Earth Day (April 22, 2015) dawned grey and cold in Woodstock but thankfully, the rain had stopped and the road up to KTD was dry although the parking lot at the pond was extremely muddy. I drove into the lot slowly and circled around, careful to choose a parking place where I didn’t think my car was likely to get stuck.
Every time I visit the pond I am reminded of my friend Sandra, who was a housekeeper at KTD for quite a few years. I met her and we forged a friendship when she was one of my roommates in the dorm in the old Meads Mountain House the first time I attended a 10-day teaching by my refuge lama, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche.
Sandra was a smoker and after supper at the end of the day, we liked to walk down to the pond where she would smoke, I would enjoy the scenery, and we would have long conversations about the dharma, our Buddhist teachers, and our lives. I loved the dharma path festooned with prayer flags, the calm water where people have reported seeing nagas, and the looming hills of the Catskill Mountains. Once, Sandra and I even saw a bear foraging for food on the far side of the pond! Sandra has since died of cancer, but I miss her still and remember her as one of the most spiritual people I’ve ever met—pure in her devotion to her teachers, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and His Holiness Karmapa, and eager to live a life completely devoted to high-level dharma practice. I hope that is possible for her now.
Back to present time. I was going to KTD on Earth Day morning because I had learned about a scheduled tree-planting ceremony with Karmapa the day before, in a chance conversation with one of the security guards at KTD’s gate. As I hiked up the hill from the parking lot, I was thinking about that serendipitous conversation when I noticed something unusual—little tiny blobs of white falling from the sky. I looked closer and yes, it was snow! I was hiking up to KTD through a softly falling flurry of snow. In April!
The tree-planting ceremony was an unofficial event that had not been publicized at all, as far as I could tell, because the crowd was extremely small. Even standing outside the roped-off area within which Karmapa and his party would be seated, I thought that this was probably the closest I would ever be to him. And because it was not an official event, we were permitted to take photographs. Several press and official KTD photographers were working within the roped-off area in front of the small group of us who had come for the ceremony, but those people took care not to interfere with our sightlines. I was able to get some good photos, including some of the photographers themselves.
“The usual suspects”—some of the KTD lamas and staff members—were there, as well as representatives of different faiths (Zen, Christian, Jewish) from the area in and around Woodstock. Some of the Woodstock Town Council members were there too, including the councilman I’d met at the Inn on the Millstream earlier in the week.
His Holiness Karmapa, attired in red robes and sporting the sunglasses that I always think make him look wickedly handsome (“wickedly” as in “extremely,” not as in “evil”), had unfortunately caught a cold and didn’t speak, but Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche addressed the small crowd briefly.
As Khenpo’s remarks were being interpreted, I was standing directly opposite Karmapa. While I couldn’t ever tell exactly what he was looking at because of his shades, there was one instant at which his face was turned toward me and I felt what I can only describe as a completely unexpected bolt of powerful energy shoot straight from his heart into mine. Was this Karmapa’s blessing? I don’t doubt it. For the Tibetans, “mind” resides in the heart, not the brain, and it is from the heart chakra that we generate bodhicitta—the wish for all beings to become enlightened. Talk about my heart being opened!
When the time came to plant his tree, Karmapa was not shy about getting his hands dirty. The tree, which looked like a small Japanese maple, had graced the stage at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Karmapa’s earlier appearances, and he carefully tended the placement of soil around its roots and then applied a generous amount of water.
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s tree, which looked like a small fir or other evergreen, was being carefully tended by Rinpoche’s own helpers when Rinpoche—who is over 90 years old and now walks with a cane—approached and used the cane to shovel dirt onto the tree’s roots.
The ceremony—on the surface so short and simple—was, for me, a deeply moving experience, and not only because I palpably sensed Karmapa’s blessing.
I think that when great forces are arrayed against the health of the environment—and, by extension, against the human beings who are supported by that environment—sometimes the most radical thing we can do is something simple like planting a tree. Such a seemingly simple act is actually a radical affirmation that lovingkindness and compassion can triumph over the poisons of greed and ignorance.
During one of the 10-day teachings I attended about Machik Labdron and her practice of chod (severance of ego) several years ago, I gained an unshakeable faith in her and in my Buddhist teachers—the faith that, while I must continue to make my own efforts to keep to the dharma path, we are each surrounded by blessings at all times, on all sides, blessings that can make the impossible possible and change hearts, minds and even external circumstances if we do our dharma work and remain open to them. I was certain that it was because of such blessings that I had been led to the tree-planting ceremony.
I pondered those thoughts about dharmic blessings as I took the path back to my car and drove slowly and carefully down the long and winding road into Woodstock. Through the winter-bare trees, I glimpsed the Ashokan Reservoir—one of the water sources for the people of New York City—glinting in the distance. I thought about my own work on behalf of the springs and waters in my home state of Florida.
And I realized that thanks to one true spiritual friend at KTD and a chance conversation with a security guard, I will carry the images, inspirations and blessings of that tree-planting ceremony in my heart for a long, long time.