It’s like I should be thanking the earth and sky.
HH Karmapa, Sarnath 2011
In the famous cave paintings at Ajanta, there are frescoes of street scenes in India during the Buddha’s time: courtesans, beggars, kings, romantic couples, animals.
There is a sensuality about these scenes completely different to the idealism of Tibetan thangka paintings. Not even the famous bodhisattva Padmapani is sitting on a white fluffy cloud. Thousands of years ago, the Buddha was out on the streets with the ordinary people of his time, sharing the human condition in all its colourful display. In a memorable close up he is standing next to his wife and son. The image is striking because the Buddha is shown as a gigantic figure next to two very tiny people. He walks the earth like everyone else but his spiritual greatness makes him tower above everyone.
The teachings in Sarnath reminded me of these paintings. The Karmapa was admittedly not in top form for the first day. It seemed like the vicious attacks from the press had naturally affected his spirits. (Idiot Wind, The Saga Continues) “On the first day I felt like I was talking in my sleep”, he admitted. “So I didn’t feel like I taught you the dharma. But maybe I should thank time. It’s the kindness of time that it always changes. We had four days and so I would like thank time for continuing to change.”
As the days moved along, the teachings started to come out through the engagement of the listeners. The first question was about maintaining equanimity in the face of lies and adversity:
If you have had the real practice of mind training, you can transform obstacles into the path of enlightenment. This is a way to purify and remove our misdeeds.
But I have had some thoughts about things. When we are in a situation with very few favourable circumstances and a lot of obstacles and problems press us down – sometimes there is nothing on the outside that can help us. Then we can think, at least I have some virtue in my mind, at least I have a kind heart. If you are with the truth of the goodness in your own mind, it can bring comfort. This is very important. When you have a good heart and you have the truth, no matter what happens on the outside, you can comfort yourself. I think about the virtue I have in my own mind and I feel very fortunate. Even if there is only the tiniest virtue in our minds we can have a sense of comfort. Being expansive and open is the best thing we can do.
The gigantic stature of the Buddha reappeared unexpectedly in my mind when I had the opportunity to sit down in front of HH Karmapa. I felt I was sinking through the cushion, becoming so tiny I had to stretch my neck up to look into his face. The Karmapa I perceived was vast, filling the whole of space, and resting in profound equanimity. He seemed like a majestic lion, perfectly at ease with his power. The manipulation of politicians, the limitation of restrictions, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – none of it could disturb his unblinking gaze.
On the human level, the conditions of his life make it difficult for him to fulfill his activity. While I cannot fulfill others in accordance with the wishes of the buddhas and do little with my body and speech, yet with my mind I generate feelings of affection and care.
The first step is to work on ourselves, not to try to change others. One good person in the world is a big contribution. When we have developed ourselves it will then benefit others. Doing it prematurely will bear no result whatsoever.
So what is happiness? The outside conditions, he said, do not make a critical difference. It’s not money – a beggar has time to sing but a rich man has to count his money. It is not fame and fortune – celebrities don’t have as much fun as the fans clapping and cheering for them. It’s not sensations of pleasure.
Happiness is simple.
We don’t have to order it from outside. We just have to look at our own goodness and our qualities. Contentedness is the best of wealth. Happiness is having goodness and virtue within our own mind.
Just the air we breathe to keep alive is amazing; and you just breathe in and think this is happiness. Just breathing and remembering, is itself happiness. If we remember that, we appreciate what we have. Having a good human life is simple. Samsara has a lot of problems. If we can be expansive and open, that is what is going to bring us happiness in this life. If we cling to external things it will be difficult to have happiness. It’s more a question of what we are or are not than what we have or don’t have.
Happiness comes when we familiarize ourselves with our own good qualities. Suffering is not the unpleasant things we see or hear. It is the afflictions that disturb our mind, the non-virtues. We need to have happiness in our lives. We need to take the seeds of the virtue and increase them. We need to decrease the afflictions.
He emphasized the significance of interdependence to see the way things really are and to develop an open, expansive view.
We closed the door on the nature of how things are. Go out, extend yourself to others, interact with others. We shut out the opportunity to think about it. This comes out of our ignorance, clinging to ourselves. We need to take a metal hammer and smash it to bits. We need to have interest and respect for all things. This is what the aim of dharma practice is. We need to develop a more profound understanding of how things are. We only think about things in a very limited way. We need to think in a vast way. We need to know it from within ourselves. That is how we need to practice emptiness. That is the aim of all our dharma practice.
Just talking about happiness he said, was not going to make it happen. We had developed a bond of love and affection during the teachings. I hope through this your happiness grows stronger and flourishes.
“Since I was a young child”, he revealed, “I was pushed forth by the force of karma. When they came to me and said you’re the Karmapa, I said ok. When they asked me to teach I said ok. My whole life has proceeded from the force of karma, not from my own intentions.
I was born in this world and live in this world with a all its joys and pleasures. I have a lot of affection for this world, especially with the humans. I wish them all to be happy. I have affection to all you sentient beings who have been around for so many thousands of years. I would like to offer you this affection in the new year. There are so many natural disasters, we don’t know what will happen in the future. We need to be satisfied with what we have and not think too much about the future. It is my hope that you may all be happy in this way.
At the end of the teachings in Sarnath, the auspicious site of the Buddha’s first teaching and location of Thrangu Rinpoche’s beautiful temple, there was a distinct shift. Suddenly everyone was smiling from within and looking radiant. With joyous gratitude, His Holiness was praising all the conditions that had come together to make it happen.
It’s like I should be thanking the earth and sky.
The inscription to the caves at Ajanta reads: “The joy of giving filled him so much it left no space for the feeling of pain.”
Happiness was there, in the air.
NB Italics represent an edited version of HH Karmapa’s teaching.
Naomi Levine’s website https://www.earthmudra.com