Karen Derris: A Professor and Her Students Engage H. H. the Karmapa


In this episode of the Wisdom Podcast, Daniel Aitken speaks with Dr. Karen Derris, scholar of South and Southeast Asian Buddhist traditions and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Redlands. In recent years, Karen had the rare opportunity of working one-on-one with His Holiness the Karmapa as an editor of his book, Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society, published by Wisdom.

You’ll hear Karen share stories from the time she spent studying in Nepal as an undergraduate, where she formed meaningful connections with her Tibetan hosts through reading Buddhist literature together. From these experiences, she developed a lifelong interest in Buddhist narrative and the potential it has to transform the audience’s engagement with the tradition. 

Karen also describes the importance of human relationships and emotional experience as she moved further into her intellectual studies of Buddhism over time. It was through some of these connections that she had the opportunity to travel to Gyuto Monastery in India, where she and her students met with the Karmapa for a three-week dialogue. Karen describes how this rare connection with the Karmapa had a profound influence on her students’ professional aspirations by reorienting views of success, leading them to deeply meaningful service-oriented careers. 

Additionally, these conversations helped to inform the message of Interconnected, which offers a twenty-first century model of interdependence in support of a truly global society. Karen describes the vital message the Karmapa shares: that people must move beyond the purely intellectual to feel truly interconnected in an emotional way, and only then can the capacity for action be realized and sustained. Finally, Karen relates the ways in which the Karmapa’s direct guidance has had on her personally, an experience which she likens to being “inside a sutra” and among the most profound moments of her entire career. 

About the Interviewee

Dr. Karen Derris is a scholar of South and Southeast Asian Buddhist traditions, professor of religious studies at the University of Redlands, as well as the Virginia Hunsaker Chair in Distinguished Teaching. Her research focuses on the intersection of literature, ethics, and history in pre-modern Buddhist traditions, as well as the central importance of community in Buddhist ethical and spiritual development. Dr. Derris received her PhD from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University in 2000.

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