It is said that your ancestors were oracles.
You are an old man now, and your arms tremble slightly as you stretch to place and steady the long-life offerings, wrapped in white katas, on the base of the empty throne of your guru.
There was a time when you would not have had to stretch so far, or so carefully.
When you leave the shrine room, you move deliberately—a stocky man in a maroon robe, yellow shirt, and burgundy socks—stepping slowly, stopping to gaze at the faces in the portraits and on the sacred statues. You turn and bow to us before you leave, even thank us; we bow and thank back.
I watch your back, drawn somehow to the slight, slow shuffle of your feet in dark socks.
Knowing how impermanent are the things of our world, I wonder if this is the last glimpse I will ever get of you, my refuge lama.
I wonder if this is how I will remember you—as an old man shuffling out of a big shrine room, leaving a bit of your vast light behind, lighting each of us.
Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
I have a photograph of you that I treasure, taken at the Karme Ling retreat center in upstate New York. You are holding a bell and dorje, and you seem to be fading into the ethereal woods that surround you—dissolving into the elements, as if into a dream.
Our lives are so much like fleeting dreams. What seems important now can fade into dusky memory, or be forgotten, later. Small things that now seem inconsequential can, over time, become more vivid and begin to glow.
My memories of you, my teacher, have begun to glow.
So long ago
Was it in a dream, was it just a dream?
So long ago…It was nearly 20 years ago when I saw you for the first time, teaching in a private living room to a small group of curious people. As I sat and listened, I became aware that something extraordinary was happening—each time you spoke and your words were translated, just one question would arise in my mind, only to be answered in detail with the next translation, while just one more question arose.
Was it just a dream that the whole teaching continued in this way, point after point, question after question, answer after answer, until the dream ended?
And was it any surprise, then, that my heart opened when I heard your teachings, so much so that I literally jumped up to take refuge with you when refuge vows were offered? This was clearly no dream! And yet, so long ago…
I know, yes I know
Seemed so very real, it seemed so real to me
In another dream/memory, my friends and I planned to go together for a private audience with you, simply to ask your blessing. We planned how my friend’s husband would go first, then my friend, then me, and then their daughter—but when we walked into the room and you saw my friends’ small daughter, you beamed and reached out your arms to her—so she was the first one to receive your blessing as your forehead touched hers in the traditional Tibetan way. So much for our planning!
It seemed so real to me, then, when you touched your forehead to mine. My hopes and fears had dropped away when you reached out to that young girl, and I opened to your blessing in a way that was completely new for me. Completely new, and completely real.
Took a walk down the street
Thru the heat whispered trees
Then there is the dream of driving some distance, with a friend who had just had surgery, to take a special empowerment from you—an empowerment of Green Tara of the Sandalwood Grove.
At the end of the ceremony, not knowing the etiquette, I prostrated to you three times. I learned later that’s only done when you know you are never going to see your teacher again. And so I wondered if that was the last time I’d ever see you.
It turned out to be the last time I saw you for many years.
I thought I could hear
Somebody call out my name as it started to rain
Two spirits dancing so strange
Many years later, you visited again, this time for a weekend teaching and empowerment into the long-life practice of White Tara.
I remember feeling, as you described White Tara to us in detail, that I could—if I dug deep and used my imagination—begin to visualize myself in her form, with her attributes and qualities—a kind of imaginary dance back and forth, back and forth, between the real me and the dream me, in the form of Tara.
Dream, dream away
Magic in the air, was magic in the air?
And then there was the actual dream, the one in which I poured small, ground-up bits of precious jewels from my hands into yours, the jewels radiating lights in a rainbow of colors.
We didn’t speak. There was only the action, that precious pouring, a gift of jewels and jewelled light. Magic in the air.
I believe, yes I believe
More I cannot say, what more can I say?
Many years after the dream of the jewelled gifts, a golden window of opportunity was opened for me. I believe that this gift was the result of the blessings of my teachers—all of them. And yet what this opportunity offered me, specifically, was a chance to reconnect with you, my refuge lama.
It began with a series of teachings over 10 days. I had gone to hear the beginning of teachings about Machik Labdron, the great Tibetan woman teacher who fused the practice of severance, or offering the body, with mahamudra as a way to cut ego clinging, develop compassion, and attain the wisdom and bliss of realization—teachings I had longed to receive for many, many years.
But before we could get to Machik, you had to finish the teaching you had started the previous year—a teaching on Gampopa’s instructions to the assembly.
It is said that you may be an emanation of Gampopa.
Several days into the teaching, I realized that what we were actually getting were pointing out instructions, in which the teacher demonstrates and explains to students the nature of their own minds.
Days upon days of pointing out instructions. The kind of experience students dream about.
I was dumbfounded, so I asked if this was really what was happening. Yes.
“If you ask me about Gampopa,” you said one day, in response to another question, “then I will simply be an old man sitting here weeping.”
And you did weep. Tears of devotion.
On a river of sound
Thru the mirror go round, round
The next year, at a continuation of the Machik Labdron teachings, you surprised all of us in attendance with a special gift—the chance to hear Machik’s practice, chod or severance, chanted by lamas who had learned the practice in retreat.
One of your students asked you, “What should we do with our minds as we listen to this practice?” You encouraged us to address our prayers to Machik herself: “Great Mother, grant me your blessing.”
And so—carried away on that river of sound, the chanting and the drumming and the bells—I asked Machik for her blessing, and realized that I had already received it because I was there, that I was indeed receiving it at that very moment because I was hearing her practice, and through the blessing of my teacher, that I would no doubt continue to receive it for as long as I would open myself to it.
And I realized, very directly now, how the whole blessing cycle works, from teacher to student and on and on, again and again, from mind to mind throughout time. On a river of sound, becoming mirrors for each other—the whispered lineage.
I thought I could feel
Music touching my soul, something warm, sudden cold
The spirit dance was unfolding
So much warmth in that big room, almost like we were lit from your own inner fire!
And cold chills, too, when you unexpectedly brought Machik’s teachings home for me in a very personal way, with a story about sky burial, chod, and ganachakra feasts, a story that reconnected me with the music of a favorite poem that had deeply affected me years before I even met you.
And the thrill of Machik’s teachings about spirits and guardians of the land, hearing her words coming through your voice, the voice of my own teacher.
Was it just a dream, or was Machik really there, dancing for us?
His Holiness Orgyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, has written of you, “The price of living a long life in this world of ours is our duty to offer some contribution to everyone’s welfare.” It is a price you have paid, and continue to pay, with every breath and every fiber of your being.
I’ve heard that Karmapa once sent you a large photograph on which he had written the words “Kunga Loter,” meaning “treasure of the intellect, joyous to all.”
An apt description of Karmapa, true, but just as aptly a description of you, my own dear teacher—Khenpo Karma Tharchin, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche.
The long italicized passage is from the Prajnaparamita Sutra. Most of the shorter italicized passages are lyrics from John Lennon’s song, #9 Dream.