In early 1975, Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche suggested that we go meet Pema Norbu Rinpoche in Bylakuppe, Mysore District, South India. I immediately decided that would, even though I had no idea who this Rinpoche was or where Bylakuppe might be. Persuading Wayne took a bit of time, and packing up our lives in Berkeley a while longer, so it was December before we said goodbye to our friends and loaded our old Buick for the drive to New York. We had no idea that we would be gone for four years and would never see that car again.
We flew into Mumbai, still Bombay in those days, dressed in our winter clothes, while all our luggage continued on to Sydney by itself. Totally disoriented, jet lagged and culture shocked, we wandered around the blazing city for days waiting for our bags to come back. Then we headed south. No one at the Tourist Office had heard of Bylakuppe, but they knew where Mysore was, and told us how to get to Karnataka state.
Travel in India was slow and hard back then. First the overnight boat to Goa, deck class. I came down with a bad case of bronchitis and had to spend about a week recuperating before we could move on. I disliked Goa, which seemed to be full of skinny and pale European men in loincloths. Evidently we had landed at the wrong beach. I’ve never been back. Next was a series of trains and buses, each worse than the last. On the buses Wayne had to protect me from the sneaky gropes of men pretending to sleep as their hands wandered across his shoulders down to my chest. Three seats across on those rickety buses. On the trains, finding a seat was impossible so that more than once we travelled in luggage racks.
When we finally reached the old princely city of Mysore, Wayne was sick, but I took myself to the Tourist Office to ask about Bylakuppe. No one had ever even heard of it, but one woman located a detailed map and found it, right on the road to Coorg, prime Indian coffee country. I couldn’t wait any longer and set off the next morning. Needless to say I was the only nonlocal on the bus. The driver agreed to drop me at Bylakuppe, and so he did. Nobody else got off, and there was nothing at the stop. No town at all, just two small shacks, both tiny tea stalls rum by Tibetans. I went into the first one, asking hopefully “Pema Norbu?” After some discussion which I of course couldn’t understand, the owners sat me down with a bowl of thick noodle soup. It seemed to be all they served.
A while later, another bus stopped and this time someone got off, a Tibetan man in a cowboy hat. My hosts called him over and talked a while, and then motioned for me to get up and follow him. Follow is exactly what I did. He never turned to look at me, and I trotted along behind him as he hurried cross country through seemingly endless freshly harvested cornfields. I did have some fleeting thoughts about what exactly I was doing alone in the middle of nowhere, India, following an unknown man across a stubble field, but at that point I had no choice but to follow.
We finally came to a paved road. He turned to me and pointed to the right, while he went off to the left. And then I was really alone. Not for long though. After ten minutes or so I began to hear faint strains of a kind of music, cymbals, drums and horns, that I’d never heard before. A few moments later I could smell incense. Next, a crowd of people came into view, clustered in front of what I could recognize was a Tibetan temple. I’d seen some photos in a book on Tibetan art Wayne had given me.
I looked inside and saw a group of monks, maybe 20, mostly young, but with a few older ones as well. The monks sat in two rows in the center, lined up by age; the oldest at the head of the rows, down to young boys at the ends. One monk sat in front, on a higher seat, chanting and making beautiful hand gestures, his hands almost dancing. All around the monks an audience of Tibetans, clearly members of the local community, watched closely, paying me no mind. Entranced, I too sat down, the only foreigner in the temple, watching and listening as deep and melodious chanting alternated with otherworldly music, evoking a world I had only glimpsed in books.
After about 30 minutes, it all stopped and everyone rushed outside, many monks dashing behind the temple on seemingly urgent business. I shyly approached the monk with the beautiful hands, and once again asked my question, “Pema Norbu Rinpoche?”
“I Pema Norbu” he replied, pointing directly at his nose, not at all surprised by the sudden appearance of a lone foreign woman. “Come,” he commanded. “Meet my friend Bill, from your country.”
We went around the corner of the temple to a block of five rooms, one of which had a small balcony. And there was Bill Speckart. I didn’t know him, but it turned out that he lived about two blocks from our Oakland apartment, just over the border in Berkeley. Again, none of this surprised Rinpoche one bit. We chatted for a few minutes, until it was time for the ceremony to begin again. As he was leaving, Rinpoche issued another order. “Tomorrow come back with husband. Kushalnagar, no Bylakuppe.”
A young English speaking monk, whom I later learned was Holiness’ devoted attendant Kunsang Lama, walked me to the highway, which wasn’t far away at all. He explained that Kushalnagar was the nearest town, and was where we should get off the bus the next day. Back I went to Mysore, where I found Wayne somewhat recovered by a day of no movement, and announced that we were leaving again first thing in the morning. Something about how I said it precluded all questions. When we reached Kushalnagar at 11 the next morning we found a bustling, heaving Indian cacophony. Looking around after we disembarked and wondering what in the world we should do next, we were startled by a small monk running up and shouting as he pulled my arm, “Come, Rinpoche waiting!”
Sure enough, there was Holiness waiting for us in his black Ambassador, waiting to drive us back to Namdroling Monastery, where the annual pre Losar drubchen was still going strong, and where we spent the next month as his guests. How he knew which bus we would take and when we would arrive is something I could never understand. But he did, and it turned out that I had wandered in on Longchenpa’s anniversary, sealing everything with profound auspiciousness. We stayed as long as we could, Bylakuppe being a protected area under strict Indian government rules, and experienced all the pre and post Losar pujas, festivities and feasts. We were in a constant state of wonder, even as Holiness kept telling us this was nothing compared to what he had left behind in Derge.
Our marvel at Holiness’ kindness, generosity and wisdom never waned. We ended up settling in Kathmandu and continued seeing him over the years as we learned more about him and his stature within the Tibetan world, both inside and outside of Tibet. Our devotion deepened. Twenty-two years later we visited Namdroling again, for another month of teaching and empowerment, and we were astonished at how the monastery and the surrounding Fourth Camp community had grown and flourished under his care and guidance. The last time we saw him in this life was at the Boudha Stupa two years before he passed away. We miss him still.
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