Confessions of an American Idiot Buddhist

Via elephant journal
on Apr 30, 2010
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japhy ryder bill schwartz

“Our true nature is not some ideal that we have to live up to but who we are right now.” Pema Chodron

Last weekend my wife and I drove to Michigan for my grandson’s little league baseball home opener and to take him off his parents’ hands for a well-deserved break.

There’s something about driving through Indiana that reminded me of His Holiness and how he planted his flag here in the middle of America..

It really is something that the 16th Karmapa chose Zion, Illinois, to pass into paranirvana in a cornfield in the shadow of a nuclear power plant.

He could have died in Rumtek Monastery surrounded by his lineage in all its Tibetan splendor but he chose to die here in a hospital bed instead.

Even back in 1981 as I watched in amazement the stream of Rinpoches who visited him I believed His Holiness was making a statement.

When he died a friend and I drove to the funeral home to pay our respects not really knowing what to do and nobody to tell us.

That was the beauty of that particular moment in time, when being devoted to the Karmapa had absolutely nothing to do with Tibet or Tibetans for me.

We sat alone on the floor in a dark freezing cold room clueless of how to proceed while His Holiness was put in a shipping crate for a flight back to India.

Each hammer blow was like a body blow to whatever I thought I was doing until all that was left was the luminous nature of my mind.

The hammering stopped and we drove to O’Hare airport and the Karmapa, the Rinpoches, everything disappeared like it was just a dream.

My eight-year-old grandson got his hands on my wife’s Blackberry and it took him around 15 seconds to get into her e-mailbox.

We had just finished having dinner at a restaurant in a popular Edwardsburg, Michigan, bait, tackle, and gun shop, and hadn’t even started the car yet.

From the back seat he complained incredulously “Grandma, you have thirty-seven unanswered messages!”

I suspect in the future he will vex his brothers and sisters in the dharma as much as I do mine these days on the Internet.

A day doesn’t pass it seems without my receiving a patronizing comment on Twitter via direct message regarding my column here.

They are absolutely correct regarding their understanding of Tibetan tradition and quite right in being shocked that I don’t give a shit.

I call it my digital Chod practice in which instead of offering my limbs to the benefit of sentient beings I offer myself just as I am to my critics.

Instead of responding as I know I should I simply respond to them as I would anyone else who gets in my grill—without regard to who they are or what they know.

When I was my grandson’s age in the 1960s living in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, my father used keypunch cards to work on a computer the size of a modest ranch house.

I still remember speeding through the rolling green countryside with the Schuylkill River barely visible from my unbuckled bucket seat to his office in Philadelphia.

He drove his Mustang like a jet test pilot to work down the wide open turnpike at the speed of light as was our Saturday morning ritual while I hung on for dear life.

There’s a Padmasambhava prophecy that “When an iron horse flies up into the sky, tantric teachings will spread widely in the land of red-faced people.”

Most people interpret “red-faced people” to mean “Native Americans” but I’ve always read it as a reference to impatient Americans like me instead.

I’ve never questioned what His Holiness wanted of the Rinpoches he sent to teach us and never will but I must confess to wanting something more.

I’m not a Tibetan Buddhist but a first-generation American Buddhist and I never signed up to be a representative of anyone but myself as far as I’m concerned.

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery but despite all that Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche means to me as my guru I’ve never wanted to become him.

Perhaps my father dying when I was thirteen, an age at which a son begins to rebel against his father, made me defiant with authority figures for life.

While everyone I knew rightly so made whatever Rinpoche wanted what they wanted I could never go there (not that I have ever not done what he told me to do).

It wasn’t for lack of devotion but more a matter that my devotion to him was unique to the causes and conditions that made me who I am as a person.

I’m looking forward to covering a teaching at the Shambhala Meditation Center of Chicago by Ari Goldfield and Rose Taylor for ElephantJournal.

I haven’t a clue how to proceed of course, but it seemed like a good idea for a column so I’ve decided to give it a shot.

