A most relevant monk (The Daily Princetonian)


It’s a weekly event: a world leader is coming to Princeton’s campus! Insert illustrious title, sponsoring department, a moderator with a doctorate and a time and place to be there. Email lists are accurately alerted; details are scribbled or typed into calendars.

In his article “The Problem With Prestige” for the Nassau Weekly, Dayton Martindale questions our immediate instinct to line up for the old and the famous. We love snagging an orange ticket for Supreme Court Justices and big business leaders and past Presidents or Prime Ministers. They speak of their time (usually at an Ivy League or elite institution) and their career path that lead them to a title with capitalized letters.
His Holiness the 17th Karmapa will speak on Wednesday. I lined up at noon when tickets became available, but was surprised to find that not all had been claimed.
Perhaps you have not heard of the Karmapa. His full name is Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, and depending on the decision of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama on whether or not to reincarnate, will ostensibly be the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. His title of “Karmapa” means “the one who carries out Buddha-activity” or “the embodiment of all the activities of the buddhas.” And he is only 29 years old.
The Karmapa leads hundreds of thousands of Buddhists in Tibet, in exile and around the world. In March alone, he spoke at Stanford University, the University of Redlands and Harvard Divinity School to sold-out audiences of students, faculty and members of the Tibetan diaspora.
The Karmapa has neither PhD nor political title, but neither of these deficiencies detracts from his remarkable life story. Recognized at seven years old as His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, as a fourteen year old he trekked by car, foot, horseback and helicopter from Tsurphu, Tibet to Dharmsala, India where he was granted refugee status. Since his journey, he has been both an active teacher and student. In addition to his monastic training, he studies science and English, wrote and produced a six-act play, founded an  initiative to turn monasteries into centers for environmental sustainability, and launched an effort to establish full ordination of women within Tibetan Buddhist tradition. One might call it a “nontraditional career path;” the Karmapa has led a rich life of diverse leadership experiences, and, if you believe, he also has the wisdom of sixteen lives already lived.
Damaris Miller ’15 is especially looking forward to the Karmapa’s talk, as she will be beginning a Labouisse Prize-funded independent project to work with Khoryug, the Karmapa’s environmental advocacy initiative. “We [Princeton students] go see people because they have expertise. What’s cool about receiving the Karmapa’s teachings is that it’s not just intellectual or familiar; it’s challenging you to consider and reflect upon the ways you are living. And to actually live them, not just to understand the differences.”
Of course, students might flock to Supreme Court justices because they are interested in law or the life path of the person, but mostly, I posit, we fill the seats of Richardson so we can listen to the elite and figure out their brilliance; they just might reveal the secrets of their successes. We bring our notebooks and laptops and full attention spans in order to absorb how best to emulate those who have paved the way before us. We trust that those with extensive years in the most maximized positions of society will tell decode the mysteries of politics or business when really, in general, they just offer sound bytes that we’ve already read.
I challenge Princeton to consider the Karmapa as equally and immediately important in our everyday lives as any President. None of us will lead a life quite like the Karmapa (there are no Tibetan undergraduate students currently at Princeton, according to a map analysis by Nihar Madhavan ’15), but that does not mean his extraordinary life path cannot be relevant to our lives as students. Perhaps the best secrets to success will be dressed in this monk’s maroon robes: prioritizing a talk on kindness, activism and morality surely has resonance for students wanting to lead happy, productive lives.
Recently, the Karmapa gave a talk at the TED India conference where he spoke about connecting mind to mind and heart to heart. He told the story of a meeting with a delegation from Afghanistan and their discussion on the Taliban bombing at Bamiyan, the site of two 1,700-year-old statues of Lord Buddha. One would imagine the young monk might foster some resentment, but instead he said, “The bomb was just a depletion of matter, and maybe we can look at it like the falling of the Berlin wall. Maybe we can see it as a start of open communication — we can always look for a way to find something positive.”
I have certainly enjoyed lectures from the famous politicians and lawyers and writers and scientists to which Princeton gives us access. But why not open our minds to the idea that the leader of the Tibetan people might be equally interesting? We seek ideas we have previously sought, of the men and women we aspire to be. There is nothing wrong with that. However, Princeton is a place to expand our minds and absorb alternate perspectives — it is therefore essential that we not only listen to the people whose names grace our news headlines, but listening to people we didn’t think we wanted to listen to.
Azza Cohen is a history major from Highland Park, Ill. She can be reached at accohen@princeton.edu.


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