Why you should care
Because apathy can become an epidemic.
The 17th Karmapa of Tibet, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, has been called the future “shepherd of the Tibetan people,” a Buddhist leader-in-waiting who may one day replace the Dalai Lama as the most important crimson-clad chieftain for many Tibetans. Though his claim to the throne of the Karma Kagyu lineage has been contested, most Tibetans — and even the Chinese government — agree that Ogyen Trinley Dorje is the real deal. Last month, the Karmapa was in the U.K. for his first-ever visit as he released a new book, Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society. OZY sat down with the 31-year-old philosopher monk to discuss his book and the roots of suffering, Chinese politics and why some leaders might need to have their heads examined. This interview has been condensed and edited.
The opposite of empathy is apathy. There is a trend in encouraging people to only think of their own good and not to worry about the good of others.
Your new book is about the bonds — or lack of bonds — between people and societies. Is it an antidote to the separations we see in the world today?
17th Karmapa: We all are very strongly connected, and this connection is both evidenced and enhanced by the information era that we live in. But there are many realities, or phenomena, such as borders between countries, that can cause a feeling of division and separateness.
The reality is that we are intimately connected with each other, and therefore close with each other. Nevertheless, in terms of our livelihood and habits of thinking, we can feel far away. I think the important question for all of us to reflect on is, how can we break through those habits of thought, or at least not allow those habits of thought to obscure our perception of reality? Which is that we are connected, we are close to each other, we are not separate, we are not far from each other. How can we go beyond these [divisive] habits of thought?
You use the proper noun China just once in 264 pages. But it’s hard not to read between the lines — for Tibetans, China is the society that your people need to connect with most. Are there lessons for Chinese-Tibetan dialogue?
Karmapa: Tibet and China have had a relationship for a very long time. If we go back to the 8th or 9th century, a royal princess of China became a royal spouse of the king of Tibet. So, from among Tibet’s neighbors, the two most influential have been India and China. From a spiritual perspective, the most influential has been India, because all of the major spiritual teachings of Buddhism, and all of the cultural elements connected with that, have mostly come to Tibet from India. But, from a more secular or temporal perspective, our food, our clothing and many of our habits come to us from China. And so, I really have the outlook that Tibetans and Chinese are siblings, family-like siblings.
There have of course been some difficulties in recent history in the relationship, and there is some bad blood, on the level of feeling from Tibetans toward Chinese. A little bit. But there is still a closeness of mind and of heart that exists between Tibetan people and Chinese people. And that’s a very important connection for us to acknowledge and keep and build upon. I think that in that possibility, in building upon it, there still remains great hope for improvement. You could say it’s not really a difficulty between the Tibetans and the Chinese. It’s actually more of a difficulty between the Tibetan people and the policies of the Communist Party of China. It’s not really personal when you look at the matter carefully. And so, it’s very important for us to have harmonious relations with the Chinese and promote harmony, to maintain whatever harmony is there, and build on that with further efforts.
There are some people who talk about exerting pressure on China from the outside in order to ameliorate the Tibetan issue. But I think the only hope we have is for the change to be coming directly from harmony between Tibetan people and Chinese people.
You write that empathy, or the lack of empathy, should be classified as a disease — like depression. You even suggest that politicians should be tested for their level of empathy before being allowed to run for office. Why is empathy an important leadership trait?
Karmapa: Empathy is really hard-wired. Science seems to be approaching this conclusion as well. However, it is something that can become dulled down over time if we don’t use it; it’s the same as language skills. I think science would agree that everyone is born with a certain ability to develop language skills. But if we don’t use a certain language, then we begin to lose our faculty to speak that language. In the same way, we are all born with basic faculties of loving kindness, benevolence, concern for others and so forth. But we need to have opportunities to exercise those innate qualities, and those opportunities need to be provided by and supported by society.
I personally feel it would be beneficial for us to use the word love and synonyms of love more. To have those words coming out of our mouths more will help in this process of recognizing it as a very important thing, a very important quality that we need to have in our environment. The opposite of empathy, you could say, is apathy. It’s easy for apathy to develop because there is such a broad trend in encouraging people to only think of their own good and not to worry so much about the good of others. What happens, then, is that the people who are suffering, they think to themselves, “Well, no one cares about us, so we’re not going to care about them.” And instead of empathy becoming a self-perpetuating cycle that causes the increase of empathy, apathy becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. We end up with a cruel and compassionless society. In that way, I sometimes speak of apathy as being like an epidemic, a murderous epidemic, because if we allow apathy to spread in this way, it can really cause great harm on a large scale.