Kalu Rinpoche Yangsi Madrid 2011

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Escape to Tibet, Part 8: Thoughtful wanderings

Gesar and I lay in the semi darkness, and dissolved in the cold morning air. Around us the little monastery city went about its daily business of prayers and rebuilding. We had nothing scheduled for the first half of that day, and we took advantage of the break to catch up on some well earned sleep.

For once, time itself seemed to stop. Here we were, thousands of miles away from modern civilization as we knew it, living in a simple, window pane-less monastery shrine room, with prayers, barking dogs and singing workers busily engaged in rebuilding the only regular sounds to fill our ears.
We were exhausted from the ceremony of the day before, where the crowds and requests for this and that had kept us busy from dawn until well after dusk. Due to our language limitations, the constant strain of communication was taking its toll on us, and we were tired without any hope of real respite. Luckily, they left us pretty much alone that morning and we just became one with the darkness.

I dozed in and out of sleep. waking up occasionally to listen to some worker’s lilting voice as he toiled on the new building nearby. Occasionally, the voices of villagers down below drifted up through the window as they chatted about this or that or just passed time on their way to some business or other.

Life as mirror: In life, so often the definition of who we are and how we behave depends on where we are and who we are with. Sounds simple enough…To complicate matters further, we change over time, so that that which once was can be forgotten, lost, or erased, with personalities and memories becoming as indistinguishable as long lost friends. I had watched Gesar transform from a raging ball of incredible energy to a calm enigmatic person capable of showing incredible depth of feeling and care to others, without break for days on end. I, on the other hand, was generally the grumpy one, kicking out the attending monks when things got too crowded, or discipline was lost on the crowd when we moved about, which was always with great difficulty as we soon attracted a large crowd of followers immediately on standing up or making motions to move.
A photo that was taken of me at the time (unfortunately long since lost) shows a young man with long dark and unkempt black hair, pulled back off my forehead Japanese bushi style, a full beard and gaunt, exhausted expression. What struck me about the photo was the fierce look in my eyes, probably from being overly exhausted and struggling to keep things together as time took its toll on us. I had become some kind of western protecting spirit to this young tibetan treasure.

Gesar was transformed. He spent most of the days with a bemused expression on his face as request after request poured in, as it does for any Tibetan lama taking care of their people; please bless these prayer sheets, say some prayers for a sick child, come and bless our house, goats, child. He would just smile and carry out the task, regardless of whether it was repetitive or just the precursor to other tasks immediately following, which was usually the case.
My own sense of generosity was relative to my state of energy, and I personally struggled to deal with the constant requests to do something or be somewhere. Whenever I felt that people started asking too much of Gesar, I would find the highest ranking person in the room and beg for a break.

And it was thanks to one such request that we found ourselves free for half a day.

G- reflections, and projections.

In amongst this maelstrom of activity that had engulfed this remote Tibetan monastery over the last few days, sat Gesar. As an eighteen year old, more accustomed to fast food, cars, movies and a western lifestyle, I cannot begin to imagine what must he have felt. Without projecting too much hearsay into the story, I will try to picture, from my standpoint, what might have been going on within his mind. Excuse me for my discursiveness.

Being the son of a great man, recently deceased, and living in the shadow of both that man’s deeds and his western students’ expectations, the black sheep known as Gesar wandered. Many of these people around him more often than not talked at him rather than to him, this boy who had lost his father and needed a strong father figure to guide him; this boy,who manifested pure, uncontrollable energy.

Yet, here he was in this impossibly high forgotten valley, a prince; refined, gentle, loving, smiling, transformed in this land of snows and devotion. Life had truly become a mirror.

In the west, wildness abounded from him, a raw, sheer energy for life. This young Genghis Khan of the dharma was seen as an unpredictable force of nature by the mindful adult world, yet their children of those very same people flocked to him in droves, like the children to the Pied Piper, accepting him in his entirety.
In a sea of tranquility, he embodied the storm; not at all refined like the community had trained itself to be, but raw. Nor was this boy afraid to show his emotions, at any point in time, like liquid fuel, burning in his heart and vividly expressed like lightening. When happy, he was like the brightest of suns. When sad, he could rip out every heart nearby in empathy and sadness, for he radiated emotion, magnified them to marshall stack like volume. That is, was, and always shall be, his gift. His presence was way too much for many who had just lost their precious teacher, and many shunned him, fearing his spontaneous combustive qualities. It was just…too painful.The fact was that, whether many liked it or not, both physically and as a personality, G reminded them way too much of his father, the great Chogyam Trungpa. And no one knew what to do with him.

When we had first met two years earlier, G had just recently returned from a study trip to Nepal to see His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a mountain of a man who embodied a veritable well of compassion that flowed out of him through liquid eyes, huge smiles and hands. His Holiness had helped start this young boy on his way to spiritual study, but with the untimely loss of his father, the container was broken, and the contents ran free. Soon His Holiness followed after Trungpa, and those that cared for Gesar struggled to find a replacement mentor for him.

