Buddhismus Aktuell: Modernity has many challenges. How can Buddhism help people and communities to deal with today’s problems?

Karmapa Ogyen Thrinley Dorje: From the Buddhist point of view, one tries to look more at the causes. Everything is originating from causes. Consequently, there is nothing that could have come into being without a cause.

People should therefore understand these problems as consequences and as such recognize them according to the cause-effect principle. The problems we are having nowadays are primarily based on the fact that people have many thoughts of malicious nature, which involve mutual harm and injury. Fighting, quarreling, poverty and strife arise from such an attitude of mind. Consequently, these problems can only be solved through an inner transformation, a renewed attitude of mind. From a Buddhist point of view, we try to understand how the effects on society can be traced back on a particular mindset.

BA: Today we are facing economic crises, ecological crises, financial crises and so on. Would you say that we are also in a spiritual crisis?

K: You could certainly say that with regard to China, for example. They have many thousands of years of history of Buddhism and Daoism, but in the last decades there has been a great change. Not least due to the enormous economic upswing. Externally, people in China have become much richer, but internally they are impoverished. So you could say: They have a lot of goods, but they have become empty in their hearts. From this perspective, they are unstable. This inner emptiness combined with external wealth is, if you like, a spiritual crisis that, on the other hand, has also persuaded many to look at religious paths with new interest.

BA: In your teachings here in Germany you often spoke of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva who is said to hear all the sounds of the world and can help with his many arms. Could this Bodhisattva be a role model for us today?

K: To speak of Avalokiteshvara as a heroic role model is difficult because there is no story that testifies that he really existed. It is a legend that is primarily important from the perspective of those who follow the religious path. But when it comes to finding examples to guide us, we should better look at the history of humanity. There are countless good examples of people who have shown the world that Avalokiteshvara’s great compassion is more like a yardstick to see how far you could develop your own compassion. We should prefer to look at role models of our current time, not those who operated in prehistoric times. We are challenged because we live in an age in which we are all very strongly connected. Events are no longer far away, because we learn much more directly about the needs of others and can help better and quicker. It is important that we use our opportunities to be active ourselves and to show courage.

BA: Isn’t it also always the question of how one can be open minded to the suffering in the world, without being overwhelmed by it at the same time?

K: Compassion does not mean focusing only on the suffering of others. Compassion or sympathizing is above all an attitude of the heart which leans towards courage, which by definition is always the desire to free others from suffering.

BA: You also said that Avalokiteshvara is the embodiment of love and compassion and he embodies the stream of all Buddhas. How can we connect with it?

K: We can connect with it because our consciousness is not limited. That is, no one can forbid us to think certain things. In this respect, there are no limits to the strengthening of compassion in our consciousness. If we now say that Avalokitesvara is the concentration of all Buddhas, then we can hardly grasp this in our imagination. But what we can do, is to strengthen our own compassion for others, to an unlimited extent. With Avalokitesvara, this schooling has lead to such an open heart, such strength, that even things we normally perceive as obstacles, have become helpful, inviting opportunities for him to help.

BA: How can we as normal people strengthen this power within ourselves?

K: It is indeed very difficult to develop this courage of the heart. We’re all very different from each other. In Tibetan, we say: The differences between people are a hundred thousandfold. This also applies to the negative sides – some people are so harmful and evil that we can hardly imagine it. I am thinking, for example, of the IS terrorists. We always are frightened about which cruelties come to their minds. But if one can imagine this incredible degree of malice in comparison to us, one can also imagine that there could be an equally great degree of goodness. As we move in the right direction, we realize that we may not be able to achieve this one hundred percent, but perhaps we will be able to develop in this direction to a certain extent. For courage of the heart you need people who are willing to show the determination and the willingness to do something and to grow without limits, without prejudice and barriers to thinking.

BA: What would be your advice to young people who are looking for a meaningful life for themselves?

K: Maybe a story will help. The story is about gold and mud talking. The gold said: Look, I am so radiant and immaculate, and you are so dirty!” The mud replied: “I am dirty and muddy, but through me lotus flowers are born. I’m making vegetables thrive.” The meaning of this story is that nowadays we should spend less time wondering what our lives are worth. Instead of always exploring what we are, we should look at what good can come from us in the world. When we observe this, we will lead a meaningful life.

BA: From your lectures and books we see you have a deep understanding of the situation of women. What made you a feminist?

K: My mother! I always think she was my first spiritual leader. She is a very friendly, compassionate woman. Since I left Tibet almost 16 years ago, I can’t see her anymore. But I still think of her, and every time I remember her, those memories, childhood memories, become more numerous. For example, how she is not only friendly to people, but also to small insects. That’s why I believe that she made me want to care for the well-being of others. That’s why I think she made me a feminist, too.

BA: That sounds like an equivalent of Yab-Yum. (1)

K: In the Buddhist tradition and especially in Tibetan we emphasize this kind of balance or perhaps equality between the female and the male energy. You can say that the feminine symbolizes wisdom and the masculine the skilful means. We all need these two types of strength or energy. I am thinking particularly of leading personalities. I think it is very important to have this female energy, kindness and loving kindness, like a mother. You should be like a mother.

BA: In your teachings you emphasize the importance of very practical daily practice.

K: I believe that we should go to some kind of common cause, return to some basic situation. Sure, we all have religious traditions with wonderful philosophies and logic. But sometimes we think too much about all these things and forget about that as human beings we should care about each other and value each other. I think that’s the most important thing. Moreover, this world has become more complex; it is clear that we are all interdependent. Therefore, we should try our best to seek a full understanding of this interdependence. Also, we should take responsibility because we are interconnected and interdependent. My joy and grief depend on other people. The joy or sadness of others can also be part of your joy and sadness. So there is really not much difference between me and others, nor is there any difference between what we think. I therefore believe that we should start from this common reason or the fundamental situation.

BA: From an ethical – and in this sense Buddhist – perspective, what are currently the most important tasks for people who practice – or for people in general?

K: I think we must control our greed. Each and every one of us must control our own greed. Because our greed is endless, but the natural resources we use are limited. These limited resources cannot satisfy our boundless greed. It’s important that we differentiate between what we want and what we really need. Maybe our wishes are many and we want them all. But maybe what we need isn’t that much. Yes, possibly it’s not much.

Explanatory note:

1 Yab-Yum, literally “father-mother” in Tibetan, is a frequently used symbol in the Buddhist art of India, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet, depicting the original Unity of Wisdom and Compassion in the form of the sexual union of a god with a goddess.
This Interview first appeared in “Buddhismus Aktuell”, the magazine of the German Buddhist Union (DBU).