DC Tibetan Book Club
WASHINGTON DC, US, 10 September 2018
Washington DC Tibetan Book Club members picked their summer reading, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s Interconnected: Embracing Life on a Global Society. The club took their biggest shot by inviting the author, a giant in the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual world and the reincarnation of a 900-year old historical figure, to their discussion. The following is a reflection of what transpired at the meeting, and what was our biggest takeaway from this interaction.
On the evening of 25 August 2018, the result of our days of dedication and grit was about to bear fruit. On the 9th floor of a high-rise building across the US Capitol’s National Mall, and near the White House, a score of young contemporary Tibetans converged at the Wework in G Street for this rare meeting with His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa.
These Tibetans were working in DC as lawyers, media professionals, software developers, and project managers in various government agencies, companies, and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). They had marked this evening on their calendar for the sole purpose of this unique opportunity to interact with a great being. Surprisingly, it was a large gathering for a book club discussion, and the high-profile persona of the author was definitely the reason for the palpable excitement.
As the crowd huddled inside the conference room, waiting patiently, a lofty figure, the familiar face of His Holiness the 17th Karmapa appeared on the Skype screen. The entire group in the conference stood up on their feet simultaneously, with pure white scarves (khatag) draped over their folded hands.
There was pin-drop silence in the room with awe and incredulity for the fact that the Karmapa cared to arrange his precious time for us.
Even though it was a virtual online screen projection, his powerful presence permeated the room and was felt so strongly and blissfully. It was the first time we ever had such a feeling of great veneration as we stood in subdued silence.
We were connected to Karmapa to discuss about his book on Interconnectedness.
The central theme of the book is the concept of interdependence: A fundamental understanding that all phenomenon is a result of something else. It is not only an interesting Buddhist philosophical concept, but underscores how our happiness and suffering is so closely connected to the happiness and suffering of others as to be inseparable.
The audacity of hope
It all started a month ago, when an enthusiastic planning committee set in motion their intent to get things rolling with the audacious hope of inviting the Karmapa. The planning entailed deciding the format of the discussion, the venue, the agenda, and drafting the proposal letter and invitation.
The meeting was arranged in an informal setting, as book discussions normally are, to allow for maximum interaction and participation from the members. Since this was a private meeting, the discussion would be off the record and closed to any media.
Who are the DC Tibetan Book Club members?
The DC Tibetan Book Club was established in 2011 by a small group of young Tibetan professionals and students living in the DC area. Since then many books covering a wide range of topics were read and reviewed. VOA Tibetan service had interviewed a club member in 2015 .
At various times, authors would join the book club discussions to provide valuable context and answer members’ questions, which ultimately enriched the discussions. Such discussions often lead to lively debates and exchanges, usually over delicious home-cooked Tibetan food.
Most of the members are critical thinkers, sharp observers, and blunt. They mince no words in expressing their thoughts and analyses. One of the members during our pre-Skype conversation said: “I wish the Karmapa would smile more, he has a stern demeanour most of the time”. Another member of the club who had just returned from a secular ethics workshop in New York, over which the Karmapa presided, said: “The Gyalwang Karmapa is very punctual; he started on time and finished on time”.
By reviewing the content of the book, a member was even eager to ask the Karmapa his views on the “Me Too” movement, in the context of recent allegations against some Buddhist Masters in the West, and why this is a taboo issue in Tibetan society.
Other members pondered if the Karmapa will write his autobiography, as it will be fascinating, because many of his followers were interested in knowing him more intimately. Anything personal about the Gyalwang Karmapa is very interesting, including the fact that he has six sisters.
The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa in his opening remarks stated that the book’s content originated in a series of teachings he offered to a group of undergraduate students from the University of Redlands. The book is a culmination of over three weeks educational exchange with those students in his residence in Dharamshala, and was edited in English by two writers.
Surprisingly, the Karmapa shared with humility that he himself had not read the book yet, since it came out in 2017. As a preparation for this eventful meeting with the Karmapa, many club members read the book. The pre-Skype discussion meeting that was held the previous night at one of the club member’s house brought forth in-depth discussions and deliberations to agree on the shortlist of eight questions for the Karmapa.
When each member stood up, most of them with an initial greeting in Tibetan, and politely requested His Holiness permission to ask their questions in English. The Karmapa listened to each question very attentively and responded with careful thought in Tibetan.