That replacement came in the form of my teacher, whose piercing inscrutability and irascible sense of humour powered right through to G’s soul. He was cool; not generations apart like so many of the elders, and Rinpoche could relate to G on a fresh and cutting level. Because of that auspicious link, perfect timing and a trust that bound us all together, here G was in Tibet.

Peaceful wanderings and the Shedrak. In the afternoon, after another meal of rice, meats and limited vegetables, we headed down the steep steps for a tour of the land and the old destroyed library and school across the little stream that cut the valley in two. Somehow, the number of attendants with us stayed to a bare minimum- with us was the Abbot, his trainee and about six or seven monks all buzzing around Gesar trying to hold an arm or to guide him over the sometimes rocky hillside down into the valley proper. Walking was laborious, each breath taxing, but we made steady progress and found ourselves below the little monastic city and stepping onto the beautiful rich spongy grass of the valley.

The Shedrak was a short distance away from Shechen proper, I am gong to estimate approximately a quarter of a mile away; perhaps put there as a way to encourage concentration in the young students who would study the higher forms and sutras and master themselves. But what we came to at that time was only the empty and shattered remains of what had once been a proud center of learning. It had been destroyed by the Chinese where they had first come to the monastery, burning or using the texts as toilet paper, destroying the classrooms and in general forcing all public forms of education underground. It was a mess; broken desks and tables, doors un-hung and classrooms open to the elements, yet another testament to Chinese intolerance at that time. Doors hung off frames, holes in the road gaped forlornly, and weeds grew through the floor. Having seen so much destruction evident right across the Tibetan landscape, I looked around at some of the faces of the monks as we stood there, their sad, silent faces, some with faint smiles as if to accept that for now, this was all that they could expect.

Without a word, we ventured on further up the valley, the stream beside us a transparent aqua blue that burbled in the background. Yaks wandered here and there, looking at our passing nonchalantly, chewing their curd and then quickly re-focusing their attention on some tasty clump of grass in front of them. What an idyllic life…

We wandered on down the valley and one of the shoes that I was wearing suddenly decided to give up the ghost, the sole ripping away from the upper leather, flapping wildly with each step. Laughing, and without having a choice, I took off the offending shoe, prepared to limp my way back to the main buildings some distance away, but I pleasantly discovered that the soft spongy grass underfoot was like the ultimate putting green, soft and gentle with every foot-fall. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering about without a care in the world as the land that was Sechen embraced me.

Revealing the man. Stopping a little later for a break, we sat and sucked in air as the sounds of the quiet valley were pierced only by a bird of prey high above, gliding in the deepest of deepest blue. Everyone had started to relax- the Tibetans with us and we with them, for the busiest moments were already past us all. There was that wonderful silence that exists between humans when everyone is just resting in the moment, rather than quickly seeking to fill it with some activity or other. Gesar and I were just enjoying being there, Tibet, this land of dreams, or incredible suffering and tribulation, hard land and hard peoples existing together in harmony with one another.

Some time later, one of the monks got up, and proceeded to ceremoniously unwrap a large piece of silk cloth, only to reveal head shaving clippers as its contents. A hushed silence suddenly descended on the group in expectation, and then nine sets of eyes set upon Gesar. It suddenly dawned on me- they wanted to cut Gesar’s hair. Another ironic smile crossed big G’s face and a nod of acquiescence, and he was set upon by other helping hands as other sets of clippers appeared mysteriously from folded arms and garments.

G and I just laughed and laughed. The more holy this crew acted, the more it had me and him in hysterics trying to deal with it. Loving hands to every opportunity to touch him, and he sat there calmly while this busy work calmly proceeded around him.

Sitting some short moment later, bald of pate, I and everyone else suddenly saw the resemblance in full to the previous Sechen Kongtrul; here, before us again as a young man, reborn. Compared against an old photo of the previous teacher, pulled out from the folds of a robe, the likeness was uncanny. It was enough for everyone to line up and ask for blessings again, such was the effect that a shaved bald head and a huge smile could have.

We spend the rest of the next hour or so making our way back to the main temple, the shadows that had already started their steady crawl across the valley guiding us forwards, as the chill winds of coming night made their presence felt once again.


On being cured of a wandering mind, hands and eye.

19517606_rudolphvalentinoAs a twenty something year old new entry into the dharma, all those years ago, I considered myself somewhat of a playboy. The sangha had a different moral compass than my catholic guilt-ridden upbringing, and as an ex wanna-be rock star, I reveled in the new freedoms that this expansive community offered me. One of those freedoms was women, which came in all types and personalities.

Although I later married, I was in an open relationship, which I exploited to the hilt. Speaking of agendas, I had a big one- women. Connecting with my vajra master and teacher, Rinpoche, I am sure that he watched me with more than detached interested and waited till the moment was right to make his opinion felt.

That day came soon enough.

I was asked to attend the parinirvana of His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in Bhutan in 1991, a great honor indeed that would probably not have been conferred upon me, had it not been for my ability to take care of a certain tulku, the dharmic linebacker, Kongtrul Rinpoche.

