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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.