His Holiness’ Visit to Karma Thegsum Choling

Karma Thegsum Choling is a Karma Kagyu center located on 150 acres of land in rural Shamong Township, New Jersey, adjacent to Wharton State Forest. Below, Trudy Sable and Elain Yuen report on His Holiness recent visit to KTC.


Shamong is located in a beautiful rural part of New Jersey (yes that does exist), in the Pine Barrens, and the KTC there is located in a very modern very large house, complete with an expansive field in front, white picket fences and a tennis court. The resident lama there is Lama Tsultrim, one of the lamas who walked out of Tibet with the 17th Karmapa. The Shamong KTC sangha is largely ethnic Chinese, and they have a beautiful Medicine Buddha shrine room. Shamong is also approximately a 40 minute drive from Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Shambhala center helped in the event. I was a ticket taker and escort for those who were handicapped or who had health problems, getting them through security and pointing out where they could sit. Often the Chinese staff would address me in Chinese, taking me for one of the KTC sangha, which was amusing since my Chinese proficiency is limited.

There were 3 large tents erected on the grounds, and the audience of 1,600 was a mixture of Tibetans, ethnic Chinese, and Western sangha. The Karmapa spoke of how the world is shrinking; and how he, as a Tibetan born and from Tibet, had deep feeling for Tibetan culture and language. He then went on to comment that he was familiar with Chinese culture and language as well, that knowledge of different languages was helpful. For instance, Tibetan has a lot of regional variation but the Chinese language is standardized. English was useful too, and knowledge of language gives an increased ability to communicate.

He went on to speak about peace, and how it is dependent upon communication and understanding of culture and language. He spoke about how peace must expand out beyond all bounds and borders. We are troubled by the boundary between self and other, often unconsciously as this emphasis on the self has been from early childhood. The greatest distinction between self and other compromises the ability to reach true peace. On a fundamental level, we are the same, we all seek happiness. This is true whether we regard this as a search or not. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge we all have this fundamental need for peace, and to support and share with each other. His analogy was of a favorite food: he cannot name all of his favorite foods, the favorite food is what fills him the most.

The Karmapa then went on to talk about and then bestow the Medicine Buddha empowerment. He described the qualities of the Medicine Buddha, and his ability to heal sickness. He commented that sickness had two causes: a fundamental cause and a proximate or precipitating cause. The root klesas of passion, aggression and ignorance are the fundamental causes; while imbalances in the four elements (water, fire, earth and air) are the proximate causes. We can supplicate the Medicine Buddha to heal these afflictive emotions and the imbalances that they cause. If we can calm our minds when they are disturbed then it is possible to move from affliction to pliancy of body and mind, we can become immersed in well-being.

It felt like the Karmapa could have continued teaching us for a longer time, however, it was time for the empowerment. He had the entire gathering repeat the refuge formula in Tibetan (his comment was “big class” in English). He ended by saying that he was smiling more now that he was in the West, and that he loved us very much. While the Karmapa spoke in Tibetan, it was clear that he knew some English, and had intention to reach out to us in the West more in the future. My son, Gampo, was with me, and commented that it was good for him to see that the power and lineage of the Karmapas could continue down through time, that the 17th Karmapa could manifest and teach him and later generations to come. (Gampo had seen the 16th Karmapa as a young boy and remembered most of all the Black Crown Ceremony).

-Elaine Yuen

First, that I was able to attend this empowerment with the Karmapa was a small miracle in and of itself, including having given away my ticket thinking I could not go. Once I took the leap to go, I was so well taken care of by old friends while there who provided shelter, food, and transportation, which was equally touching and miraculous. What made it more meaningful still is that I met and shared the experience of meeting and hosting the 16th Karmapa in Washington D.C. in 1981 while David, my husband, was the ambassador to the D.C. Dharmadhatu.

