Monday, May 25, 2015

Bodhisattva Activity: Waffle House and the Bodhisattva Vow (Karmapa Pilgrimage 2015, Conclusion)

Tibetan Buddhist teachers say that when you are planning to visit an important teacher, obstacles can arise and that working through these obstacles enables you to purify past karma. I usually have no trouble getting to such teachings; for me, however, the obstacles tend to rear their ugly heads on the trip home.

I remember driving through Tropical Storm Barry after attending a teaching with Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche in Miami, doing Tara mantras all the way up I-95 from South Florida to Gainesville because I was afraid I was going to die in the rain and wind. I remember driving home from a teaching with Bardor Tulku Rinpoche in Tampa when the friend I was with had to go to the ER with what we thought might be a heart attack but turned out to be a bad gallbladder.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that I had an experience roughly equivalent to the Tropical Storm Barry event the day I left Poughkeepsie for Florida. I had a wonderful dinner with my friend Stirling on Friday night and marvelous conversations with her about subjects of mutual interest that resumed and continued through Saturday morning. I left Poughkeepsie a little after noon on Saturday, determined to make it through Washington, D.C., before I stopped for the night.

That plan would have worked, and worked well—traffic was mercifully light all the way to and through D.C.—if it hadn’t been for the rain that started just as I was leaving the D.C. area and if a big race of some sort hadn’t been cancelled in Richmond, Virginia, because of the rainy weather. The upshot of the widespread rain event and the cancelled race was that I-95 was filled with travelers and there were no motel rooms to be had!

There was no letup in the rain after the sun went down. There were dark areas on the bypass around Richmond where it was hard for me to see the road, where I thought I might drive off the highway because of bad visibility. Luckily, however, there was usually at least one set of car taillights in front of me that I could follow.

Finally, with the rain still falling and feeling sleepy and a bit desperate, I stopped at a Waffle House somewhere in Virginia for a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee. I called home to let Forrest know that I was still on the road and might be for quite a while. One of the waitresses overheard my call and very generously called around to try to find me a motel room. She had actually located one that I would have had to backtrack to get, but I decided to go for it and was on the phone trying to secure a reservation when my cell phone dropped the call! I thanked her profusely and left a good tip, determined to keep going until I could locate a room.

I drove on through the rain and darkness and stopped a couple more times, but the motels were either already full or had long lines of people waiting to see if they could get rooms, so I kept driving. 9 p.m., 10 p.m., 11 p.m. and midnight all rolled by. I was getting really sleepy by that point and thought about stopping at a rest area, but didn’t think that was a safe idea. I wondered if I should just drive to a local police station to ask if I could sleep in my car in their parking lot, but somehow I thought that would just turn out to be more of a hassle than a real solution to the problem. I kept reminding myself that I had just seen Karmapa, was infused with blessings, and that I might not be asleep at that hour even if I were at home.

Finally, about 1 a.m., I drove into the parking lot of a Travelers Inn that was literally the first motel I saw after pulling off I-95 somewhere near Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I was in luck! A nice Indian gentleman and his wife said yes, they had a room, and I took it sight unseen. It took all the energy I had to get my little overnight case and laptop up to the room, call Forrest to leave a message that I was safe, and then collapse into a welcoming bed.

And yes, it was still raining the next morning, but right down the street was another Waffle House where I had a good breakfast and some energizing coffee.

Driving through North Carolina, still in the rain, I passed that same field of yellow flowers that had opened my heart on the way to New York. My heart broke open again, thinking about how Karmapa described apathy and the lack of love as our greatest danger…thinking about my spiritual friend whose information had inspired my trip…thinking about the kindness of everyone I’d encountered up north (yes, even the two women in the tent who had inadvertently connected me with another friend)…thinking about Forrest and our cats waiting for me at home…thinking about Florida’s precious freshwater springs and the environment that sustains us…thinking most of all about Karmapa and my other Buddhist teachers.

My heart opened, and love and tears came pouring out.

And I realized that my job, now, is to keep that love flowing. For everyone.

