Karmapa's visit to Germany - Bodhicharya Ireland



Audience for the Karma Kagyu organisation heads
at Kamalashila
For many years Ringu Tulku Rinpoche has worked increasingly  closely with His Holiness the 17thKarmapa and the Indian Government to make way for a visit of Karmapa to Europe to give teachings. Four separate applications were made in the past 10 years, but only the last was successful, and only after all hope for success had been given up. No-one could have envisaged either the scale at which it finally took place, or the magnitude of the impact that the visit would have, from start to finish. It was clear however when Ringu Tulku Rinpoche gave his ecstatic thanks after the Karma Pakshi  empowerment on the final day, that he was indebted to not only the tireless teams of the German Karma Kagyu Trust, Bodhicharya Berlin, Rigpa and all the international volunteers who worked on the ground; but also the German and Indian Governments who cleared the way for His Holiness to travel to Europe.   It was a massive undertaking, an achievement that will doubtless benefit countless beings way beyond our imaginings.

The 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, arrived in Frankfurt on Sunday 25th May, and was brought to a private location for several days to acclimatise, before he was swiftly moved into an almost too busy schedule for the ten days that followed.     When His Holiness arrived at Langenfeld he got out of his car and slowly walked the incline to the Kamalashila Centre nodding and waving to those en route.  The road was lined with members of Buddhist communities from all over the world as well as local residents who joined us on the road to cheer and wave.  They also had the privilege of homes that bordered the street, and upstairs windows giving great views.

Lama Shenga hanging flags at Kamalashila Stupa
Kamalashila is a pleasant complex of buildings that was once a school, and in the grounds a large stupa sits centrally on the lawn surrounded by villagers homes. This is where the Karmapa stayed during the teachings at Nurburgring, twelve kilometers away,  and while he was there the centre hosted a number of small receptions for the heads of Kagyu centres and organisations on the first days. The Karmapa spoke at each, quite unfazed by the unfamiliar  environment, and set the tone for the rest of the visit – he was most definitely in charge.   After the first night kathas and donations were not encouraged at all and if he recognised  any familiar faces amongst us he didn’t engage. It really seemed he was setting a precedent for future visits in the west, reflecting the final sentiments in his book, the Heart is Noble,  that ‘While we are not going to meet in person, we are inseparable’.   He took a completely pragmatic line, as if recognising the limitations that will have to be imposed in order for his work to continue as more and more people come to reside within his mandala. He spoke a lot in these intimate settings of his happy but lost childhood, of his mother, of his vulnerableness, and yes, his loneliness.

Estrel Hotel,  talk on Meditation
He spoke of the huge weight of responsibility this position requires him to hold at such a young age.  He remembered being a small boy, living in a tent, where a picture of the 16th Karmapa hung on the wall that he and his family prayed to every day. One can only guess at the impact of being told you are the reincarnation of the man in the picture, and as he told the story, the Karmapa’s face made some delightfully childish gestures as he described trying to take the information in. At first he felt excited by the project, but as time went by the reality of the position became harder to ingest, and for some time he struggled to live the dream.


And yet, he presented with a pragmatism again and again in the teachings that it isn’t about happiness, “If you ask me if I am happy, then to be honest, I have to say no, but if my life is worthwhile then that is more important than personal happiness, and if I can bring a sense of happiness and wellbeing to others, then my life is meaningful, and that gives me purpose and dignity, so it is ok”.   It was powerful stuff, and really brought home the enormity of the Karmapa project: a Buddha was sitting before us.  

1,600 people attended the Nurburgring events each day, but despite our fears that chaos would reign, it ran with great ease. On the second morning a coffee bar gloriously materialized in the forecourt, for the many who depended on a bus which left Langenfeld at 6 am in order to return for the children’s school run at 8 am.   The upside was that these bussers arrived in time to get the front row seats for teachings, much to the frustration of those who came later under their own steam.  In reality, the large screens displayed throughout the hall brought all of us as close as we could be to the stage, and the sound system was perfect.  A basic vegetarian lunch was served daily for all who wanted it, and there was a comfortable lounge in the nearby hotel. On the first day of teachings at Nurburgring when he spoke on the teacher student relationship he emphasised the humanness of the teacher, and the limitations that must inevitably exist – limits, he said are necessary otherwise the teacher’s big batteries will go flat; because people are continually looking to plug in for a charge.  We need to produce our own good energy. We have to learn not to grasp at the teacher, but to develop our own strength through personal practise, because the teacher cannot do it for us. You are, he said, already the Buddha, but not such an effective one,  a small one, like a child, not grown enough to act [as such],  but  in a close and proper relationship, the teacher will become another facet of yourself, part of your heart and mind, not another person. In these days when we are divided by continents, the internal relationship can remain close once we have understood this.  But if we view the teacher in the wrong way there can be a distance even when you are physically close. 

The audiences for groups didn’t run so smoothly, too many people and tight restrictions made organization almost impossible, and the 20 minutes allotted to Samye Ling communities shrank to 5 minutes, as 200 people were bundled together in a stuffy room, and ended with His Holiness almost running out in frustration.  His mantra became, ‘no katas, no offerings’, during photo shoots as he tried to keep to timetables and organise people into photo friendly arrangements, and as someone said – he’s a natural director. 

