We lost a good one today. One of the best ones.
Exactly two weeks ago today I was having tea with Shamar Rinpoche, talking about the future of Buddhism in the West, the future of his centers in Europe and the States, and my own future as a practitioner, disciple, aspiring teacher, and dutiful minion in the operation of Dharma centers in the Karma Kagyu lineage. For nearly the first time in my life, I had had the courage to ask for something I wanted, to nudge and persist and dare because it felt important. And I got it. An interview with my teacher. The guide I had been following, but from afar, for the last eight years of my life.
When I discovered the Dharma as a wayward seventeen-year-old in New Zealand, the woman who introduced me to meditation and the teachings of the Buddha was a student of Shamar Rinpoche. When I chose to pursue the spark of recognition I felt with Buddhist practice and philosophy, I did so at a Bodhi Path, the network of centers set up by Shamar Rinpoche around the world. When I chose to leave California in search of a life rooted in the Dharma, the teachers who directed me on my way were under the guidance of the very same. When I arrived in India, I had the incredible fortune to meet Shamar Rinpoche’s primary disciple the Karmapa, the young successor in the Karma Kagyu lineage. I even crossed paths with Shamarpa himself, but I didn’t dare say hello, so intimidated was I by this figure who had so deeply influenced my life, without ever even knowing who I am.
And then, a month ago, I picked up the phone at the Lama House with my usual, “Maison des Lamas. It’s Jourdie,” only to hear an imperious, “Hello! Where is Jigme Rinpoche?” It only took me a few sentences of Tibetan inflected English to realize that the voice on the other line was none other than the holder of the lineage, my guide from afar, the one-and-only Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche. Made ever more clear when, while I was scrambling to find some one who could answer his question more precisely than me, he said, “You are the American girl. I am Shamar Rinpoche.” Not only did I know who he was, but, rather more surprising, he knew who I was. While I ascertained that Jigme Rinpoche was not in France, was in Spain, was in Malaga, was gone for the next five days, Shamarpa asked me questions about my life. “So, you are well in Dhagpo? You have not yet visited the center in Germany? You are too busy eating French salami and baguette!” When I mentioned I had been baking my own bread he said, “Ah, and when will you come to bake bread in Virginia? We are beginning to set up the dining hall. We will talk when I come.”
He left me in a swirling frenzy, wondering if I would be plucked by fate and necessity from a life I love to some other calling, useful but unexpected. Shamarpa is famous for this, turning your whole life on its head to teach you to be flexible and light with your attachments. He’s famous for not showing up for teachings or showing up in countries other than those pre-decided. He’s famous for bringing storms and wrecking plans—I can testify to this as I lived through the most perilous rain and power outages that I’ve yet seen in the Dordogne, plus a wind that shattered half the Lama House’s fancy dinner service two days before our major event. He’s famous for dispensing with ceremonial procedure in one context and demanding it with vehemence in another. He’s famous for being unpredictable, blunt to the point of harshness, and utterly unwilling to bend to norms designed to make people feel comfortable if they don’t also make them more aware.
He’s not famous for being gentle, cajoling, and avuncular. He’s not famous for being patient, direct, and reassuring. And yet, I never felt so cared for in my life as when speaking with him. As if my every uncertainty was acceptable, worthwhile even. As if I could lay all my hopes and fears on the table before him, and together we might find the sense in them. It was for this that I asked to meet with him while he was here. Knowing he’s busy aiding all beings all the time, knowing he’s looking after dozens of centers and projects and teachers, knowing I’m small and recent and have other people to look after me. He made me sure that I have something to offer and that it’s worth taking the time to figure out how best to do so.
And so we had tea. I brought a basket of offerings from a ceremony at the center and a white silk prayer scarf, traditional ceremonial things that I felt slightly uncomfortable about. And then I brought things from me. An artisanal salami from the nearby town. A letter to tell him the things I feared I would not be able to say out loud. I set the basket of offerings on the table, where it stayed until probably ten minutes after I left, when some one brought it back to Dhagpo to be eaten the voracious, worldly beings that are myself and my cohort of volunteers. The prayer scarf I kept in my pocket.