Bodhisattva Vow

driving south through North Carolina
on Interstate 95
a field of yellow flowers is
blooming in the median

I get these words:

nothing you could ever say
or do
would make me
loving you

and get that this


is one true meaning
of the
Bodhisattva vow


Recognizing the Three Poisons as Illness: HH Karmapa Teaches about Medicine Buddha at Kunzang Palchen Ling (Karmapa Pilgrimage 2015, Part 6)

Friday morning at 6 a.m. found me scarfing a quick breakfast of coffee and an oatcake before hurriedly packing my car for the return trip to Florida. After attending the morning’s teaching by His Holiness Karmapa at Kunzang Palchen Ling, my plan was to deliver Nancy to the Amtrak station in Poughkeepsie so she could return to New York City while I would spend the night with my friend Stirling before heading home to Florida on Saturday.

It is always extremely difficult for me to leave Woodstock. Luckily Nancy was riding with me so I avoided tears and thoughts of, “If only I could spend more time here!” Instead, as we drove out of town I said a silent goodbye to Woodstock, the staff and place energy at the Inn, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, and my helpful spiritual friend at KTD.

Nancy and I had driven to Kunzang Palchen Ling on Thursday to deliver a gift that her husband had carved for Karmapa, but today the center was transformed. The bustle of pre-event planning had given way to orderly directions from lamas and event volunteers, the staccato hammering sounds of construction were replaced by the deep, resonant notes of Tibetan trumpets, and I was delighted when Bardor Tulku Rinpoche himself, looking happy and healthy, peeped into the shrine room from the walkway outside. The spacious upstairs shrine room and the large downstairs multi-purpose room (complete with TV for video feed from the shrine room) were filled with people who had connections to Rinpoche, to Karmapa, or to both teachers. It was great to see old friends and to make new acquaintances, and I was especially grateful that I had been able to secure a seat in the shrine room.

Karmapa was still feeling unwell, so instead of conferring the scheduled Medicine Buddha empowerment he gave transmission of the most commonly used mantra for Sangye Menla (Medicine Buddha) and a short talk about the significance of this particular form of Buddha.

Karmapa explained that the reason Buddha is likened to a physician, the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) is likened to medicine, and the Sangha (community of Buddhist practitioners) is likened to nurses is because they all treat the three poisons of attachment, aversion and ignorance—the poisons that are the root causes of all illness.

In addition to viewing the three poisons as the source of all illness, Karmapa said we might also view them as demons that may have control over others. Personifying attachment, aversion and ignorance as demons helps us to become more loving and compassionate toward the people over whom these demons exercise control.

Saying the mantra and/or doing the practice of Sangye Menla then serves two purposes:  It helps us to recognize the three poisons in ourselves—to recognize our own sickness—and it helps us to recognize those things in others and to have more love and empathy toward them.

I was happy to hear that in his closing remarks, Karmapa said that he was pleased that Bardor Tulku Rinpoche’s health has improved and that his family is doing well. Rinpoche had a stroke several years ago, which has left him with limited use of one of his hands, and he has had other health problems recently that prevented him from traveling. Those problems appear to have been resolved and Rinpoche is planning to visit us in Florida this coming October.

What an auspicious occasion for the last time I would see Karmapa on this trip! I am often amazed at the good fortune that has brought me into contact with him and with my other magnificent teachers.

Under the Tent in Woodstock and Back Up the Mountain to KTD (Karmapa Pilgrimage 2015, Part 5)

Wednesday Afternoon

Karmapa was scheduled to give a talk to the people of Woodstock at Andy Lee Field, a short walking distance from the center of town near the village cemetery, at 2 p.m. on Earth Day. While the talk had not been publicized, I decided to get there early, a little after 1 p.m., and was glad I did because a steady stream of people followed me through the security gate, across the muddy ground and into a large tent that had been set up to protect us in case of rain.

I took a spot where I had a clear sightline of the stage and rooted myself there, wishing I had thought to bring a folding chair but committed to stand for as long as His Holiness would speak. I stood a little bit to the left of a woman who was sitting in one of those seats that is attached to a walker; I assumed she had a mobility problem but she seemed content and I took care not to block her view.

More and more people arrived and all of a sudden, I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard someone behind me saying, “You can’t stand there.”