Speaking at Bodhicharya Berlin
(photo: Gelong Thubten)
The atmosphere in Berlin was quite different to the previous weekend of teachings, and the Karmapa had become visibly more tired, a fact he admitted and made no apology for.  However this did not diminish his presence, or his sharpness and clarity, it just made him more human; and this vulnerability, that which he’d spoken of in the first talk, was simply brought home to us.  During the talks he spoke a lot about anger and how it can be dealt with, acknowledging his own, and really dismissing any notion that he might be perfect.  It was easy to see how the constant presence of bodyguards and a level 2 security protocol, along with demands on his time via group audiences (despite his pleas for space) might generate a major tantrum in anyone less qualified than he to deal with it.  There were many poignantly telling moments, as when, at the young people’s session on the last afternoon in Berlin, he said that once you are recognised as a tulku you are expected to just sit still in one place like a Buddha statue.  That must have been a tough call for someone who translates his name ‘Karmapa’ to ‘Action Man’.  And yet, the power and radiance that emanated from him throughout the week was otherworldly. 




The Berlin events at the Estrel Hotel were run by Bodhicharya Berlin, under Ringu Tulku and a refreshingly young  team who had boundless energy and enthusiasm for the job. It was really gratifying to see the next generation of dharma activists stepping into responsible roles and doing it so well.

The Crystal Vajrasattva,
a gift from Karmapa to Ringu Tulku
There were many personal highpoints, such as the visit to Bodhicharya Berlin,  when His Holiness came to view and bless what will be his Berlin home once it is finished, and where Karma Tenzin presented him with the Key to the Door, a large, heavy golden key in a case. He was delighted.   The Sangha gave a lunch to the VIP’s in the party that included Chime Rinpoche and Sogyal Rinpoche, Paltrul Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe, as well as local Berlin dignitaries. The sun shone profusely as we sat about the garden drinking  butter tea and eating Sikkimese sweet rice.  His holiness blessed the grounds and laid a foundation stone at the stupa site and spoke of his happiness to finally be there. He gave Ringu Tulku a beautiful crystal Vajrasattva Rupa, before relaxing in the small shrine room for an hour or so with the other Lamas. It was a beautiful moment.


An audience to raise Karmapa's awareness for the work of Rigul Trust, came at the end of a morning of audiences in the Estrel Centre. The Karmapa arrived late, at the time we were due to finish,  and the security men were anxious to move him on after a quick nod in our direction. But Margaret was prepared, she had her questions, and wanted them heard. She persisted, and he sat down.  He turned his chair towards her, and really listened to her discourse (because that is what it was) on Rigul Monastery, the school, the shedra, the doctor, the fundraising projects. He had already received a Chenrezig book, so had some idea. The bodyguards shuffled and made noises at the door, our time was up. He told them sharply to close the door and wait. He listened.  

Margaret & Francois of Rigul Trust relaxing in their cabin.
Margaret introduced Francois who talked about the pollution and proliferation of plastic bottles that has erupted in Tibet in the last ten years, and the need for nuns' education. Karmapa pulled his chair closer. This was what he wanted to talk about, and he elaborated on a theme that he’d begun at a meeting with Karmapa Foundation Representative group – it bothers him that Tibetans take the environment for granted and don’t know about the impact of consumerism and climate change. He wants his monks and nuns educated on these things, so that they in turn can educate his people. It pains him to see what is happening, and what he needs most is educational resources on these topics, for his nuns especially, as they will be the ones to make a difference.


He said that one of the things that raises his anger is the ignorant attitude of self destruct that we have towards our environment, and later in the day, he gave his talk on the environment and referred to our earlier conversation, finishing by saying, ‘it makes me SO angry’.   He also said in that talk that if he were to run for president he would not get elected, because he would not take the usual party line to promise more of anything in order to win votes.  He said we need to have material things, but not so much. We don’t have to be Milarepa, taking on a spiritual life doesn’t mean renouncing all material goods, we just need a balance.   Because what makes us joyful, happy? It is not iPhone 6.  It is the simple things, like breathing. If we pay attention to the breath it can be a wonderful thing.  And to look at plants, they are naturally there, and this can be exciting. Satisfaction need not depend upon complication. Just keep it simple, simple.

For many the highlight of the whole visit came on Saturday, when at the end of the talk on meditation, he was asked to share something of his knowledge of culture – he said he had none. Then he said he thought he’d share some meditation with us, but changed his mind, and just asked us to sit quietly, as he was going to recite something and we were to meditate as he did so.   He then instructed us briefly on relaxing for meditation.   

The hall was silent as he began to recite the 7 line prayer,  over, and over.  The Karmapa’s sonorous chanting filled the space, went beyond the space, went deep into the bones of our very being, reverberated until the body became a receptacle for sound, like a singing bowl, empty, but full of the resonance of his voice. 

He finished with a very quiet YESSS! Under his breath:  He was pleased. A wonderful end to a really special two weeks


Ringu Tulku Rinpoche at Kamalashila with, back row, Francoise Henrard, 
Paul O'Connor,  and seated front, Elke Steltner, harpist for the public reception; 
Pat Murphy, Annie Dibble, KFE Representative for Ireland


Photo credits : Bodhicharya International, Gelong Thubten, Andy Firman, Francois Henrard, Annie Dibble
All design and artwork for the posters, website and programme of events was created by Paul O'Connor,  Bodhicharya Publications

All photos for Karmapa Foundation Visitpage by Francois Henrard.

Many thanks to the German organisers for making the impossible happen so brilliantly. 
The full talks can all be found online on youtube and edited transcripts of the daily talks are on theKFE website.  There is also an account of the visit to Bodhicharya Berlin here.  Film : The Story So Far
Annie Dibble   June 10th 2014

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