If this goes well, next month I’ll cover the x-rated Sarah Palin look-alike contest at the Admiral Theater, which amused me when I read about it in Gapers Block.


Karmapa Chenno

(Please follow me on Twitter @RyderJaphy)


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28 Responses to “Confessions of an American Idiot Buddhist”

  1. Bill,

    Bless you, I really enjoyed your article. I appreciate your candor and honesty. I also appreciate that you are willing to put yourself out there, just as you are, and be an example of acceptance. Acceptance of our flawed self and flawed world is really the core of present moment awareness.

    I don't respond to piousness, I respond to "real" – and you are a breath of fresh karma!

    I wish you well dealing with your illness and I *bow* to you.

    Thanks Bill!

    And thanks Elephant Journal for giving a voice to people like Bill and others who are candid and real – I have really appreciated it, been following many on Twitter, but don't always take the time to comment and let you know.

  2. Neal says:


    I agree. Great read. Looking forward to your thoughts on being an American Buddhist. And thanks to Waylon for allowing us to read you here.


  3. Bill Schwartz says:


    This was one of those columns that when I gave it to my wife to edit I had no idea what I had written until she told me that it made her cry and described to me what I had written.

    Needless to say my dying has been a liberating experience that has not only brought my life into focus but freed me from worrying about what people think of me.

    Crossing paths with Waylon and Elephant Journal has been an auspicious coincidence in this bardo of dying in slow motion having severe congestive heart failure has been for me.

    Their readers are a rare mix of Buddhists that appreciates how I write about the dharma without pulling my punches instead of pandering to a larger audience looking for something more pious in tone.


  4. Bill Schwartz says:


    Credit Waylon for making Elephant Journal possible. I'm hoping people support it so it can continue to publish content you won't find anywhere else on the internet today.


  5. Thanks again Bill. I send my love to both you and your wife. You have a very special time of life to live through right now.

    And thanks Waylon.

    You both are the "real deal."

  6. Neal says:

    That's why I'm #2 on the subscriber list- I implore everyone to do the same!

  7. Apasara (aka MadameSoybean) says:

    Your grandson is beautiful, RJ! He picked wonderful Grandparents this.
    Your column is compassion itself…that you would share with us as you transition is a gift. As you noted, Buddhists tend to privacy, making it all the more profound to me. Looking forward to more posts & your coverage at Shambala. Thinking of that flag put me in a centered place today.

    Kop Khun Ka,

  8. Bill Schwartz says:


    I had originally thought my days of attending dharma teachings were behind me before spending the weekend with my grandson which instead of exhausting me left me feeling energized.

    I haven't a clue how to cover a dharma teaching but I'll figure that out hopefully over the weekend instead of running out of gas half way through the teaching.

    I saw Ari Goldfield here before when Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso sent him out to teach solo which was weird, being familiar with his voice as translator but not without the Rinpoche part in Tibetan.

    I haven't attended many teachings without a translator so it's still a new experience for me without the back and forth between teacher and translator I'm more accustomed to.

    With his wife Rose Taylor teaching with him, the event is billed as Ari and Rose teaching, this adds a fascinating possible dimension to the presentation.


  9. Shunyata Kharg says:


    I read that Khenpo Gangshar Wangpo, one of the primary teachers of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Thrangu Rinpoche, was transformed by a serious illness from a quiet monk to an unconventional teacher who renounced his vows, entered into a romantic relationship, and often acted strangely or outrageously. There is something about near-death experiences which are very profound and life-changing.

    Maybe the Kagyü meditation on death isn’t only about being able to accept death properly, but is somehow connected with bringing people into realms where the possibilities of profound and life-changing experiences are much higher than average.

    I think there is a fearless serenity about people who have had such experiences. Certainly it is this sensation I feel from you in your posts here to elephantjournal, a sensation that leads me the idea that there is no point at all in waiting for the right time to do or say something. You either do or say it now or you forget all about it.