I turned around and said, “I beg your pardon?” Two women who had recently arrived were standing behind me and one of them repeated, “You can’t stand there, you’re in her way,” (nodding at the woman in the chair next to me), “and we just had to move so she could see.”

Now, these women had arrived after I did. Neither the woman in the chair nor I had moved an inch. If I had been thinking, I would have asked the woman in the chair, “Am I blocking your view?” because I clearly wasn’t. But I was so taken aback by the cheekiness of the woman who had told me, “You can’t stand there” (because obviously I was blocking her view), that I simply bailed. “I’ll move back here,” I said, and hastily moved to the back of the crowd. I have never figured out how to handle rudeness; what I should have said or done always occurs to me much later, after the fact.

Yes, I was angry; in fact, I was seething. But when I got to the back of the crowd, I ran into Debbie, a sangha member from Florida who now lives in Woodstock and works for my other primary dharma teacher, Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, at Kunzang Palchen Ling, his center across the Hudson River in Red Hook. I had seen Debbie briefly at the Karma Pakshi empowerment in Kingston but this time we had a chance to chat and get caught up on what we had been doing, so my anger evaporated as I realized that had that rude woman not tapped me on the shoulder and told me to move, I wouldn’t have had a chance to visit with someone I like. And I still had a clear sightline to Karmapa, even though I was a bit farther away from the stage. It’s funny/odd how seemingly adverse circumstances can often take a 180-degree turn. I certainly had a better time talking to Debbie than I would have had if I’d joined in an argument with two cheeky women.

Karmapa’s remarks to the crowd were surprising, informative and inspiring (see previous blog entry). I had no idea he had heard about Woodstock as a child in Tibet! I had no idea he would compare the people of Woodstock to the Tibetans of old! (Which makes me wonder if some of the folks in Woodstock today have past-life connections to Tibet—but I don’t wonder that for very long.) But I wasn’t surprised to hear him refer to climate change as an environmental emergency, or that he urged us to continue working to preserve our world; those are consistent, often-repeated messages of his and one big reason why I adore him.

One of the coolest things that happened was that after he finished speaking, he took a bottle of water that was wrapped in a gold cloth and poured water onto the trees that the children of Woodstock were planning to plant later that day. The children had asked that the trees be placed on stage while he was speaking, so Karmapa generously blessed them with a large drink of water from his own hands.

As we left the tent, the rain—which had held off just long enough for Karmapa to give his talk—started again. I pulled up the hood of my raincoat and headed briskly back to town for a warm snack at my favorite Woodstock eatery, the Garden CafĂ©.


Finally! I got a phone call confirming that Namse Bangdzo, the bookstore at KTD, was open, so I headed back up the mountain, back up the prayer flag-festooned dharma path, and satisfied my shopping urge with the purchase of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s three-volume set of The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma and a labradorite mala. I couldn’t linger, though (which probably saved me quite a bit of money), because my friend Nancy was arriving that day by bus for the Friday event with Karmapa at Kunzang Palchen Ling. I had promised to meet her shortly after noon.

After being on my own all week, it was good to have a friend to talk to and share meals with, and a bonus was that we were able to meet Colleen, another friend, at the Bread Alone coffee shop for a nice visit before Colleen headed over to Kingston in preparation for the Friday teachings, which would be the only time other than the empowerment in Kingston when I would see Karmapa at a formal event.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Karmapa Meets With the People of Woodstock (Karmapa Pilgrimage 2015, Part 4)

It only takes 16 minutes to watch and I could never do it justice with a description; it's better if you see it for yourself. Note mention of hippies, climate change as environmental emergency, and the responsibility we all have to protect our environment.

The Radical Act of Planting a Tree and a Heart-to-Heart Blessing (Karmapa Pilgrimage 2015, Part 3)

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.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Some Helpful People and "Rain" in the Rain (Karmapa Pilgrimage 2015, Part 2)

The first time I ever visited Woodstock, I was prepared to like it. I had heard about it from a friend and knew it would be wonderful. I wasn’t prepared, though, to fall in love with it—but that’s what happened. What’s not to love about a place that’s stunningly beautiful, filled with interesting shops, politically progressive, a center for writing and the arts, and the home of one’s spiritual teachers?