Tackling a wide range of issues
On the questions of gender equality, the Karmapa believes: “Our idea of equality must go deeper. Our equality is based not in what we have, or how we look, but in who we are. We are equal in our shared human condition and in the latent nobility of heart that lies within each of us. When we make that the standard of our equality and our value, we all already measure up. We can find that basis for living as equals without needing to reduce equality to conformity.”
He said that the gender divide can be narrowed with more assertion and confidence from the women themselves.
All members marvelled at the Karmapa’s vast knowledge of current events and day-to-day issues, and his ability to address almost all things that impact our life. While he didn’t have a cell phone a year ago, we were amused when he confided in us that he does have a cell phone now. The great number of people who come to seek his guidance and their experiences add to his reservoir of knowledge on human affairs. He jokingly said, that people come to him more when they have problems, and less when they are doing well and happy.
On the question of how to use technology wisely to gain a desired result, as there are many real-life instances of the bane of social media, the Karmapa said: “Connectivity through social media and others has given us many advantages, but it often comes at the significant cost of losing our natural way of being with others. Far from truly enriching or nourishing us in any substantial way, our constant connectivity can easily end up trivializing our lives.” Giving the example of excessive use of cell phones even within the confines of individual family, he said we may think communications technology is adding spice and flavour, but in the end, it can detract from the meaning and purpose of our lives, and make our lives “lite”.
He further stated in his book: “When I look at its place in our lives today, I often feel that technology is using us, rather than us using technology. For this reason, it is important for each of us to look carefully at our own personal use of technology.” Social media addiction is a big issue among millennials and the Karmapa is spot on for this timely advice on judicious use of time and technology.
On the question of humility and pride, and how we can develop more confidence without becoming egocentric, the Karmapa said adopting a posture of humility does not mean that you are weak, although people often assume it does. Your wisdom shows you that there is always more to learn. Healthy humility keeps the door open to improvement. Pride, by contrast, closes that door.
On the question of an impersonator posing as a Lama or a Dakini in Tibet, and how to prevent such fake lamas from undermining the Buddhism faith, the Karmapa said that this must has to do with the followers who can play a critical role in the success and defeat of such a fake lama. The external factors will have less effect, if the internal things do not fall apart.
Thus, the Gyalwang Karmapa patiently fielded questions as he was sitting outside on a terrace, presumably in New York. On the screen we could see the slanting rays of golden sun light of the evening. “He might have been bitten by bugs and flies, as he was outside” said a concerned member. The Karmapa sat and respond to all our questions, waving off a coffee or tea offer during the conversations.
The time passed at lightning speed, and in the blink of an eye, we reached our final questions.
The moderator reluctantly rose to offer deep gratitude to him, and the two dozen participants rose up to bow down one last time in gratitude for the Karmapa’s time, generosity, and compassion.
The Skype on the other side finally disconnected, and everyone cheered in relief as this important event was pulled off as smoothly as we could have wished, without any glitch. Later a club member lamented that the discussion could have received far wider audience had we broadcast it via Facebook live. Other participants said the Gyalwang Karmapa was so gracious and magnanimous for honouring us with his precious time, it was very successful.
Club members’ reflections
“I loved what the Karmapa said about his ideas of consumerism and globalism. I was very excited when I saw the title of the book. I felt, wow, that speaks to me directly,” said one of the avid participants at a pre-discussion.
The young gentleman, who interned in DC during the summer, said he even talked about interconnectedness in his Fulbright application for further studies on development in Korea. He is right, because interconnectedness has wider application as the Karmapa said.
Interdependence may be used to explain a great many systems, from the relationships among natural phenomena to groups of people and nations — in other words, the whole world around us.
The book is relatable to everyday life and is refreshing and very practical, agreed other club members.
The Gyalwang Karmapa’s writings have offered us so much hope for our future as global citizens — and most personally as Tibetans.
Club members hung out long after the session for food and refreshments. Everyone who attended were very pleased and honoured for this great opportunity. Basking under the success of this event, the club members were reaffirmed that the Karmapa’s blessing would serve as a catalyst for more robust discussion in the future on topics of importance to humanity, society, and personal growth.
Renowned English philosopher Francis Bacon once said: “Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” Interconnected: Embracing Life in a Global Society is one such book, that needs to be thoroughly studied and digested. As Janet Gyaltso, professor of Buddhist Studies, Harvard Divinity School wrote in a blurb, “It is highly intelligent and filled with honest, personal reflection and striking insights on every page.”
The best way to get the true sense of appreciation and enjoyment which stemmed from His Holiness the Karmapa’s words of wisdom is to personally grab and devour the book — as the DC Tibetan Book Club members did.