My Teachers: Tara Tulku (1)

Tara Tulku, Green Gulch Zen Center, 1986

The ending of my second trip to Dharamsala was memorable for many reasons. The Seventy Stanzas had been re-translated and I had collected Geshe Sonam Rinchen's oral commentry on it.  I would return to Amherst to edit Geshe-la's commentry as well as the transcripts of my interviews with the Dalai Lama. I would also come to realize that my marriage to Holly was over, as was my relationship to Swami Pranananda. But as one door closes, another opens, for something else had occurred at the end of my visit to Dharamsala which was to have profound consequences for me. I had met Tara Tulku.

Bob Thurman had asked the Dalai Lama for a teacher of Ghuyasamaja Tantra. His Holiness had selected the retired abbot of Gyuto Tantric College: Tara Tulku Rinpoche. In rather typical Thurman fashion Bob organized the opportunity for their tutorial by arranging for Tara Tulku to be the Luce Visiting Professor of Religion at Amherst College, thus funding his travel and residence in Amherst for six months.

Prior to this trip to the USA, Tara Rinpoche visited with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. This visit coincided with the end of my own residence there, and knowing of Bob’s plans, I decided to pay Rinpoche a visit and offer my assistance in case he might have some difficulties with travel, the American embassy, or whatever. Rinpoche was staying in the home of His Holiness' tailor when I visited him. When we met he offered me a yellow scarf, which had been given to him by his previous visitor. He was simply passing it along, but never the less, he said that “it is very auspicious for you to receive it.” As usual with such things I had no idea what he meant. In no obvious way did our meeting seem significant to me. We parted in a friendly fashion and I went back to my translating work with Geshe-la.

Reflecting on my difficulties with the translation project I asked Geshe-la if he would teach me to meditate on Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. I figured that practice would help me with the editing of the oral commentary which awaited me over the coming year. "No" he would not, he replied, without any particular explanation as to why. Only much later did I learn that because his own teacher was in residence at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, protocol required that I request the initiation from him instead. But at the time I was merely mystified.

My return to Amherst was difficult for multiple reasons. Holly and I separated, and she moved to Manhattan. My discipleship to Swami Pranananda ended as well. To a significant degree it had been founded on my desire to share a spiritual life with my wife, and at the time I became his student I’d been less concerned with the character of the practice than with the richness I wanted to add to our marriage. But my disconnect with the Swami was not simply due to the fact that Holly and I had separated, but also due to changes in my relationship to him. 

Holly and I had been paying almost monthly visits to him at his residence south of Albany, NY. During one visit he and I were discussing my work and my life in Amherst, and he told me “You have bungled your life.” I was shocked beyond any ability to respond. Though I was deeply involved in trying to create a university teaching career by developing a research portfolio and publications and was teaching as much as possible, not to mention cultivating administrative skills in the Dean’s office, Holly and I were deeply impoverished and lived in a funky basement apartment. She did not have any income, and mine was inadequate. To say that we lived a stressful life would be a monumental understatement, but I felt was doing my best to create a fruitful and fulfilling future. What I needed was support from my guru, not to be told that my life was a mess and was probably not going to improve. As it turned out, in an important respect he was correct, and it would take a few years for my life to improve both materially and emotionally, but at the time I was not capable of sustaining such a critique. I stopped visiting Swami and stopped meditating in the manner in which he had taught.

So when Tara Rinpoche came to Amherst my life was a shambles on a personal level, although it was inching forward on an academic level. I began to spend as much time as possible with Rinpoche. That turned out to be more or less daily, because I attended all the classes he taught at the College, as well as the teachings he gave at the temple in the attic of Bob’s house.

About a month into his visit I approached him and asked if he would teach me to meditate on Manjushri. He replied “No” without further comment, just as had Geshe Sonam Rinchen. Again I was mystified. My relationship with Swami Pranananda was finished, so that was not an impediment. Recalling the spiritual lore of television in the form of the 1960s series Kung fu I thought that I needed to ask three times to get a favorable answer, but instead I got another “No” and then yet another “No.” That made my sense of unworthiness complete and I descended ever more deeply into the darkness as the loss of my marriage, spiritual teacher, poverty, loneliness and the Massachusetts winter coincided. It really did look like I might have “bungled” it all. I began spending so much time at Delano’s Pub that in typical Irish pub style, I began receiving messages there.

But as I wrote above, when one door closes another opens.

Rinpoche had said that he would not teach me to meditate on Manjushri, but unbeknownst to me, he simply was the embodiment of Manjushri if only I could have seen it, though I could not at the time. One winter night a number of us were gathered in Bob’s attic temple listening to Rinpoche talk about the Buddhist theory of emptiness (shunyata) and dependent origination, which were two sides of a single coin, as it were. Of course I thought I knew a lot about that, as I’d been working through Nagarjuna’s teachings on the subject with Helmut Hoffman and Geshe Sonam Rinchen. But when Rinpoche talked about the snow storm raging outside, about the kindness of the workers who were clearing the streets for us so we could walk or drive home and how our ability to conduct our lives was totally and in every moment dependent on others in just such a way I had an insight into the actuality of dependent origination which had utterly eluded me until that moment. Professor Hoffman’s and Gen-la’s teachings had been intellectual in character, and had ripened my mind, but in that moment in Rinpoche’s presence a sprout had emerged from those seeds. I saw what I had only understood. As I would learn, the blessing of the teachings of a lama who has realized what he teaches is far beyond anything merely intellectual. Though it would take me years to realize this, Tara Rinpoche had taught me to meditate on Manjushri by ripening the seeds of Manjushri within me. But realizing this would require that first I leave New England for San Francisco for a new life and a new wife, and then return to Rinpoche and Bob’s attic.

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