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This is a personal account of a meeting with a remarkable being – a Tibetan Rinpoche. This meeting took place in October of 2003, in the small city of Burlington, in the small state of Vermont. This account is, at its center, a love story. Not one of romantic love, rather, a love from the spiritual heart center – a love between a human and another human, a brother and a brother, a guru and a disciple.
How did such a great teacher arrive in little Vermont? Rinpoche, we were told, had a vision of meditating upon a mountaintop in America. He looked at a map of the United States and selected Vermont. As part of his sojourn to America, and other destinations around the world to promote peace, he came to Vermont to meditate on top of one of our mountains and to collect precious rocks and stones.
Through my friends, I received an invitation to attend a dinner wherein a Tibetan monk would attend. I knew nothing further about the evening. I arrived a few minutes late to the dinner, racing down the sidewalk trying to remain mindful and get there at the same time. After all that rushing, I was the first to arrive.
In typical Asian style, the party had been delayed in their day tour, which included a trip to the summit of Mt. Mansfield (our highest peak at 4300 feet). The delay was occasioned by Rinpoche’s extended meditation period at the summit. Relieved that I wasn’t late, I settled into the waiting chairs by the entrance to the restaurant and continued breathing.
Sometime later, he arrived with his entourage. His appearance had a rough and raw quality. It is not hard to imagine him emerging from a remote mountain cave – hair strewn out of its ponytail to spill over his wide and radiant face, eyes ablaze. He had no gold watch, fancy slippers, or pressed robes (his robes seemed, in fact, a little dusty, no doubt from sitting on the ground atop Mt. Mansfield). He wasted no time making introductions. As he does not speak English, he made the connection without spoken language.
I stood up and he moved towards me and clasped my outstretched hands. He pulled me in and our foreheads met. And thus began the journey of the evening. Dinner consisted of polite chitchat conveyed through our translator, Dowa, a Tibetan expatriate living in Burlington. The real conversation was taking place in silence and in glances exchanged from across the table. I was still riveted in the energy that had exploded at the door, an old and familiar energy, one filled with recognition and connection to something that is always present, yet often out the reach of day-to-day consciousness. Each time our eyes met in gaze, I felt expansive and could feel the world stopping for a brief moment. It would then resume, and the conversation would go around the table.
He distributed Tibetan amulets to all the guests, an embroidered image of a Tibetan deity on one side and a representation of a mandala on the other side. The embroidered image is encased in heavy plastic. I wear this amulet around my neck at all times. It is intended to bring good fortune and freedom from harm. And more importantly, it keeps me connected to him and the evening that was unfolding before us.
I might have been fooling myself, yet it seemed there was a special connection between he and myself. It was almost as if he recognized me as someone he knew. This feeling made the hair stand up on my neck. I’ve been around gurus, teachers, and lamas before, including His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. I’ve seen the air of serenity and profundity that some teachers can project, the gilded silkiness of a Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, or the unadorned straightforwardness of a Larry Rosenberg.
Rinpoche was neither of these. He was down to earth, and not of this earth. He transmitted a directness that transcended language, culture, and time. He appeared to have no self-consciousness in the way that Westerners understand self-consciousness. When he needed to relieve himself, he simply arose from the table and moved with due haste to the restroom. Barreling is a good way to describe it. And he barreled back too. Rinpoche is a large man – almost six feet tall, with a stocky, strong build, and a youthful face. It was fortunate no one was in his path on the way to the restroom. He is a living, breathing example of a human being in process without the commentary of the mind getting in the way. The Tibetans call this state rigpa.
After dinner, we took the Rinpoche to the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlor (the present incarnation of the original Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop) on Church Street in Burlington. It is a colorful open space with dozens of items to choose from. He stared enthralled at the pageant. While we were standing on line waiting to be served, he reached out and clasped my hand. We stood there holding hands for some time. I was falling in love. He was love. And for that brief moment I was pure love too. This must have been a remarkable sight, two large men holding hands, one wearing a maroon robe and holding prayer beads.
In December of 1985, I had the great fortune to be young and traveling throughout India. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was teaching the Kalachakra tantra, which was preceded by a discourse on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. This discourse culminated in the taking of the bodhisattva vows. I did so, along with about 1000 Westerners from around the world, 10,000 Tibetan monks, and 250,000 Tibetans in exile and from Tibet.
For the almost 20 years since that event, I have been living my life attempting to figure out and realize all of its entailments. Going through my own processes to come to some understanding of what it meant to become a bodhisattva and how much work I have to do in apprehending this ideal. This chance meeting with a humble and advanced Rinpoche reawakened this memory in me and made it seem possible that I too could, in fact, live my life with openness and love.
After ice cream, our party walked down Church Street to City Hall Park to give Rinpoche a brief tour of our city. In doing, so we happened to pass by my office space. In this office I practice psychotherapy and teach mindfulness-based stress reduction courses. I have a large room fitted with chairs and meditation cushions. The ten of us entered the space, still eating ice cream. Rinpoche, like a duck entering water, glided into teaching the dharma. He gave us teachings, led us in chanting, and bestowed blessings. Not many people have such an opportunity as the small group of us had that evening. In honor of that night, I wrote this brief poem:
My long awaited brother,
seen in the instant of a glance.
I was your mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son.
You occupy this large and young body,
rough hewn and tumble movement,
with a lightness that smiles over centuries.
You closed your eyes,
ate ice cream.
You barreled down Church Street,
entered 127 St. Paul,
spoke of the Buddha,
You spoke of helping others,
of avoiding annoyance
Meditation on than ant walking from
the nose to the 3rd eye is more valuable
than all the rituals combined.
You said teach people to meditate,
to find their Buddha nature.
Be a bodhisattva.
You held my hand and made a family of strangers