My Teachers: Denma Locho Rinpoche (3)

It would be difficult to share much about the teachings I received from Rinpoche over the years I was his disciple. In many cases he taught in response to a specific question, so the character of the answer and its importance derived from how it related to a specific situation in my development. These teachings would be difficult to communicate. But two things stand out, however, which I think I can share.  One was a comment he made during an initiation and teachings on the Ghuyasamaja Tantra and the second was the answer to a question I asked about the attainment of Manjushri.

The Guhyasamaja teachings took place in Garrison New York.  Toward the end of the week Rinpoche thanked the sponsors of the event.  He told the assembled audience that we would all be in his circle of disciples when he became enlightened, and that the sponsors would be in the inner circle. As the years have passed and I have contemplated this statement it has integrated itself with my practice of guru yoga.  The image that developed in my mind is that of luminous planets circling the sun, with myself and the other disciples as the planets and Rinpoche as the sun. And the sun, of course, is in a circle of suns around another center: the galaxy of lamas and realized beings circling the Buddha.  And of course there are many Buddha galaxies spinning through our vast Buddha field.

Sometimes when I feel Rinpoche’s presence I experience this limitless cloud of light beings around light beings. In essence, we are all bodhisattvas sitting together.  This is something I understand from the answer he gave to a question I asked one day when Kayla and I were living at the Namgyal Monastery guest house. We are all practicing the same visualization, I commented, and as Tara Rinpoche had taught, on that basis we will become enlightened in that form. Since Tara Rinpoche and Locho Rinpoche and Kayla and I all practice Manjushri, when we are enlightened we will have the form of that bodhisattva. So my question was, more or less, will we be the same Manjushri at that point or different Manjushris? He said that we would be different Manjushris in the sense that each of us had our own mind stream which had become enlightened, but the same in the sense that we were Manjushri.  All of the same Manjushri taste, as the Tibetans say. 

Both the same Manjushri and different Manjushris.  This may defy logic, but if one thinks metaphorically one can recognize how it can be true. So my meditation is one of galaxies of Manjushri bodhisattva stars circling each other.  This is how I practice the presence of the lineage of lamas from Shakyamuni Buddha through Nagarjuna, Atisha and Tsongkhapa right down to the Dalai Lama, Tara Rinpoche, Locho Rinpoche and, finally, myself.  David, finally at home -- sitting in a universe of buddhas and bodhisattvas.





My Teachers: Denma Locho Rinpoche (2)

In my previous post I wrote that the Dalai Lama had sent Kayla and I to Locho Rinpoche.  Of course it was a bit more complicated than that.

A year after Tara Rinpoche's death we were finally able to fulfill his last instructions to us, to see His Holiness to find out what to do next in our spiritual practice. He advised us to do a one month long accumulation retreat on the fierce Manjushri. I asked for someone to guide us on the retreat and he suggested either the current Abbot of Namgyal, Geshe Wangdrak, or the former Abbot, Locho Rinpoche. It seemed that our choice of “spiritual friend” to guide our retreat would be simple. Locho Rinpoche was in Ladhak and Geshe Wangdrak was at Namgyal. We moved from our room in the Green Hotel into the Namgal Monastery guest house and began our daily sessions under Geshe-la's guidance.

We also wanted to meet Locho Rinpoche, but when he returned to Dharamsala in late October he was inaccessible because he was recuperating from an auto accident he'd had on his return trip. After a few weeks we heard that he was receiving visitors, so Kayla and I went to the Green Hotel, where (ironically) he lived, to organize a meeting. There we met Locho Rinpoche's niece, Yeshe, who showed us into a room with a television set and two Tibetan carpets set on platforms under small windows. We left our shoes on the concrete floor and sat on the platforms. Across from us, the wall was covered with shelves containing cups, china, statues and scriptures.

After a few minutes Locho Rinpoche's brother, who was also his attendant, came out from an adjoining room and had a brief conversation with Yeshe, and then the three of us were ushered into a small room stacked with various boxes whose labels indicated a variety of consumer items, mostly from Japan. The walls had lovely thankas and there were many maroon and gold carpets spread about on a platform bed and on the floor. Locho Rinpoche sat on the bed. There was a window behind him through which bright light streamed into the room. He was small, but broad, with a hint of a pale colored mustache. He wore dark glasses because his eyes had been hurt in the auto accident. The glasses, combined with the darkness in the room and the bright light at his back made it almost impossible to actually see his face clearly. I had to use my inner senses to get a feel for him, and after scanning a bit what I "felt" was stunning. Before many minutes had passed I knew that he was one of those few remaining lamas whose charisma makes them seem somewhat more than human. A certain energy surrounded him, the nature of which began to reveal itself to me over the course of successive meetings.
Denma Locho Rinpoche at our first meeting

At this first meeting he was rather immobile physically. He never seemed to look directly at us, but still seemed quite present with us. He sort of buzzed. "He is a mantra machine," I later said to Kayla. The mantras never stopped; I could feel his mind merged with mantras, resonating mantras. Kayla said she had the distinct feeling through the whole interview that while in one way Locho Rinpoche never looked directly at us, in another way he was looking at us directly, but through a different dimension -- as if he were looking directly into our minds and our past lives.

I told him that I had been Tara Rinpoche's student for eight years prior to his death; Kayla said she had been his student for five years. I told him that we had done four Manjushri accumulation retreats with Tara Rinpoche and that His Holiness had suggested that he might give us some guidance on the retreat he had recommended to us.

"I'll do whatever I can to help you" he said. His attendant offered us tea and the conversation dropped off for a few minutes. Then he resumed the conversation. "Tara Rinpoche and I were friends at Drepung Monastery" in Tibet, where they had trained before the diaspora. In fact he had been in the class one year ahead of Tara Rinpoche. "We were very close, like brothers."

As I sat with Locho Rinpoche I felt the inner blissful melting I sometimes felt around great lamas. I realized how hungry I was for it and how much I had missed it since I had last been in Tara Rinpoche's presence. But I also remembered the Dalai Lama's advice about not trying to find a new personal lama.

