The 17th Karmapa sits down in a chair in front of the words Harvard Divinity School. To the right, “Psalter 119, Hymns 146,145.” The spotlights are in his eyes—he points to his eyes with two fingers in a V and he looks like…who is it…familiar…oh no, when he does this he looks like Larry Wilmore! The big man sitting next to him is dressed in black with a red cape-like shawl—is it a Bishop? It is Harvard Divinity School. No, it’s his translator. He is being introduced now and taps his foot.. Now Janet Gyatso (Buddhist scholar) is speaking about his history, and is dwarfed by the giant golden eagle on the podium. I can see a little bit of her white hair over his eagle head. The first Karmapa was born in 1193. The 17th is moving around now in his chair as he hears about all his previous incarnations. The 16th Karmapa could communicate with birds and animals. He wanted pet shops in every city he visited. This Karmapa was born to nomads in 1985 and escaped to India in 2000. He received a “veritable treasure trove of teachings.” He is a vegetarian, playwright, loved animals. He will fully ordain women (big applause).
The Karmapa speaks. Begins with mmmm, mmmm, and a smile. Like something Ram Dass would do.   He is speaking Tibetan. “I speak English poorly—not up to Harvard’s standards.” In his Tibetan, I hear the English words “plastic surgery.” Of course, no Tibetan word for that. He says many people say he looks like the 16th, but if so he must have had plastic surgery. He is being humble. The 17th had visited Harvard in the seventies. I had been there then—his sangha had borrowed our Tibetan rugs for the stage.  “I am glad to be back here,” speaking as if the 16th and 17th were one and the same, which they are. Everything he says is translated, giving us time to absorb his words. “The real essence of Buddhism is interdependence. It is not a mere philosophical idea.” We have to figure out how to apply it to our lives. “In the 21rst century, social media makes our interdependence more obvious than before. From one point of view, we have more information to help us understand things, but it can be TMI.” I know he’d just been in Silicon Valley, at Google and Facebook. It feels like a conversation over lunch with an old friend who is sharing what’s on his mind and how his recent travels have affected that. It is intimate in a very natural way. He is talking about becoming a vegetarian after growing up eating meat. “I can remember as a child in the autumn we would slaughter animals.” It was mostly done by binding their mouths and they would suffocate.   It takes ½ hour for them to die this way. Painful. They become covered with sweat as they try to breathe. “I had an unbearable feeling watching this, so they would send me away…. I don’t know if that was real compassion—I was very young—but nevertheless I had a deep feeling of sorrow. I am now educated in compassion but it was that natural uneducated compassion I had as a child” that influenced me. “I think that children have a capacity for genuine love and compassion…. I think we can extend this to all living beings. It’s an innate part of being human.”
My eyes are watering from allergies, or maybe I am crying for the suffocating animals, and I have a pain in my stomach carried back from Cayman Brac last week. He is immensely likable, very present, wise, just here talking to us. “We were born with the compassion button switched on and as adults it gets switched off.” Compassion is what led him to be vegetarian. “People ask me ‘What’s your favorite food?’ I’d say meat but I can’t because I gave up eating it.” In America we don’t see where meat comes from. “A child might think it is something they make at the supermarket.”
Now the Tibetan speakers are laughing as he speaks in Tibetan. We have to wait for the joke. I hope it doesn’t get lost in translation. He is telling about how, when he still ate meat in India, people would tell him about how good bar-b-que is in America, but he never got to eat any. Now he passes a sign now on the side of the road saying “Texas Bar-B-Que,” and his mouth salivates.
“When we talk about having compassion after the many disasters in the world, one source of disaster we fail to recognize is the lack of love in the world. We think of weapons and warfare as terrible, and they are, but apathy, lack of love, is a bigger disaster.” “Develop a love that is courageous—a joyous acknowledgement of interdependence.”
Then it is over, and and a group of us goes out to dinner. I don’t think anyone orders meat.


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