This article is the second in Linda Lewis’s series about Trungpa Rinpoche’s early teachings in Boulder, Colorado; you can find last week’s here.
Many of the things Trungpa Rinpoche taught us in the early days of the 70’s in Boulder arose in response to life situations, much like how the Buddha’s vinaya arose in response to questions and situations that occurred in the early days of the monastic sangha.
For example, when a young man, who had worked at Tico’s Mexican Restaurant, committed suicide, Rinpoche gave us first-time instruction in what was later to be formalized into our tonglen and sukhavati practices. Since many of us in the Boulder community knew this young man, we gathered and filled 1111 Pearl Street for Rinpoche’s talk. We didn’t particularly know that we were about to do any kind of special practice. But Rinpoche made it clear that we were going to have to practice hard on Tom’s behalf, that suicide was not a good choice nor a good way to go; that in fact, without our sincere practice, “he might come back as a crocodile!”
Those were the motivating words as Rinpoche instructed us to take on the young man’s confusion and despair as black, hot, and heavy air, and to breathe out clarity on the white and light exhalation. There was no mention of kicking off the practice with the empowering flash of absolute bodhicitta, as there is now—most of us were relatively new practitioners and would not have known what that was.
I remember we did indeed practice intensely for at least 10 minutes. Rinpoche encouraged us to feel the black, hot, and heavy, to touch Tom’s pain — which was quite difficult for most of us to do. But Rinpoche didn’t want us to “bliss out” and just relate to the white light. Meanwhile there was the audible crying of a few young women who had known the deceased, which was a vivid reminder not to wander, but to maintain practicing for Tom, to take on the negativity on the in breath and to send him as much peaceful white light as possible. At the end Rinpoche hit the gong many times in what we would later recognize as a “double roll down.” The atmosphere was utterly still with the sound of the gong resounding in our ears.
Then many of us went to North Boulder and built a huge bonfire in the backyard of a sangha couple, burning many of Tom’s old clothes and items of identity and attachment. Since we had no Sukhavati chants as yet, we recited the Heart Sutra once and did the mantra—
OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA
— for a very long time as we circled the fire. Rinpoche encouraged us to release any attachment we might have for the young man and to let him go, rather than to pull him back down with our clinging. As the smoke and sparks rose in the late afternoon sky, it did seem that we were doing just that.
This, following the intense initial tonglen practice, was vividly memorable instruction.