The first place I stayed in Woodstock was the place I returned to on this most recent trip—the Woodstock Inn on the Millstream. I first chose the Inn based on a photo I saw on the Internet, and I was thrilled with my choice. I’ve always been somewhat sensitive to what I call “place energy,” and the Inn has some of the most positive, rejuvenating place energy I’ve ever experienced; I describe it to friends as a “vortex of happiness.”

So it was with relief after a long drive up the East Coast, including navigating traffic like I hadn’t seen in a long time outside Washington, D.C., on the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway, and having a bit of a white-knuckle experience on the Francis Scott Key Bridge above Baltimore harbor, that I pulled into the parking lot at the Inn on Sunday, April 19, arriving in New York just in time to attend His Holiness Karmapa’s bestowal of the Karma Pakshi empowerment at the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) in nearby Kingston that evening.

I had originally thought I wouldn’t travel to see Karmapa this time. I had, after all, seen him on his two previous trips to the USA, and money for the trip was tight to nonexistent. But then I heard that he would be giving a talk in Woodstock on Earth Day, and I was hooked—because I’m certain that it’s due to his blessings, as well as blessings I’ve received from my refuge lama, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, and perhaps even from the energy of Machik Labdron herself—that I am able to earn money in retirement from working to restore, protect and preserve Florida’s fabulous freshwater springs. Karmapa’s dedication to the environment and his teachings about the importance of valuing and preserving it are continual inspirations to me.

Tibetan Buddhist teachers say that obstacles can arise when you are planning a visit to an important teacher and that you should be thankful for those obstacles, because they mean you are purifying past karma. The first big obstacle I encountered was that after hearing the first rumor of Karmapa’s Earth Day talk, I could find out nothing more about it!

I wrote to the KTD office; nothing. I wrote to an official in the Town of Woodstock whose address I found on the Internet; nothing. I asked the lama at Gainesville KTC; nothing. Finally—and in desperation—I wrote to the one remaining person I know who is still living at KTD, and that person kindly gave me the information I needed to solidify plans for the trip. I think of this person as a friend but I don’t know if the feeling is mutual; however, it seems s/he has always been right on the spot whenever I’ve needed help with something or answers to questions. It strikes me that must be the true definition of a dharma friend—someone who helps even a mere acquaintance who can be an intrusive questioner, pushy or even obnoxious in her demands for information.

The Karma Pakshi empowerment was a late-breaking development and I was fortunate to get a ticket in the nosebleed section of UPAC. Karmapa, as always, was magnificent. But the highlights of the trip for me were the two smaller events that happened on Earth Day.

Through a total coincidence—or was it?—I met a Town Council member who was doing construction at the Inn on one of the first mornings I was there. Over coffee in the breakfast room, he confirmed details of Karmapa’s Earth Day talk and we had a good chat about Buddhism, KTD, and the town’s wish to keep the Earth Day talk quiet because the roads into Woodstock can easily become overwhelmed with traffic. Ah! He explained my difficulty in finding out about the event—the Town Council had asked KTD not to publicize it!

Monday, my first full day in Woodstock, was grey and rainy and cold. I mostly hunkered down in my warm, comfy room, complete with electric fireplace, and made no attempt to go up the hill to KTD because I knew Karmapa was giving a talk to KTD’s members and I was certain that access to the grounds would be limited to those people. I did brave the elements to go out for lunch and to visit The Golden Notebook, one of the local bookstores, where I scored a copy of my friend Cynthia Barnett’s just-released book, Rain:  A Natural and Cultural History. I couldn’t resist taking a photo of Rain in the rain at the inn.

On Tuesday, I headed up the hill to visit Namse Bangdzo—the amazing bookstore at KTD that I describe to people as the best Buddhist bookstore in North America—but there were security guards at the gate who explained that the bookstore was closed that day too. Leaning out of the car window, I fell into a bit of friendly conversation with them and they mentioned the Earth Day talk on Wednesday. I told them I was planning to go and one of them added, “There’s a tree planting ceremony here tomorrow at 10 a.m. and everyone is invited; you could come back then.”

Wow—not one but two events with Karmapa on Earth Day! I felt like I had just won the Lotto.

Here's a clip of Karmapa talking about Karma Pakshi at UPAC.

