Heritage

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Our study retreat finished this week. On the last day, Khalsang Puntsok told a story about the end of the Buddha’s life. The Buddha, with his attendant Ananda, went into to the forest to find the right place to pass into his final meditation and leave this life. As he lay between two trees, the gods sent a rain of flowers and the trees bowed down. The Buddha asked Ananda if Ananda thought that this pleased him.

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Ananda said yes and the Buddha, replied that, no, this was not what was important to him. Then he asked Ananda to summon all of his disciples. The Buddha’s disciples gathered from near and far, but there was one monk who did not come. Others set out to fetch him, but the Buddha said to let him be. He was practicing and it was good that he continue, and this, in fact, is what the Buddha wished for, that his disciples would be diligent and practice what he taught them.

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This is about the right conclusion for us now. We have eleven months to work through all we received in order to be ready for the follow-up next year. Pretty straightforward.

But I admit, all through the story, I was expecting, in part, a different emphasis. A famous aspect of the story of Ananda and the Buddha’s parinirvana is that the Buddha gave Ananda several opportunities to request for him to stay and not to die at this time, but Ananda did not realize until it was too late.

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I thought of Shamar Rinpoche and how many of us must have asked ourselves what chance we missed to make the right request. Listening to Khalsang Puntsok these last five weeks, I realize how close we are in many ways, all of Shamarpa’s students. In Nepal this summer, the monks and nuns from Asia were mostly a sea of burgundy to me. Hearing KP tell stories of playing soccer with Shamarpa, of a torrential downpour that stopped on a moment when Rinpoche addressed a gaze to the sky, of the stories that Shamarpa told them at Kalimpong Shedra that they are telling us now here in France…it’s strikes me how little separates us, how much we are indeed family.

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We didn’t grow up speaking the same language or eating the same food. I am sure many of us never imagined we would see or set foot in the other’s home country, but when we meet to talk about the Dharma, we share the same roots. And whatever chances we may have had or missed or that were never really there, the Shamar Rinpoche we knew is gone, and in his place he left us his teachings and also each other.

And so the Buddha had it right, as usual. What there is to do is to share them and to live them, together. Also to remember that our heritage is not just that of Shamar Rinpoche or the Kagyu lineage, but that of the Buddha himself. And the family is not only those of us who love and learn from the same masters, but all beings, whatever their creed or calling.

I guess that’s about where five weeks of philosophy gets me; now it’s back to the salt mines to put it all to work. The steam-infusing vacuum machine and pre-Lhosar deep clean await!

Day 5: Karmapa Comes And Meaning Comes

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In the pocket of my purse, I have one crushed marigold. I slid it off a thread this morning outside the monastery. Its cold, soft petals yielded against my fingertips. Strands and strands of flowers hung over the truck that carried Rinpoche to us yesterday. After all the uncertainty and all the waiting, it now feels only natural that he is here. He couldn’t have made this easy; it wouldn’t have been his style.

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Today was a card catalogue of varicolored moments. The deep red of the practice room and the oily tan slick of butter tea as our voices intoned the words for “calling the lama from afar.” I held the notes with my whole heart. A blue-grey house of juxtaposed rectangles, where I waited to serve tea, and the burgundy robes of the monks I met there. Rabke, from Kalimpong shedra, the academy from whence will come many or most of our future teachers, said to me, “Rinpoche told us that we will study hard and when we finish we will each work three years for him and then we can choose where we will go to teach. He said to us, ‘You are all my sons, and you will do as I ask.’”

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He paused quiet for a moment and then added, “We are very lucky to have known such a great lama.” I thought of the waves of Bordeaux-cloaked bodies, the sea of shaved heads, bare left shoulders, and open gazes. I wonder, “Who are these young men and women that look so alike to me?” Each of them has likes and dislikes and memories and dreams of his and her own, and each of them, like me and the band of Westerners whose stories and ways and wonderings I know much more in detail is mourning. We are so many orphans.

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The afternoon was colored brown, the lacquer tint of the biography booklet I handed out by the hundreds, winding my way through the rows of meditators and offering Asian style, the book in my right hand with my left hand to my elbow as a gesture of respect to give with both hands. There was a slash of green as I sat on the hillside, staring over the valley at the old monastery, a cappuccino colored compound tucked behind the new brick buildings. The ten-year retreat monks live here, nearly the last handful of practitioners in the modern world who keep all 253 traditional vows of the ethical discipline. And just in front, on the opposite rooftop, the cremation stupa received its final adornments for tomorrow’s ceremony. I saw a Pantone of silk flags and painted medallions. The rest is shrouded, waiting for the final moment.

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Dusk fell blue-grey with a smear of rainbow beside the monastery. I wondered if it was a nod from Shamarpa to his disciple. The bands of color appeared just as we assembled to receive Karmapa on his arrival. The road turned crimson and gold with robes and prayer scarves as thousands of people lined the street in welcome and expectation. “We are like children at times,” I couldn’t help but think. I stood by the door a ways back, to see but hoping not to disturb. After the flags and horns and drums had past, Karmapa alit from the car and the crowd pressed forward to meet him.

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All of the love and eagerness fused into a collective surge. The flowers meant to be strewn at his feet jumped out of the offering hands from the impact of those behind. Golden petals struck Karmapa’s temples and his brow. I tried to step back but found myself moved forward. Jigme Rinpoche appeared, sentinel and protector, striding forward, his sturdy arms pressing back the bodies like Moses parting the Red Sea. My eyes stung and my throat closed. I glimpsed for maybe spare seconds a raised arm, a focused gaze, the tops of their precious heads, but just this–and awareness hit me like the salty cold of the ocean.

It’s not a memory or an idea. It’s not a concept and it’s not so clear in words. It’s a sudden snap of understanding. Blessing so often feels like a rising light, something gentle and clarifying. This was like a breaking window. All of the holds barred inside of me exploded like shattered glass. There are no more adjustments or attempts for revisions–this is living and we are here. Tomorrow, something ends and something new begins. E ma ho!