During First Dharma Center Visit, Karmapa Teaches on Meditation





(April 4, 2015 – Mount Laurel, New Jersey) His Holiness the 17th Karmapa is presently making his first stay at a Dharma center on this two-month tour. For his first day of Dharma activities during this stop, he spent the day giving teachings on meditation, answering an extensive series of questions from students, and conferring an empowerment in the afternoon. As is fitting for a tour focused on universities, the first empowerment that His Holiness the 17th Karmapa conferred during this two-month trip to the United States was the empowerment of Manjushri, an enlightened being especially connected with the cultivation of wisdom.


The teachings and empowerment were granted at the request of the Karma Thegsum Chöling-New Jersey (KTC-NJ), located in the nearby southern New Jersey town of Shamong and serving both as a Dharma center and as a home away from home for the Karmapa in the United States.
The day was particularly auspicious to begin this more traditionally Buddhist component of his trip: with a full moon and a total lunar eclipse taking place today, the effects of meritorious actions are considered to be multiplied many times over. The morning was crisp and cool and a light breeze ruffled the air as His Holiness the Karmapa set out in the morning from KTC-NJ where he is residing during this stay. The half-hour drive to the teaching site in the nearby town of Mount Laurel passed through picturesque countryside dotted with farmlands and spacious homesteads. Meanwhile, over 700 people had been filing in steadily to fill the rented hall at the Westin Mt. Laurel well before His Holiness himself arrived.
The 17th Karmapa himself began by noting that after addressing so many university audiences where the topic was not specifically or directly Buddhist, he felt as if he were making a sudden U-turn in giving a Dharma talk.
Reflecting on his experiences during this trip, He went on to remark that during his visits to the headquarters of Google and Facebook, he had seen that they too were creating spaces for their employees to meditate and emphasizing mindfulness in the workplace. “It is excellent that everyone has the opportunity to practice meditation,” he said. However, while commending their efforts, he struck a strong cautionary note.
“Given that meditation must by its very nature be a personal, individual thing that each person experiences in their own way, based on their own needs and dispositions, based on their own investigation, I think it must never be commercialized or used for commercial purposes.”
He returned to this theme later, pointing to the way yoga is sometimes marketed as a form of physical exercise, although traditionally it is a highly rigorous form of spiritual training. “Nowadays many people are interested in Buddhism and especially meditation. But they think of meditation as some kind of spiritual therapy, like spiritual massage. They hope that by practicing meditation they will be able to reduce the stress and pressure that they feel in their busy lives and relax. This is fine, but it is not a complete practice of meditation as taught in Buddhism. That requires a more exclusive or intensive training. I think the hope that meditation will put you at ease and make you more comfortable may cause some disillusion. Actually I think that the intensive practice of meditation will probably make you very uncomfortable initially, because old habits die hard, and in the practice of meditation we are attempting to replace many of our old negative habits with new ones. This goes against the grain of our personalities and therefore will probably be very uncomfortable.”
Presenting meditation within a Buddhist context, His Holiness explained that in general there are two types—placement meditation and analytical meditation. Without the foundation of shamatha, which is considered placement meditation, it would be very difficult to develop vipassana. His Holiness explained that in the beginning, in order to develop shamatha we need a quiet or isolated environment, and traditionally it takes between three to six months to train in shamatha.
“However a quiet or isolated place or environment doesn’t only mean a place that is physically quiet,” he explained. “It also means to be isolated from conditions of distraction such as phones, the Internet and so on.”
Observing that even though in the West there are many meditation groups that meet weekly to meditate for a few hours, His Holiness expressed his doubts that this is sufficient practice to truly develop shamatha. He then made a suggestion that sparked many conversations later in the break between sessions.
“Up to now, Dharma camps where people can focus exclusively on shamatha training or practice for several months are very rare. Therefore I am encouraging you to actually create such venues or opportunities for several-month long intensive shamatha programs in Western countries,” he stated.
Raising the stakes yet further, the Karmapa emphasized the importance that our shamatha practice become an antidote to our disturbing emotions, or kleshas.
“The aim of shamatha practice is not simply to achieve peace of mind and feel comfortable and relaxed in one’s mind. Shamatha practice is actually to improve our minds, and to change our personalities for the better by weakening and finally remedying our kleshas. Some people think the point is just to feel good, relaxed and comfortable, but that is not it. The function of shamatha is to serve as a remedy for our kleshas.
“It is not enough to practice meditation only in our shrine room sitting on the cushion,” he continued. “It is necessary to bring the practice of shamatha into all post-meditation activities, including our work. It is especially important to be able to apply it when we become highly emotional.”
Next the Karmapa invited questions from the audience, asking that they stick to the topic of meditation. One after another, eager students seized the opportunity to directly pose their meditation questions to His Holiness the Karmapa, who opened the floor after the lunch break for additional questions.
The first questioner pointed out that in the modern world it is difficult to find an isolated environment suitable for shamatha practice, seeking His Holiness’s advice.
