world. By infusing the power of playfulness and compassion with the fun of friendly competition, the Games offer a unique way to strive together to serve each other, our own personal well-being, and the Earth.
Experiencing the challenges that nonprofits face with finding financial support to grow and scale, the struggle can sometimes lead us to doubt the importance of play and the idea that you can use play to build the capacity of communities to be more compassionate. As we are currently fundraising to expand the Games to respond to a growing demand, this weighed heavily on our team’s hearts that evening.
Yet, once we began to speak with people about the Games, most people went from curiosity or confusion to an understanding grin on their face. “Team Seattle needs your help!” we would say humorously with feigned exacerbation. “The Mayor of Louisville said they were the most compassionate city in the world and would be so until proven otherwise! In fact, he said they were so compassionate they would come here and help us beat them!” At that point, most people usually laughed and wanted to learn more. Obviously, no one can lose the Compassion Games, though they seem to tap into an innate human desire to want to play together, to do the heavy lifting in the world with a lighter heart. By doing so, the Games can help raise the capacity of compassion in our lives and our communities in ways we otherwise wouldn’t feel inspired, or believe were possible, to do.
This may be why the Compassion Games worked so well in a women’s prison, where for the first time ever there were eleven days of no violence while the Games were played. Or why they are so excitingly received in educational settings, where children can “cooperate to compete” to make their schools safer and warmer places to learn, and to experience compassion first hand.
We were feeling quite relieved about the reception of the Compassion Games at the Karmapa’s event, but then it happened: one of the change-makers of the panel on-stage, a young lady from Roots of Empathy, asked another challenging question:
“It seems that competition is at the root of many social ills that we as a society face today. Can you tell us how competition creates barriers between people, how it is a separation that prevents us from connecting compassionately together to collaborate and make change?”
As an organization that aimed to use friendly competition as a kind of “culture hack” to get people excited about making a difference (the latin root for competition,”competere”, means “to strive together”), this question made our hearts skip a beat. Our team looked at each other with playfully worried smiles, holding our breath as we anticipated what would come next. Depending on his answer, we would either proudly stay, or try to make a break for it before mobs of compassion-seekers descended on us.
The moderator asked if it was okay to inverse the question. He said, “So, can I ask the Karmapa ifcompetition can be used in a way that is positive, as a way to make positive social change?” The young woman, once again, reiterated her original question regarding competition’s more negative side, how it enhances social ills rather than alleviates them.
Here is what the Karmapa said:
“Competition is very pervasive in the world today, connected to many of the activities that lead to problems. Even when people are not engaged in competition – competition with distinct victors or those who are defeated – people may bring the energy of competition to their everyday lives, like in an argument and the need to be right at the expense of others. But, I think competition can have a positive aspect to it as well. Competition can be used as a motivator to better oneself, not to beat others but to become more compassionate. In this way competition can be used to make oneself stand out, but in a positive way.”
All at once, we let our breaths out in a sigh of relief and laughed; there wouldn’t be any compassion mobs coming for us today. As it turns out, even the Karmapa believed that friendly competition could be used as a social force for good.
Once, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama said this when asked a similar question:
“Competition used to put others down: not good. Competition used to bring everybody up: that is very good.”
We were grateful that His Holiness the 17th Karmapa shared with us his down-to-earth human side. It allowed us, I believe, to see ourselves in him, not as an idol or state of perfection that we are not, but as a person like the rest of us. It made room for greater compassion toward ourselves in our own hardships, mishaps, and imperfections. Life is full of them, that’s for certain, but it’s easier to know that we are in them together, that even our suffering profoundly connects us all.
As for play and having fun: may we all enjoy the gifts that life has to offer us more often, not as an escape, but as a celebration to rejuvenate our spirits. And may the Compassion Games touch countless more lives by reminding us how to change the world by having fun, by reminding us of the child within us all.
We each desire to see the world become a more kind, safe, and loving place. It is much more rewarding when we do this together.


