When you awake, you laugh. – Terchen Barway Dorje
It sure has been one hell of a ride: my life keeps getting more and more surreal the closer I get to its end, kept alive by a defibrillator and a kitchen-sink-full of medications.
When my wife’s gynecologist called Saturday morning to inform her that she needs to see an oncologist, we didn’t know whether we should laugh or cry.
I wish there were such a thing as a real ego, a redoubt, a rock to hold fast to, a higher ground we could seek refuge in—but there isn’t, I’m afraid.
According to Buddhist teacher Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, “A view to hold, a person with a theory, all of this is just conceptual activity.” So we laugh instead.
This doesn’t mean Buddhists don’t have egos or that we’re supposed to be egoless (a common misconception among people more interested in psychology than Buddhism).
In Tibetan Buddhism we are instructed to contemplate what we call self-existence, which is the closest we ever come to discussing the subject.
Take a table, for example. We then take the table apart, and piece by piece we look for the table among all the parts until we can without a shadow of a doubt say that there is no such thing as a table.
Then we have a good laugh at ourselves and enjoy our table for what it is instead of what we thought it was before we contemplated its true nature.
My path began one winter evening in 1972 when I went to bed, a relatively well-adjusted 13-year-old kid enjoying my middle-class suburban life in Yorktown Heights, New York.
I actually thought I was someone—just as most people think a table is a table; is what it appears to be until some tragedy comes along and reduces it to a pile of splinters.
My dad had chest pains and was admitted to Peekskill Hospital, and then while preparing to be discharged, he suddenly died of an aneurysm of the aorta and…was gone forever.
Not quite 10 years later when I met Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, my view of Buddhism was based solely on what I had read up to then. I was totally miserable.
I can laugh about it now, but at the time I sobbed like a baby as I told Rinpoche how it felt to be me, and then I placed my life in his hands. And it has remained there to this day.
When Ngodrup Tsering Burkhar translated my story to Rinpoche, he didn’t respond with “Everything is empty, I’ll fix you in a jiffy,” thankfully.
Instead, Rinpoche listened attentively to Ngodrup, and then he took my hands in his and placed his forehead on mine and said “We will never be apart again.”
Years later, around the time Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche died in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, I remember thinking how the worm had already turned.
That’s how quickly everything changed for Tibetan Buddhism; not that it’s over for us, but we definitely squandered our first attempt at making it our own.
By that time, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche traveled not to any of the 16th Karmapa’s centers (not his choice) but instead he traveled to Taiwan, where the benefactors are, I’m told.
The monastery in Woodstock limped along and the emphasis became the retreat center in Delhi, New York, which is basically where we are today as a lineage.
A friend of mine shared with me recently, from his days as the director of Chicago KTC, the perspective of the home office in India, and what he shared came as no surprise.
After repeatedly extending an invitation to His Eminence Tai Situ to visit Chicago without success, it was explained to him that the old days are gone forever.
We would be more than welcome to visit and study at Palpung Sherab Ling, in Himachal Pradesh, Northern India, for example, but otherwise we were wasting our time.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught Tibetans a lesson they won’t soon forget (the opposite of what we think of as his legacy): We really aren’t worth the effort.
When I look at the past 30 years’ history of the Karma Kagyu in America I can hardly find fault with Tibetans taking care of Tibetans.
This of course is but the perspective of a dying man (now with a sick wife) who chose the Dharma over being a better person (“Look mom, I have no ego!”).
As always, my purpose here is to initiate a frank discussion of a topic that concerns me—not to be disrespectful of the tradition to which I’ve committed my life.
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