Friday, June 22, 2007

Being is Believing

Some people have expressed an interest in my experience with Rangjung Rigpei Dorje, the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa and the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, who died on November 5, 1981. There is a great controversy regarding his reincarnation, and two men claim to be the seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa. For me, there is only one.

In the winter of 1976, my psychologist friend Carl Silver asked me to co-teach with him. At Antioch Graduate School in Keene, New Hampshire, the course was entitled Spiritual Seeking and the New Psychologies. Carl and I prepared a syllabus and reading list, but preparing for lectures was a more spontaneous affair. The class met for three hours every Tuesday night. Carl and I would rendezvous in Greenfield, about an hour’s drive from Keene. I would bring a pint of fresh oysters, lemons, horseradish, and hot sauce, and Carl provided a six-pack of beer or a bottle of wine. Whenever the oysters in Foster's Market looked a little tired, I bought shrimp. On the way to Keene, we ate, drank, and discussed the quality of the shellfish. Driving into Keene, we would chose a topic and organize the evening's adventure. The class contained thirty students, including some of the graduate school faculty.

Carl liked to lecture, and I led the demonstrations. He talked about the history, practice, and efficacy of the evening's esoteric discipline, and I guided the class in a related exercise or meditation. The last half hour was usually for free discussion. One of our students was an adherent of Dharmadhatu Buddhist Meditation. He announced one evening that the Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism would be visiting Boston in April to perform the Black Crown Ceremony, during which he would embody the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Centuries ago the emperors of China had proclaimed the Karmapa to be their spiritual teacher, and the Black Crown was the symbol of his station. Carl and I seized the opportunity and suggested that the entire class attend the ceremony. The students enthusiastically agreed, and arrangements were made for the field trip to Boston. The timing was perfect; we were running out of new psychologies and esoteric disciplines.

To prepare the class, Carl lectured on the different practices and expressions of Buddhism, and our Dharmadhatu student described his experiences. I used my hand to explain the Buddha's Four Noble Truths. Disappointment, anger, and fear can close a mind like a tight fist ready to strike, I began. The human condition of suffering is the First Noble Truth. Filled with the pressure of its own emotion, the fist cannot feel itself or its environment. Force is its strength. Having no intelligence or relative perspective, the fist is a poor weapon, an oversimplified expression of the emotions that drive it. Desire, wanting anything in the material world, creates frustration because nothing lasts, not even time. The Second Noble Truth maintains that the cause of all suffering is grasping and clinging. As the fist gradually relaxes, it becomes more aware of itself and its surroundings. It becomes an open hand — soft, flexible, and responsive. That suffering can be ended is the Third Noble Truth. Released from desire and suffering, the hand can move and create, using the strength and gentleness of the world around it. No longer aware of being simply a hand with limitations, it becomes what it always was — a being greater than itself, in harmony with life. Can we live with open hands, hearts, and minds, giving and receiving with the same gesture? The Fourth Noble Truth is the Buddha's Eightfold Path of self-realization, the way to end all desire. It tells us to walk the noble path with right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right means of livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right meditation. The ultimate goal is total liberation — living in a constant state of oneness, nirvana, the awakening, Buddhahood.

The Black Crown Ceremony was held at the Rollerdrome in Boston's South End. Laurel and I arrived early and got seats toward the front. The hall soon filled with nearly a thousand people. We faced a four-foot-high dais covered with red and gold silk and a Tibetan prayer rug decked with candles and incense burners on either side. Monks in yellow robes guarded the area and scanned the audience continuously. The Karmapa might be in danger during this rare public performance. He was Tibet's third highest ranking religious leader, the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama being one and two, respectively.

To the right side and just behind the dais, monks chanted and played Tibetan horns, inviting us to become quiet and attentive. The Karmapa ascended the dais and sat on a pillow. When I let my eyes relax and focus on a far-off point, I could see the luminous auras of people. The Karmapa's aura was a clear and rosy white with an edge of golden light. During the ceremony, while the horns blared and the monks chanted in their deep and resonant voices, he put on the black horsehair crown. He became the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and to my surprise and delight, his aura changed. He was prismatic, vibrant with every color in the rainbow, and tinged with gold and a soft cerulean glow that expanded outward. His energy seemed to touch everyone in the hall, and beyond. I imagined compassion spreading through the city, the country, and the entire world. Everyone in the building must have felt the remarkable power and grace of the sixteenth reincarnation of the "living Buddha."

