Tail of the Tiger by Sally Clay
It was a sunny, crisp morning, much warmer than most March days in Northern New England. Lee was still sleeping when I left the house, and as I swung onto Route 2 my heart felt as clear as the blue sky. Driving was effortless, as if I had hooked into some kind of self-guiding radar. Shelly had given me good directions, and I had not even bothered to call ahead. I almost felt that they would be expecting me, that this destiny which had struck me would be equally apparent to people who called themselves Buddhists. I wanted to present myself simply, a sincere and uncalculating pilgrim.
Shelly and I had been working together on an in-house ad for the Advertiser-Democrat, where we both worked. Shelly did the art for these ads and I composed the copy, and in our collaboration over the last months we had become good friends. I don't know how the subject came up-perhaps we were griping about the hours demanded by our Christian Scientist employer, and perhaps I mentioned that I had briefly studied that religion a few months earlier. I told Shelly that I had had certain spiritual experiences in my bouts with mental illness, but that I had never been able to relate my unshakable belief in these experiences to any church or religion. Shelly confessed to me that she and some friends of hers had spent some time visiting spiritual centers of different sorts around the country, and that most recently she had been to a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center in Barnet, Vermont. She said that Karmê-Chöling was originally known as "Tail of the Tiger" and was founded by a Tibetan lama who came to this country after studying at Oxford University in England.
My mind snapped to attention when I heard her say this, and my whole body stiffened. I knew enough about Tibetan lamas to know that they were thoroughly trained in their own country, and I had seen enough of the spaced out "gurus" who proliferated in this country in the sixties to appreciate the value of a formally educated spiritual leader. I was amazed that such a person would also go to the trouble of learning to speak fluent English and to understand Western thinking and communication.
Shelly cautioned me that Trungpa lived in Colorado and very seldom appeared at Karmê-Chöling, and that she had many reservations about the program there. But perhaps in the back of my mind was the connection with Tibetan Buddhism that I had made back at Sarah Lawrence when I blew the long Tibetan horn that my friend Hope had brought back from Sikkim. I was determined to go to Karmê-Chöling. There was no question about it; this decision had an almost preordained quality. It was Friday when I talked to Shelly, and I left the next day.
I drove for about an hour and a half through the mountains of Maine and New Hampshire and into Vermont farmland. Karmê-Chöling was practically in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a winding dirt road that passed a small stream and several fields and opened at last to a view of a spacious meadow with a large white frame building on the side and a barn just beyond the house. It was at first glimpse a typical Vermont farmhouse-but much cleaner and well kempt-and it had an apparently new addition, also white frame, surrounded by tall, single-paned windows on three sides and adorned below its roof with a circular mandala in red and white highlighted with gold leaf. This was the meditation hall, or shrine room, as I soon learned.
I introduced myself to a young woman at the front office, who politely but diffidently told me that I was welcome to come in and that I could stay for the weekend if I liked. She gave me a brief tour of the building-the comfortable living room, a somewhat primitive dormitory sleeping area, and finally the shrine room. I stood dazzled in the shrine room while the young woman reviewed the daily meditation schedule. I did not hear a word she said, absorbed as I was with the vast atmosphere of light and space that pervaded the hall. The late morning light streamed through the tall windows and gleamed on the varnished hard wood floors. The hall was two stories high, but with the blue-painted rafters and gold leaf trim in the ceiling, the space above seemed as ordered and elegant as the gleaming floor below, which was covered with bright red pads topped with round red and yellow cushions.
"Have you ever practiced?" she asked me.
I was confused. "Practiced what?" I asked.
She explained that she was referring to sitting meditation, and that if I wanted to "sit" (as she put it) at the next session, she would locate a meditation instructor for me. I thanked her profusely, eager to learn about meditation and about what these people believed in so much that they would come to live and study here.
Already I felt confident that I had come to the right place. The shrine room, with its great dignity and beauty, reflected my own experience of spiritual peace with a simplicity that no words could match. I studied the shrine itself that my guide had not yet mentioned. It was a silk-covered table on a platform at the far end of the room, above which were hung photographs of spiritual teachers, one of them Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. "Rinpoche," as my guide explained, is an affectionate title given to realized Tibetan lamas; it means "precious one." Among the artifacts on the table were six small glasses of clear water, representing, according to the young woman, the "clear mind" of enlightenment that reflects truth without obstruction, the way clear water reflects the light of the moon.
