Dissolving the “Other” in Emptiness: The 17th Karmapa
Speaking in Geneva on May 22nd, 2016, the 17th Karmapa called for the embrace of science and spirituality. “Today it is important that we find a harmonious relationship between science and religion, one in which there is mutual understanding and support, so that the two can balance each other,” he told the gathering.
“The scientific way turns outward to look at the exterior world, whereas the spiritual path turns inward to look at the interior world of the mind. Science can give us information about the outer world but with this alone, it is difficult to find one’s true nature and to discover the meaning of this life.”
Speaking in Geneva last month, the Karmapa was asked about impermanence. He replied that most people think of impermanence as something negative and would rather not think about it. However, if we reflect for a moment, he said, we can see that it gives us new opportunities. Everything that is born must die, and this process of each instant arising and disappearing, continually affords us new opportunities. The situation of the morning is not the situation of the evening, and this gives us another chance. Thinking about change in a positive way like this can inspire us, he said.
If we accept birth, the Karmapa remarked, then we must also accept death as a natural process. He suggested working with impermanence by imagining that one day is a whole life; we are born in the morning and die in the evening. In this way, the allowance of transience becomes easier, he said.
Buddhism and science are increasingly converging. The synergy becomes poignant in quantum physics, where it has been claimed that no atom can be said to have a fundamental, independent existence as separate from the whole. Quantum physics suggests that our fundamental reality is not formed around a one-body-system, but a two-body-system or an assembly of bodies that surrounds the central or ‘naked’ body. Perception of the co-dependent nature of form as a transient and impermanent flow of cause and effect is fundamental to Buddhism. Freedom in form and compassion arises, when it is possible to reside in emptiness, that invisible, ‘pluripotent’ center-point out of which attachment and entanglement can be released.
Earth has become “other.”
Bridging science and spirituality, the Karmapa himself published an article in the scientific journal Conservation Biology in 2011, drawing parallels between the Buddhist notion of interdependence and the precepts of sustainability. In this, the planet begins to resemble the ecosystem of the individual, and when the individual ecosystem believes itself to be inherently separate from the whole, it suffers.
“Because it is impermanent and intangible, the self is empty of any inherent self-nature. And, because this is so, our happiness, our sadness, our successes, and our failures are also empty by nature. This does not mean that we are nothing, but that we are constantly moving, absorbing, and shedding. Consequently, we need not experience great attachment to our experiences and can develop equanimity regarding all phenomena. To experience this freedom from the conviction of a self and the self-importance it creates means that we can dispense with the artificial distinction between self and other and can be part of all phenomena everywhere,” explains the Karmapa in the article.
“How does this relate to the environment? According to Buddhism, ignorance of the empty nature of self and the rejection of compassion is the root cause of egotism, anger, attachment, and greed. Ignorance is why human beings have degraded the environment and are driving so many species to extinction. Ignorance causes us to place an excessive worth upon the self and anything related to it; my family, my possessions, my country, and even my race. Perceiving the diversity of the world through the limited lens of self means we can impose grave harm upon Earth without concern, because Earth has become “other.”
On tour across Europe, the Karmapa is emphasizing the innate nature of compassion, while stressing that it also needs to be cultivated and supported by the environment and education. The development of a compassionate motivation while involved in scientific pursuits, will create a better future for everyone, he said.
The Karmapa lineage is the most ancient tulku lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, predating the Dalai Lama lineage by more than two centuries. The lineage is an important one as the Karmapa is traditionally the head of the Karma Kagyu school.
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