Sunday, May 17, 2015

My Heart Is Broken Open (Karmapa Pilgrimage 2015, Part 1)

From the Low Country marshes of Georgia and South Carolina to the high forested banks of New York’s Hudson River…from the warmth of a North Florida April afternoon to morning snow flurries on a mountain above Woodstock…and from the realm of the everyday to magical heart-opening jolts of energy and emotion, my pilgrimage to see His Holiness Karmapa unfolded as I drove up the Eastern seaboard, AAA TripTik at the ready on the passenger’s seat of my tiny blue Toyota Yaris.

On his two previous trips to the USA, I had flown to New York to see HH Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who heads the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. This time—driven by a strong intuition that several days alone in a car would be good for me and an even stronger desire to avoid cramming myself into a crowded airplane—I decided to drive.

I had made the drive up I-95 several years ago to attend a tarot workshop in North Carolina. Many years ago, I made several car trips back and forth from Florida to Fairfax, Virginia, where my parents were living when my father worked for the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C. In 1978, I drove alone in a VW Beetle from Florida to California and wound up spending 11 years in the San Francisco Bay Area before driving back, this time in a VW Dasher and with a partner, in 1989. So I am no stranger to long trips in small cars, but this was the first time I’d driven by myself to New York.

When I left Florida, the blooms had disappeared from our plum trees, redbuds, dogwoods and azaleas. In North Carolina, I noticed these trees and flowers were still blooming; in a sense, I was driving backwards from early summer into a second spring. At some points, the vivid new greens that cloaked the trees along the roadside were splashed with pink splotches of blooming redbuds or the white highlights of plums and dogwoods, looking for all the world more like Impressionist paintings than the boundaries of an Interstate highway.

I silently awarded my prize for “most beautifully landscaped I-95 rest areas” to the State of North Carolina. Blooming dogwoods, Japanese maples, azaleas and shaded woods lit by shafts of morning sunbeams were a feast for the eyes. We do live in such a beautiful world, and so many of us take it for granted.

It was somewhere in North Carolina, too, that my world shifted beneath me and my heart opened more powerfully than it had in many years.

What got my attention was a profusion of yellow wildflowers growing in the median of the highway. That the flowers got my attention was not unusual; what was unusual was the route sparked in my memory by the sight of those flowers.

The first person I thought of was Lady Bird Johnson, whose fondness for wildflowers and, in particular, Texas bluebonnets, inspired a whole new respect for these botanical beauties back in the middle of the 20th century. We have Lady Bird to thank for the wildflowers we enjoy along our roadways today. (For more information, see:

Thinking about Lady Bird reminded me of my father, who—like Lady Bird—was a native Texan and a lover of nature’s beauty. I remembered the many times I heard Dad complain about the ruination of Florida by developers after we moved to Orlando in the 1950s.

And of course when I remembered my dad, I remembered my mother too. But it was the next memory that opened my heart and brought me to tears.

I remembered something the brilliant Tibetan-to-English translator, Lama Yeshe Gyamtso, said many years ago when I interviewed him for a story I was writing for a newsletter of the group that later became Gainesville Karma Thegsum Choling. He said that when you finally realize the profundity of the dharma—the Buddha’s teachings—you will be filled with gratitude for all your teachers and indeed, for anyone who has ever taught you anything in your life, including the people who taught you to read.

I had understood the lama’s point intellectually before, but driving up I-95 past those blooming yellow flowers, I finally got his point emotionally. Knowing that I was on my way to see Karmapa—the most important teacher of all the teachers I’ve ever had—I felt my heart opening like a springtime bud on a big flowering dogwood tree, watered by tears of joy and thankfulness.

For Karmapa

my heart is broken open

by a field of yellow flowers
memories of the kindness
of strangers
my parents
my teachers

my heart is broken open

with a burst of light
from you to me

my heart is broken open
with the love that never dies


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