INTRODUCTION TO KARMAPA 900
by His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje
The glorious Dusum Khyenpa was the founder of the teaching lineage of the Karma Kagyu, which is a division of the Dagpo Kagyu, one of the eight great practice traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Dusum Khyenpa was born in the year 1110, exactly 900 years ago, and the Karma Kamtsang monasteries, nunneries, Dharma centers, disciples and Dharma brothers and sisters are joining as one for a grand yearlong celebration to commemorate this anniversary. This marks a minor milestone in the history of the Karma Kagyu. Yet this 900th anniversary is not meant merely to draw attention to the passing of the years. Rather, we need to reflect on the essential meaning of the enlightened activities of the Karmapa—what they have contributed to Tibetan culture and how they fulfill the hopes of sentient beings in a way that is suited even to this era of degenerated times. I believe that this is the crucial point.
For the past 900 years, like a lamp in the darkness or a moon in the night sky, the Karmapa has taken a stream of rebirths, ripening and liberating disciples without ever becoming discouraged. In particular, the practice of recognizing successive reincarnations—which the Karmapa is renowned for having founded—came to form a vital part of the flourishing of all Buddhist schools in Tibet. Moreover, this practice sketches out a noble way for great heroic bodhisattvas to intentionally return, never abandoning sentient beings. Generally, since beginningless time, motivated by immeasurable great compassion, countless bodhisattvas have been in this world of ours constantly, accompanying beings as their shadow accompanies their body, and showing them the path to liberation. Nevertheless, it is extremely rare for ordinary people to be able to comprehend them. But this enlightened activity of the Karmapa makes clear the way in which bodhisattvas remain in samsara and work for the aims of sentient beings. In particular, most of the successive reincarnations left letters before they passed away indicating where they would be born next, displayed deeds after they passed away, and recognized other reincarnate lamas through their wisdom-vision. These unique noble deeds and qualities opened for bodhisattvas a new way of acting—in intentionally reincarnating—and for ordinary beings, it opened a new way of understanding.
In former times, within the Kagyu lineage there were many brief and extensive ways of marking the anniversaries of the great lamas of the past, but there was no particular custom of marking centennial anniversaries. Yet in this tradition of the practice lineage, based on personal, local and historical circumstances, we have strayed from our former main seats, isolated places and mountain hermitages. Residing in places of distraction and hubbub has brought with it a great degeneration in study and practice. In such times as these, this 900th anniversary sounds a warning bell, urging us to understand that it is the supreme duty of each and every one of us to uphold, protect and enhance the stainless Buddhadharma. It calls on us to recollect the kindness of the exalted founders and maintain an undiminished vinaya discipline, and to exert ourselves in bodhisattvas’ conduct with a sincere altruistic motivation and engage in study and practice. And it urges us, based on this sound foundation, to do everything within our capacity to benefit beings and the teachings.
The commemoration of this 900th anniversary urges young Tibetans to find again the naturally simple and open-minded perspective that goes along with the mountains, lakes, grassy plains and pure open sky that Tibetans have enjoyed for thousands of years. It urges them to make the strength and love of Tibetan culture arise in their hearts and flow through their veins. Due to the change in times, young Tibetans are divided into those at home and those in exile, and have grown too far apart from the natural environment and social context of Tibetan culture’s native home. This anniversary celebration also urges them to make strong efforts in their studies, and to go beyond just an intellectual understanding of their subjects. It encourages them to connect deeply, so that their love for their culture becomes as integral a part of them as their own flesh and blood, and an integral part of their environment and daily life, like water mixing with milk.
May this 900th anniversary likewise bring people together, no matter where they live in the world, on a shared spiritual journey. Nothing has been left untouched by the changes in external conditions in the 21st century. Yet we still have not moved beyond suffering, and it is everywhere around us. We are more and more busy now, and we have no room to reflect on the meaning of our lives, but are just exhausting ourselves. Even though external technological advances reach higher and higher levels, mentally we remain narrow-minded and short-sighted. For this reason, through this anniversary celebration, I aspire that you Dharma brothers and sisters, and friends living all over the world may view from afar the land of our ancestors and the beauty of nature, as our hearts and minds soar freely in flight through the unchanging and unending sky, bringing along our hopes and melodious songs of praise as we call out together in pure and perfect song.
Adapted from the book Karmapa: 900 Years.
Published in 2010 by the Karmapa 900 Organizing Committee.
Photo on top by Dekila Chungyalpa