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


Thursday, May 14, 2015

“We Were Never Parted”

May 17, 2009
Lady of the Lotus-Born:  The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal
By Gyalwa Changchub and Namkhai Nyingpo
Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group
Shambhala Publications, Boston and London, 1999

If I had to pick only one book with which to be marooned on a desert island, Lady of the Lotus-Born would be my choice. It’s the story, in her own words, of Yeshe Tsogyal—possibly the first Tibetan of either gender to attain enlightenment, and widely considered to be one of the most important of the 25 closest disciples of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava).

If Yeshe Tsogyal’s story had taken place in the American West in the 19th century, she would have been described as Guru Rinpoche’s sidekick. After all, it is Guru Rinpoche—whose energy is said to be still active, if not immediately visible—who is credited with establishing Buddhism not only in Tibet, but also in any wild borderland of dharma practice.

For much of the time that Guru Rinpoche was in Tibet, Tsogyal was with him—studying, practicing, recording his teachings, and achieving realization. After Guru Rinpoche left Tibet,Tsogyal kindled the flame of dharma in her own group of disciples.

As a namthar, or tale of liberation, Lady of the Lotus-Born inspires me on many different levels. It’s the story of her own enlightenment process, told by a woman—so it encourages women practitioners in ways that men’s stories cannot. The book contains some of the most beautiful passages of poetry I’ve ever read. Because it’s a terma, or concealed treasure text that was rediscovered long after it was written, the book has special relevance for later generations of Buddhist practitioners (a characteristic of all terma texts). And at its core, the text is a description of the tantric path and contains many references to key points of tantric practice.

Superficially, Tsogyal’s life story is a thing of Hollywood blockbusters. She manifested in Tibet as an incarnation of the goddess Sarasvati, with the specific aim of helping Guru Rinpoche to propagate the teachings of Vajrayana. At her conception, her parents had a vision that was accompanied by the swelling of a nearby spring into a lake. Her birth, which was “without travail” for her mother, was marked by a rain of flowers and music in the sky.

Later, desiring freedom to practice dharma, Tsogyal escaped from home because she did not want to be forced to marry. Through a convoluted series of chases and escapes, she wound up being married off to Trisong Detsen, the king of Tibet. She met Guru Rinpoche while at the king’s court, and became his consort and principal disciple. And this was only the beginning of her adventures!
Even more inspiring than her story is her poetry. Here, for example, is one of her instructions on meditation:

“Meditate upon the Teacher as the glow of your awareness.
When you melt and mingle mutually together,
Taste the vast expanse of nonduality.
There remain.

And if you know me, Yeshe Tsogyal,
Mistress of samsara and nirvana,
You will find me dwelling in the heart of every being.
The elements and the senses are my emanations,
And emanated thence, I am the twelvefold chain of co-production:
Thus primordially we never separate.
I seem a separate entity
Because you do not know me.”

(pp. xxi-xxii)

There is a long passage on pages 160-162 that is my favorite piece of spiritual literature. It’s a description of Tsogyal’s experiences immediately following the departure of Guru Rinpoche from Tibet. How many of us, when separated from our teachers, would dissolve into self-pity and depression? Not Tsogyal. She went into a cave to practice, and manifested in different forms to benefit sentient beings throughout myriads of realms! I can’t think of a better, more generous way to honor one’s teacher. She closes the passage this way:

“Wherever there is space, five elements pervade,
Wherever the five elements, the homes of living beings,
Wherever living beings, karma and defilements,
Wherever is defilement, my compassion also.
Wherever is the need of beings, there I am to help them.

And thus I remained for twenty years in the great cavern of Lhodrak Karchu, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible.”

The passage gives me chill bumps every time I read it. When I showed my first local dharma teacher, Frances Norwood, this passage, Frances smiled and said, “She merged with the elements.” (In the Tibetan tradition, female energy is strongly associated with the five elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space.)

When Tsogyal herself took leave of Tibet, she did so with the following instruction (p. 206):

“For a time now, while your dualistic minds persist,
It will seem that I have left you, but take heart.
When your dualistic minds subside, you will see that we were never parted.
May health and happiness embrace the very limits of the sky!”