This is the story of a retreat I did at Karme Choling in the winter of 1977. That retreat was a bone rattling experience for me, but I was too young at the time to fully appreciate how it was going to change my life. Well, here I am on the fortieth anniversary of that retreat, and it certainly did change my life, so it might worth sharing a bit of that story before I fade away.
I had been working at Karme Choling (KCL) for over a year building dormitories and a new meditation hall. We were paid $15 a week plus room and board and we could participate in dharma events without paying the admission fee. I was stone broke in those days, so I thought that was a great deal. I also worked in the garden and rotated through the kitchen staff. Here is a picture of me in a little garden I made to grow cucumbers.
The next picture shows the meditation hall just after it was built. If you look closely, you will see His Holiness the 16th Karmapa on the far left preparing for the blessing of the shrine. Then, if you look at the top of the picture, you will see a coffered ceiling with light panes shining down through ribs of solid redwood. That was my work; that was my pièce de résistance. If you’ve seen this room lately you know that it looks completely different now. It’s painted with glossy Tibetan colors of red and orange and dripping with gold leaf escutcheons. But personally, I miss the original look of the natural wood beams. They were more Mahamudra and less Mahayoga if you know what I mean!
Alas, when the money ran out, the construction crew was informed that their services were no longer required. There was still plenty of work to be done, but no funds to pay for it. So, about twenty of us would have to go elsewhere, including myself. But one of the perks of hiring on for the project was the promise of a one month retreat in one of the cabins in the hills behind KCL. So I went to see Olive Colon, the bursar who gave us our paychecks. I told her I still wanted to do the retreat we had been promised. She gave me one of her Olive looks – the one that hits you right between the eyes like a well-aimed phurba. Apparently, I was the only one on the crew who had requested the retreat! Long story short, she got it approved, and I was scheduled to spend a month in the worst retreat cabin on the property, an old 8’ x 12’ aluminum trailer exposed to the weather in the high meadow. It looked similar to the airstream trailer in the picture below except that it was old and dirty and there was a huge pile of firewood at one end because the only source of heat was a wood-fired cook stove with a metal chimney punched through the front wall. There was no toilet, no frig, and no electricity; it was au naturel! Oh, and it was March in northern Vermont and there was three feet of snow on the ground. Nonetheless, the next day I was driven up to the trailer riding on the back of a snowmobile and happy as a lark to be there.
When I see what yogins go through in Tibet and how nuns have to sit in holes in the ground at 10,000 ft altitude to their do sky gazing, I guess I had it pretty good. I had a plywood bed board, a couple of shelves, a kerosene lamp, and an aluminum lawn chair that I could set up in the snow if I wore my snowmobile suit! It was all about sitting meditation anyway, so that was all I needed. The truth is I felt right at home up there. I felt real and alive, like I was supposed to be there; something I have rarely felt in this life. And besides, that meadow was special to me; I had often explored that meadow and the maple forest behind on my days off. It hadn’t been used as pasture for years, so it was all grown up with wildflowers, and the dirt road leading up to it was lined with blackberries and raspberries. The previous summer, Marghie Mills and I had picked bags full of berries and stored them in the KCL freezer, and when it was our turn to cook breakfast we made blackberry-raspberry pancakes for the whole tribe. OMG (oh my guru), did those pancakes get high praise? We were king and queen for a day!
Modest as my trailer was, I quickly settled into my retreat routine, which was basically shamatha meditation with a Mahamudra twist: constantly extending the periods of luminous non-conceptuality. And about halfway through the retreat I had one of those dark night of the soul moments. That night, a full moon appeared over the horizon in a calm clear Vermont sky. It was beaming through my little window like a searchlight. I opened the trailer door and stepped out onto the crunchy snow in the crisp night air. Honestly, I felt like an astronaut stepping out of a landing module onto an alien planet. It was pitch black, not a house light or car to be seen anywhere. But the moon was brilliant and it reflected across the icy snow with an eerie enticing glow. I had been riding my outbreath for hours inside the trailer, and now that same breath turned into clouds of steam. I would guess it was about 20 below zero that night, and the steam began to freeze on my beard. So there I was, a solitary stranded astronaut on a freezing cold planet in complete darkness except for that amazing moon. I whispered a spontaneous, “Wow!” I just stared at it, not a thought in my head. I just stared into the emptiness and the moonlight. And then it happened. Poof!
All of a sudden, I didn’t seem to be in that astronaut body anymore. That body was empty. It was just an empty shell. I never felt so alone or so vulnerable in my life. I was suspended in space midway between that empty body and the moon, and I could have gone either way. I could have gone to the moon and never returned. I was so ready, but alas, something held me back. My heart was ready to go, but the thought of my loved ones held me back. What would they say about Jon if they found his empty shell up there in Vermont? If I had been a better meditator, I would have let those thoughts go too, but I fell back to earth and the moment faded. I spent the rest of the retreat trying to recapture that moment, but never quite succeeded. In fact, it was rather anti-climactic. Maybe it had just been beginners luck. Anyway, what I learned was that having a glimpse of the nature of mind is far different thing from settling the mind in the natural state. So here I am, still sharpening the blade of trekchö and tögal and getting closer to the moon everyday. One day soon… one day soon… I won’t be back.