“In this twenty-first century, along with the tremendous material progress that we have achieved, we have developed extreme habits of consumerism and greed,” the Karmapa responded. “This is of course encouraged by some of the media, and in our craving for stuff we are prevented from having mental isolation and a sense of non-distraction.
“Even if we do not want or crave one thing, there will always be something else for us to crave, because commercialism makes extensive use of psychology in order to beguile us. I think if someone had offered Jetsun Milarepa an iPhone it might have even kept him busy for a few hours!
“The prevalence of our external luxuries and all our devices really forms a net that we are caught in, and it is very hard for us to escape. I think that if we can relax our minds and look carefully at the unreality of consumerism we can regain our independence. I think that independence is the starting place from which we can begin to develop the mental isolation or non-distraction that is required for shamatha practice.”
In response to a question on how to continue our practice in the face of unrelenting obstacles, His Holiness advised that we should actually see our adversities not as obstacles, but as opportunities.
“From the point of view of dharma itself, it is actually better when practitioners experience adversity because it gives them the opportunity both to learn more lessons and to actually apply their practice so that they can mix the experience of adversity with the practice of Dharma.
“The point is how we view adversity,” His Holiness remarked. “If we can view adversity as an opportunity for practice, that seems to be the best way to use it. Once an adverse situation has arisen we no longer have the option to prevent it, so we had better make good use of it. There is no point in just resenting it. What is most important is how we view adversity, and that we see it as an opportunity.”
Another student sought His Holiness’s advice as to whether or not there is any conflict between doing Dharma practice to and taking medications to treat illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
“There is a difference between common or usual emotional states and the actual illnesses of depression and anxiety,” His Holiness clarified. “When depression or anxiety is more than just a mental state but actually a pronounced illness, it is really a physical thing and therefore requires a physical remedy. We probably cannot overcome it by working with the mind alone. Therefore, not only is there no contradiction between practicing the Dharma and taking anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication under medical supervision, but it is unwise to stop just because you become a practitioner.
“Sometimes people who suffer from depression become Buddhist or begin to practice Buddhism and see that the practice of dharma seems to serve as a remedy for their depression. Then in their initial burst of enthusiasm they stop taking their medications and become very unwell. It is unwise to do that. Of course, we do not want to take these medications because they all have physical side-effects, and we take them only because we have to. Ideally we want to develop to the point where we no longer require them and can gradually get off them, but we should not do so prematurely.”
In response to a question on the best method for increasing our wisdom, His Holiness replied by drawing a distinction between outward-looking wisdom and inward-directed wisdom.
“Outward-looking wisdom is basically knowledge which we acquire through study. Usually our mind becomes learned about everything except itself. We are wise about everything except our own mind, which usually remains utterly ignorant of itself.
“Therefore I think that the most important thing is to gain the wisdom that is the recognition of the mind itself. I believe that is the basis of true wisdom. We call this ‘knowing one and liberating everything’, because when you gain that kind of insight it is all-inclusive and allows the power or intensity of your wisdom and learning to increase naturally.”
When another questioner asked how we can practice meditation continuously throughout the 24 hours of each day, His Holiness cautioned against trying to force this, saying that it wouldn’t help.
“It is impractical to attempt to engage in formal meditation practice throughout the entire day and night. But we might be able to remain in a meditative state of mind continuously. The key to this is to begin each day by forming the intention to do so, making the goal of the day to maintain a meditative state. With this kind of commitment and aspiration, we can periodically remind ourselves to do it,” he explained.
He then offered a creative use of modern technology for helping us to remain mindful throughout the day.
“Smartphones are very helpful because you can set them up to buzz, ring or sing an alarm at you wherever you are. If you set up your smartphone to remind you every two or three hours to be in a meditative state, because you formed the intention at the beginning of the day and are periodically reminded of this intention throughout the day, it should be possible to sustain the momentum of meditation.”
In the afternoon session one questioner asked His Holiness if he could elaborate on advice about scrutinizing our kleshas. In response His Holiness outlined a three-step remedy for kleshas, using anger as an example.
“The first step in dealing with any klesha is to recognize the problems that it causes,” he explained. “This cannot be replaced by hearing the teachings of your guru or studying the teachings of the Buddha about that klesha – you have to recognize it personally, intimately and experientially.”
His Holiness explained that the second step is learning to stabilize our minds so that we use positive qualities like love and compassion as a tool for responding to situations, rather than automatically allowing the kleshas to shape our response.
“The third step in dealing with our kleshas is to make a decision or commitment not to give in to it. Such decisions or such commitments may be forgotten, so it is important to remind yourself periodically that you are really not going to allow yourself to get angry. As time accrues, the habit of the commitment not to get angry will become stronger and stronger.”








(Photography by Karma Lekcho.)

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