We returned to a discussion of our retreat, saying that we had initially expected to spend about three weeks on retreat, but following Geshe Wangdrak’s suggestion, we had extended the retreat to three months and had not as yet concluded.

"I'm not feeling up to visitors much now, but come back after twenty one days and I'll be glad to meet with you."

That was a clear sign that the interview was over, so we thanked him for his time, prostrated and left. The meeting with Locho Rinpoche had left me feeling like honey inside: warm and golden. I said to Kayla, "I feel like we just stepped through a door and that our lives are not going to be the same." I had no idea at the time just how true that statement would turn out to be.

Precisely twenty one days later we had accumulated enough mantras to end our retreat. Coincidentally, Geshe Wangdrak left Dharamsala for a teaching tour and we began what became weekly teachings from Locho Rinpoche.

As the weeks passed and we spent more and more time with Locho Rinpoche I found myself being drawn more and more deeply into our relationship, into the charisma of his energy. I thought that he could be my lama, but the Dalai Lama had told us that we should not let our grief from Tara Rinpoche’s passing push us to find another lama. That we should wait. So I watched as my heart opened to Locho Rinpoche, but at that time made no attempt to become his disciple.

My Teachers: Denma Locho Rinpoche (1)

Denma Locho Rinpoche

In the Tibetan tradition I have had two personal teachers of profound importance to me: Tara Tulku Rinpoche and Denma Locho Rinpoche.  Writing about Tara Rinpoche came fairly naturally. Writing about Locho Rinpoche has proven a more elusive endeavor.

Perhaps it was easier to write about Tara Rinpoche because he died so many years ago. Yet he is freshly in my mind and when I think of him I can see him quite clearly. Locho Rinpoche's death is still quite fresh -- October, 2014. Perhaps that is the source of difficulty, or then again, perhaps it is something else entirely.

I have heard that his health was generally good on the day he died in Dharamsala, that he had mentioned a bit of discomfort to his attendant, sat down for a cup of tea and when he was by himself slipped into the clear light. Tibetans believe that his death was his own choice. So do I.

Locho Rinpoche was a Buddhist master of a traditional sort; not the kind of lama one can find too easily these days. He was profoundly accomplished, but that is not what I am thinking of here. He was a traditional sort of teacher in the sense that he was tough and loving at the same time. I never saw him look at me with affection, but Kayla saw his affectionate expression for me when I was not looking at him.

His toughness was an expression of his affection. He wanted us to grow and develop and sometimes that required being tough. Even a little tricky.

Kayla and I saw him quite frequently when we were on retreat at Namgyal Monastery in Dharamsala. We would also meet with him and take teachings from him when he came to the USA, which he did every three or four years. Though he stayed at our home once, and permitted us to visit him in Dharamsala for a month in 2001, he refused to let us visit him there other times. "Wait for me to come to the USA" he said repeatedly.

When he came to the USA he would always include a stay with Sandra and Bernie in the Palo Alto California area, and we would find a nearby hotel, or perhaps stay at San Francisco Zen Center, and come down to their home every day. One year I requested some teachings from him, and he told me he would offer them during his next visit to Sandra's place. I waited three years and then set aside my two weeks vacation time to be with him and take the teachings. On our first day with him we had tea and a pleasant conversation about a variety of things and then he said something like, OK, that was nice. Now you can go home. Fortunately I was not totally speechless at the moment, though I was more than a little surprised. After a few stammers and gulps I asked if he would mind if we just hung around Sandra's place and meditated there every day. We would not bother him. We just wanted to be around his presence. He consented.

That, I thought, was something, at any rate. But actually what it turned out to be was an opportunity to practice guru yoga at a very high level. Tibetans maintain that the basis of all Vajrayana practice is guru yoga. The old Christian missionary critics of Tibetan Buddhism called it "lama worship" --- but in this they simply expressed their ignorance and prejudice. When Tara Rinpoche had been alive I really had not understood what guru yoga was about, even though I sat daily with him in numerous retreats. But that was because at the time I had a hard headed philosophical attitude and was not much of a yogi. Tara Rinpoche's death and my long retreat at Namgyal Monastery changed all that. Once I had come to miss him I understood his particular importance to me in a new way and, in general, the importance of a personal connection with a lama for any meditator who wants to attain anything on the Vajrayana path. After Tara Rinpoche's death His Holiness the Dalai Lama sent Kayla and I to Locho Rinpoche, but he also advised us to wait some years and not be in a hurry to establish a personal connection with a lama. His Holiness could be a pretty tough teacher as well. We did wait, but we also became Locho Rinpoche's disciples, and upon doing so I set out to practice guru yoga every day. And more or less succeeded.

So when Locho Rinpoche offered me an opportunity to hang around him (at a distance) at Sandra's I thought to myself, "OK, I'll be doing a lot of guru yoga here. That is just fine."  The reason I thought it was fine has to do with the essence of the practice: which is experiencing a mental relationship with the lama so intimate that you and he become one. In fact, the practice requires first visualizing the presence of the lama in the form of a buddha above and in front of oneself, and then visualizing the lama blessing one with rays of light and nectars which enter the top of one's head, and then finally the lama himself floats over to the top of one's head and dissolves into one. I practiced that every morning, and though Rinpoche might be on the other side of the planet, when my practice was successful I found his presence sitting with me. So doing guru yoga with him 30 feet away, rather than 12,000 miles away, was just peachy with me. Of course if I had actually been any good at the yoga it would not have mattered where he was. But I'm not that good, and having him proximate made the practice much richer.

Tricky Rinpoche. Would I stay or would I follow his directions and go? Where was my commitment?  I stayed and those two weeks of guru yoga were a truly beatific experience.

There is a Japanese proverb on a magnet that Kayla put on our refrigerator door: "Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher." I think that one might also say that "better than an entire book is a single comment from a great teacher." Sometimes those comments are pretty tough to take. I think that is the mark of their importance.

At my last face to face meeting with the Dalai Lama he asked me, "Are you a Buddhist?" He asked that knowing full well that I had been Tara Tulku's disciple and that I had come to Dharamsala to take teachings from Locho Rinpoche. The question was like a koan. For years it worked on me. Was I really a Buddhist or only a pretend Buddhist? How deep did I go? Would I stay after my tea with Locho Rinpoche or would I leave?  Why had I REALLY come? "Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher". Maybe when the teacher is really great, years of teaching can arrive in a single sentence. I think that this must have been just what the old Zen masters were up to when they made those odd comments that awakened their students.

