“What renunciation, or the determination to be free, really is, is compassion that is directed towards oneself.”
– HH The 17th Galwang Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje
Doctor of Humane Letters
At the moment an important young leader in Tibetan Buddhism, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, is visiting the USA, giving talks and connecting with people. Invited by faculty and students at the University of Redlands in California, he just received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. As a young man of only 29 years, firmly grounded in the traditional philosophy and teachings of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, he is also very interested in our traditional Western themes, challenges, and concerns.
In the talk he gave after having received the honor, the Karmapa presented a beautifully deep and wise approach to compassion. Beginning with the natural environment, with all the benefits and challenges it presents to us today, he discussed interdependence and interconnection, two vital topics in Buddhism. Viewing the environment as the container and us sentient beings as the content, we understand that we are naturally in an interdependent relationship with each other and our environment. Whatever we eat or use connects us to the places and people it came from. Whatever we do or produce ripples outward towards others and our environment.
Finding the Root of Compassion in Our Common Ground
According to the Karmapa, “We can actually recognize that our own experience of happiness and suffering is the same as the experience of happiness and suffering that is felt by others. And the happiness and suffering that is experienced by others can also be experienced by ourselves. We share this common ground of experience.” This recognition of interconnection can arise in us as an actual felt sense, as an inner wish to make a positive change. He continued, “So with this heightened awareness of interdependence comes a heightened sense of responsibility….This sense of responsibility isn’t a heavy or imposed sense of responsibility…it’s an inspired sense of responsibility that naturally has the sentiment of ‘I want to do this, I want to make this change.’” Further, he said, “This type of natural inspiration and feeling self-encouraged, this power or strength of heart, is the essential root of compassion.” Coming from this root of compassion, we naturally wish to create happiness and not to cause suffering.
The first stage in spiritual training is finding our own, sincere determination to be free. This stage has traditionally been called “renunciation.” This term can have an unpleasant taste for some of us. The Karmapa said, “What renunciation, or the determination to be free, really is, is compassion that is directed towards oneself…. It needs to begin with an attitude of loving kindness toward oneself and a willingness to take care of oneself and more deeply understand the situation one is in.”
Based on understanding and love for ourselves, in the second stage, we “can encourage ourselves, develop more inspiration and strength of heart and more awareness, which we can then extend to others very naturally, embodying true, fully qualified, genuine compassion.” In other words, the same sentiment of feeling is now directed outward towards others. So our loving heart directed toward ourselves is the first step, and “without that, our compassion directed towards others won’t be fully genuine.”
Viewed in this way, renunciation can be seen as loosening the grip of what we don’t actually need, coming from an attitude of kindness, understanding, and care towards ourselves. And true compassion means working with our day-to-day experience in a skillful way, whether it regards ourselves or others.
Since what we think we need is highly conditioned, renunciation is a process of individual exploration and can lead to liberating insights, confidence, and greater joy. Every daily experience and every feeling can be a stepping stone for compassion. How we relate to our experience forms a basis from which we can benefit others physically, verbally, and mentally.
Based on our wish that beings may be free from suffering, we do whatever we can do. There might be a lot we can’t do—and what do we do with that? Relating back to our wish and strength of heart, we can aspire even if we can’t act. Aspirations alone are not enough to move us forward, but they provide continuity of confidence and good intention along our route of development. Aspirations point the way. Our difficulties are the fuel that allow for a strong connection between our heart aspirations and tangible actions at any point in time.
Following I’d like to share links to HH Karmapa’s talks at the University of Redlands and in other places in the USA:
♥ A book published about questions a group of young American students offered HH Karmapa in India:
♥ The talk given at the University of Redlands (you can find his talk between 1:07:00 to 1:47:00; afterwards he answers questions):
♥ A talk given at Stanford University (starting about 00:8:00):
♥ A talk given at Harvard University (beginning at 00:14:40):
I wish a beautiful Spring week for all of you!
(The photo of HH Karmapa is from the Karmapa Foundation)