My Teachers: Geshe Sonam Rinchen

For several years I had the good fortune to have two teachers at the same time. Helmut Hoffman was cultivating my mind and Swami Pranananda was cultivating my spirit. My personal task was to integrate what I was learning from them with what I had learned from Rudi. It was a real challenge. At one level, was I fish or foul?, as the saying goes. There was a Buddhist pull from Hoffmann and Thich Thien-An and a yogic pull from Rudi and Swami Prananda. There were also the time and energy demands of simultaneously earning a living as a counselor, being a doctoral student, and practicing meditation.  

Shortly after we married I encouraged Holly to complete her B.A. degree. She then began work on an M.S. in College Student Personnel Administration, but to complete the degree she needed an internship. An opportunity presented itself at Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts, which would put us a couple of hours drive from Swami Pranananda's residence outside of Albany, New York. We relocated to the College and it was during that time that I finished my Ph.D. dissertation.

Mount Holyoke was part of a consortium of four private colleges and the University of Massachusetts, all located in close proximity in the Connecticut River Valley. The consortium arrangements between the schools offered many unique opportunities and I began teaching part time at the University and counseling full time at Mount Holyoke . One day, while commuting by bus between Mount Holyoke and U.Mass, I found myself sitting next to one of the deans from the College. During the course of our conversation she told me about a colleague who had just been appointed Dean of the Faculty at Amherst College and was in the process of hiring her staff. Her name was Mary Catherine Bateson, a brilliant anthropologist with an equally brilliant lineage: she was the daughter and granddaughter of famous academics on both sides of her family. I thought I'd give her a call and check out the job.

Catherine and I met, discussed our mutual needs and interests and struck a deal. I would continue to teach part time at U.Mass while I worked half time at Amherst as Assistant Dean of the Faculty, she would mentor me in the art and science of academic deanships and give me summers off so I could continue my research on Nagarjuna by traveling to the Himalayas to consult with Tibetan scholars. The pay she offered was abysmal, but the learning opportunity was stellar, so I grabbed what I imagined was the brass ring.

The following summer I set off for to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, in Dharmsala, in the western Himalayas. I asked Swami Pranananda for travel advice, and he suggested I contact a student of his for assistance when I reached New Delhi. That is exactly what I did. His student was a telephone operator who conveniently worked near the hotel where I was staying and dropped by after work that day. She asked about my plans. "A train to Dharamsala, as soon as I can obtain a ticket." She immediately realized that I was a complete fool and would need her care. "This is the pre-Monsoon, hot season and everyone who can leave the city is taking a train to one of the hill stations. You will not be able to get a ticket.  But I will see what I can do." This was the early 1980s and at that time telephone operators ran India, because to talk to anyone on the phone you needed their assistance. She was owed a lot of favors, and cashed one in to obtain me a second class air conditioned compartment. At noon two days later her husband and older son put me on the train, explained the ticketing system to me, told me where to get off, and left me in the hands of the railroad gods.

Clearly the gods were smiling, because just before the train pulled out of the station two Tibetan monks entered my compartment, followed by a colonel in the Indian Air Force. The elder monk situated himself in a lower bunk, while his young attendant did the same in the bunk across from him. That left me with one of two choices and I made the wrong one, because I got into the bunk above the elder monk. I spent the night above him barely able to sleep because of the immense amount of shakti-energy he was radiating. By the time the monks and I got off the train the next day it was obvious that the elder monk was very special and I had had no business being "above" him. I pressed my luck and asked if we might share a taxi for the 50 km drive from the train stop to Dharamsala. He agreed, and we headed off toward the wall of mountains in the distance.  Half way there he asked the driver to stop so he could go into a cave by the side of the road. "Come with me and I will introduce you to the Naga who lives here." This required that we leave our shoes at the entrance to the cave, and being afraid that my only shoes would be stolen I waited outside. Mistake number two.

When we arrived in the Tibetan village above Dharamsala about 20 monks descended on the taxi, grabbed everything in sight, including my suitcase, and ushered my monk companions into a small monastery. Retrieving my suitcase I asked about the senior monk. His name was Geshe Rabten and I learned that he was one of the Dalai Lama's spiritual advisers.  I'd arrived in good company, to say the least.

