When he was taken from his village in eastern Tibet at age 7 after being identified as a religious leader, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa didn't have aspirations to become a world-renowned spiritual leader. "My first thought was this new position would give me many more opportunities to play and many more friends to play with," His Holiness said Tuesday, in one of his first appearances on a two-month tour of the United States.
Now 29, he certainly attracted many "friends" Tuesday; fans and followers packed Stanford's sizable Memorial Hall for the evening talk. Though his English is quite good, His Holiness used an interpreter to tell tales of his childhood and escape to India at age 14 and to share his thoughts on the nature of compassion and hopes for the protection of the environment.
He told the audience that he learned about compassion early, while living with his parents and siblings in a one-room tent made of yak hair. Every morning, his parents prayed — "May all sentient beings be happy" — again in the evening, they prayed. And they taught him about the interdependence of all beings — even insects could not be smashed. "I really feel I was raised in a mandala, or circle, of compassion and love," he said.
Even the way his parents gave him up, letting him leave to pursue his future as a spiritual leader, was altruistic, His Holiness said. "They embraced the idea the Karmapa would accomplish great, excellent benefits for the world."
His Holiness said he has come to learn that compassion is all about thinking about the feelings, and interests, of others. "It's all about developing a sense of responsibility in relation to the reality of interdependence," he said, before elaborating:
I think what compassion involves is not just looking at our own situation, but considering the state or reality of other sentient beings, those similar to us and those dissimilar to us... and developing a concern for those people.
Compassion involves realizing that our experience of happiness and suffering is the same as everyone else's. Compassion has this component of awareness to it and knowledge that everyone is wanting to be happy and free of suffering.
For example, His Holiness said he is hoping to teach others in Himalayan monasteries about the importance of caring for the environment. "Compassion means becoming more involved," he said.
He explained that his passion for the environment stems from his experience growing up in rural Tibet, which he said was beautiful and unaffected by development or pollution. "If I were to return to Tibet, the sad thought occurs to me that maybe things wouldn't be as beautiful as I remember," he said.
Though there's much work to do to protect the environment, and "the actions of one individual are not going to be enough," he said he still believes "it's really important for individuals to take up the cause."
The event was sponsored by the Center for Compassion and Altrusim Research at Stanford and was followed by a Q&A session with James Doty, MD, center founder and director.
Previously: The Dalai Lama talks business, compassion and happiness, Dalai Lama and Stanford researchers explore the science of compassion and altruism and Buddhist teacher Jack Cornfield on practicing "sensitivity to now"
Photo by Christopher Wesselman