My Teachers: Tara Tulku (2)

Tara Rinpoche left Amherst at the end of the winter of 1984. All that academic year I had been trying to find a full time teaching position, but without any success. I had only come to New England because of Holly's internship and I began to wonder why I was staying. I never felt comfortable in the eastern USA -- circumstances simply kept me there. Without finding success in what I wanted to do, I thought, why not just "roll the dice" and go back to San Francisco, which is where I had always wanted to be anyway.

Naturally, as soon as I made that decision, my karma intervened. Walking across a street one evening I more or less bumped into Jan Willis, a Buddhist scholar who was teaching at Wesleyan University, just down the Connecticut River Valley. We chatted about what we were doing and she asked if I wanted to be her sabbatical replacement in the coming year. Ah, I thought, a year of teaching at Wesleyan might help me land the tenure track position I was seeking, and even if it didn't, the job would provide me an opportunity to finish writing the introductory chapters for the Seventy Stanzas.  By then I had a contract for publication, and this was a clear opportunity to finish what had turned into several years of labor. San Francisco would have to wait for a year.

My luck finding a teaching position did not improve during my year at Wesleyan so I took off for San Francisco in June. I quickly found an administrative position at Stanford. It was not the sort of position I really wanted, but it paid the bills while I searched for the sort of job I did want. By then I had given up on becoming a professor. I wanted a life and I wanted a wife, and it was clear that if I wanted those things I was going to have to give up on being a professor and commit to being an administrator.

Once again, as soon as I gave up, my karma intervened, though what it brought was a complete surprise. John F. Kennedy University, located on the east side of the Berkeley hills, recruited me to be the Dean of its Graduate School of Consciousness Studies.The post went with a faculty appointment. My experience in academic administration, Counseling Psychology and Religious Studies had made me a perfect fit for a really unusual job. It would be packed with financial and personnel challenges, but it also would put me in touch with many of the leading thinkers who were working at the intersections of Psychology and spiritual life. And, as it turned out, it would give me tremendous control over my time.

A month or so before taking up this new post, I was looking at the notices on a bulletin board of a Buddhist center in Berkeley and saw a poster advertising lectures that Tara Rinpoche would be offering at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm, which is located on the coast north of the city. In fact, he was lecturing at the time I saw the poster. Breaking every speed limit, and miraculously avoiding the police, I arrived at his talk just as it was winding up. Rinpoche took one look at me and lit up in a huge smile. I embraced him, he pulled my beard with affection and we headed off to his room to catch up with each other. I was completely unaware of a blond woman in monastic robes sitting in the audience -- Kay, my wife to be.

The next day I met with Rinpoche, which was his last day at Green Gulch. He told me that although he was about to leave for India, he would return to the USA in a couple of years, and that at that time he would teach me to meditate. 

In the coming month I prepared to be a dean, and fate began to stir the pot. The blond woman in monastic robes had had her own meeting with Tara Rinpoche, had become his disciple and had received his blessing to do the meditation practice of White Tara, a female form of the Buddha. Recently widowed, she was spending a year at Green Gulch trying to get her life sorted out. During that time she had the opportunity to take instruction from many visiting teachers but none of them touched her as deeply as did Tara Rinpoche. He was, as Yvonne Rand had said, "impeccable" and she wanted him to be her spiritual mentor.

It took about six months before a mutual friend introduced me to Kay. She had been looking for a partner who shared her commitment to Buddhism. I was looking for a spiritual partner as well. A psychic had told Kay that she would meet someone who glowed and who was a leader in the community. When we met I had been drinking beer with our mutual friend and though Kay claims she recognized my spiritual glow as soon as we met, I have always suspected it was merely the beer. Whatever the case, we were immediately interested in each other. Things moved quickly and within a few months we were sharing a house in San Francisco with an expansive view of the Pacific. In a year we were married. I had almost everything I had been seeking. The missing piece was a fruitful spiritual practice that Kay and I could share.

