It was in the late ‘60’s while living in San Francisco that I started practicing Hatha yoga and discovered the irony of racing to yoga class to relax.
On weekend mornings I’d go to the YMCA in Chinatown and learn Tai Chi outdoors on a tennis court from a Chinese master. I liked and benefitted from yoga and loved Tai Chi, as the graceful movements put me in a peaceful state of mind—one of equanimity. But there was no continuity into the rest of my active, work-a-day life.
When I moved to Seattle in the early 70’s to finish my master’s degree at the University of Washington, I continued to take yoga classes, but also discovered the buddhadharma. I read the Songs of Milarepa and felt so inspired and sane while reading the two volumes, but I was even more vividly aware of ordinary neurosis and discursive mind after reading. When I talked to my friends they would just dismiss such observations as “normal” or “What do you mean? You haven’t even screwed up your life yet!”
I wanted to be more than a closet Buddhist. I tried to meditate on my own, but just found myself staring at a candle.
At the University of Washington, Edward Conze was teaching about “stream winners” and used other rather non-user friendly terms to describe the path of an arhat. I stopped auditing his classes and moved to Bainbridge Island to write my master’s thesis. There at the ferry terminal one day I picked up the Penguin Classic, Born in Tibet. These were the old wooden ferries, smaller and slower than those floating pancake houses of today. So I started reading about Trungpa Rinpoche’s early life and training in Tibet, and was intrigued further—not by the exoticism of his medieval life, nor even by the long and daring escape from his homeland during the Chinese invasion of ’59, but by his frankness and great appreciation for his teachers.
I still have that same book. On page 111, Trungpa Rinpoche writes:
“My last three weeks were spent with Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche at his residence. He gave me his final instructions saying, ‘A teacher must not refuse to help others; at the same time he can always learn. This is the way of the Bodhisattvas, who while they helped others, gained further enlightenment themselves.’”
This was language that was both easy to understand and profound. And I began to long for such a teacher who could teach me how to meditate. Coincidentally, a former prof from the University of Oregon with whom I had been very close wrote me from San Francisco State College, where he was now teaching English lit and drama, that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s base was in Boulder, Colorado. He had heard Trungpa Rinpoche teach and thought I would like him. And he added that most of his students were young like me.
Age had never been a factor for me. Raised by my grandmother, and later quite close to an old neighbor who would take me to the horse races and place bets for me, and even then living on Bainbridge Island three of my best friends were elderly—so I dismissed that youthful incentive. And I was, after all, still in University surrounded by people my age. But it was a coincidence that he mentioned Trungpa Rinoche, the author of the book I’d picked up at the ferry terminal.
Further, a good friend and student of the 16th Karmapa gave me Meditation in Action by Trungpa Rinpoche. He was giving the book to all his friends. This I read in almost one sitting, but the second chapter of the book, which talked about the “manure of experience” helping to grow “the field of Bodhi” or wakefulness really got me. The idea was so brilliant that everything in one’s life, the good and the bad, can be used to wake up.
Still, when I thought about Colorado, it seemed so far away from my life in Bainbridge. I was renting a beautiful old house with a wood stove, which looked out over the Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula, and dramatic sunsets. I had a canoe down on the water, a handsome boyfriend with whom I went hiking in the Olympic Mountains. And I had a huge vegetable garden with a forest on one side and on the other an over-grown hill full of blackberries, wild roses, and Queen Ann’s Lace. And I had just begun teaching Shakespeare at Olympic College in Bremerton.
The seduction of seeming paradise and the ambition to begin teaching was stalling my deeper longing and curiosity to get into the buddhadharma.
Still my professor/friend persisted and sent me the first “Garuda” magazine full of Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings and a flyer about a “Crazy Wisdom” seminar to be held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Well, I thought, there’s only Idaho in between this state and Wyoming! And the timing coincided with a college break, so I hitch-hiked, bused, and snow-shoed to Jackson Hole, where I met Trungpa Rinpoche and his vibrant sangha.
I didn’t really understand all the teachings. Even his generous question and answer period after each talk left me somewhat bewildered, but also impressed both by how intelligent his students were and how playful he was with them.
During the seminar we sat a great deal without much meditation instruction. In 1972 there were no meditation instructors, so we simply sat. We were all young, flexible, and willing to endure. I did find that by the end of each day, before the talk, I had worn out my fantasies and mental detours and was actually able to just sit and be.
On about the third afternoon Rinpoche limped through our meditation hall and simply said, “Notice the stop in the flow of karma” and then walked out through the other door.
That was my first meditation instruction. It pointed to the fact that ultimately meditation is not about fixating on anything. By again and again putting attention on the outbreath, again and again that focus dissolved into space. First mind mixed with breath, then with space. I had never thought to notice space before.
Just when I thought I was beginning to “get it” we were presented with Xeroxed copies of “The Sadhana of Mahamudra.” Chanting this for 45 minutes was quite mind blowing. I had never chanted anything before and the imagery was wild. Yet some kind of a heart-felt journey took place, even if I couldn’t conceptualize it. And days after I still remembered the lines, which probably everyone remembers first—“Good bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.”
There it was again—that pointing out to what was ungraspable. And so indeed I was simultaneously discovering while meditating that thoughts were no more than bubbles. The Sadhana, Rinpoche’s talks, and meditating all began to point out the value of personal experience and insight. But Rinpoche himself was remaining an enigma and the days of the seminar were running out.
After each of his talks and question and answer period Rinpoche still remained seated, talking one on one with the students who swiftly lined up for his attention.
So I finally got the courage to cue up also. Feeling awkward, I managed to ask Rinpoche, “What is this ‘tantra’ you keep talking about? I cannot find it in any of the Edward Conze books I’ve been reading.”
Rinpoche smiled and said, “If I told you, sweetheart, you wouldn’t understand.”
I felt immobilized and inadequate. I just stood there like a stalk of corn unable to move—and then Rinpoche actually began to give me full blown pointing out instructions!
And he was right. I didn’t understand, though I still remember the words. But what I got out of the exchange was that Rinpoche loved me exactly as I was, that he was very willing to teach anyone who was open, and he completely welcomed me into the sangha—suggesting that I visit Boulder and check out “the scene” there.
Even though I’d been independent since the age of 16, I was hooked. I took his suggestion as command. I realized I could learn so much from Rinpoche and his smart sangha.
After visiting Boulder I was convinced—and soon gave away or packed up everything into my ’54 Plymouth Belvedere, leaving Bainbridge Island and driving through winter blizzards to begin what would turn out to be 16 fortunate years in Boulder. For there, in Boulder, Rinpoche renounced not only attachment, but also personal privacy, to be available to his students. He encouraged us to be lay Buddhists, to work fully in and with this world, to marry and raise children, and further—to uplift the world we live in by being mindful and aware. And it was the continuity of that mindfulness and awareness that I discovered in meditation that I had not found through hatha yoga or Tai Chi.
Like Jamgon Kongtrul’s final words to Rinpoche before he had to flee his homeland, Rinpoche encouraged us to go on learning and to see enlightenment as a process. This cut through the Western goal-oriented ambition to acquire credentials. Instead we were invited to practice awareness 24/7—with Rinpoche as a living example that this was possible.
Edited by Hayley Samuelson