His Holiness the 17th Karmapa - A Reminder to Myself



In physical conduct, I will not allow myself to be rootless and hurried,
Incapable of being still, carelessly following my every whim.
I will always hold my own space.
And be adorned by the training in pure discipline.


In speech, whether spiritual or secular,
I will choose meaningful words
And shun unconnected talk of past events
or boring discussions concerning any of the three times.
I will always exert myself in dharmic recitations, proclamations, and readings.


In mind, I will not flutter back and forth like a young bird on a branch.
Not getting absorbed in discursive thoughts of good and bad,
I will meditate, cultivating forbearance and relying on my own perceptions, not those of others.
I will reflect on how best to benefit the teachings and beings.


第十七世 大寶法王 作



KARMAPA: Who is the HERO who can save the world?

The age we live in can be called the information era, and the connections between us individuals are getting much closer. Media shared by one person can reach many people and have many effects. For that reason, we can each increase our own individual power and effectiveness towards positive change. If everyone of us takes on that responsibility, I think we can definitely make a big difference. Instead of waiting for a great, powerful being to come from outside to be our hero, we ourselves need to make that commitment to becoming a great person who protects the world. I think this is the responsibility of us all.

~H. H. the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje


His Holiness the Karmapa - The Art of Impermanence - "I", consciousness, beginninglessness of time.

I had a powerful experience with impermanence when I was around 8 or 9. At the time, I was reading about dharma without knowing too much about it. I didn’t have a lot of experience with dharma so I mostly focused on learning basic language, grammar and so forth, and a little bit of memorization, that was part of my early training. I was focusing on the beings within the six samsaric realms, and how they would move from one realm to another. In particular when I focused on the hell realm, I just went into this total darkness. Although I was still repeating things from my mouth, which were memorized prayers, what I saw in front of my eye were blurred images. I also felt as if my continuity of consciousness was broken, which made me feel this immense fear. I couldn’t actually continue to sit so I went out, and that made me feel better. So, when I had this unbearable anxiety and wasn’t able to continue to sit, my teacher said that I could get up and go outside to get refreshed.

When we move from one lifetime to the next, again and again, it is totally based on the continuity of the stream of consciousness; it it endless. When we think of the stream of consciousness, and that there’s no end to it, it’s almost as if our life has no actual death; because the body is something you have found anew, while the mind is on going. This is the basis for the designation of “I” to mean person. And everything that has happened from the beginning of time, is actually stream of consciousness. This is how “I” began. Since the basis of “I” or self is something from the beginninglessness of time, when we try to look for the self, that “I”, that stream of consciousness, we actually attribute an “I” to it, or we designate a self into that beginninglessness. So based on that concept of the deathless “I”, when you think of impermanence in terms of momentariness, there’s really no end to our continuity of consciousness. 

Reincarnation is something being employed by the bodhisattvas, who are well intentioned and want to benefit sentient beings. They come back to samsara by committing a specific kind of karma, and it’s from that kind of karma that these bodhisattvas keep coming back to samsara. It is negative or positive karmas that places beings in higher or lower realms. With negative karma, you go down to lower realms, and with positive karma you go up to higher realms. The fact is that beings go to higher realms or lower realms based on the karma that is created. Consciousness is being driven around by karma, based on the beginning of time. So when we try to look for the self, that “I”, the potential energy collected from either good or bad karma actually influences the movements of consciousness to the higher realm or the lower realm. Where you end up is something that is totally dependent on the kind of karma you have created in the past.