Even that was soon to appear. Bob Thurman requested my assistance in sponsoring Tara Tulku's next visit to the USA. The American consulate was balking at giving Rinpoche a visa, and an invitation from my university would help pave the way. I was more than glad to assist and began to prepare for his visit.

The first part of Rinpoche's 1988 tour to the USA was to be a month long retreat in Bob's attic temple. Kay and I flew out to Amherst, not really knowing what to expect beyond the fact that Rinpoche would be teaching a fierce form of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. In fact it did not matter too much to me just what form of meditation he would be teaching. The five years I had known him had ripened my devotion and faith in him. Perhaps the need for that ripening had been the reason he had refused to teach me when I made my first request. Kay's devotion had been immediate, and he had given her the Tara initiation and taught her the Tara meditation on the day she requested a practice. I suppose I was a tougher nut to crack. It took me twenty years from the time of the Amherst retreat to understand that ripening process morefully. During those years I was often requested to teach meditation and refused. But eventually, after some resistance, I agreed and have since found that the level of commitment required for successful meditation practice is quite hard for my students to achieve.The demands of life and the vagaries of the mind make commitment quite difficult, and inner impediments are hard to overcome. Faith in the directions of a teacher make progress possible, and I have seen that without this faith deep practice is hard to achieve. I was fortunate that Tara Rinpoche had had the wisdom to understand how to generate my faith in him. Without it I doubt that I could have maintained the effort for cultivating the practice he first gave me in Amherst. Finding a teacher with such wisdom is rare and perhaps that is why few students can dive really deeply into spiritual life. I of course do not have his level of realization and cannot inspire students with faith as he could.

In fact, even with faith and devotion it was hard enough to even make it through the retreat. It was structured as a traditional "accumulation retreat", which means that we had to learn a long litany (Sanskrit: sadhana) for the fierce Manjushri and in the midst of reciting the litany with its associated visualizations, repeat (ie, accumulate) 111,000 mantras. If we did not accumulate the requisite number we would not have completed the retreat and would not actually be authorized to do the meditation practice. We sat three sessions a day for 21 days, reciting the complete sadhana each time, and accumulating mantras in the midst of the sadhana.  A fourth session was devoted to Rinpoche explaining how to do the practice, the symbolism of the visualizations and so forth. This all took place in the windowless attic temple during a humid and sweltering Massachusetts summer with aching knees and backs as constant companions. 

The retreat established the basis for our ongoing practice, but engaging in the practice on a daily basis would be a challenge when Kay and I returned to San Francisco. We were encouraged in our practice when Rinpoche stayed with us later in the summer. His visit to Kennedy University for a public lecture was part of the deal which had gotten him into the country, and I also used the opportunity to have him meet with the administrators of my graduate school in hopes he could help us sort out some interpersonal and structural issues. He was, after all, a retired abbot. He had been the leader of an ancient monastery and my own school was founded on the principle that spiritual values should inform both teaching and administration.
Tara Tulku with Kunga, his attendant, Kay and I. San Francisco 1988.

After a week with us, he left to complete his teaching tour. But before leaving he invited Kay and I to come and do a second accumulation retreat at his monastery in Bodh Gaya the following January. I could not believe I could have such good fortune not only to have the opportunity to do retreat with my lama at the site of Buddha's enlightenment, but to have a job which would give me the freedom to travel. And when we came to do the retreat, circumstances were even more remarkable than we might have imagined, for there were only four students doing retreat, and Rinpoche sat with us for the four sessions each day. Between sessions we stretched our legs by doing circumambulations of the Buddha's enlightenment stupa. But as wonderful as it was, the retreat had its share of challenges and impediments, as we eventually learned, do all retreats. I was sick for the first several days in India, and in the midst of the retreat Kay became so sick she almost died. Yvonne Rand was the third retreatant, and it was our good fortune that the fourth was a medical doctor who could treat Kay from the store of medications he had brought along, as well as intravenously re-hydrate her in our hotel room. When the retreat ended Rinpoche took us on a day-long pilgrimage to some of the area's holy places, including Vulture Peak, Mahakala's cave and the ruins of Nalanda monastery.