Appearance and Reality in Glacier Park

It  seems that pretty much everyone who comes to Glacier Park has a camera at hand and drawn by the beauty of the space, attempts to capture that beauty. I am no different in that respect and brought my cameras here. I am still an amatur, and no matter how hard I try I seem unable to capture what I see. But I don't think that this is just a matter of my lack of technical skill. Rather, I have concluded, the elusive beauty of what I am seeing is a mixture of sight, sound, smell and presence -- and the camera can only capture the first.

Early one morning Kayla reminded me that this mountainous bowl surrounding Swiftcurrent Lake has a deep silence to it which underlies the bird cries, the distant rumble of the waterfall and the silent people sleeping in the lodge around us. I recognized the presence of the mountains in 
this silence, a presence which was a bit uncomfortable as I first began to open to these mountains. 

When I turn my camera in their direction I find that I separate myself from their presence in the very attempt to capture it. Perhaps the great photographers are great for the very reason that they know how to invite the presence of the mountains and trees into their cameras, and not just their appearances.

This all seems like a verson of the Buddhist Two Truths: the ultimate nature of things (presence, in this case) and their appearance. I think that as a photographer I must be caught in the realm of appearances, that I have not found how to allow the presence of the ultimate into the appearances.

Sometimes Buddhists seem so intent on departing from appearances, to get so caught up in the quest for the ultimate that they forget that in truth there is no difference between these two. As the Heart Sutra says, form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form is not different from emptiness, emptiness is not different from form. Perhaps great photography can be a way of honoring this truth.  Perhaps a great photograph can be a mirror which reflects both the beauty of appearance and the reality of presence. I think that is what the great Chinese landscape painters understood. When I look at their pines I see the history of wind and water in their shapes. Their dynamic essence is revealed in their static form. 
Many Glacier mandala
As we passed the days in Glacier we became more attuned to the presence of the silence in the mountains. From the point of view of our hotel, the Swiftcurrent Valley is a great mandala, with Grinnell Point as the central mountain deity, surrounded by peaks at the cardinal and ordinal directions. The valley opens from the east and our hotel sits on the eastern shore of Swiftcurrent lake, which is at the foot of Grinnell Point. To the northwest is Heavy Shield Mountain, as the Blackfeet call it.  
Heavy Shield Mountain
A great female shaman had a vision of the shield when she did retreat in the valley, and the Blackfeet honored her vision by so naming the mountain. Remembering that the valley is a mandala each day I entered the presence of the silence, and though I honored Grinnell Point, I was curiously drawn to Heavy Shield. Does this mountain have something to teach me?

Our last night in Glacier I sat on a darkening balcony, camera on tripod next to me, watching the crescent moon slide down and across the sky from Grinnell to Heavy Shield. This was the first time I had waited for a camera shot to show itself to me. In time Heavy Shield offered me a gift as it showed its dark presence crowned by moon and planets. The secret of presence is revealed in the waiting, in the receiving rather than the taking.

Being at Home


One day I was complaining to Tara Tulku about something. At the moment I cannot remember just what it was, and actually it does not matter.  What matters was his response when I said that if only things were different I would be happy, if only I was doing something else and doing it somewhere else, then I would be happy.  He looked at me and said "You know, samsara is known to be everywhere." He stopped me in my tracks. At that moment I understood clearly that I could not escape unhappiness by being somewhere else, that elsewhere does not equal happiness, that happiness was not to be found anywhere if it was not to be found here --- wherever here was and whatever here was.

But it will come as no surprise that most of the time I forget this simple truth.  I keep thinking that if I just change something everything will be ok.  Actually, if I am honest, it seems that when I change something because I want it to be better it seems to end up worse. But then I am one of those guys who sees a glass half empty rather than half full.

When I asked ZaChoeje Rinpoche if his constant travel was not a bit tiring he said no it was not because he felt at home everywhere he went. He takes his happiness with him wherever he goes.

This makes me think about what it means to be at home and the sort of happiness which comes from truly being at home. To be honest, no matter where I am I do not feel at home. Not even in my home. In fact I don't think I have ever felt at home since I left my childhood home. But if I think about that deeply, I must conclude that even there I was pretty much just an alien in disguise. I had to leave home for the disguise to fall away and for my deep alienation to express itself.  What does this mean? I've been on the spiritual quest pretty much ever since I left my childhood home. Are these two things related?

One way I think about the Two Truths of conventional reality and ultimate reality is that if we are even a little bit self-aware we will realize that we live in two worlds simultaneously. We live in the world of who we really are and the world of who we are constrained to be. They don't seem to line up. Earning a living, dealing with household finances, taking care of health problems, mowing the lawn -- this is the conventional world of constraints.  But in the very same moment I am paying the bills my Buddha nature is watching what is going on.  I think it must be smiling while my forehead is frowning. 

I suspect that the reason I don't feel at home is because I've not integrated these two worlds, have only intellectually accepted that the one is in the other, that they depend on each other. Sometimes when I meditate I can see how they line up and interpenetrate; I can experience it. Perhaps ZaChoeje has made this integration on a more consistent experiential level, realized their interpenetration more organically and sustains himself with one while he negotiates the other. I am reminded that of the five bodhisattva paths, the Path of Preparation is where one begins to transform the intellectual understanding of emptiness and the two truths into a more direct perception and experiential recognition of them. 

And I am reminded of the Zen teaching that our true nature is right here right now, whether I am mowing the lawn, sitting in meditation or writing this blog. If I think about my childhood, and about when I felt at home, I must admit that I was at home whenever it did not seem to me that I was not myself. In times past people used to say that some people who grew old became more child-like. In fact sometimes really old people were disparaged for actually being child-like. Now that I am retired from my university career, perhaps I can dispose of the constraints I placed on myself to be the person I thought I needed to be and return to myself.  Perhaps I will find my home again.