Additional photographs from His Holiness Karmapa's visit to America 2015

2015 HHK Karma Pakshi - Sarite Sanders

2015 HHK Woodstock talk - Robert Hansen-Sturm

2015 HHK Woodstock talk - Sarite Sanders

2015 HHK Karma Pakshi – Stephanie Colvey

2015 HHK Karma Pakshi - Robert Ha nsen-Sturm

2015 KTD HHK - Dawa Sangmu

2015 - HHK Earth Day - Sarite Sanders

2015 - HHK Earth Day - Robert Hansen-Sturm

2015 - HHK Church - Stephanie Colvey

2015- HHK KTD Mahakala – Stephanie Colvey

2015 HHK KTD 4-20 - Sarite Sanders

2015 HHK KTD 4-19 - Stephanie Colvey

2015 HHK UPAC - Sarite Sanders

2015 HHK UPAC - Robert Hansen-Sturm

2015 HHK UPAC Stephanie Colvey

2015 HHK’s Arrival at KTD - Robert Hansen-Surm

2015 HHK’s Arrival at KTD - Sarite Sanders

2015 HHK’s Arrival at KTD - Stephanie Colvey

On April 16, 2015, His Holiness the Karmapa visited USIP.

University of Redlands, March 24-25

Images of Gyalwa the 17th Karmapa on March 19, 2015 at a public talk at the Craneway Pavilion

2015-03-17 Karmapa at Stanford


10 Questions with the 17th Karmapa -Time

May 14, 2015

He’s an environmentalist, he’s friends with the Dalai Lama, and, at 29, the 17th Karmapa may be Tibet’s next hope.

The Dalai Lama is turning 80. Do you worry what will happen to Tibetans when he dies?

All Tibetans have placed our hopes in His Holiness, and we depend on him so profoundly. While the communist invasion was obviously a disaster for the people and culture of Tibet, it also had the side effect under His Holiness’s leadership of uniting all Tibetan lineages in a way that had never happened. When he passes away, I worry we will be like a body without a head.

Many think you will be the next spiritual leader for all Tibetans. Will you?

People say this a lot, and it’s out of affection. But to be direct: the Dalai Lama has been both the political leader and also the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, and it’s highly unlikely anyone else would be universally accepted like him as the leader of all Tibetans.

You were discovered at age 7 as leader of the Kagyu school, one of the six main lineages of Tibetan Buddhists. At 14, you fled Tibet for India. Why?

In Tibet I was not free to travel, and the holders of my lineage, from whom I needed instruction, lived outside of China. I was unable to meet with them. I also feared that as I aged, China might try to give me some kind of political role and use me as a propaganda alternative to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. So I wished to avoid that very much.

You haven’t seen your parents in 14 years—


Fifteen. Do you miss them?

When I first reached India, I dreamed of them and of Tibet practically every night. At some point I realized if this goes on, it’s going to be very, very hard. I had to put them out of my mind. But now that they’re somewhat aged, I’m concerned about being able to see them again.

What does a lama do when he feels sad?

I don’t feel I have anyone to bring my problems to. So I suppose when I feel sad I really just close my door and I let myself cry. I try to work things out for myself.

China has encouraged migration into Tibet. Does that worry you??

If many people settle in Tibet, it’s going to affect the natural environment-—and that’s not only important to the people who live there. The source of all of the great rivers of Asia is the Himalayan glaciers and snow. For the sake of all of Asia, China needs to recognize the need to preserve it.

You’ve said nothing’s more dangerous than apathy. Why?

Scientists say we are all hard-wired to feel love and compassion. Unfortunately, we’ve developed some kind of on-off switch, and now our apathy extends to any danger that’s not right in front of us. Climate change is one of them.

So what should we do?

Recognize we are inter-dependent. That we need to take responsibility for the welfare of others and break down the wall of selfishness and pride that gives us a false sense of separation. Each of us possesses a natural resource in our hearts. We need to explore it.

You’ve been on a long tour of the U.S. What has stood out to you about Americans?

The tremendous dependence on technology and material things. It’s a mental dependence. India of course has modern technology. But Indians have not lost the understanding that they need to seek happiness within.

Do you wonder what life would be like if you weren’t the Karmapa?

Well, I don’t have much experience being anything else. I suppose I would be an ordinary monk.


