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.

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