Introducing His Loneliness

His Holiness the Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, Reflects on the Feeling of Loneliness

By Ogyen Trinley Dorje

I know what loneliness feels like. Many people use the title His Holiness to refer to me, but I sometimes joke that His Loneliness would be more accurate. In my own case, although I do not connect to people online, I do have lots of people surrounding me all day long, supporting me in different ways, as well as other people coming to see me. It would seem I should never be lonely. However, I am seen as the reincarnation of a 900-year-old historical figure. In traditional Buddhist terms, the Karmapa is a lofty figure, on a par with the Buddha. People who view me in this way expect me to be a mind reader, a miracle worker, and perfect in every way. When they look at me, this is quite often what many people believe they are seeing. Forget about being on a pedestal, I am practically expected to float in the sky!

For so holy and exalted a personage, it is a little complicated to go about finding friends. Who wants to be friends with someone who is considered to be not entirely human? In terms of social media like Facebook, I am a public figure. This means I can have only a following and likes, but I cannot have friends. In any case, someone else maintains my presence on social media. If I wanted to connect with my friends on social media, I would need to use a pseudonym, which would be unethical for me. In any case, posing as someone else defeats the whole purpose of a real friendship.

I know that my life situation is unusual, to say the least, but we all have to deal with unrealistic expectations that others project onto us. Such projections can leave us feeling isolated and prevent us from being seen for who we really are.

Sometimes consciously but often not, we ourselves actively project an illusory online self onto social media and other virtual platforms. It is more typical for people to post pictures or stories of themselves when they are happy than when they are feeling distressed. The virtual world does not generally encourage us to share our vulnerable side. Since everything we post is judged by the number of likes and retweets or shares, we are selective in what we expose of ourselves. Even when we post about our problems, we might do so in a way that leaves us free of apparent responsibility for those problems, so we can appear as victims and elicit sympathy. We learn to market ourselves. As a result, the electronic version of ourselves is a distorted and packaged self. This is another significant obstacle to authentically connecting with others through electronic media.

Loneliness is not solely a product of our use of technology. There are many other conditions, inner and outer, that contribute to our feeling that way. With such heavy emphasis on being self-reliant and standing on our own two feet, people resist leaning on others and can end up feeling very lonely. The fact is, we all rely on others in different ways. Why should we deny it? We place so much value on individuality and independence, it seems as if wanting to be close and feel connected to others is embarrassing or an insult to one’s dignity.

One difference I have observed between Tibetan and Western contexts is that people raised in Western cultures tend to be less comfortable acknowledging that they need help. If an elderly Tibetan is having a hard time standing up, he or she warmly appreciates being lent a hand to get up. In fact, not to do so might be considered impolite or selfish. In the West, if you reach out to help, you run the risk of embarrassing or insulting the elderly person, as if you were implying that they are incapable of getting up on their own.

When people are urged to see themselves as autonomous and independent, loneliness is more common. Learning to live as an interdependent human being can help overcome your sense of loneliness. When you are emotionally aware of your interconnectedness, you will know you are never truly alone.

Loneliness is not just a result of your outer physical or social situation. If mentally or emotionally you feel alone, it does not matter how many thousands of others flock to you, as I know from personal experience. Nor is the experience of loneliness the result of a single cause or a single condition but of numerous ones. Therefore it cannot be completely resolved by one single cause or condition. But accepting the undeniable fact of your own interdependence, and learning to work with it, is a powerful condition that can help bring about a shift.

His Holiness the Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, is the head of a 900-year-old lineage and one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most important spiritual leaders. He is the seventeenth incarnation in the Karmapa lineage, which dates back to the twelfth century. He is the author of Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society, from which this excerpt is taken with permission from Wisdom Publications. 

46 comments on “Introducing His Loneliness”

  1. Carmen Ng says:

    I would very much like to be a true friend to his holiness the 17th karmapa.My biggest wish is to chant a precious sutra to his holiness.A sutra that could never be found in any text or scripture but from my heart filled with compassion and loving kindness.

  2. Mikarepa says:

    To put it simply and I’m sure you will agree that between being alone & all-one, the difference is is merely one letter ‘L’

    1. Francoise says:

      Well said…just this little word who say everything ! Love.
      Thanks for your great comment!

  3. Carol Dawson says:

    Your Holiness. This came as no surprise. It is understandable that you have great loneliness. To be able to share innermost thoughts and feelings is to be human. Yet the position you hold is not enabling you to do this. For to do so means you have to have great trust in the people you communicate with. Very difficult for you to enable this to happen. My love, compassion, and sincere understanding are with you. We are all interconnected, all interdependent. May you find one with whom you can confide, one who you can share joy and sadness with. My sincerest wish for you.

  4. Amida says:

    During this chapter of retirement and physical disability, my internet friends have become very dear. There is loneliness in isolation and social media has been such a great means of socializing. Some of my best friends are those whom I’ll never hold in my arms. Our friendships occur in spirit! 🕊

  5. Diane Lee says:

    We are all alone in our thoughts and then find when we share our thoughts they are usually the same ,so happy to have spent a little time in your presence

  6. Roger Teo says:


    My name is Roger and I always have this question in my mind. Please help me if I am wrong .