But now let’s talk about connections! If you look at the satellite image, you will see KCL marked at the bottom. The site of my trailer is shown in the upper meadow (top right). Ten years after that retreat, the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa did reach the moon, and the empty shell he left behind was cremated less than a hundred yards from where I stood that night. His ashes were interred in a stupa nearby. That too is marked on the image (top left). It’s all there in that high meadow lined with blackberries in the Vermont hills. I’m not sure but what the better part of me is still there as well, still sitting in that field, still suspended between illusion and naked awareness, still reaching for the moon of Mahamudra.
After that night I was ready to embrace the emptiness and the luminosity. I had felt it in my bones. I was keen to traverse the Four Yogas of Mahamudra. All I needed was a guide. I thought I was on the right track when I attended Trungpa’s Vajradhatu Seminary in 1978. The Kagyu path seemed to offer all the tools I needed. But just when the door of liberation should have swung wide open, it began to feel like it was closing. The head of our lineage, the 16th Karmapa had seen the potential for Buddhism to flourish in the West. More than anyone else it was he who had nurtured that transmission. He had forgiven Trungpa’s indiscretions and worked hard to reinstate him. But then Karmapa died in 1981, and before his reincarnation could be found, nearly all my other teachers had disappeared as well!
Trungpa Rinpoche went into a year long retreat and when he emerged he had devised a non-sectarian path he called Shambhala. He moved his court to Canada and his Dharmadhatus were converted into Shambhala centers. His student-teachers were given new titles and new uniforms. They had to learn a whole new vocabulary and a whole new curriculum. Even the thangkas over the altars had to be replaced. Many of his students adapted without skipping a beat, but just as many were conflicted. They had worked so hard to integrate that thousand year old Kagyu culture into their western bones, and now it was all being replaced by one man’s vision. There were no other teachers for this new path but Trungpa, no other texts but his, no one outside of his inner circle had ever heard of this path.
Needless to say, Rinpoche’s radical change of course produced schisms within his Dharmadhatus and within the highest echelons of the Kagyu order. Controversies and accusations arose within the sangha. Many of the older students questioned how they would fit within the new organization. Even the identity of Trungpa’s dharma heir became a matter of contention. As if that wasn’t problematic enough, rumors of misbehavior and abuse began to proliferate. Tell-all exposés were published, and critical websites sprang up. And right in the midst of this turmoil, Trungpa Rinpoche sank into incoherence and then coma and finally death in 1987. At the young age of 48, one of the great minds of Tibetan Buddhism had fallen silent. His legacy was left in tatters, and hundreds if not thousands of former students simply walked away. Not even the great Dilgo Khyentse could put it right.
Strangely, Dudjom Rinpoche had died just three months before Trungpa, and before we could catch our breath, others began to follow. Kalu Rinpoche died in ’89. The Vajra Regent Ösel Tendzin died of AIDs in ’90. Dilgo Khyentse followed in ’91, and the 3rd Jamgon Kongtrul died in a car accident in ’92. One after the other, our venerable icons were disappearing. And then the question of finding their tulku yangsis arose. Would they reincarnate in Tibet where the culture approved of the practice, but the Chinese would arrest them? Or would they be found in the West where they would be free from Chinese oppression, but the culture disapproved? The problem was so intractable that the Dalai Lama himself began to talk about not reincarnating at all!
I’m sure many of my generation fared better than I did with regard to their teachers, but if it hadn’t been for Thrangu Rinpoche, I don’t know where I would have turned. For several years he was my only beacon. Finally, some years later, I encountered Alan Wallace, and his presentation of the Dudjom Tersar was a natural fit. It meshed perfectly with Thrangu’s Mahamudra. And of course, the 17th Karmapa finally escaped the Chinese in 2000 and visited the West in 2008. So, perhaps the door is opening once again. Time will tell.
But I don’t want to dwell on the ebb and flow of Buddhist institutions; I want to talk about the prospect of awakening as a western practitioner. And that brings us to the topic of emptiness and luminosity. You can’t experience luminosity without experiencing emptiness. You can’t really see the moon until you have cleared away the clouds that obscure it. That emptiness I experienced on my retreat lies at the heart of the Buddhist Path, and yet it remains a great stumbling block for westerners. How does emptiness work? How can it possibly work? To western minds, it seems there a great hole in this logic? On the one hand we talk about the non-existence of the ego, and on the other hand we talk about a path. It’s a non-sequitur; by that logic there is no one to walk the path! But then who is asking the question? Around and around we go.
But you see, all that conceptual noise is the problem. That is your discursive mind trying to grasp something that is quite beyond the scope of intellect. The mind asking the questions is the obscuration. But behind all those clouds, the moon is still the moon. What is required is called the realization of egoless insight (lhakthong dagme tokpe sherap). That realization doesn’t involve words at all; it is a spiritual exercise, the meditative experience of naked awareness (rigpa). And that non-conceptual evolution progresses along a path of continuity (tantra) regardless of what the mind thinks or the body feels. To become aware of it, to actually touch the moon, you have to settle the mind into the natural state, into the ground without a reference point, into the journey without a goal. With practice you can function quite well without that dualistic boundary between self and other. Reality is not actually empty at all; it’s only empty of your confusion. And the absence of your confusion is the moon of Mahamudra.
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