    Anyhow, it sounds as though you had a great time with your Grandson and I’m very happy for all of you. The park looks like a well looked-after place, what with all those pots full of flowers and so on in the photograph. Very nice.

    Amor et Pax,


  10. Bill Schwartz says:


    My son-in-law mentioned during the game that my grandson's coach was his coach when he played little league as a child growing up in Niles, Michigan, which blows me away having moved around so much as a child.

    Living in either a big city or a suburb of one all my life it is always an experience when we hit the road and visit my daughter who moved there with her mother and brother as a child.

    After my first marriage and my ex-wife wanted to move to Michigan I'm glad I wasn't an ass about not seeing my kids and let go confident that we would reconnect when they grew up which we have.

    As a Tibetan Buddhist I believe that in the bardo of becoming we chose our parents so I had faith that our lack of proximity due to the circumstances of being a non-custodial parent were merely incidental to our relationship.

    I've also always believed that for a Karma Kagyu dying would be the true test of my life and so two fundamental beliefs of mine for which I only had my guru's instruction to thank for are turning out to be tried and true.

    When I first started to consider becoming a Buddhist I was relieved that I didn't have to believe in any of the beliefs of my guru but simply consider them worth considering.

    Given the relationship just disregarding them was an option it really forced me to look at them through the lens of my experience of them instead of as something peculiar to Tibetans.

    Ironically these more implausible things I've been told of over the years about life and death through this lens of devotion has served me well over the past year.

    The past year has been my ruin physically and I wish I didn't have sever congestive heart failure but it has been a singularly mind focusing experience for me as Ponlop Rinpoche told me, "one most of us miss."

    I was always impatient with life so it should come as no surprise then that I'm impatient with my death although I intend to go out fighting every step of the way, "letting go isn't giving up" as Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche teaches.

    I'm going to be covering a teaching this evening at the Shambhala Meditation Center of Chicago for Elephant Journal which is something I haven't a clue as to how to proceed so wish me luck.


  11. Shunyata Kharg says:


    All the very best of luck with the reporting this evening! You’ll do great, I know.

    Two of my children live 100km away from me with their mother in Barcelona. It was my decision to leave them in the city and move into a little village with my new partner. At the beginning, things went fine with me going down to see them on the train during the week and then bringing them to my house for alternate weekends. Then my partner and I had our first child, and this changed the situation. My two older children still have to meet our second child, who’s now seven months old. It’s been well over a year since they’ve wanted to come and stay with us here in our house.

    I would love to have your faith that we will reconnect when they grow up. Child psychologists have mentioned the words “parental alienation” to me and I’ve read studies that suggest that such children don’t ever get over it and in fact lose contact altogether with the alienated parent as adults. We will see.

    If I did choose my own parents in a bardo state then I must have been pretty eager to set up a considerable challenge to myself. I love my parents dearly but we seem to be incapable of understanding each other for more than five minutes at a time. Maybe that’s why we now live thousands of kilometres away from each other.

    There’s a great poster by Despair, Inc. Here:

    Dysfunction: The Only Consistent Feature Of All Your Dissatisfying Relationships is You.

    Ain’t that the truth! I do live in the faith, however, that as my understanding of the emptiness of my mind deepens, the possibility of loving, lasting relationships will grow. In fact, like you, I already know this to be true.


  12. Bill Schwartz says:


    All I have are my experiences to write of, which are a lot easier to access at the end of life than in the beginning, so my column is more a matter of me typing and my wife editing what I write.

    The telling of stories and singing of songs is part of the Karma Kagyu lineage which is basically what the teaching I am getting ready to cover this evening will be about.

    Speaking of which, I should be departing for the Shambhala Center, so I've got to huff and puff my way there like the little engine that could; wish me luck.


  13. Lindy says:

    Good luck Bill.

    Thanks for sharing this moment.

