In First Visit to Chicago KTC, Karmapa Teaches on Chenrezik

(May 4, 2015 – Chicago, Illinois) His Holiness the 17th Karmapa today headed south from Zion, Illinois to visit the Chicago Karma Thegsum Chöling (KTC), a Dharma center affiliated with Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD), his North American seat in Woodstock, New York. During this visit—his first ever to Chicago—His Holiness blessed the center’s gracious shrine room and delivered concise instructions on the purpose of engaging in Chenrezik practice.

This visit was the first that His Holiness the Karmapa has paid to a KTD affiliate center outside the Greater New York area. The Chicago KTC is among the largest of the 28 Dharma centers in the United States connected to KTD. After the traditional tea-and-rice welcome and a mandala offering procession, center director Lama Sean Jones related some of the history of the center.

In 1977, His Holiness the 16th Karmapa had visited Chicago, where he performed a Black Crown ceremony. He then urged Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche to found a center in the Windy City and he did so during a visit to the city the following year. Thus began the nearly four-decade history of this center. After several decades meeting mainly in the homes of center directors, in 2003 the center had located a building suitable to its growing requirements, yet lacked the means to purchase it.

Lama Sean relates that when Bardor Tulku Rinpoche saw the building during a visit to Chicago, he felt it was perfect, and proceeded to contact the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa in India directly in the presence of the center members. He requested His Holiness’s advice as to whether or not they should embark on the ambitious project and the Karmapa’s response was affirmative. With that blessing, all the needed conditions came together swiftly and easily for Chicago KTC to purchase its current home.

The building came replete with a history of its own, which Lama Sean narrated for the assembly. Once the home of an Odd Fellow fraternal lodge and later a Bohemian lodge, the hall became a speakeasy during the Prohibition era, serving as a site for gambling, dancing and illicit drinking. Chicago’s most notorious gangster,Al Capone, was said to have been connected to the building as well, a comment that drew a smile and a raised eyebrow from the Karmapa. “In the spirit of recycling and reusing,” Lama Sean continued, “we have repurposed this building for the spread of the holy dharma and specifically the practice of the Karma Kagyu.”

Lama Sean presented the activities of the center, which focuses on shamatha meditation and the practice of Chenrezik, the Buddha of Compassion, and requested His Holiness to make some remarks about Chenrezik practice to help them develop greater loving kindness for all beings. This sincere petition elicited in response a concise, yet substantive, commentary on the essence of Chenrezik practice. Although the visit took place on a Monday morning, approximately 60 of the KTC’s members and guests listened rapt to the Karmapa’s words on compassion.

His Holiness the Karmapa began by expressing his heartfelt thanks to Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche for all his service in developing the centers over the decades, as well as to the KTC directors and members. Taking up the request for practice advice, His Holiness first conferred the reading transmission of the “For the Benefit of All Beings” Chenrezik liturgy and then moved straight to his comments about the practice.

His Holiness explained that the name “Chenrezik” connotes eyes that truly see, and observed that this name itself tells us a great deal about the practice. When we set ourselves the task of cultivating compassion through the practice of Chenrezik, this means we are committing ourselves to opening our eyes to what is really going on. Practicing Chenrezik means bearing witness to the sufferings of others, with loving eyes wide open.

As a practice that involves visualizing deities with various numbers of arms and faces, Chenrezik practice might appear complicated or strange, he told them. Whether or not there actually exist such beings with four or a thousand arms was not the most important point to investigate, His Holiness said. The main point is what the multiple arms and eyes symbolize. Therefore it is crucial for practitioners to understand and reflect on the symbolic meaning of what they are visualizing. As a manifestation of unconditional compassion toward all beings, His Holiness said, many eyes are needed to be able to truly see, recognize and share the pains and sufferings of all others. Compassion calls for many arms to be able to extend oneself effectively toward all those who need help, he explained.

The 17th Karmapa shared with the audience how his feeling for the need for many arms and eyes had arisen from his own personal experience. “Many people come to see me, describing their pains and troubles,” he said. “I feel I cannot do enough for them. As I am just one person, I cannot accomplish all their aims. This led me to feel that not only is it not strange to have many arms, but actually it is necessary, in order to be able to alleviate all the varied forms of suffering there are in the world.”

Although at this point, we lack the capacity to make replicas of ourselves to do more for others, we can aspire to do that in the future, he said, and to actually be able to eliminate all beings’ suffering and bring them wellbeing.

“As we hold that vast aspiration in our hearts,” His Holiness said, “meanwhile we must actively find ways to benefit whatever sentient being we are now able to help.”

The visualization of the various forms of Chenrezik thus serves as a clarion call to action. “The multiplicity of arms reminds us that we need more action,” he said. The multiplicity of eyes calls for more involvement, and reminds us that we must actually see others and not avert our eyes when faced with their pain.”

The Karmapa jokingly reassured them that they were in no danger of sprouting additional sets of arms through Chenrezik practice. As he explained that the four arms of Four-Armed Chenrezik are taken to symbolize the four limitless qualities of compassion, love, joy and equanimity, he continued: “Our body is limited but our mind has no limits. Our potential for compassion and love is limitless.”

The purpose of visualizing the four-armed form of Chenrezik is to bolster our mind’s limitless potential to experience those noble qualities. Therefore, the Karmapa said, if we wish to judge how well our meditation of Chenrezik is progressing, the main criterion is not the crispness of our visualizations. Rather, His Holiness said, “You will know that your practice is improving when you see that you are becoming more loving, kind and compassionate in your day-to-day feelings, experiences and actions.”

His Holiness concluded his remarks by voicing a wish to return to visit the Chicago KTC “again and again.” His Holiness the Karmapa commented Chicago has special importance for him personally, as it is where the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa chose to display the deed of passing into parinirvana. Unlike other stops on the itinerary of his two-month tour of the United States, His Holiness said his visit to Chicago had a unique purpose, since he had come to the area to perform a groundbreaking ceremony for the creation of a planned stupa to commemorate the life and deeds of his predecessor, the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa. He expressed his hope to be able to return to northern Illinois to consecrate the stupa once it had been completed, to the delight of his audience.

Before departing, His Holiness reviewed plans to renovate an area of the building and blessed the space, bid a fond and moving farewell to Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and the rest of the KTC community, and then made his way out onto the Chicago streets, heading north to his next stop: Madison, Wisconsin.

Swipe or click on photo above to view the full slide show. Photography by Lama Sam.