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  • Writer's pictureSabchu Rinpoché

Reflection of the Moon in Water

Although teachings flow naturally from an enlightened master, putting them between two covers in the appropriate manner is like transporting a crystal flower through a storm.

Dear Dharma Friends,

On March 29, 2017, Trinley Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa shared the joyous news of his marriage to Khandro Rinchen Yangzom. Students from around the world, East and West, are responding to this momentous occasion in our lineage. I feel compelled to express the great confidence with which we can embrace this event.

I would like to take a moment to point out that any prescriptive comments about how the Karmapa should best fulfill his enlightened activity are likely grounded in misperceptions.

First, a practitioner may think that the high esteem with which we rightly hold the celibate monastic Sangha should somehow dictate the appearance of the Karmapa’s enlightened manifestation. In this sense, the Karmapa’s decision to marry would seem to go against a preferred convention. If we have a sense that the monastic sangha is only the celibate, non-householder practitioners, then we are forgetting our many householder masters, without whom we would have no lineage whatsoever in Tibet. Monkhood, in the Christian sense, is perhaps coloring our sense of monasticism and what it means to be part of the sangha. The Buddhist monastic establishment is said to have consisted of eighteen groups grouped into four larger schools, out of which Tibetan Buddhists have inherited the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, a codified monastic discipline lineage. The Buddha’s circle of disciples is a sangha of four types, consisting of members with varying numbers of vows, with practitioners whose vows include commitments to celibacy, and those whose vows do not include such commitments. All four types of vow-holders are revered as honorable disciples of the Buddha. Within our own lineage, we have masters, both celibate and non-celibate, who hold vows of varying number. Any prejudice towards different types of vow-holders is based on a mistaken view of the rich institution of the sangha in its entirety. The tradition of Tibetan incarnate lamas, it is worth noting, may include lamas who fit into any of those four types. Examples of great genyen (householder) reincarnate masters include Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920-1996), Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991), Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro (1893-1959), and of course, the 15th Karmapa Khakhyab Dorje (1871-1922). This brief explanation will suffice to help us maintain an accurate outlook, and does not even touch on the subject of the tantric principles pertaining to companionship. Clarity about the qualities and branches of our sangha will help us to treasure it in its many varieties.

Secondly, on the other hand, practitioners may have a romantic view of the nuclear family as a social paradigm. The value system in North America, for example, often prescribes that a politician or other person of high status must be married and have children in order to be a reliable public figure. This social norm is based partly on an idealized notion of harmony and romantic love. Many of us may be strongly conditioned by such ideals, thinking even that a person is unhappy if they live alone or do not have a partner. An aspiration for a public figure, then, would be to marry, form a family, and propagate a certain way of life which is based on the multiplication of relatives, wealth, and comfort. Pop culture can amplify these sentiments, and even children’s books encourage such aspirations at a young age, often in a strictly gendered sense that puts women at the mercy of men: a male figure comes to the rescue, granting prosperity to a woman in distress. Such conventions are deep-rooted and can color how we view any event: as a fulfillment or disappointment in terms of strong sentimental values about romantic love. Those among us who are married may also look to the Karmapa as a guide who can be relatable in a new way, as a person who is part of a marriage and may serve as a comforting model and guide. In this sense, the Karmapa’s decision would seem to match up with an ideal that is prized in some cultural circles, if we view it as a conventional marriage. Although this picture of happy married life may certainly be a helpful image, and although many good things do arise in the context of companionship and family life, through this perspective we still use our own emotional projections and cultural ideals to perceive the Karmapa.

Both of these perspectives are limiting us in our understanding of the Karmapa’s activities. These are the veils through which we are conditioned to view the Karmapa’s activity. Given our conditions, we may frame the event in such ways; but the Karmapa’s activity, being the embodiment of buddha activity, is considered to be beyond such calculations.

As sentient beings, it is understandable for us to have these veils, in the sense that they reflect our cultural norms and the ways in which we are conditioned to view any event, but these veils are not the yardsticks we should use to measure buddha activity.

So how should we perceive the Karmapa’s activity? A buddha’s activity is beyond our concepts and beyond our limitations, as one can read in Samantabhadra’s Prayer of Excellent Conduct. When we rely on our own limitations, it does not limit the Karmapa’s activity, but through our wrong views, rather, we limit our own active participation in collective virtuous activity. When limited by wrong views, how can we respond? The ways in which buddhas and bodhisattvas benefit beings are absolutely, inconceivably profound. We can therefore recite Samantabhadra’s Prayer of Excellent Conduct to remind ourselves about the inconceivable vastness of buddha activity. We can recite Calling the Guru from Afar to recall our own conditions, and to supplicate masters of the past in helping us to overcome them. We can remember the bodhisattvas who have manifested in our own lifetimes, such as Shamar Rinpoche, and recall their life events with gratitude. We can rely on the words of the Karmapa himself:

I have a strong feeling, deep within my heart, that my decision to marry will have a positive impact not only for me, but also for the lineage... Something beautiful, something beneficial will emerge, for all of us.

As prophesied in many sūtras, the Karmapa has been ceaselessly manifesting, lifetime after lifetime, for the benefit of all beings, benefiting in many different ways and many different forms in each manifestation, adopting all kinds of methods to liberate beings. To expect bodhisattvas to appear one way or another is a reflection of our own conditioning, not a reflection of the capacities of bodhisattvas, just as the reflection of the moon in water is dependent on the conditions of the water, not on the attributes of the moon itself. To think a particular form is more or less beneficial for beings is thus a symptom of our own limited calculations. I would encourage us all to read texts in the namthar genre, the life stories of accomplished masters, which demonstrate the variety of bodhisattva manifestations and inspire us to follow their examples as we strive for enlightenment and the benefit of all beings.

I would like to express my support and best wishes for His Holiness and Khandro Rinchen Yangzom. I have confidence that this union, which resonates with the life stories of many great Buddhist masters, will strengthen the Karma Kagyu lineage. Finally, as His Holiness’s birthday is right around the corner, let us all make wishes for his continued health, longevity, and benevolent activity.


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