The Path of Accumulation

Geshe Sonam Rinchen once told me that the essential element in Dharma practice was converting negative minds into positive minds. I think that this takes many forms and at a recent retreat I suggested that one could look at the Path of Accumulation as the transformation of negative minds into positive minds. 

The Path of Accumulation is the first of five sequential paths leading to Buddhahood. It is followed by the Path of Preparation, the Path of Seeing (i.e., seeing emptiness directly), the Path of Meditation and finally the Path of No More Learning, which is Buddhahood. The mantra gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha in the Heart Sutra encompasses these five paths.

Buddhism has adapted to every culture in which it has taken root. In the USA this adaptation has included a sort of "psychologization".  I think there are many reasons for this, but one certainly is the contemporary practice of psychotherapy as a means for mental transformation.  So the potential connection with Buddhism seems fairly obvious.

A retreatant showed me these notes she had taken about the process of mental transformation developed by an anthropologist by the name of Angeles Arrien:
  • Whenever my critic is usually present I have compassion work to do.
  • When I'm impatient I have loving kindness work to do.
  • When I'm competitive & jealous I have empathetic joy work to do.
  • When I'm over extended & out of balance I have equanimity work to do. 
These practices seem like a good synthesis of traditional Buddhist and modern psychological approaches to mind transformation. I don't think that Buddhists wrote or taught about the "inner critic" which disturbs our own mental equilibrium and our relationships with others, but they would understand the process in their own language. Those of us who are doing the work of self awareness and change will recognize how we project our mental states onto those around us, that there is no fundamental difference between the critical attitudes we have toward others and toward ourselves, and that improving our relations with others depends on dealing with the critical attitudes we have toward ourselves.  The inner critic of me expresses itself as the critic of you. Looked at from another perspective, the Dalai Lama notes that actually we can't love others unless we first love ourselves. 

So, again, it seems to me that modern psychological "work on oneself" is, for western Buddhists, practice of the Path of Accumulation, as what is really accumulated in this work are good mental habit patterns.

Today is Saka Dawa, which in the Buddhist tradition is the commemoration of Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana (passing from this world).  An email I received from the Gyuto Foundation, in California, comments that 

it is the holiest day of the year for Buddhists around the world. It is our belief that because Buddha Shakyamuni prayed for all sentient beings to achieve enlightenment, and he achieved enlightenment on this day, the merits of our virtuous and positive actions will be multiplied 100,000 times over, especially good deeds done on the full moon of Tuesday, June 2, 2015.

The Gyuto Monks would like to ask all of our friends and members to participate in this very important occasion by making a concerted effort to take positive steps in helping others in whatever small ways possible. 

Sometimes "work on oneself" may seem self-centered. But if we understand our deep interconnections, work on oneself is seen to benefit everyone we encounter.  So today seems a particularly auspicious day for those on the Path of Accumulation.


Where is the moon? (1)

I only remember two things of any significance from the year and a half I spent with Thich Thien-An, who was my first Zen teacher. One was the way he looked when he sat to meditate: deeply peaceful.  The second was a story he told. I don’t know its origin, but since he told it, that made it a Zen story. It is pretty simple, as are many Zen stories.  But it is profoundly deep, as are many Zen stories.

Two monks walk out of a temple.  One monk asks the other, “Where is the moon?” The second monk points to the sky and says “Over there.” The first monk looks at the pointing finger, and then at the moon. Wouldn’t it be foolish if the monk got so interested in the pointing finger that he never looked at the moon?

This is a simple story that illustrates the power and limitations of scriptures, which are what is represented by the pointing finger.  Buddhist teachings point at the truth but they are not the truth. The truth about the nature of our moon-like minds must be experienced directly.  Scriptures, dharma talks, and our thoughts about them can get us to pay attention to our moon-like minds, but if we want to experience our true nature, we need to pass beyond the particularities of scriptures, Dharma talks, and most importantly, our thoughts.

This Zen story probably derives from the archaic Buddhist teaching about the raft of Dharma which takes one across the stream to the other shore, the shore of liberation. Wouldn't it be foolish to try to haul the raft across the other shore?  Rafts, after all, are for crossing water, and are not only useless on the shore, but are a burden. And if you are liberated from the bondage of samsara, what is the need of the teachings?

So we might think that words are useless or an entanglement.  But then again, the Buddha had a lot to say. And if the second monk had not pointed at the moon, how would the first monk have found it?

I like to think about the pointing finger as more than just words.  I like to think of it as the imagination.  I don’t know if Thich Thien-An would have had such an interpretation, but it does not matter.  The Vajrayana practice so central to the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism makes exquisite use of the imagination.  A fundamental practice is to visualize oneself as a bodhisattva, perhaps such as Manjushri. Carl Jung taught us about archetypes.  I think of Manjushri as the archetype of wisdom, an aspect of our own mental nature that knows things for what they are. Manjushri is wisely alive in all of us, but we tend to be out of touch with that aspect of ourselves. I like to think that Manjushri is a finger pointing at the moon-like nature of our minds. This says a lot about Vajrayana practice and its power, as well as a sort of limitation.  While making the effort to cultivate the Manjushri within oneself, one can overlook what Manjushri knows.

What about that moon?  For many years I thought it was pretty foolish to be asking “where is the moon?” It is pretty easy to see.  But then again it is not always so easy to see.  When it is just barely a new sliver, or just about to disappear, it might be hard to locate. And if it is a new moon, cloaked by the earth's shadow, how would you be able to find it?

And then of course, there is the moon itself, whose silver white light is a reflection of the sun’s light.  Did the Zen masters know the source of the moon’s light? What might it mean that the luminance of our mind is a reflection of something?

And come to think of it, perhaps I really only remember one thing that Thich Thien-an taught me and not two things.  Perhaps when I looked at his meditating face I saw the peace of his moon-like mind. 

My Teachers: The Dalai Lama (3)


Kay and I had come to Dharamsala in the summer of 1992 to get advice on our meditation practice from the Dalai Lama, and he had advised a one month long retreat.  But the retreat expanded to a three month retreat, and then a follow-on retreat, and our plans for further travel around Asia receded and receded.  As we both agreed, what could be better than living on the grounds of the Dalai Lama's monastery? Why go anywhere else? So we didn't, and eventually all the time we had set aside for travel was used for meditation.  But I did have obligations to be fulfilled back home, so when the spring came it was time to leave.  