  14. ceci miller says:

    The particular sort of fearlessness that inhabits your writing, Bill, this unflagging willingness to report from the interior — is one which, in 20+ years as a book editor I've never encountered before, except perhaps in the stories of Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die, a book I worked on many years ago. This isn't flattery; it's simply the case. Although the locus is you, your life and times, there's also a universality, especially in this multi-generational portrait–both of your own family and your Karma Kagyu family–that puts us all in the same bucket of humanity in a powerfully wakeful and loving way. This particular piece affected me deeply. Feels as if you're loaning us your sense of daring, even as you haul us with you into direct contact with the raw force of life. For that courage and heart-lesson I'm extremely grateful to you, and wish you well in all possible ways.

  15. rheilbrunn says:

    bill~~i had my near death experience 36 years ago at age 22. it does give you a new fresh perspective and liberates one to live everyday as it may be the last. i wish you all the best and look forward to your continuing dialog.
    peace brother~~~

  16. Bill Schwartz says:


    Of all my columns I've written for Elephant Journal this one made my wife cry when she edited it which was a nice change for me because I'm the one that usually cries when I ask her to edit me.

    I don't know where what I've been writing about is coming from other than the sense of relief that comes with going through an ordeal and living to tell the tale.

    I'm not going to get any better than I am today and it is only going to get worse for me however much time I have left which is something I've oddly come to take comfort in.

    While my middle aged friends struggle to come to grips with not being able to pass for thirty-something anymore I've totally skipped having to go through the dreaded midlife crisis.

    This is easily the most rewarding part of my life and consider it something to enjoy instead of having it sneak up on me unprepared like it does for most of us.

    This weekend I attended a dharma teaching presented by Ari Goldfield and Rose Taylor of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche's "Stars of Wisdom" at the local Shambhala Center.

    It was a real struggle for me physically and I spent most of the weekend outside the meditation hall on a couch listening to the teaching over a small speaker.

    All weekend I knew this was probably going to be my last opportunity to attend such a weekend teaching which made it even more rewarding than any teaching I have ever attended before.

    Usually I am in and out at such events like a mercenary on a mission focused solely on getting what I need from the teaching without really being present for the event itself.

    At the end of the teaching I gave Ari a hug and told him that I have been waiting my entire life for him and Rose and that I can die a happy man knowing that my dream of an American Buddhist Karma Kagyu is in good hands.

    If I wasn't dying I would never of said or done anything of the sort and would have instead bought Khenpo's "Stars of Wisdom" and blown off the teaching as nothing I haven't heard before.

    Nothing clarifies the mind like knowing that you won't be this way again and that you better enjoy every moment of it while you have a chance, and I have been doing just that.

    I'm delighted that you and others have enjoyed my columns here and it has been a fascinating experience to write them and enjoy the rewards of being read which is an incredible feeling.


  17. Bill Schwartz says:


    That is the point in the end but you first have to accept your impermanence up close and personal to really saddle up your fear and gallop off into the bardo of death like a warrior.


  18. Robert J. Bullock says:

    What impermanence? 😉

  19. Robert Bullock says:

    "All phenomena outside and inside
    Decay each moment, they have no power to remain
    But this source of sadness, when examined closely
    Reveals that impermanence doesn't exist either!
    This way of meditating on impermanence—
    E ma! What a wonderful miracle! [5]"

  20. Wendy says:

    p.s. The Karmapa's not ignoring the internet. ( Why should you?

  21. Bill Schwartz says:


    If you haven't read Khenpo's "Stars of Wisdom" I highly recommend it. The point which most miss is that it isn't enough to just conclude that impermanence doesn't exist.

    You have to work, step by step, the progressive stages of meditation on emptiness as Rinpoche has taught them over the past thirty plus years.

    If you simply believe as someone reading such a verse may that Khenpo is asserting the non-existence of impermanence you will never realize his way of meditating on impermanence.