I gave him the salami right away, and he tapped it on his head, as one would with a sacred text in blessing. I gave him the letter, which he read on the spot. I swallowed hard, smiled at my nervousness, and reminded myself of my commitment. The letter said, “I’m all in.” I’m here for you, for the activity of the lineage, for the benefit of beings, from now until enlightenment. Understood: I’m terrified and limited and even though I doubt my own capacity to reach this thing called enlightenment, I know that you don’t, and I am confident that this is the thing absolutely most worth doing with this life. So here is my life. My heart and my mind and my hands and all of my wishes. Help me find the way.
He read it and laughed, folded it up, and offered it back to me. I told him to keep it, not because I thought he’d do anything with it, but because I needed that, to give my commitment in a concrete way. Then we talked about France and Virginia and California and long retreats and teaching English and maybe one day teaching dharma. We talked about tradition and culture and the Western mind. He told me some people don’t accept philosophy because they want their teachers to be deities. “They don’t believe we are quite human,” he said. “We are one hundred percent human.” I realized I didn’t quite believe it myself.
He told me to stay at Dhagpo, to study, to train myself enough to teach, if I can. He told me things in an hour that will help me decide my life for as long as I live it. And when I ran out of questions to ask, he closed his eyes and fell half asleep. Part of me wanted to stay, just a little while, to keep feeling cared for. And part of me realized it was time to go, to start to live the wish that his care will carry me and I will learn to take care of myself.
I said, “Thank you Rinpoche,” and he opened his eyes. He pushed back his chair, stood up, and lifted his arms. I walked over and tucked my head toward my chin, hands together at my heart. He touched his hands to both sides of my head, and in the space of the blessing I said grace for all beings. I remembered the prayer scarf in my pocket, unrolled it into my hands and said, “a little tradition, not too much,” as he had said to me earlier. He touched my temples again, and placed the scarf over my neck. I grinned. He smiled at my gleefulness and nodded his head. I walked out the door and back to the car and went to do groceries, to carry out my commitments, to train in benefitting beings.
I woke up this morning like usual. Took my vitamins, filled my offering bowls, sat down to meditate. Partway through the practice, I felt a touch of pain in my eye, and when I stood up, the white was completely bloodshot. I googled “emotional significance conjunctivitis” to no sensible result, then shook my head at my superstitious-ness, put on my glasses, and went to breakfast. Nybou saw me walking up the stairs and stopped still, staring. I wondered if the veins in my eye were that visible, or if it was a new way to say good morning. When I got close, he blinked twice, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I have bad news. Shamar Rinpoche had a heart attack in Germany this morning. He’s dead. It happened about half an hour ago.”
I closed my eyes over the glaring veins and cursed Google, and impermanence, and everything I have left to learn. I ate breakfast, and trained a volunteer, and turned in circles around the stupa with my stupefied family. Then I walked into an empty room and fell to my knees and cried.
Not for him, but for me and for us. I feel small and recent and uncertain. I feel like so many of us are. I feel like I found my family, and now a crucial part of it is gone.
People keep telling me that he’s not gone. His wisdom abides. Body changes, but the nature of mind remains. And it’s true, I know; I suppose; I guess I’ll accept. The lineage is intact. Thank goodness for Karmapa and Jigme Rinpoche and all the teachers who remain to guide us. And reincarnation is a thing the masters know how to handle, and probably he’ll come back. I’m making wishes; we all are. And his activity continues, and the centers carry on. I’m making wishes for that too; we all are.
But you know what? Screw rationality and stoicism, just a little. I need them and I get it and I’m grateful that things are clear—support each other, support the Dharma, develop wisdom and be devoted. But at the same time, I’m in mourning and I’m mortal and we all are and this just really sucks. So the tears come and I let them.
And I hope you come back soon and that I’m stronger than I think I am. And I love you and I’m grateful and I’ll follow your instructions, even if I don’t find this final lesson very funny.
Safe travels teacher. Shamarpa chenno (heed me).
Photos by the excellent and talented Tokpa Korlo Mendel, Dharma brother and California homie.