Five days before leaving Dharamsala we met with His Holiness for about half an hour. He asked if our practice had produced any benefit and we asked for guidance for our future practice. He told us, among other things, not to isolate ourselves when we returned to the U.S., but to engage with people, and that if we did so our practice would become stronger, it would grow.

At the beginning of our audience I had a strange sensation, something I'd not experienced in previous private audiences, a feeling or perception of a discrepancy between His Holiness' actions and his person or being. It was as if his laughter was a mask, that there was something else beneath the appearance. Kay spoke to him about her experiences of seeing him in public; she spoke about her feeling that so many times he had been smiling or looking at her, and mentioned my comment that I believed she was merely experiencing his vast bodhicitta which radiated on everyone so that they all felt his attention was just for them. Then, as in our previous interview, he showed us the human nature that coexisted with the bodhisattva nature. He told us that he acted as people expected him to act; whether he was feeling pain or sorrow, he gave people joy and smiles. What I had been experiencing as a disjunction between the mask and the underlying personality was just this: what might be falsity or a persona in another was, in fact, the power of his practice. Bodhisattva activity did not merely emerge from him, like light from a flame -- he practiced it. With this insight that even a bodhisattva, like the one I was talking to, had to continuously practice bodhisattva activity the romanticism of my metaphysical idealism shattered. In this, his work was no different than my own.

Yet, there was something else. All during our audience, and especially as he and Kay talked, I watched the cascades of energy that passed through and around him. Behind the conversation and the kindnesses, behind even the personality, was something else. His physical person seemed like the tiny tip of the proverbial iceberg, and the non-physical Dalai Lama, below the surface of the waters of physical appearance, was vast. This deep self was like an invisible master who pulled the strings of the material puppet of the body that sat in the room with us. Watching this aspect of him thrilled me. His movements were animated by this energy, they seemed controlled by it. At one point in his conversation with Kay his body shifted from leaning forward towards her to sitting bolt upright. At the same time, his eyes unfocused their piercing look and settled into a kind of full field awareness that seemed to be taking in some larger whole. At the same time, the energy in the room shifted and, later, I realized that in those moments our relation with him had also shifted. What had he seen? With that shift in posture the quality of our interview changed in some way which was difficult to discern until its very end.

As we stood up to leave Kay and I both joined our hands in a prayer mudra and bowed our heads to him. Suddenly we both found ourselves being embraced by His Holiness, our foreheads on his chest, his arms enfolding us. The embrace lasted for what seemed like minutes, and he whispered a few words to us.

When we returned to our room I realized that I was both stunned and shaken by his embrace. Kay and I spoke a little to each other, but mostly sat quietly with our feelings. I realized that His Holiness had implanted some sort of energy in me that would forever change my relationship to him. I wondered if between this and his Monlam initiation and teachings, I was now truly his disciple? He had not said so, but I reflected on his comment at our previous audience that with the death of Tara Rinpoche we should not be in a hurry to try to find another lama. Geshe Wangdrak, Denma Locho Rinpoche and Geshe Sonam Rinchen had been incredible teachers. In fact, I felt that Denma Locho Rinpoche could be my lama if circumstances would make it possible, for when I sat with him I felt like I was sitting with a Buddha, and my heart opened and softened as my mind simultaneously became clearer and sharper. These were the signs I required, but I remembered His Holiness' instructions and did not try to establish a lama-disciple relationship with Locho Rinpoche.

Now I wondered, had His Holiness meant that we should not look for a lama because he was our lama? That was too much to hope for, too preposterous; such thoughts indeed seemed arrogant. Yet I knew that establishing such a relationship was a mutual testing over time. In 1983, when I had first asked Tara Rinpoche for a Manjushri initiation, he had refused. For five years he watched and waited, and then in 1988 he gave me the initiation I requested. Was this what His Holiness was doing? Did he even take on western disciples? And if he did, what would that be like? My old friend and colleague Bob Thurman had said that His Holiness did not even take on Tibetan disciples directly, but would send them to other lamas for instruction. Might that happen for us? There was no way to know what, if anything, was happening; we could only wait and allow things to unfold in accordance with our karma and merit. We had followed his instructions from our first interview, and their fruit was an amazing seven months of practice at Namgyal Monastery. What would be the fruit of following the guidance given at this second interview?

He had told us that it would be good to come back to Dharamsala again to recharge ourselves after some time in the west. Perhaps our questions would be answered when we returned. If we returned.

During these last days in Dharamsala His Holiness' presence was always with me. He quietly sat in my heart and pervaded the space around me. At that time he was involved in a western meditation teachers' conference which was meeting both in town and at his palace. Word of some of the proceedings leaked out. Something His Holiness was reputed to have said stuck in my mind as his final teaching for me. A friend of a friend who was attending the conference had told her that His Holiness had said that the Buddhadharma could be boiled down to three things: refuge, bodhicitta and impermanence. Up until our last audience I had not thought much about refuge. Now its profundity was apparent. Without taking refuge in the lama who is the living manifestation of the lineage, how could one practice, how could one purify the mind stream, how could one develop the correct view? That this had not been patently obvious to me in this specific form called "refuge" could only be attributed to subtle and coarse forms of western arrogance, a refusal to accept dependent arising in the form of the relation of the lama and disciple. But unrequested, His Holiness had given us refuge in his arms, in his embrace.

Now I also began to understand why Geshe Sonam Rinchen had criticized me for coming to him for answers while going to other lamas for blessings. He had said that I needed to learn that these two were inseparable. His words had been a stinging rebuke, a wound that had pained for months. Yet on the day before we left Dharamsala, when we went to see him to say goodbye, he was warm and his eyes were full of affection. He gave us advice about our practice and reminded us that transforming the mind was to be practiced bit by bit, moment to moment from morning to night. This was real spiritual practice he said, thinking about these things, transforming the mind through this way of thinking and understanding. Spiritual practice was more than just doing meditation.

