Karmapa at Princeton Focuses on Activism, Art, Environment and Gender

(April 1 & 2, 2015 – Princeton, New Jersey) After stopping in on the spiritual open mic night in the basement of Princeton’s Murray Dodge Hall last night, His Holiness the Karmapa spent an additional two days eating with students in campus dining halls, sitting in on classes on climate change and sculpture and interacting with groups of students and faculty around several issues dear to his heart: the environment, gender, activism and art.

The classes and conversations allowed the 17th Karmapa to fulfill the long-cherished wish that he expressed during his afternoon lecture at Princeton University Chapel (full report here). His Holiness the Karmapa described his aim as follows: “For a long time, I have had a strong wish to gain at least a glimpse of the experience of American university students, and through that to be able to widen my own outlook. My intention really was to come here as a student, not as a lecturer.”

His first morning on campus as a student began with a meeting of undergraduate activists who had recently completed a mindfulness meditation retreat. The students each described to His Holiness their own area of activism, and then explored with him potential inner resources for facing the challenges of sustaining their activism. Like His Holiness the Karmapa’s visit to the university overall, this encounter was organized by thePrinceton Office of Religious Life.

His Holiness then made his way across campus, escorted by Matt Weiner, associate dean of religious life, and Damaris Miller, a graduating senior. Damaris has been awarded a Princeton fellowship—the Labouisse Prize—to work in the Himalayas with Khoryug, His Holiness the Karmapa’s environmental initiative. Alongside Matt Weiner, Damaris had the opportunity to serve as the 17th Karmapa’s guide during his visit to Princeton.

Awaiting him at Whitman College’s dining hall for lunch was a group of faculty, students and administrators committed to exploring gender issues. The interaction was hosted by Gayle Salamon, Charles H. McIlwain University Preceptor, but all those attending the meeting with the Karmapa had read the chapter on gender identities in his latest book, The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out. Those present first explained their research interests on gender and their personal reasons for studying the topic, and a roundtable discussion then emerged around ways that the Buddhist philosophy of interdependence and emptiness might serve as a resource for challenging assumptions about gender roles.

As so often happens when His Holiness the Karmapa is present, the conversation moved beyond simply identifying the problems to implementing solutions. The Karmapa described his own efforts to redress gender imbalance through efforts to empower nuns in his lineage, including his plans to re-establish full ordination for women in his Buddhist tradition, beginning next winter.

When the lively exchange had concluded, His Holiness withdrew and soon thereafter delivered his afternoon lecture on gender, activism and the environment. After the talk, a reception was held in honor of His Holiness at Princetons Prospect House, with both university dignitaries and faculty in attendance, as well as students who had performed during the open mic night and participated in other interactions with the Karmapa.

Where his first full day on campus was rich in discussions of gender and activism, day two focused on art and the environment. The Karmapa’s morning on campus was devoted to an issue that he has long championed—environmental protection.

David Wilcove, Professor of Public Affairs and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the Woodrow Wilson School joined Rob Sokolow, Director, Climate and Energy Challenge, and other faculty, staff and students associated with the Princeton Environmental Institute. The institute co-sponsored His Holiness talk the day before, and those present for the discussion this morning clearly shared His Holiness’s commitment to advocacy for environmental change. During the morning, among the many topics explored by the group, the discussions on the issue of invasive species and Buddhist life release practices were particularly productive. His Holiness contextualized the practice for the scientists and they in turn detailed its impact on biodiversity and on animals themselves.

By the end of the morning meeting, it had become eminently clear to all present just how effective a partnership could be forged between the scientists and religious leaders. Before they left the table, His Holiness and the scientists had together identified broad solutions as well as specific steps to implement to effect the needed changes.

From there, His Holiness the Karmapa proceeded to the Lewis Center for the Arts where Amber Stewart, a Princeton undergraduate, walked him through the art gallery where her Senior Art Thesis was currently installed. Entitled Black Balance, her exhibition explored themes of Black experience, including racial profiling, a topic that His Holiness the Karmapa had been tracking in news reports while still in his monastery in India.

At noon, His Holiness the Karmapa met with a group of artists, students and teachers of visual arts. During the extended lunch meeting, the artists shared their personal experiences of the creative process with His Holiness. The conversation explored topics ranging from the importance of failure and discovery in the artistic process to the obstacle that goal-oriented thinking poses for an artist.

Curious about His Holiness’s own process as an artist, one artist asked the Karmapa whether he experienced any conflict between his spiritual aims of eliminating the ego and the egotistic aspect of artistic self-expression that is implicit in art.

“If your aim in creating art is to make something no one else has ever made before,” he replied, “perhaps it is egotistic. But I do not think creating art is inherently egocentric. Creating a piece of art can be more like working from a space of limitless possibilities. First there is nothing, and then you create something. If we think in terms of the Buddhist view of emptiness, this can be compared to the idea of zero. Zero is the ground from which everything and anything can arise. It does not have to be grounded in ego at all.”

Following the discussion, the 17th Karmapa, himself an accomplished artist, added a new medium to his repertoire—clay—and joined an advanced sculpture class. The teacher, Martha Friedman, designed a collaborative exercise to allow the class to co-create several sculptures from clay during the course of the 90-minute class. Each student, including the Karmapa, contributed something to the design of each piece, and then passed it to the next person. Later, the class discussed the relative merits of each piece and chose one to be cast. As His Holiness the Karmapa and the class created their pieces, his sister Jetsunma Ngodup Pelzom quietly fashioned her own sculpture.

After sitting in on a section of a course on climate change and communication, His Holiness the Karmapa made one final stop before departing the Princeton campus, to visit the “Circle of Animals” public installation by Ai Weiwei. The series of outdoor sculptures depicts the animals that form the traditional east Asian zodiac.

As his time at Princeton drew to a close, His Holiness thanked all those who had worked to make his stay at Princeton possible, including the campus police, for whom he signed a copy of his book, The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out.

The working team led by Associate Dean Matt Weiner offered His Holiness and each member of his entourage an orange Princeton cap and the group posed for one last joyful photo together before they departed for the next stop on this two-month trip: Karma Thegsum Chöling in Shamong, New Jersey.

Click on photo above to view full slide show. Photography by Filip Wolak. Last three photos by Tsurphu Labrang Media.