Sunday, March 16, 2008

Interview with The Karmapa

Since he leapt from the roof of his monastery in Tibet at age fourteen and fled Chinese rule, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the young Karmapa Lama has kept a low international profile. He is notoriously inaccessible and circumspect, especially on political topics.

In the spring of 2006 I met with him at his residence near Dharamsala, India, and we spoke via translator for roughly twenty minutes on issues of spirituality in a fearful world, relations with the Chinese government, his childhood in Tibet, and the possibility of having to fill the sensible shoes of the Dalai Lama as public representative of the Tibetan people should the Dalai Lama no longer be able to continue his active role.

Officially, the Karmapa - now 22 years old - is not in line for the Dalai Lama’s monastic position. The Dalai Lama is head of the Gelugpa sect and the Karmapa is leader of the Kagyu sect; but upon the demise of the Dalai Lama, who is now 73 years old, the world will look to the Karmapa as the Tibetan people’s spiritual ambassador to the world.


Q: According to your faith, this is your 17th reincarnation as a Buddhist leader. How does it feel to have such a long history of service behind you? It must be a lot of pressure.

A: We have many things in this world that have existed for a thousand years, but these are entirely different. It’s not many people, it’s one individual.

Q: You are this individual?

A: Yes.

Q: Don’t you ever want to take a break from being a spiritual leader for a lifetime or two?

A: According to Buddhist religion, it has been predicted that there will be over twenty incarnations, some predict twenty five or more, it is not clear, but after that, my spirit will be incarnated somewhere else. Perhaps on another world.

Q: Tell us about your spiritual path at the moment.

A: At the present, I am mostly engaged in Dharma studies, but I also do some meditation, more of it when I have the time. At the moment I am trying to get teachings from many different sources, inside and outside the Buddhist traditions. Today I’m studying Wajayana.

Q:If the Buddha were on the earth today, what do you think he’d be doing, saying?

A: “We need freedom. We need peace.”

Q: In the world?

A: In the world.

Q: Is the Buddha on earth today?

A: The Buddha’s mind is still alive, although his body is not. Love and compassion are in the world, for example. In this way he is alive.

Q: There is a lot of fear in the world. Many people are despairing and losing their hope that the world is getting better. What can you say to them to help them with their fear?

A: It all depends upon the mind. In my environment here, I am free of the influences of the world that foster fear. One doesn’t necessarily need to take refuge or do meditation. You can choose to have peace of mind and be free of fear if you don’t allow the fear to influence you. If you live your life without harming others and keep your own mind free of negative emotions such as anger and aggression it will come more easily for you. It is these negative emotions that enable the fear within you.

Q: If you could meet with Chinese President Hu tomorrow, what would you say to him?

A: If I had the freedom to speak, and the courage to speak, I would say that the problem between our two countries - the struggle - should be settled. I have a great interest in settling this for the benefit of Tibet, but also for China. I want to help both countries. I have the same feelings toward both countries.

Q: His Holiness The Dalai Lama enjoys huge international prestige and diplomatic responsibilities. How do you feel about the prospect of helping him with his work and perhaps eventually taking the mantle of leadership from him?

A: I’ll have to see the necessity/importance of doing the same as the Dalai Lama in the future. If the times need me to have a high profile and travel and meet with important people, than I will. But if there is no need, then maybe not.

Q: I read that as a child you rode goats around in the countryside? What is it like to ride a goat?

A: We were just playing. I would play around with them, and sometimes I would ride them. It’s fun.


Additional points of information:

- The Karmapa’s website

- The Tibetan government in exile has administration offices in Dharmsala, India.

- Unless Chinese officials release the Panchen Lama from “house arrest” in an undisclosed location inside China, the Karmapa would be the only adult Tibetan Buddhist leader of this rank free to speak.

- There is another Tibetan monk who claims to be the Karmapa Lama but the Dalai Lama recognizes Ogyen Trinley Dorje, (the man interviewed here) to be the 17th incarnation of the Karmapa Lama, the leader of the Kagyu sect.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Avery’s Midterm Exam - Civics for Douchebags

As big bad school nightmares go, everyone has the one where you sleep through the alarm and miss the big exam. And everyone has the one where you’re the only kid naked at the class assembly. But how about the one where you call the superintendent a “douchebag” on your blog and it ends up being debated in federal court? That’s the personal nightmare of seventeen-year-old Avery Doninger, whose case came up this week before the justices of the US Second Circuit.

Avery, her mother and her grandmother came to the imposing new Moynihan building yesterday to watch her attorney, Jon Schoenhorn, argue her case before three august lady justices. On the surface, what’s at stake is Avery’s claim to the office of secretary of her class, the senior class at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, Connecticut. But the leviathan below the surface is the First Amendment, and a student’s right to say what she wants on her own blog with her own computer from her own home.

Last April, school administrators moved to cancel “Jamfest,” a battle of the bands Avery had been organizing. On her blog that evening, her post read “Jamfest is canceled due to douchebags in central office.” Very little came of it until a few days later when the son of Superintendent Paula Schwartz found the posting while trolling the internet on behalf of his mother. (If a tree falls in cyberspace, it doesn’t make a sound until someone Googles it.) Avery won the class election last spring with write-in ballots, but school officials withheld her right to serve.

Avery is a sharp kid, a good kid, not the “Bong hits for Jesus” kind of troublemaker or the kind of kid you’d expect to use the term “douchebag” (she spells it as one word) in polite company. This, of course, is part of the point. A blog is more like a diary than a bulletin board, but in the world of the internet, any particular blog is just as accessible as a bulletin board. And the test of whether any particular “speech” is likely to be seen or heard on school property is a distinction that no longer differentiates.

As Avery’s School Board sees it, (and Judge Kravitz of the New Haven District Court agreed), serving on student council is a privilege, not a right, and school officials have a duty to pick and choose candidates with exemplary modes of behavior and decorum. (Never mind the fact that another student who referred to the superintendent as a “dirty whore” was given an award and lauded for citizenship.)

Avery sat quietly in her sensible skirt and flats while Schoenhorn argued passionately on her behalf. There was lively cross examination as the judges considered whether “douchebag” might be vulgar, obscene, or just offensive; and whether Avery had been inciting her classmates to disruptive behavior. More than awed, Avery was justifiably amused by the proceedings; she felt more troubled by her mother’s visible distress, than by the opposing lawyer’s claims.

This was the last case to be heard this Tuesday, and discussion ranged far beyond the allotted time. “What if Avery had said, ‘Kill the principal,’” one justice asked. “What if there were no rules on what a student could say?” But over time the arguments boiled down to two salient issues. One, offensive language can clearly be controlled on school grounds, but can’t possibly be prohibited everywhere. In this case, the internet has to be a place where free speech is allowed. Two, speech that is disruptive to the educational environment can be limited, even off school grounds, but Avery’s blog entries seem to have been only mildly disruptive, and probably justifiably so.

Avery’s final year of primary education is nearly three-quarters finished, and her sights are set on her first year in the free world. She may go to college in Boston, she may spend a year or two in Americorps. Avery and her supporters were in court yesterday for the principle, not the principal.

If this injunction is denied and she doesn’t speak before her class at commencement this spring, it’s clearly not the end of the world, and that might be just as well. We’ve all had that dream where we’re standing at the podium and our entire high school class is before us... Still, for Avery, nightmares do come true; and they’re not necessarily all that bad.

For more detailed information, and plenty of attitude, see Andy Thibault's blog - Cool Justice Report