Last July, several Tricycle editors interviewed Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The 26-year-old Karmapa, who lives in India, was visiting New York during a two-week tour of the United States—a significant trip for him, as his travels are strictly controlled by the Indian government. [Last week, the Indian Police filed criminal charges against the Karmapa for illegal possession of foreign currency, forgery, and conspiracy after police discovered $1 million in cash at the Karmapa’s headquarters during a raid in January. The Karmapa’s reps say that the money is from followers who had come to pay homage to Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Read more about the charges here.]

We arrived early for the interview, which was held in an immaculately decorated townhouse in the West Village. Inside, the atmosphere was tense. Staff members bustled from room to room urgently whispering to one another. The Karmapa was feeling sick, we were told, but the interview would go on as planned. We were ushered into a grand living room with large sofas where we sat and waited under the watchful eye of his handlers. At last, the Karmapa entered. In contrast to the high-strung nature of the group of staffers sitting in the corner, the Karmapa was calm and steady, he kept complete composure in the midst of the circus that surrounded him. He took his seat across from us and gave us a quick smile. Someone in the corner anxiously called out that we had to begin immediately and the Karmapa rolled his eyes. We began.

During the course of the hour-long interview the Karmapa gave us a sense of his daily life in India and his work as a poet and an artist. He talked about how the role of Karmapa has evolved since the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and we discussed spiritual bypassing, the role of social and environmental activism in Buddhism, and the importance of bringing intelligence and investigation to dharma practice: 

Some people may think of spirituality as the practice of having faith in something. Some others may see the dharma as being like a spiritual massage. The way I see the dharma, however, is that intelligence and investigation are even more important than faith. To practice the dharma is to look into the content of one’s life in a very deep way. To do this, one must be able to discern between one’s strengths and one’s shortcomings. This is not possible through faith alone. Some people approach spirituality as a method by which, if their minds are feeling disturbed, it will calm them down. It is seen as a temporary benefit. There is no long-term view of bringing peace to the mind, or freeing the mind from disturbing emotions altogether. So in this way many people look for immediate results, some type of swift path without too many hardships. Since materialism is so prevalent these days, that approach comes into spirituality as well, with people wanting fast results. In this way we become spiritually materialistic. So what I mean by the dharma is living our lives deeply and knowing ourselves. One of the first contemplations that is encouraged when we enter into the dharma is that of the precious human birth—seeing our life as something very valuable. Seeing the value of our lives and of moral conduct, we can give our lives a strong direction. In this way, we become good spiritual practitioners by becoming good human beings. Without being a good human being, it is impossible to become a good spiritual practitioner. This is one of the reasons why we say, “The preliminaries are even more profound than the main practice.” First, one must get to know oneself. Then, having become familiar with oneself, one can live one’s life more deeply. Living one’s life more deeply is the meaning of dharma.

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