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The 17th Karmapa teaches meditation for the West

The 17th Karmapa teaches meditation, warns against commercialization, and encourages intensive shamatha practice camps for the West.

On April 4th, His Holiness Karmapa visited Karma Thegsum Chöling-New Jersey (KTC-NJ) in southern New Jersey to give his first major Dharma teaching during his current trip to the US. HH Karmapa taught meditation methods and practiced shamatha together with a gathering of over 700 attendees, before conferring an empowerment for Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. During this teaching, HH Karmapa emphasized the personal experience of meditation and warned about Buddhist practice being used for commercial or stress-reduction purposes.

Reflecting on his experiences during this trip, His Holiness went on to remark that during his visits to the headquarters of Google and Facebook, he had seen that they too were creating spaces for their employees to meditate and emphasizing mindfulness in the workplace. ‘It is excellent that everyone has the opportunity to practice meditation,’ he said. However, while commending their efforts, he struck a strong cautionary note.

‘Given that meditation must by its very nature be a personal, individual thing that each person experiences in their own way, based on their own needs and dispositions, based on their own investigation, I think it must never be commercialized or used for commercial purposes.’

He returned to this theme later, pointing to the way yoga is sometimes marketed as a form of physical exercise, although traditionally it is a highly rigorous form of spiritual training. ‘Nowadays many people are interested in Buddhism and especially meditation. But they think of meditation as some kind of spiritual therapy, like spiritual massage. They hope that by practicing meditation they will be able to reduce the stress and pressure that they feel in their busy lives and relax. This is fine, but it is not a complete practice of meditation as taught in Buddhism. That requires a more exclusive or intensive training. I think the hope that meditation will put you at ease and make you more comfortable may cause some disillusionment. Actually I think that the intensive practice of meditation will probably make you very uncomfortable initially, because old habits die hard, and in the practice of meditation we are attempting to replace many of our old negative habits with new ones. This goes against the grain of our personalities and therefore will probably be very uncomfortable.’”

HH Karmapa focused on the importance of shamatha practice, or calm abiding meditation, as the basis for all Buddhist practice. His Holiness stated that this practice is not necessarily intended to relax the mind or reduce stress, but is in fact a practice that eliminates afflictive emotions, or kleshas. Reducing and eliminating the kleshas may not be an easy or pleasant task, since this deals with changing our habitual tendencies.

“The aim of shamatha practice is not simply to achieve peace of mind and feel comfortable and relaxed in one’s mind. Shamatha practice is actually to improve our minds, and to change our personalities for the better by weakening and finally remedying our kleshas. Some people think the point is just to feel good, relaxed and comfortable, but that is not it. The function of shamatha is to serve as a remedy for our kleshas.”

His Holiness recommended that for Westerners, who often do not have time for daily meditation, should start organizing intensive shamatha meditation camps.

“Up to now, Dharma camps where people can focus exclusively on shamatha training or practice for several months are very rare. Therefore I am encouraging you to actually create such venues or opportunities for several-month long intensive shamatha programs in Western countries.”

“It is not enough to practice meditation only in our shrine room sitting on the cushion,” he continued. “It is necessary to bring the practice of shamatha into all post-meditation activities, including our work. It is especially important to be able to apply it when we become highly emotional.” His Holiness then invited questions from the audience, which included questions on Ngondro, depression, and the use of modern technology and mindfulness.

His Holiness also gave specific instructions on how to meditate and led a meditation session with the attendees.  A separate article has been published focusing on HH Karmapa’s meditation instructions and practice. Read the article


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