After the crown was removed and the ceremony was completed, people were invited to come forward and receive the Karmapa's blessing. We waited a few minutes then Laurel and I got in line. People approached the Karmapa with their heads bowed, looking down at his feet. He would touch them lightly on the head, say a few words in Tibetan, and they would move off to receive a necklace of string and beads. As we moved along in the line, I noticed the Karmapa appearing tired and perhaps a little bored. He was giving to each person, but there was little exchange of energy or enthusiasm. I imagined that, even for a person of his superior spiritual development, this could be an exhausting experience. I whispered to Laurel, "When it’s your turn, look directly at the Karmapa and let him see you." Laurel knew I was talking not about her face, but about her heart and soul.

I prepared for our meeting by clearing my mind and grounding myself. A few minutes later, I stood before the Karmapa and looked up into his shining face and bright eyes. I smiled and he returned it. Then we had an extraordinary telepathic conversation.

"Exalted one," I began, "the Red Sox are in town and play Kansas City tomorrow. There's nothing like a baseball game in Fenway Park. We could just kick back for a while. How about it?"

Smiling even more broadly, the Karmapa replied, "Thank you for the invitation. Though it sounds quite enjoyable, I am a captive of obligation and my protectors. The monks keep me on a busy schedule, and I have little time for myself. They would never allow such a thing as a baseball game. For me, this life is not about ordinary pleasures and entertainment. I am the spiritual and temporal leader of my people and my duties are constant. I bless your kind heart."

"Of course, you are right," I said. "How foolish of me! You seem tired, and it was the first thing that came to mind. I feel deeply touched by your compassion and your humanity. In another place and time perhaps we could be friends. Please forgive me."

He almost laughed. He felt like a dream from my childhood, comforting me late at night, teaching me about things I had yet to learn. His face filled with light, and he said, "In another time and place we are certainly friends." We spoke without sound, but it seemed perfectly natural. Then, as we looked into each other's eyes, he put his hand over my head and lightly touched my crown. I felt the exquisite sensation of lightness travel down through my body and up to my head again, and my entire body moved into an ecstatic state. I floated about two inches off the floor, and connected effortlessly to everything around me. "This is being human," I realized. The Karmapa and I were sharing, in communion and bliss. It was his extraordinary gift.

Gradually, I felt the floor beneath my feet again, though I seemed to weigh about a quarter of what I did before he touched me. I thanked him for showing me what it is to be human. As I turned to walk away, I looked back at Laurel. She was smiling, almost in tears. Silently, she knew what to do. She looked up at the Karmapa, and he saw we were mates. I stepped away, and a monk placed a string around my neck. I looked into the monk's eyes. They were strong and clear, and though I was beaming with joy, he didn't crack a smile. I was just another blissed out guy. I waited for Laurel. The Karmapa touched her head, and I saw her body become light. She appeared to gently bounce up and down, her entire body vibrating. At that moment I knew that anything was possible.

We walked away together holding hands, then sat down. For several minutes we stared silently at the Karmapa. I noticed a few people were now looking up at the Karmapa when they stood before him to receive his blessing. He appeared brighter and more energetic. We couldn't talk about our experience for hours. Carl asked us about it, but we just smiled and exchanged pleasantries. "Wasn't it wonderful?" "Yeah, it was great." I wanted to tell him what a real person the Karmapa was, and that his life was a gift and an inspiring sacrifice, but I didn't think he would believe me. It was still difficult to trust the world with my treasures, and I didn't what to disturb the feeling of his touch.

Weeks later I was telling my spiritual teacher about my meeting with the Karmapa. He explained that at any one time there are at least seven and as many as thirteen fully realized human beings on the planet. The Karmapa was certainly one of them. I could imagine what it meant to be fully realized. When I was twelve years old, Ted Williams was the greatest person in the world to me. I think he was close to being fully realized. The Karmapa never got to see Ted Williams play baseball. If he had, what would have happened when these two fully realized human beings met? They wouldn't need to talk about enlightenment. Could they talk about baseball?

Without words, the Karmapa had given me the gift of humanity and had shown me the possibility of living in light. He didn’t need to talk about rules or abstractions. He was a man of action. His way was as clean and natural as Ted Williams swinging a bat. There was no flaw and nothing to discuss — being was believing.


irene said...

I am intrigued. A beautiful experience and story.

Jan said...

woof squared. beautifully told and well experienced. Has that experience repeated itself? Who would you think the 7 to 13 are of today? is this a sequel to "look me in the eye"? amazing how the circle is unbroken. The journey continues and I believe there is more excitement to come. I am thankful our paths have crossed.

ORION said...

I followed you over from John's blog.
Quite a fascinating post.
I must check this out -- it has intrigued me...

Kanani said...

I'm printing this out and am taking it with me. I'll be in Pt. Reyes this week, and will have NO cellphone or internet!


Kanani said...

I left you a message here