Starbucks Buddhism?

The karmapa and his Coffee
The Karmapa Has His First Cup of Coffee Ever Courtesy of Starbucks - A Telling Moment.

This last weekend, I went to see the 17th Karmapa in Seattle during his first visit to America. (Actually, I think it is his visit to anywhere outside of India since eluding the Chinese in Tibet.)

My thoughts on this whole event are rather bifurcated into my thoughts concerning the content of the event, itself, and my thoughts concerning everything around it.

Let’s deal with the former first… In many ways, this was a typical “Rock Star Lama” event. There were two sessions a day, 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM, for between an hour and a half and two hours each. Each required a separate ticket (for a total of four on Saturday and Sunday), which kind of left a weird taste in my mouth. The event was held at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Seattle. The last time that I was there, it was to see Dead Can Dance play on a reunion tour, which gave weird associations. The theatre holds a couple of thousand people and there were, I am told, 2,500 the first day and 2,800 the second.


We had to work our way through as much as an hour of security each time. You couldn’t bring a camera in (no photos!) and had to get wanded by bored guards. I’m not sure what they were protecting the Karmapa from exactly. Communist snipers? Exuberant Buddhists with cameras? We then got to sit in assigned theatre seats (mine was in the second mezzanine, about three floors up).

The Karmapa was refreshingly direct and frank in his discussions. During the first day, he discussed the foundations of practice and directly spoke about the role of the teacher in practice. He spoke at length about the problems with teachers who are not worthy of trust and the difficulties in evaluating a teacher. He made some jokes about creating an ID card system for teachers and their credentials but admitted that it would take 20 years to properly evaluate a teacher for it, making it a bit pointless. He spoke quite a bit, on both days, about both how much smaller the world is, effectively, and on how we have to collectively work together in an active way to make a better world, avoiding sectarianism and also avoiding retreating from the world.

Much of the first day was taken up with his discussion of the ngondro, prelimary practices, that he had written and that were distributed at the end. He wound up giving a lung transmission for them as well (but on the second day!). On the second day, he gave the empowerment for Chenrezi (Avalokitesvara) and went through the sadhana for him. There is something distinctly odd about sitting in a theatre with several thousand people all (badly) chanting in Tibetan but with great joy. Of course, someone’s cellphone did go off, loudly, in the middle of the empowerment, echoing around the theatre.

Now, I want to go to my thoughts concerning everything around this event. In short: What a fucking zoo! It seems like every Dharma practitioner with any pull, money, or (pardon the pun) desire on the West Coast pulled up stakes and showed up. Imagine all of these people packed into and passing through the lobby of an ex-Movie Palace and it is a scene of chaos. I wound up standing in line in front of people from the Nyingma center (now dissolved) that I used to practice with a few years back. My friend, Nathan, only had to stand in place in the lobby for person after person to walk up and say “Hello” to him from his time at Gampo Abbey, Crestone, and other places as a student of Thrangu Rinpoche. It wasn’t just Tibetan Vajrayana practitioners either. I saw a Chinese nun or two, a Chinese monk (in orange), a cluster of Soto (?) Zen priests wearing dark green rakusus and full robes, and at least one Zen practitioner from another sect. Of course, it being a Dharma event, 90% of the people were white and, seemingly, Boomers. (Well, actually, while it was probably mostly white, there were plenty of rich Chinese from Hong Kong from what I was told by a few people…).

I realize that I am some sort of afflicted curmudgeon but nothing makes me want to head the other way more than a large crowd of Buddhists at a Dharma event. It is the weird combination of a “New Age” vibe, hippy dippy commentary and attitudes, and a general feeling like I’m in the middle of a giant human herd. I’ve always felt this way in large Buddhist groups so it isn’t their fault in any way. I became a Buddhist for very direct and personal spiritual reasons and I’m a bit antinomial in nature. I dislike feeling like I’m in the middle of a church (and a very wealthy white one at that). Nathan and I did have a discussion about various shocking things Milarepa would have done in the lobby in front of this crowd in all likelyhood.

All in all, I’m glad that I heard the Karmapa speak and got to attend a historic event. All of the trappings around it, while well meaning on someone’s part were pretty offputting though. It felt more like a Stevie Nicks concert much of the time (or maybe CCR?) than a Dharma event. A lot of husk for the kernel offered. I’m not sure that I would do this again (and this applies to seeing the Dalai Lama as well). I’d much rather go on a retreat with a few people and practice or sit alone in my back space practicing meditation or a sadhana than go to Buddhist Church. That being said, I thought that everything that the Karmapa said during his brief teachings was reliable and I like meeting a lama who admits to a childhood fascination with X-Men comics (moreso than the lessons he was being taught). I think he is likely to continue to be an important figure and I look forward to seeing how he and his teaching developers in future decades.