    I had the pleasure of spending the weekend with Ari Goldfield and Rose Taylor at the Shambhala Meditation Center of Chicago which will be the subject of my next column.

    You really have to work these teachings from start to finish, step by step, from permanence to impermanence to neither permanence or impermanence.

    I'm exhausted after a long day at the hospital where my wife had a total hysterectomy this morning and contemplating the reality of her impermanence.

    This is how Khenpo teaches us to meditate upon impermanence, not by asserting that her impermanence is ultimately non-existent, which is of no benefit to anyone.

    Thus Rinpoche says, "But this source of sadness, when examined closely/ reveals that impermanence doesn't exist either!" which is not the same as denying impermanence.

    Of course I appreciate that you aren't asserting such a point yourself but I've been online long enough that there are people that do assert such as dharma to argue the point here for their benefit.


  22. Robert Bullock says:

    I am definitely not asserting that impermanence has no reality, Bill. Even in a dream, appearances come and go. I am not interested in speculating about the "ultimate nature of reality" either. It is as it is. I am interested in opening my heart and mind fully to the truth beyond concepts!

    I wish your wife a swift recovery. My mom went through the same procedure as well as having a portion of her colon removed. I know the sadness and worry. It's painful when the connections are broken or even threatened, but that's love.

  23. Bill Schwartz says:


    I didn't get the feeling that you were tripping on emptiness. I like to err on the side of caution though with people online when the subject is ultimate truth.

    The first and most important lesson I learned from Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche was that there are two truths, relative and ultimate, and both are equally true.

    There is an antidote for suffering but none for the dharma when misunderstood.

    Once someone gets hooked on the idea that everything is empty it's hard to walk them back to an appreciation of relative truth.

    Relative truth is an inconvenient truth few people seem interested in discussing.

    This evening they took my wife off of the PCA Dilaudid she had been on the last 24 hours so she is going to have to deal with the post-surgical pain for the first time.

    Ultimately the pain she will be feeling has no self existence of course.

    Being told this, or even knowing this, will be of little comfort to her in the coming weeks of recovery she has in front of her.

    On the other hand, contemplating the impermanence of the pain, and understanding that whatever pain she might feel is not permanent will as she heals.

    Every day she will feel less pain, and although it is emptiness that makes this possible, her pain having no self-existence, to tell someone in pain of this ultimate truth is an exercise in futility.

    Hopefully, she will be discharged tomorrow. Her prognosis looks good, but with cancer, you never really know. When a loved one suffers ultimate truth is no substitute for relative truth.


  24. Robert Bullock says:

    Bill, that is a wonderful teaching. Thank you!!!

  25. Robert Bullock says:

    "With mahamudra, the practice of the Karma Kagyu, we jump right into the present instead, into the breach of direct experience of equality. It spits us out, bruised and battered, and we jump back into it like a surfer after being pummeled by a wave paddles out for more. With practice we continue to get our ass kicked but get better at hanging in the present moment the more we keep at it until we become totally habituated in being in this equality. "

    That's what I'm talking about. Wonderful!

  26. John Morrison says:

    I think I know exactly the place you went to eat. For a bait and tackle, firearm, outdoor equipment store / restaurant it's not bad. I went to college in South Bend, Indiana and my local friends used to love that place.

    I too love your stories of HHK16 – be sure to include them in your autobiography

  27. Bill Schwartz says:


    It was Blue and Gold weekend at Notre Dame so Eddie's Steak Shed had a two hour wait for a seating so we ended up at Lunkers Angler Inn instead.

    I've discussed with Waylon pitching a collection of my columns to Shambhala Publications under the title "An Unlikely Buddhist" which would be a next step for me as a writer.

    Stories of HHK16 and my experiences through the interregnum to the return of His Holiness as the 17th Karmapa would definitely be an important thread in the narrative.


  28. […] us—or with them. I can easily call to mind the periods of time when I thought my parents were complete idiots, began to notice flaws in my therapist and found myself rolling my eyes in yoga […]