His Holiness had told us to engage with people when we returned home, not to isolate ourselves, and to return to Dharamsala to "recharge." But that was not so simple to do.  Apart from teaching, few jobs granted time for travel to India. And making a living as a professor was not my fate.  We would not return to Dharamsala and another audience with the Dalai Lama until 2001. By then Kay had started painting thankas and she requested the meeting with him to discuss her work and gain some guidance.  I thought I was coming along to the audience as company, and had no specific reason to meet with him. But as his brother Thubten Norbu had said to me back when I was a graduate student, you cannot be in the presence of beings such at the Dalai Lama without extraordinary things happening.

As Kay talked to him about thanka painting I enjoyed his company.  We had greeted him in the usual way, offering scarves, but instead of taking the scarves and returning them to us as a blessing he had set them by his side.  Throughout our time together my mind kept asking, would I get the scarf back as a blessed memento or not? Finally, as the conversation approached its conclusion, an attendant came in with a small tray in his hands. Two little bronze buddhas sat on the tray, and I thought, how wonderful, we had each received such statues from him at the conclusion of previous audiences, now I would receive a third one!

The conversation with Kay came to its conclusion and he stood up. The attendant put the tray to his side, he picked up a small buddha statue and began to hand it to me, and then stopped. He looked at me and said, "Often when I have visitors I like to give them a small statue. But I don't want to do that unless my visitors are Buddhists. Are you a Buddhist"? I was dumbfounded, almost speechless. How could I answer such a question? I had been meeting with him over a period of almost 20 years, and he knew quite well that I had translated Nagarjuna, had been Tara Tulku's disciple, was now Locho Rinpoche's disciple and had been on retreat in his own monastery. What did he mean, was I a Buddhist?

This was serious. Was I REALLY a Buddhist?  What made a person a Buddhist if the question was now in the air? I stammered, "Yes, I am.  At least I hope I am." He placed the small statue on his head to bless it and handed it to me. Without further conversation he blessed the second statue and handed it to Kay. Then, at my request, we stepped outside to have a group photo.

Dharamsala, 2001

We walked back to the Green Hotel, and I kept wondering, am I really a Buddhist? Clearly this had not been a question but a challenge. Could I be a Buddhist? Nine years earlier His Holiness had said that the Buddhadharma could be boiled down to three things: refuge, bodhicitta and impermanence. To be a Buddhist meant that one took refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, viewed existence as impermanent and expressed the bodhicitta attitude in their life. Had I really done these things? That was the challenge the Dalai Lama had posed to me. How serious was I? What was lacking?  How hard would I work at the Buddhadharma? He had shown me how hard he worked at it. The question was like a Zen koan. It would stick in me mind for years. Was I really a Buddhist or just pretending?

The question would return again and again. Over the years Kay and I would attend many of his teachings and initiations in large public gatherings and he would challenge the audience's seriousness in sometimes gentle and sometimes strict ways.

In 2013 I joined many of my students in a gathering with His Holiness on the subject of Buddhism and Ecology. 13,000 people sat in Portland Oregon's Moda Center to listen to His Holiness and a panel of experts talk about the ecological challenges facing our world. At the conclusion of the day's events the entire audience rose to offer scarves to him, and stepping to the lip of the stage he in turn offered visualized scarves to everyone in the audience. Then he waved goodby to the audience in the auditorium, turned and took several steps away form the edge of the stage, stopped and returned to face the audience. Complete silence filled the hall. In a totally impromptu manner he said that we all were the same human beings, we all had the same human potential. He had become what he was by working to cultivate and develop that potential and we could do the same. In fact, that was our responsibility.

He turned and left the stage, leaving 13,000 stunned people holding white offering scarves. Again I had to ask myself, was I really a Buddhist? And there again was his challenge: how much effort was I willing to make?

My Teachers: The Dalai Lama (2)


Tara Rinpoche’s dying blessing for Kay and I altered the direction of our lives. Perhaps we should have expected it, but the mundane mind seems unable to grasp the profound currents running through profound events, such as a dying lama’s final blessing for his students.

Rinpoche’s final words to Kay were "You and David have my blessings. Go to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama to find out what to do next in your spiritual practice."

Rinpoche’s blessing was the cause of our meeting with the Dalai Lama just over a year later, but the condition for it was the end of my teaching contract with Kennedy University. That rather unpleasant experience was to reveal to me that what looks like a disaster from one perspective can be a profound opportunity, even a blessing, from another perspective.

Dharamsala is the second wettest spot in India, and we spent over a month enduring the monsoon rains of the late summer of 1992 while we waited and hoped for a personal meeting with the Dalai Lama. Then suddenly one morning the message came that a time had opened up that afternoon if we wanted to come. Of course we did, and in the early afternoon took a taxi to His Holiness' palace. It was called a "palace" as a matter of respect, for in actuality it was just a complex of simple, low buildings and bungalows. We were greeted at the wrought iron gates by Tibetan and Indian guards who escorted us into a small one room octagonal brick building set in the wall by the gates. There they recorded our passport numbers and searched us. We were told that a last minute interview had been scheduled with some Australian journalists, and this would delay our meeting. I passed the time alternately feeling nervous and excited. Sometimes I tried to read the Tibetan literature scattered on the tables in the room, or admired the blue Tibetan carpets set on the narrow benches built into the eight sides of the room. Then I would remember to try to compose my mind for the meeting. In a few minutes it would wander again or I would make some brief comment to Kay or just look around the room. Sixteen persons could sit comfortably on the benches, but there was no one there besides us.

Finally a secretary came for us and led us up a low hill to the bungalow where the Dalai Lama held various meetings and audiences. We walked through beautiful grounds, well maintained and planted in bamboo, thick grass and various flowering shrubs and trees. We waited another fifteen minutes in the anteroom next to the audience room where His Holiness was talking with the Australian journalists. I remembered the room from my previous audiences. There were a number of display niches with various fine bronze or silver sculptures and several lovely paintings hung on the walls along with some awards which had been presented to His Holiness. The Tibetan carpet on the floor was of course lovely, and had the sort of understated design with large open spaces which was typical for the palace. It was in marked contrast to both the design and quality of the rugs for sale in town. The chairs were large and upholstered, though a bit frayed at the edges. In one way it all seemed familiar. Yet something just beyond my awareness seemed different.