While in Washington D.C. as the ambassordorial couple for Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, the D.C. Dharmadhatu had the incredibly precious opportunity to host H.H.K. Karmapa 16th visit to Washington. As part of this visit, David, assisted by Kate Abato and Sherry Elms, arranged for a reception in the rotunda of the Capitol Building with 92 senators and congressmen attending. Another reception was held at the Freer Gallery and hosted by Dillon Ripley, the Director of the Smithsonian at that time, and friend of the Karmapa. So, being back in the area with friends from D.C. who had been at this first visit of the Karmapa in itself was a wonderful recalling and recollecting of that visit. Particularly poignant, however, was that as a few of us were yakking away about the 16th Karmapa’s visit while in the long line up to the entrance to the 17th Karmapa’s empowerment, an elegant middle aged Tibetan man dressed in a magnificent, golden, Tibetan chuba and holding a mala, turned around a few times, put his hands in anjali, and bowed to me. At the time, I was a semi-oblivious and not fully cognizant of what was happening, but, in retrospect, I believe he was genuinely moved and honoring the fact that I had been in such close proximity with HHK the 16th.. Later, in recounting this event, it brought tears to my eyes. I realized that all our efforts as an early sangha really had helped pave the way for the current Karmapa to come here, and I had never personally and fully absorbed the deep significance of it all until now. I also felt overwhelming gratitude to Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche for this huge leap he took to come to the West and then to bring HHK the 16th here as well. The chrysanthemums are definitely growing.

KCT is a beautiful former estate of some sort–my mind ran to horses since we were in horse country and wide, open fields surrounded the building, a magnificent mansion. The staff did an amazing job of organizing the event. A number of D.C. kasung, many of who I recognized, were also stationed around the edges, and I heard later there were some inside the house (mansion) as well. We later learned that sixteen hundred people were attending this event. What was particularly special was that there were Chinese, Tibetans and Westerners all together, and that the talk and empowerment were done in these three languages. This “global” message of reaching across cultures and finding a common humanity was a core teaching HHK gave. In fact, his ability to both manifest and articulate this global as well as personal sense of practice was very powerful.

Once in the tent, our party of six was quite far away from the Karmapa, so we mainly watched the screen that was placed about half way back in the tent. Although disappointed at the lack of close proximity to him, the blessings he emanated certainly had no bounds.

However, I would like to share the tremendous love and compassion the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa has emanated through his body, speech, and mind. I am somewhat in awe of his skillful means to communicate his compassion in many ways, including a CD I bought with songs inspired during his escape from Tibet and played by Chinese musicians. What compassion is that—. He actually discussed the need to develop our ability to communicate in many languages (he himself is studying both Chinese and English as universal languages) including music, as part of our skillful means. Listening to this CD and contemplating how it came to him is truly awe inspiring.

He also spoke about the notion of empowerment since we were receiving the Medicine Buddha empowerment. He said if we can calm our minds when they are disturbed by mental afflictions, we will move from an afflicted state to a state of pliancy, which means your body and mind are submersed in a state of well being. Sometimes we try to force this state of well being but that causes more disturbances. Empowerment is to give your mind the power to come to rest, and you do so by giving your mind a focus and way to do this. When the mind is undisturbed by coarse thoughts, because it is given this focus, then that causes your mind to calm down. He said he did not want to go into a detailed explanation of empowerment because he did now want our minds to get bogged down with all of the information, but that the most important is faith. He said that in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, faith is monolithic, almost like a cube (I envisioned a large monolith, and also tons of teachings that went with it) but the basis of this is to have openness so the empowerment becomes very intimate to you, which is why he did not want to confuse us with all the details. He said we don’t have to approach empowerment with this monolithic faith, but with this openness and resting our minds in dharmata– letting our minds come to rest naturally, which is the ultimate faith and the ultimate healing.

Despite being far back from the stage, and watching much of his talk on a screen placed about half way back in the tent, this sense of intimacy was pervasive, and I think key to this sense of empowerment-allowing ourselves to become so intimately connected and pervaded by this naturally existing, open and compassionate being. He even had talked earlier about what connects us all is everyone’s desire to be happy and not suffer, which has to do with transcending the boundaries between ourselves and others and just resting in this natural state of being.

What was particularly intimate about it all is that at the end of the empowerment, he said that he was delighted to come here. He had talked earlier and told stories of his hesitations about working with Westerners, but that he felt it has been like meeting long lost members of his family (which is how I felt too!.) He said it made him smile, and then said that he did not smile much but he seems to be smiling more while here. He then said, you are all my brothers and sisters and that he hoped if we saw him smile it would do some good.

So, at the end of it all I felt this sense of him as a true world leader, reaching across languages and cultures, transcending borders, and finding ways to communicate this compassion to everyone he met. The themes that resonated throughout for me were developing skillful means to communicate with others, finding the common humanity in everyone, opening up the borders between ourselves and others, trying to connect with the mind of nowness and compassion, and a notion of intimacy. This last theme of intimacy came out in his discussion of the meaning of empowerment, and ended in his very touching final words to us all.

It was only when back at home that I realized how he had interweaved and communicated on many levels simultaneously, while never losing that sense of intimacy he had discussed. Being in his presence was a constant empowerment.

-Trudy Sable