The taxi then headed down a very steep road to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. I immediately went up to see the Director of the Library who was rather surprised to see me. That worried me. "This is the date I set for my arrival when I wrote you," to which he replied, "No one arrives here when they say they are going to arrive." Never the less, he introduced me to one of the senior scholars at the Library, Geshe Sonam Rinchen, who had been chosen to work with me. The main reason for my coming to the Library was that there had been an unresolved problem of interpretation in the Nagarjuna text I had translated for my dissertation and I wanted to ask the Tibetan scholars about it. None of my colleagues in the USA could resolve it, but when I asked Geshe-la about it he asked me which answer I wanted. He said that there were three answers to my question because there were three ways to interpret the problem. I knew I was in the right place and with the right person.  

Our discussions lead to a decision to completely re-translate the text, following the perspective of one of those interpretations. This would take a second summer at the Library and volumes of correspondence between Amherst and Dharamsala. Eventually our translation was published as Nagarjuna's "Seventy Stanzas": A Buddhist Psychology of Emptiness.


Dharamsala, 1983, with Geshe Sonam Rinchen (center) and Tenzin Dorjee.  I had just recovered from a couple of weeks of serious illness.

During both summers I spent my days hiking down to the Library from my hotel in the upper village to work on re-translating the text with Geshe-la and his assistant Tenzin Dorjee, and to take notes on his oral commentary. Then, waiting until late afternoon to avoid the monsoon rains, I would hike back up to my hotel for dinner and a night of editing. The next day I would show my work to Geshe-la who would refine what I had written and we would move on to another verse.

Buddhists describe Nagarjuna's philosophy as "middle way." This has several meanings, but one is that it stakes a position between absolutism and nihilism in the way in which it asserts that all phenomena are empty of their apparent identities, their autonomy or any inherent existence. Of course all this requires interpretation, and that is what all the commentary work was about. Unfortunately, midway through the second summer of work I began drifting toward the nihilistic view. This drift was not just intellectual, but personal, existential. I got depressed, and although I knew I was falling into nihilism, and discussed this with Geshe-la, I could not climb out of the ever darkening hole I was in. The emptiness of phenomena around me was looking like their nothingness. Very bad and very dangerous. A friend suggested I go see Ling Rinpoche for help.

Ling Rinpoche

Ling Rinpoche was the Dalai Lama's senior tutor and generally rumored to be enlightened. Tibetans apparently never say anyone is enlightened, but the community was of that opinion, and that was good enough for me. My friend and I trekked up to his small cottage above the Tibetan community, to be met at the gate of the compound by two huge and ferociously barking mastiffs. Catholic cathedrals might put stone gargoyles by the doors, but Tibetans are a bit more practical. An attendant came out and we explained our purpose. He checked with Rinpoche, returned to chain up the dogs and accompanied us within. We found Ling Rinpoche sitting on a cot reading letters. He was quite elderly, a bit overweight and wrinkled. But he glowed with the light of a newborn child. He never stopped reading while I explained my problem, though he glanced up at me occasionally. He eventually put down the letter he was reading, looked at me and began to answer my questions, finally telling me something like "there is a subtle part of a person which passes from life to life." I did not understand anything he told me, and certainly had no idea what he meant by a "subtle part of a person." We expressed our gratitude and left. We walked down the hill and talked about his answers, but my confusion remained. However, the next day my depression had lifted, and my mind had returned to equanimity. No more nihilism. I still did not understand what he had told me, but clearly he had resolved my problem at a level other than at that of my conceptual mind. 

In retrospect I came to understand that irrespective of my not understanding his answers, he had taught me something that I had never considered. For the student's growth, the spiritual evolution of the teacher is even more important than what the teacher teaches. This truth would show itself again when I became Tara Tulku Khensur Rinpoche's student. I met Tara Rinpoche briefly just before I left Dharamsala, but we did not connect deeply until somewhat later. For that I had to return to Massachusetts, and disconnect from Holly.

The disconnect became apparent when I walked out of customs at Logan Airport in Boston and Holly was not waiting for me. She showed up an hour later. Her lack of interest in meeting me reflected the state of our marriage. Over the last couple of years things had been getting more and more strained between us as I concentrated on my academic life and research and she tried to sort out her own future. After a couple of years of student personnel work at Mount Holyoke she had decided that her professional life lay elsewhere, though she did not know where. She did know, as now did I, that her life was not going to include me and that she wanted to live in Manhattan. By then I also felt that separation was the best thing. Through my connections at Amherst College I was able to find her a cheap living situation at Rockefeller University so she could launch her new life. She left in the fall, around the same time Tara Tulku arrived at Amherst. My life had rounded a corner and was headed off in a new direction.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! I liked the way you described such complex ideas with a concise clarity. I guess you learned that as well from those teachers, but it's great to hear you speaking with your authentic voice.I wonder what you would have experienced in that Naga cave? What a inspiring journey!

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