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karmapaRecently I visited a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Woodstock, “Karma Triyana Dharmachakra” (KTD), for part of their celebration of the Tibetan New Year (“Losar”). I had to be in Poughkeepsie in the morning and missed the 6 AM “Green Tara Puja “to pray for the world, asking that all outer and inner obstacles are pacified and that wealth and happiness increase”, but was able to attend a luncheon (which included some Tibetan music), followed by a Movie (“Bodhisattva – The Journey of the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa”), and then spent some time in the Shrine Room.

The spiritual head of the monastery is His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. (The movie was about a trip he took to America). I had always thought that the Dalai Lama was the spiritual leader of all Tibetan Buddhists, but I learned today that there are four Tibetan Buddhist ‘sects’, each headed by a different spiritual figure. The Dalai Lama is only one of the four. He is perhaps the most well-known, because he is also the political head of Tibet.

The movie was about the “Gyalwa Karmapa” who is the head of this particular group, the Karma Kagyu lineage. It was quite interesting (I know very little about Tibetan Buddhism, or Buddhism at all). He is the 17th reincarnation of the Karmapa, and is only in his twenties. Each Karmapa is the reincarnation of the original Karmapa, Dusun Khyenpa, who lived from 1110 – 1193. According to tradition, this “Karma Kagyu” lineage of Tibetan Buddhism traces back to the Buddha, through Naropa, Milarepa, who taught Gampopa, who in turn was the teacher of Dusun Khyenpa.

The 16th Karmapa also came to America, and it was he who began the monastery in Woodstock. The 16th Karmapa, as all Karmapas have done, left a letter behind when he passed away that described where and when he would reappear, and even the names of his future parents. The 17th Karmapa was found precisely as the letter described. There are films of his childhood, and there are films of his predecessor. A most amazing part of the movie, was watching the young child (the 17th Karmapa) viewing “himself” in a previous life – i.e., watching film clips of the 16th. As the narrator mentioned, this is quite likely the first time this has ever happened.

Some of the highlights of the movie were learning that the Karmapa is considered an “embodiment of the activities of the Buddha”, that he considers his role to be an exemplar of love and compassion for all peoples everywhere, that he has learned to feel very little difference between himself and the world (i.e., ‘non-duality’) and strives to help others achieve this same internal realization. He was asked in one scene whether it is necessary for his followers to maintain strict adherence to Tibetan Buddhist forms here in his very different country of America. First, he joked that when he next visits he might sing some rock-and-roll. More seriously, he then said that Buddhism has gone through many transformations in different lands over the centuries, that all of this was to the good, and there is no reason why a form of American Buddhism shouldn’t develop over time.

After the movie, I went to see the Shrine. What mostly struck me was the bright colors (nothing somber about this place!), the beautiful intricate patterns in the artwork, and the enormous golden statue of the Buddha. I also saw that in front of the Buddha’s statue there were piles and piles of fruits, vegetables, breads and candies. This, too, was colorful and beautiful, and not like anything I’ve seen in other places of worship. Perhaps ‘worship’ is the wrong word. The Dalai Lama once remarked that Buddhism is “not a religion”, in the sense that Buddhism, unlike western religions, does not posit and worship a supreme deity. Nonetheless, there was clearly a feeling of being in a very sacred space.