Finally I placed it: I could not hear any screeching birds. As the compound was on the top of a hill, hawks, eagles and vultures often cruised in the updrafts over the compound, and their cries created a sense of tangible, almost solid spaciousness over and around the compound. To me their cries had defined the borders of a space which had seemed filled with a special atmosphere generated by His Holiness. In this space time seemed to flow at a different rate, actions seemed to have an increased significance and the space itself seemed filled with a peaceful and slightly blissful quality. It was if the Dalai Lama’s mind filled the compound and the space above it, and at those moments when he and I both had heard the bird cries our minds had merged in that space. This time, as Kay and I waited, there were no bird cries. To me their absence now was as tangible as their presence had been.

Finally the secretary returned and escorted us out another door of the waiting room onto the covered porch which connected the anteroom with the audience room. On the open side of the porch flowering pink bougainvillea hung thickly below the roof line. Potted plants were scattered along the edge of the floor. His Holiness was on the far end saying goodbye to the journalists. The secretary held his arm out for us to wait as His Holiness finished his good-byes and made some comments to his appointments secretary. They reentered the audience room and a few minutes later our attendant escorted us in.

This small overlap of appointments gave us a last opportunity to compose ourselves by admiring the flowers.

His Holiness was standing and waiting for us as we walked in. We offered ceremonial scarves and bundles of incense to him, and he motioned us to sit on a couch beside his own chair. His translator sat across from us, ready should he be needed, although His Holiness' English was more than adequate to the needs of our conversation.

I had an impression that the room was lovely and well appointed with paintings and sculptures. But because all my attention was focused on His Holiness, and especially his eyes, I barely saw what was in the room. Only the white cloth slipcovers on the chairs and couches really registered in my attention.

As usual, His Holiness was deeply engaging and remarkably present with us. Yet, paradoxically, while his attention seemed completely with us, at the same time it seemed completely elsewhere. His eyes were deep and sparkling, inviting me to enter them and see him, yet at the same time I felt too shy to look too closely for too long.

Now, as we spoke of the reason for our visit, our grief over Tara Rinpoche's death came to the surface. His Holiness reminisced about Rinpoche with us and recalled "what a nice lama he had been," how the praise and love of those around him "had only made him more humble." He reminded us that our lama was with us whether in a physical body or not and that such a distinction was of no particular relevance.

As to what we should do next in our spiritual practice, His Holiness suggested a retreat on our meditational deity, the fierce form of Manjushri. I'd already told him we'd done four such retreats under the supervision of Tara Rinpoche, but now I expressed some concern about doing this fifth retreat, as we had never done one on our own. Could he suggest a "spiritual friend" who could give us guidance? He suggested two: Geshe Wangdrak, the current Abbot of Namgyal, His Holiness’s monastery, and Denma Locho Rinpoche, the former Abbot of Namgyal.

His Holiness recalled for us Tara Rinpoche's last visit to him before his death. Extremely sick with advanced stomach cancer, Rinpoche had traveled from Bombay to Delhi, and then from Delhi to Dharamsala. His Holiness said that during their meeting Tara Rinpoche "never thought of himself or his own suffering. He only thought of my welfare." Tears came to our eyes, oddly mixed with our smiles and joy as we reminisced about Tara Rinpoche with His Holiness. Then his posture shifted a bit and he said that it sometimes scared him that people put such faith in him. As we felt the weight he carried, I began to feel a deep concern for him, even a fear for his health and welfare. It was not hard to understand how it was that Tara Rinpoche had felt the same thing, though it was a measure of Rinpoche's practice that he felt it in spite of his own pain and imminent death. By the end of our meeting my devotion to His Holiness had been renewed. Simultaneously, my devotion had become another burden to be carried by the Ocean Lama and the foundation for my forthcoming retreat.

Giving us scarves and small statues of the Buddha, which he first blessed, he took our hands and escorted us to the door, telling us that we would be in Dharamsala a long time and to come back and see him if we had something important to discuss.

We walked down the path to the gate of the palace very carefully, as our legs seemed weak. Now there was no escort. I held Kay's arm. We shared private "knowing" smiles that spoke of our good fortune. As we stepped out the palace gate into the debate courtyard I felt that even if we were to leave India tomorrow, the trip would have been worth it.

But we would not leave that quickly, for in the half hour of our meeting the course of our entire trip was changed. We had been traveling on around-the-world tickets, beginning our journey with several months in England and Ireland. We had been anticipating a month's stay in Dharamsala, to be followed by seven months of travel throughout India and Southeast Asia before returning to San Francisco. But we followed his advice and in a natural flow first our travel was postponed for a one month retreat, and then our one month retreat became a three month retreat, and then our whole eight months in Asia ended up being spent in Dharamsala, most of it on the grounds of His Holiness’s monastery.

This was a manifestation of the Dalai Lama’s wisdom and blessings. But, having been in his extraordinary presence, it was not hard to have faith in his guidance, and act upon it by abandoning our plans. And unknown to us, the seed of yet a further blessing was wrapped in the Dalai Lama’s advice, for his guidance sent us to Denma Locho Rinpoche. And in time, Locho Rinpoche would become our second personal lama.


Parallax Vision and the Two Truths


The lamas often tell us that when doing retreat it is important to select an appropriate location. The importance of that was underscored when it came time to write about Tara Rinpoche. My friend Loy kindly lent us a seaside condo south of Los Angeles so I could meet with my brother, who was out for a conference. But Kayla and I stayed on to take a bit of vacation by the sea. The expansiveness of the ocean worked its power on me, both positively and negatively. The mythologists tell us that oceans are symbols of the unconscious mind, and my mind truly was stirred up by the power of the waves and the very ocean itself. Passively transmitting great powers of earth, wind, sun and moon, vast in its spaciousness, it stirred up my unconscious sediment. My feelings for Tara Rinpoche and the story of my relationship with him were stirred. The quiet and general freedom of the place also opened my sensitivity in other ways. For the first time I felt the sea to be frightening in its relentlessness. I had never before felt this. Growing up near this very environment I had always felt the seashore as a place of freedom, beauty and delight. Of course it was still that, but another side now revealed itself to me. My dreams were disturbed and I frequently felt a strong sense of anxiety. Over four mornings Kayla was awakened by a male voice calling "Kay." It was not me.