    We practise buddhism and ultimate goal is to break free from recarnation , becoming a buddha . If 16th karmapa pass away and rebirth as 17th. When 17th pass away and rebirth 18th and so on and on. May I ask , why have none of the karmapa break free from rebirth as human being yet? Loneliness is suffering. If karmapa continue to seek his rebirth, it will be quite disappointing for common people like us who look forward to break free from rebirth. It only mean we dont have hope at all. Please advice. I dont mean to be offensive. Sorry if I did not understand much about being a karmapa. Good health to you. May you be happy and well.

    1. Jango Fetta says:

      Hi Roger,
      Look up ‘Bodhisattva’ and what the Boddhisattva ideal is. You will get answers there.

  7. Your Holiness, I am most appreciative of this tender and intimate discourse. I am a Zen Buddhist, studying here in Santa Fe with Roshi Joan Halifax, who is close to the Dalai Lama. I struggle with loneliness all the time. One of the ways I work with it is to take Refuge, enjoy my Sangha more, and to sit in my tears. Visit us at Upaya!

  8. Tony Cohen says:

    If Mr. Ogyen Trinley Dorje would like to chat, my email is below. I am not a buddhist, not a psychiatrist, just a person who often thinks about friendship.

    It seems silly to offer someone like this an opportunity just to reach out and say hi, when he clearly has many opportunities to talk with people, but it seems somehow sillier not to. 🙂

    1. Gerard Fletcher says:

      I suffer a lot of loneliness thru my life I am a middle age person. I am a good listener ,inpact few people called me a friends I can be a Good Samaritan I can listen people problem without judging them.
      Now when personal dellima rises from me those so called friend are not interested to listen to me, how is that?
      The only way for me to relieve my sadness,emotions is to talk to my self which is not helpful at all. I really longed for someone who can listen to me, in such way I could listen to others ( them)I don’t seek advice,I just want a good listening ears. Sadly true friends are hard to find.
      That’s make me very lonely indeed.

  9. untidymaster says:

    Of all the “interconnectedness” and “inter-relatedness” as spoken in the AvatamsakaSutra, I enjoyed my loneliness and my own company! What is wrong being lonely? It is not a sickness. I dont know what is a Karmapa for as I am a new in Tibetan Buddhism. People in certain cultures are not comfortable talking about their state of mind and there usually judgements about this and that but I always try to be myself. I am happy being by myself even basked in my own loneliness. Ah! about “pseudonyms”. Through the 3 periods of time, KuanShiInnPuSa used many names in her 33 manifestations; her “skillful” means of communicating and teaching sentient beings, e.g. “fish basket kuaninn”, “moon disc kuaninn”, Mrs Ma KuanInn” and so forth. Are you trying to say KuanShiInnPuSa was unethical in those methods of seemingly to deceive sentient beings? I myself was trying to be like ZhenFaMingRuLaiFou, who was KuanShiInnPuSa before she became a buddha. I am also known as Akiko from Todaiji, Nara Japan, Konchok YangChen, FaMingHuiChing from ThanHsiang, St Cecelia, the patron saint of music of the Catholics, Untidy Master, Hazel from Africa and so forth, … giggle ….. be yourself or else get married like the other one… He seemed contented and happy with the recent picture ….. giggle.. slap my stomach! pinch HIM! .. I could not help giggling! It’s so ticklish!

  10. Robert Healion says:

    Is the karmapa there or is this an unattended drop box or a filter through which selected comments are passed onto your … None the less …

    Strong illness requires a strong medicine.. is that not so…

    And what distinguishes your sense of self interest, to be less lonely which implies happiness, from others, apart from the sense of you … nothing … life and death and all in between is extremely personal as it happens to you and not others … is that not so…

    So you chose a reincarnation in alignment with your personnel spiritual needs … to achieve that you chose a physical form acceptable for that purpose … which most unfortunate has a constant itch that needs scratching … the need to eat, sleep to wash and void, and others principally social or emotional needs … that impel the life forward in the pursuit of happiness … is that not so …

    Looking at the sense of self, above, one comes to the fundamental problem … identification …

    An animal spends it life scratching and so do a lot of human animals … including a few with titles, king, prince, minster, monk, priest … they are more than an animal, but miss-identification …
    So the gaps in your social agendas allow a recognition of a sense of self and with this recognition is a need for happiness … this is best achieved through practice … as specified and laid out within your extensive body of texts… but be warned as Shankara found when he went to debate a certain pundit … even parrots can quote sutras …

    As a retired teacher I know that a child’s bad behaviour begins with an impetus to bad behaviour which is resident within the consciousness of the child … and the intention to unhappiness is also a impetus within the consciousness that must first be recognised and then acted upon … recognised as an impetus and not a priority …

    So you come to the conclusion the sutras need more then parrot repetition and you begin the formal practice … happiness and loneliness are states of mind and mind is the cause of miss identification … seek the remedy …

    and be happy…

    All advice should be considered in respect to the need of the individual and if clarification is need seek an expert… and in your case an old well seasoned monk who is happy … HH stated his practice did not begin in earnest until about your current age … I suspect there was an underlying reason for this … ask him … and be relaxed … you came into this world with the intent and ability to full fill your task … and personal happiness is a by product of fulfilling that task not an agenda …

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