Karmapa on Campus (The New Yorker)


Visiting Dignitary  MAY 11, 2015 ISSUE


On Saturday, His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the top lama in the Karma Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, led a prayer ceremony at Riverside Church for the victims of the earthquake in Nepal. It is for such work (alleviating suffering, raising funds) that he’d come to America, in March, to take a tour of colleges and temples—and perhaps why he’d been born, if you believe, as Tibetans do, that he is the embodiment of Chenrezig, the Buddha of compassion.

But is the Karmapa not a man? A few weeks before the earthquake, His Holiness was eating vegan Thai takeout at the home of a Princeton chemistry professor, which overlooked a golf club’s sixteenth fairway. Someone asked the Karmapa to name his favorite food.

“Meat,” he said.

“But you’re a vegetarian.”


This was a small private reception, an appropriate occasion for levity. Still, there were almost as many security personnel as guests. The Karmapa is holy man, political eminence, and celebrity in one. Before dinner, as he addressed a question about whether suffering had increased in the past hundred years, one of the bodyguards, a Tibetan in a suit, squatted to tend to something on the floor. It looked as though he was using a credit card to herd a crumb. It was an ant.

His Holiness was born in Tibet in 1985. His recognition as the Karmapa, at the age of seven, was based on an interpretation of a secret document left behind by the sixteenth Karmapa, and was eventually endorsed by the Dalai Lama, the Chinese government, and three of the four relevant Rinpoches. (There have been a few rival claimants.) He fled Tibet at fourteen, and made his way, by jeep, foot, horse, helicopter, rental car, and train, to New Delhi and then to Dharamsala, where he has held court ever since. You might say that, in the pantheon of Buddhist celebrities, only the Dalai Lama surpasses him. One Princeton student likened him to Justin Bieber. “Except imagine if Justin Bieber had been pronounced, from age seven, the most perfectly compassionate and wise being.”

The Karmapa came to Princeton because he wanted to be a college student for a day. “It’s very important for me to feel this sort of sadness,” he said. He attended some classes: sculpture (on an iPhone, he had shown students his drawings—one of a tiger would look great on the side of a van); gender studies and sexuality (the Karmapa has led a campaign to allow the full ordination of Buddhist nuns, a radical position that has earned him a reputation as a feminist). In a meditation group, a student said, “We really investigated our own suffering and the source of our suffering and the sources of suffering everywhere. Do you have any questions about this?” The Karmapa responded, “No, not really.”

Bare-armed and robed in maroon, the skin under his fingernails bright pink, the Karmapa had a sensuous aspect, which, combined with his husky voice and slightly slurred speech, brought to mind mid-career Muhammad Ali. He spoke through a translator, a lama from Woodstock, and also in English. His Holiness likes hip-hop. His sandals slap when he walks. At one point, he recalled a penchant of some Tibetan teachers for using stinging nettles as a lash: “Very, very vicious.” His facial gestures were elastic and performative: bulging eyes, exaggerated grimaces and sighs, and double takes to accompany his own jokes. He wore square rimless glasses. “People think I’m intelligent, but I’m not so sure,” he said. “Intelligent people have a danger. It’s easy for them to be boring.”

After the reception, His Holiness was driven to a campus building dedicated to religious life. In a café in the basement, students were hosting a spiritual open-mike night. He sat at a table in the corner, with his translator and his sister, Jetsun Ngodup Pelzom, a wary-looking woman in a long gray skirt and a pink fleece. Students stood to recite poetry, sing, and read. The first up had a poem: “This is how God walks through the playground / Not a terribly bright student but consistent / No one goes near him during recess.”

The Karmapa took notes on a yellow pad. Actually, he was writing poems. He handed the pad to the Woodstock lama, who translated them into English. A woman gave an account of meeting the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. Another read from the end of “Paradise Lost.” The basement had the close smell of a dorm room or the skin under a wristwatch. A girl read some gender-bending passages from the Gnostic Gospels, and, upon explanation, the Karmapa said, “Sounds like Tantra.”

His Holiness could not summon the courage to go up to the mike and read one of his own poems. He felt a little shy, and unsure of his English. He and his entourage left early and headed back to their hotel to get some sleep. School night. ♦