Morning meditation was often an engagement with the opaque and uncomfortable stirrings or with profound anxiety.

One morning, after my usual guru yoga and Manjushri practice, I just sat with my anxiety and looked at it in the manner Zachoeje Rinpoche had taught me. I could see, at least momentarily, its basis in my sense of separation from my world. It is true that we are all individuals, separated from our environments. Much of youth is a task of developing our sense of "I" or ego as apart from the world and people around us, especially parents. Without this ego we simply lack powerful agency and cannot function in the world. Yet that very separation is a source of discomfort, which in an extreme form is an alienation from the world.

Buddhists have a doctrine called "The Two Truths." The conventional truth is the reality of the separation and interconnection of all objects and persons. But the ultimate truth is the fact of their emptiness of permanent, tangible, independent reality; the truth that we construct everything as an object of our experience irrespective of its externality. 

For some time it has seemed to me that the Buddhist path is all about reconciling these two truths.

It may seem strange that there can be two truths and not just one when it comes to cognizing something, but it is the case. These two truths do not contradict, they are two ways of cognizing one thing. One way of cognizing is that of the absolute non-separateness of everything. This is a state so profound that one cannot even cognize "two." For most of us such a state cannot even be experienced, or perhaps rarely at most. But if we get a glimpse of it great peace pervades us. Usually we are locked into dichotomies of subject and object, locked into "I want" or "I don't want" or some fear, or even pain. This experience is also true; it is conventionally true to the extent that we experience ourselves as individuals. How does this come about? As I am writing this short essay Kay is on the other side of the kitchen bending over to pour a glass of water. Suddenly she groans. She has twisted her lower back in just such a way that after a week of exercise and the tiring of her muscles they give way. The pain absolutely individualizes her. And it individualizes me as I empathetically experience her agony and as my own fears arise.

These feelings are completely real and overwhelm my sense of "non-two". Yet at the same time they ironically reinforce our interconnectedness because we share the pain in some way, and both know that we will share the consequences of the injury, though differently. We are two and not-two at the same moment. 

There are many ways spiritual traditions have tried to communicate this. The two truths doctrine is one way Buddhists have done so. Understanding this doctrine of cognition is a challenge. An even greater challenge is ascertaining the unique value of attempting to bridge these two ways of cognizing. In Amherst I began to read Gregory Bateson's writings and developed an appreciation for his thoughts about the significance of our having parallax vision. That is, due to their separation on our face each eye sees a different field of vision, but the brain reconciles these into a unified visual cognition, and adds something new: depth. The perception of depth is what Bateson called "the bonus of information" that arises from the way the brain reconciles two fields of vision. I've seen this, in a metaphoric sense, to be a powerful epistemology. So I ask, what is the bonus of information about life gained by cognizing phenomena from the two positions of the two truths?

Here I am reminded of a Zen story about a monk who was being chased by a tiger. Suddenly the monk finds himself on the edge of a cliff overlooking a deep ravine. The tiger approaches hungrily and the monk jumps over the edge, grabbing a tree root sticking out from the cliff several feet below the edge. Now free from the tiger, he has no chance to be relieved because a mouse comes out of a hole next to the root and begins to nibble through the root. Just before the root is severed the monk looks to one side and sees a flower. Captivated by its beauty, he drops any concern about tiger, mouse, root or ravine. He is totally engaged with the moment, which is complete beauty. Here is a man who can live within both truths in a single moment.  


Spring in Laguna Beach

In a rather less extreme way, I have found that the parallax created by studying and practicing within multiple traditions of Buddhism has enriched my understandings. The Chinese, Koreans and Japanese excelled at using metaphor, such as the story above, to communicate profound truths. The Tibetans excelled at systematic and detailed logical organization of Buddhist teachings. Shifting back and forth between these traditions has been one form of parallax for me, with each perspective highlighting something which might be obscure in the other. And because I am a modern person living in a multicultural world, I also have found my understandings enriched by the parallax created by Hindu views and the views of modern science.

It has seemed to me that truth is a gem with many facets, which reflect the light into each other, building its strength and power of penetration. 

But there is a danger. I am reminded of a story told by the great Hindu teacher Ramakrishna. A farmer went out into a field to dig a well and after digging down ten feet in one location decided there was no water there. He moved to another location and dug ten feet. No water. He moved to a third and a forth location and dug ten feet in each. Still no water. So he gave up and abandoned a field that sat on a huge water table -- twenty feet under his sandals. The difficulty with the parallax approach to engaging with multiple spiritual traditions or disciplines is that one might not reap the benefits of any one which might have been pursued with tenacity. But of course tenacity can generate narrow mindedness. So this is our quandary.

I asked both Tara Rinpoche and Locho Rinpoche if I should practice some sadhana other than Manjushri. Though their comments were separated by many years they said the same thing. Just do the one practice; it is enough for you and will teach you everything you need to know. Perhaps the virtue of my many practicing under the direction of several teachers before whole heatedly committing myself to the practice given me by Tara Tulku is that I could allow the wisdom of the parallax perspectives to emerge without wavering in my commitment to the incredibly rich and complex practice he gave me.

Engaging in this practice here by the edge of the Pacific I have been straddling several worlds. For what seemed like endless moments an unexpected depth opened up and all was one peaceful truth of existence -- like the great ocean, complex in its nature but appearing like one great expanse. Yet within that great one I also sit with complexity and with my anxiety.

On the western horizon, before dawn breaks, an eclipsed full moon refills itself as it sets. Briefly, as the sun approaches the eastern horizon behind me, the moon turns red, then silver again as nearly full, it fades and disappears completely into the marine layer of fog. A perfect end to my little retreat, as I sit on the edge of land and sea, just midway between sun and moon.


Lunar eclipse, April 4, near Laguna Beach