In the next couple of years we were able to do two more accumulation retreats with Rinpoche, one at Yvonne's home next to Green Gulch Zen Center and the second, which began a week later at Wood Valley Tibetan temple in Hawai'i. The retreat at Yvonne's had a real intimacy, as we all shared a single house.This gave us an opportunity to see elements of the maturity of Rinpoche's practice we had not witnessed before. Between meditation sessions we would sit in the garden together or take walks. As he would stroll along he would constantly reach out and touch the leaves of the shrubs. He would also snap his fingers every few minutes. When we asked why he was snapping his fingers he replied that "It is to help me remember emptiness." Perhaps the touching of the leaves was a way of remembering his interconnectedness to all things, the dependent arising of everything.

During the Hawai'i retreat I asked Rinpoche how we could best learn more about the Manjushri meditation practice in his absence. "The practice itself will teach you what you need to know." I have found this to be true, but also to be slow. It has taken years for elements of the practice to explain themselves to me, and even now the process continues.

At the end of the retreat at Yvonne's home Kayla and I met with Rinpoche for some advice, during which he made a comment that mystified us: "Now the suffering begins." We continued to wonder about this in Hawai'i. At first we thought it might be a comment about the mosquitoes that plagued us there. Then Kay received the news that her father was in the hospital. Then we heard that he was dying of cancer. She was thrown into profound conflict: stay on retreat with her spiritual father or leave to be with her biological father? That was certainly suffering. She stayed, and her father died. But her commitment to practice had an unexpected benefit when Rinpoche performed a special ceremony to assist her father's transition to a new life. The end of the retreat coincided with the launching of the first war with Iraq. We wondered if he had had a premonition about that and all the suffering the war generated. Less than a year later Yvonne called us to say that she had heard from Rinpoche's attendant that he had inoperable stomach cancer and would not live much longer. Now we knew what the suffering was about.

Circumstances at the university prevented me from going to India to see him a last time, but Kay had a dream that she should go. It fired her motivation to overcome all the obstacles and uncertainties of a sudden trip to India. And perhaps it was good that I stayed behind and made her travel arrangements while she was in motion, because she arrived in Dharamsala and was able to see Rinpoche on the last day he took visitors. Rinpoche had been one of those large Tibetans that the Kham region produced, but now he was all skin stretched over bones. But he was luminous at the same time. In Tibet he had been known as a fierce and formidable debater, but now only his sensitive compassion shown forth, even through his suffering. "Why have you come?" he asked Kay. "To see you one last time and tell you of my gratitude for your teachings." Conserving his voice, he smiled and gave her a thumbs up sign. "You should see the Dalai Lama to find out what you and David should do next for your practice." Through all his sickness his concern for his students never ceased.

The next day he would take no visitors, and the following evening he died. It seemed that most of Dharamsala attended his cremation ceremony; he was deeply beloved by the community.

Kay tried to follow his directions and meet with His Holiness, but just did not know how to arrange it, and after a couple of weeks returned home. The meeting would occur a year later.


  1. Hello Sir,I've read all your blog.Whenever i read your post,it provides me positive vibe for living.Actually, Kunga la is my own uncle.He is in India now.thanks you sharing your good experience.We appreciate it.

  2. Hello and thanks for the comment. How is Kunga-la? With Tara Rinpoche having left for the USA I am wondering how Kunga is doing and where he is? He and I have lost touch, but my affection and complete respect for him remains steadfast. Please tell him this. -- David

  3. Right now, he is in hospital.i'm sorry to tell you that he is taking ongoing treatment for his brain surgery in bangalore hospital.He can't talk and talk for a moment.I'll give him your regards when he gets better.Tara tulku is in banglore with him for his care.

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