04/06/2013 10:55 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2013

Finding Meaning

"If you could talk to a spiritual master, what would you want to ask him?" I emailed this clichéd question to a number of my college students in the summer of 2010 hoping it might generate sincere responses. I had just received a remarkable invitation to bring a group of college students to spend a month in conversations with His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, one of the most significant teachers in Tibetan Buddhism and an emerging figure in global Buddhism, at his home at Gyuto monastery in Northern India.

The Karmapa wanted to learn of the concerns, ideas and passions of young adults in the United States, and how together they might speak across the borders of culture, nationality or religion. I was overwhelmed by the students' heartfelt and thoughtful responses: students described their concerns for the environment, social discrimination and injustice and how to construct a life that holds meaning in our consumer-driven society. How could they shape their lives to bring about productive change? How could they become more compassionate toward others and themselves? What should they do with their lives and careers to find personal satisfaction and also contribute to the world? Their questions gave rise to the topics we discussed with the Karmapa in India. His teachings on these topics became the basis for the chapters in his book, The Heart is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out (Shambala 2013), which is now available.

Many of us share these same questions. So many of us also hope to find new perspectives to explore how we might be more compassionate toward the world, to others, and to ourselves. For three weeks, 16 students from the University of Redlands accompanied me on a profoundly transformative journey to learn from the Karmapa's unique perspective on how we can create a meaningful life.

The Karmapa's vantage point is a rare one: He was just 25 during our visit, just a few years older than most of the students in the course. While he shared their youth, his wisdom seemed ageless; as the holder of the 900-year-old Karma Kagyu Lineage, he was the spiritual head of one of Tibetan Buddhism's four schools. He had been recognized as the 17th Karmapa when he was only seven years old while living with his nomadic family in Eastern Tibet in an essentially pre-technological society. Unlike my students' concerns about making the best or right choice as they set out to construct their adult lives, the Karmapa's role in life was decided with his recognition and enthronement as the 17th Karmapa.

While their life trajectories seemed to be so vastly different, the Karmapa urged us to focus not solely upon what we do, or the particular roles we fill in life, but how we approach whatever it is that we do. When we approach our commitments and responsibilities with an aspiration to bring compassion to the world around us, any action, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant can be meaningful. The Karmapa taught us to reframe our original questions; we need not determine the right choice about what will be meaningful; instead, we can focus on the inner choices that enable us to approach everything we do with meaning.

The time the Karmapa generously shared with the University of Redlands students was an experience in Global Education of a most unusual kind, and yet it suggests several valuable orientations that any of us might think about when we seek to live in a more compassionate, meaningful way. First, just gaining a basic awareness that there are many different ways that meaning is defined creates endless opportunities to author our own.

For example, as young adults starting professional lives in the U.S., my students carried the expectations of financial gain and status as measures of success. What would make for a meaningful life didn't really even seem to be a part of the equation. The Karmapa offered other vantage points, particularly about the basic, inherent goodness of human beings. The possibilities for defining success by other measures such as happiness, kindness and compassion speak to our natural capacity for goodness, and this approach can be used by anyone.

But redefining success is just the starting point. Another tool is having the courage to try out other ways of being in the world. That openness can start with resetting our attitudes about expectations. In preparing for our trip, we attempted to avoid bringing our own expectations to the experience. We set for ourselves the goal of responding to whatever was presented to us, for none of us could fully imagine what our experience would be like once we were at Gyuto Monastery with His Holiness the Karmapa.

The students wondered, Who were they to be representing the view of the "American college student" on these important issues? Our doubts turned out to be entirely unnecessary. His Holiness the Karmapa reflected back to us our sincerity and openness to care for each other and the world, and taught us that we needed nothing else in order to be worthy of this encounter. Anyone with an open heart and good intentions was fully welcome to receive his teachings.

Trying out other ways of being in the world does not have to require large changes; relatively small changes can lead to a more meaningful life. For example, one of the precepts we followed was keeping a vegetarian diet while in India, inspired by His Holiness the Karmapa's vision of vegetarianism as a central ethical and activist issue. The students all voluntarily fulfilled this commitment, and many later reflected that this was an important part of their experience of self-discovery.

The Karmapa offered my students, and me, a rare gift in inviting us to define how we will make our lives meaningful for ourselves and others. The students left India without the easy answer of being told what they should do for their lives they may originally hoped for, but they gained the confidence to shape a meaningful life for themselves in whatever forms it will take.

For more by Dr. Karen Derris, click here.

For more on spiritual development, click here.

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