Sunday, December 20, 2009

Words like tea . . . .

A beautiful winter Sunday here in Bihar, very similar to the December weather in central Florida: cool, sunny and a definite chill as the sun sets. Quite a nice day for the first two of the Karmapa’s five teachings on Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend.

Observations . . .

This may be Bodhgaya, India, but from the inside out, at least to me, these teachings have an L.A. look-and-feel.

The organization around these teachings is decidedly western.

This is so in the methodology of registration and admittance, complete with multi-colored wrist-strings (looking very much like blessed protection strings, but are they?) determining the order in which one is allowed to take a seat in the temple, to the graphic logo (kind of a Tibetan-looking Nike swoosh), which is everywhere, including the fleecy vests the security people are wearing. And virtually everyone in any important-looking position of authority is western (with requisite full-color event laminates around the neck). And not just western, but, uh-oh, American, the ultimate western.

It may sound as though this is criticism, but it’s not (well, maybe a little amusedly emotional). It is seeing something different and not altogether comforting for me, who tends to be a real traditionalist in the things I love (Tibetan Buddhism, baseball, etc). Yes, paranoia is a delusion, but wasn’t it Hunter Thompson who called paranoia a normal reaction to life in today’s world? OK, let's be Buddhist, call it the suffering of change.

I will admit things are running smoothly and on time, something one never says about anything in India and, as an attendee, this is very nice.

Just understand that Orgyen Thinley Dorjee, the 17th Karmapa Lama, head of the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu school, is going to be the face of Tibetan Buddhism in the west one day, and in this public face he’s probably not going to be very organic. It’s not a large leap to see him one day as the center of a type of corporation, with lots of behind-the-scenes planning and pre-production and handlers. He’s already been to the USA, he came earlier this year and made teaching appearances in New York, Colorado and I believe Seattle. Well-marketed, sold-out appearances all.

So, take note. He’s 24 years old, beautifully handsome, has eyes like black diamonds and a strong mellifluous voice. He is the 17th Karmapa, a mind of exquisite wisdom-potential and the Tibetan spiritual heir apparent to the Dalai Lama. He survived and prevailed in a disputed recognition fight to become the spiritual leader of his school, the Kagyu, whose lineage dates back to Marpa and Milarepa and has very strong organizational roots in the USA.

Times are changing and we Americans have a history of taking things that are pure and good, assimilating them into the culture and in the process polluting the natural preciousness that made them so unique in the first place. And it appears that culture has very long arms, to this observer it's greatly influencing the Karmapa teachings here in Bodhgaya. (Are we looking at Kagyu, Inc.?)

OK, the teachings. Very basic and pretty good. The morning teaching, which I thought was very effective, included a brief look at Nagarjuna, and then, following the text, the differences between Buddhists and non-Buddhists (refuge), a discussion of the three scopes (Chenrezig Projecteers, can you believe it?), a very nice teaching on the three objects of refuge (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) and the motivators for going for refuge.

The afternoon teaching focused on the Tenfold Virtuous Path, i.e., the remedies of the three non-virtuous activities of body, the four of speech and the three of mind. I thought this was a more basic teaching than this morning’s and seemed directed to the large amount of westerners in the audience rather than the monks. (In fact, the Karmapa said that this teaching was chosen due its focus on advice for house-holders (as opposed to monastics) practicing the Dharma – so there again, that Western influence?)

The Karmapa's teaching style is good: he knows his material, is articulate, constantly correcting his translator to get the perfect word, and he is funny at times, with quips and facial expressions that are engaging. He is so young, and yet so strong, so calming, so confident. This is a major teaching for him and he’s doing it well; he said to smiles that he hopes his words “satisfy like tea” – and they do.

But make no mistake, western influence aside, for those here, and especially the Tibetans, who oddly are not so much in attendance at the Karmapa teachings, the main event, the Ocean of Wisdom, rolls into town in two weeks.

OK, stopping the finger now, thanks for reading.