My teacher invited all of his core students to come to Bhutan and witness the ceremonies as his guests, the collection of which spanned the known world. People came from all over to attend this remarkable opportunity, for alone many had not been to the hidden kingdom before, and that chance in itself was an incredible treasure.

We stayed with him in his house in Bhutan, guests within his compound and crammed into every nook and cranny that his property there held. Upon arrival, I surveyed the landscape carefully; it included a collection of the most beautiful women that ever graced this earth, and I, like a hungry ghost, salivated in earnest at the thought of many a possible tasty encounter.

That salivation did not last for long. Upon arrival at the house, and with people settling in on the first day, I heard a loud voice booming across the precincts calling my name. Rinpoche.

As I walked hurriedly through the garden towards the house, I couldn’t not help but think to myself (again)what a collection of gorgeous women my Buddhist teacher had around him. Some were daughters of wealthy Chinese sponsors, others students of his from across Asia and Europe. As for me, although bound in a green card American marriage, I felt no restrictions morally not to be able to hunt on Rinpoche’s turf. I have always been attracted to Asian women, and in general the feeling was reciprocal.
As I was busily assessing the field, lost in lascivious thought, I entered his house and made my way towards the sound of Rinpoche’s voice. Upon entering his room, I could see him ensconced leisurely on a chair, surrounded by a bevy of students sitting on the floor around him, arrayed as if in a human mandala. My, I thought to myself, more gorgeous women in here as well…

Rinpoche spotted me as I entered the room, and without a moment’s hesitation, asks me with a smiling face, “ So….. cheated on your wife recently?”

Stunned, I am sure in retrospect that I turned various shades of red and that the only sound I made was that of my jaw hitting the ground and my ego shattering into a million pieces. Meekly I smiled, for once lost for words, wishing that I was absolutely invisible and proceeded to find the nearest dark corner and hide.

He had nailed me so brilliantly, caught me so perfectly, that from that day onward I started to pay attention more to my own agendas and grasping nature. It was in retrospect a long time coming, and I deserved it.

And that, my friends, is the sign of a genuine spiritual teacher….

Guru devotion

Guru Devotion is an often misunderstood aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, and one that has been contentious ever since Buddhism started to hit our western shores in the late 1960’s. With various accounts of sexism, abuse, gender inequality and other obvious examples of a very human and imperfect system which must be taken into account, if we look further into its history with an inquisitive mind, we can also find enough inspiring examples of very fruitful relationships in maintaining a system which has worked now for more than 2500 years.

 
I can only speak from my own experience, and cannot comment on or judge other people’s views or issues. For me, over the last twenty years or so the issue of guru devotion has been more of a journey about myself and my own projections than the person that I chose to be my Guru. Intrigued? Read on…
 
As the Buddha taught many years ago (and a teaching which is one of the cornerstones of following the Buddhist path), one should never lose the sense of investigative mind upon commencing the dharma path and just follow the dharma blindly; indeed we are to explore the ramifications of making a bond with another human being, especially those in the teacher /disciple role, very carefully and astutely, before making a decision of commitment to them as teacher. Ultimately though, once that decision is made, embracing your Guru in a trust relationship is paramount to any kind of progress occurring on one’s personal journey. 
 
It is an interesting dichotomy: committing yourself fully to a student teacher relationship, with trust: an element often lacking or abused in our modern-day society.
 
When I first decided to take to the Buddhist path, I was lucky enough to meet a string of buddhist teachers in my first year of practice. That gave me the opportunity to investigate each of them quite carefully to confirm whether a connection existed between the teacher in question and myself. I had also recently been under the sway of a teacher who had used his position to exert unreasonable willpower on what he expected me to do to assist him in his own quest for spiritual aggrandizement, and I had luckily removed myself from his grasp, wider and much more cautious. That, plus doing the dog eat dog entertainment business world of LA for five years had wizened me considerably. Remarkably, all of the people I met that summer were exceptional of character and honest about who they were, what they were capable of teaching and what they represented.

 
Once I had made the decision, I was struck with the duality of the situation; the guru is a person outside of me, yet the teachings talk of an ultimate inner guru that must be discovered by the practitioner. As in me myself as my own guru. My teacher, through all these years, has acted more as a mirror than any other quality, guiding me skillfully through layers of self discovery, and helping me to discover my own true path in this world.
 
There are many times when I have lost my way, for sure, and wandered aimlessly. Yet my teacher was always there, patient, encouraging and supportive, helping me to find my own inner wisdom and trust in my own path more. Like peeling an onion, ony to discover another layer underneath, I have walked this path and allowed the teachings of emptiness and compassion for all beings soak into my very core.
 
Of progress, I can only report little, but I can say that gradually over time my life reflects the essential teachings more and more. As my teacher and I grow old together, our relationship deepens, and the boundless love which is the core of our connection shows itself more and more.
 
So my advice is- choose your guru very carefully, but once that decision is made, embrace the opportunity for learning with an open heart and mind.