There, the crowd swelled to some 80 to 100 people who waited in the main shrine room until the Karmapa learned of their presence and came downstairs from his residence area to greet them. Sitting on an elaborate throne decorated with Tibetan designs and with one of the largest gilt Buddhas in North America as his backdrop, the Karmapa said he appreciated the support of the local community for KTD, according to Tenzin Chonyi, president of KTD. “Regardless of the physical appearance of a monk’s robes or lay clothes, we all seek peace and happiness and want to avoid unpleasantness,” Chonyi said, paraphrasing the Karmapa’s spontaneous 15-minute address. “We have a sense of common desire and we should [all be able to live in peace]. We usually feel we are independent of each other but we are all interdependent and part of the same community.” Chonyi has served the Karmapa lineage in America since the mid-1970s when the present Karmapa’s predecessor, the 16th Karmapa, Rangiung Rigpe Dorje (1924-1981), originally considered building a monastery on a donated site in Putnam County before deciding on Woodstock.
Although the public appearance at Comeau was cancelled, the Karmapa met with Woodstock Times for a private interview as previously planned. It was the paper’s first interview with the present Karmapa, although this writer interviewed the previous Karmapa for Woodstock Times in 1980 shortly after the sect’s purchase of KTD. The Karmapa is currently studying English and clearly understood the questions posed to him but he spoke through a translator, Lama Yeshe Gyamtso, choosing his words carefully.
WT: Why did the Karmapa lineage choose Woodstock as its North American seat?
I think that what happened was when my predecessor, the 16th Karmapa, visited this county he was first offered a piece of land in Putnam County that was fairly large, around 300 acres. And, in spite of the considerable size of that parcel, he must not have felt an intimate connection with it. At the time this center was founded here, the only major building on the property was the old Meads Mountain House, but evidently the 16th Karmapa felt that this site was more appropriate, in part because of its relative isolation, also because of a certain holy energy that he felt in this place and because of the personal feeling of connection.
WT: It seems that Tibetan Buddhism is a good fit for the United States and there are a lot of followers here. Why do you think that is?
One reason is the United States of America is very international or we would say polyglot, both racially and religiously. For one thing, this is a country where everyone has the freedom to choose their form of spiritual involvement, if any, and because of the religious freedom and the emphasis on religious choice. Even in a relatively small town such as Woodstock you find a large variety of spiritual traditions represented. Probably, the appreciation on the part of many Americans for Tibetan Buddhism comes in part from the fact that for more than 1,000 years, Tibet, because of its topography, was quite isolated from the rest of the world and therefore concentrated or focused on spirituality and spiritual practice. This becomes all the more appreciated now in the 21st century when, in general, we have come to have a strong focus on material prosperity and technology. [The Tibetan focus on spiritual practice] becomes a source of inspiration which enables us to appreciate all the more the preciousness of spirituality and gives us the desire to share it.
WT: With everything that is happening in Tibet, do you think the United States is important to the survival, preservation and nurturing of Tibetan Buddhism?
The events that have occurred in Tibet have placed not only Tibetan spirituality but the Tibetan culture and Tibetan identity in danger of destruction. Led by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a considerable exile community has been created in India and the main goal of this community is the preservation of Tibetan spirituality and culture. Although in Tibet freedom to practice spirituality and to maintain the culture is very limited, in India we have the freedom to maintain both the spirituality and the culture. Our goal in this preservation, however, is not primarily political. It is the survival of Tibetan culture, ethnic survival, and spiritual survival. It is also a search for justice. As for the United States of America, there are many Tibetans who have emigrated to this country; but there are also great differences between mainstream American culture and Tibetan culture so it would be very difficult for this country to have to bear the burden of the primary preservation of Tibetan culture. But the essence of Buddhism, the Buddhist outlook, Buddhist spiritual practice which is beyond culture, even beyond any tradition, that essence not only can be preserved in this country, it is being preserved in this country. That will, in turn, also ensure the future of Tibet.
WT: What would you like to tell the people of Woodstock?
WT: Your home here.
The 16th Karmapa passed away in the United States of America. Before going, he told someone that in his next life, he would return here. So, therefore, the town of Woodstock was a home for the 16th Karmapa and is a home for the 17th Karmapa as well. And both he did and I do consider it to be our home. The great natural beauty of this place and the tremendous warmth of the people here have created an environment that has facilitated the preservation of our vision for this place so I want to thank all of the people of Woodstock. I want to say thank you to all of them. I think of you all as our neighbors and I care for all of you greatly.
Departure for New York City
The Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism has millions of followers worldwide, according to Chonyi. KTD has 900 members but several thousand individuals have “taken refuge,” the initial Buddhist vow, with Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, the abbot of KTD, who immigrated to the United States in 1976 at the request of the 16th Karmapa, to establish and guide the development of the local Tibetan monastery. The lineage, which traces its roots to the Buddha, has been headed by a succession of reincarnations of the Gyalwa Karmapa. The line of the Karmapas is said to be self-announced, because each incarnation leaves a letter predicting his next rebirth. The 16th Karmapa died in 1981 and the current Karmapa was born in Eastern Tibet in 1985.
During his first visit to KTD in 2008, the 17th Karmapa said he would visit the local center as often as possible during the next decade, bringing advanced Tibetan teachers here to carry on the teachings, according to Chonyi. At that time, he said he might be in residence for a few months at a time.
Accompanied by a U.S. State Department security detail, the Karmapa left KTD on Tuesday morning for New York City, where he will appear at Hunter College on Friday evening, July 29 before returning on July 30 to northern India. He currently resides at a temporary residence at Gyuto Monastery, not far from the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala. The Karmapa left Tibet for India in 1999 at the age of 14 in a clandestine and heroic seven-day journey by car, foot, horseback, helicopter, train and taxi that made newspaper headlines throughout the world.++