My inclination was to stay in this room and to try out one of the red and yellow cushions, called zafus. For the first time in many years I felt almost as I had back in Colorado over 20 years before; that quiet confidence and clear mind was here more than just a memory. Here that clarity was actually present. I was astonished to think that a whole group of people other than myself were "practicing" that kind of mind.
But the young woman relentlessly led me out of the shrine room, explaining that lunch would be served soon, and in the meantime I could wait in the living room. She introduced me to another resident in a small office off the hall, who handed me one of Rinpoche's books, a small volume entitled Meditation in Action. I took the book with me and went down a few stairs into the living room. I was the only one there; the room was attractively furnished in beiges and browns with a couch and several comfortable chairs and a well-used fireplace at one end, and the area was immaculately clean and very quiet.
I was taken aback to realize that the entire far side of the room was occupied by an enormous rock that peaked like a mountain and extended from floor (or ground) to ceiling. I later learned that this rock had been uncovered during construction of the new section of the living room; rather than blast it away, the workers built around it. I stood staring at this miniature mountain, again approving of the simplicity and naturalness of it. "If Mohammed will not come to the mountain," I thought, "then the mountain will come to Mohammed."
A barely perceptible alarm stabbed me as I stood alone before the little mountain, absorbing the silence around me. I felt personally moved and addressed by this unspoken message, as I had been in the shrine room. But already I had the uneasy feeling that these communications did not hold the same significance for the young woman who had talked with me or the young man who had given me the book. Where were the others? Where were the teachers who would share all of this with me on the basis of my own experience?
I opened the book and began reading. It was wonderful-written with the same skill and lucidity that I had already observed in every other outward aspect of Karmê-Chöling. Trungpa described in realistic and non-inflated detail the story of the man known as Gautama Buddha, noting that this was an ordinary man and not a deity, and that "buddha" means, simply, "awake." The prince Shakyamuni had made a spiritual search for many years and had studied and practiced the greatest spiritual teachings of his day. In the end, however, his personal integrity compelled him to leave traditional ascetic practice and seek truth in a radical and individual way. At last he took an "all or nothing" approach, deciding to sit beneath a tree and not to get up until he reached enlightenment. After some time, and after experiencing numerous torments and temptations, Shakyamuni did become "awake," and he went on to teach others for many years afterwards.
I had not heard this story before, and I was pleased that the "Buddha" of Buddhism was presented in such an understandable and human way. Again a barely perceptible pang of alarm struck me, mixed with the pleasure of recognition at the story of the Buddha. Again I had recognized a message identifiable with my own experience, for Shakyamuni's "all or nothing" approach in seeking enlightenment was really no different from my motivations and approach in attempting my "leap into faith" back at Sarah Lawrence. Could I dare hope that the Buddha's insights were the same as mine? Was it actually possible that I had found the key to making sense of my psychotic experiences, that the torments and temptations that these had brought me could actually be explained and resolved and transmuted to spiritual insights?
Lunch was announced by a large brass gong, rung by another young woman who appeared from somewhere upstairs. The other residents, many of them also young people in their twenties, swiftly appeared from different directions. Some entered the dining room silently, their faces expressionless. Others, who appeared to be senior students, talked quietly among themselves. No one paid particular attention to me, and I felt ignored. I sat with a group of senior students, growing steadily more anxious and impatient to learn about their spiritual beliefs and to compare my own experiences with theirs. But these people were busily exchanging what seemed to be in-house gossip about who was to serve dinner to "him," who was eating with "him," and where "he" was going next week.
"Have you lived here long?" I finally managed to ask the man sitting next to me.
"You must be new," he answered. "Welcome! Are you just here for the weekend?"
"I haven't signed up yet," I replied, "but I guess I will be staying. This is my first experience with Buddhism. A friend told me about this place."
"Well, your coming here today is certainly auspicious," said my friend, who introduced himself as Ned. "You're going to get a chance to see Rinpoche. That's who we've just been talking about. He has just come out of a year-long retreat, and he is stopping off here before going to Seminary. You are very lucky!"
"What's he like?" I asked.
"Well, you'll have to see for yourself. He is very human, you know. He also walks with a limp-he was very nearly killed in an auto accident in England. He's got a really big thing going, you know. Karmê-Chöling is just one of his centers; our headquarters are in Boulder, and there are Dharmadhatus and study groups all over the country and even in other parts of the world. We're going to take over this country, you know!"
I looked at Ned aghast. His eyes were twinkling.
"Oh, don't worry, there's no revolution planned," he reassured me. "It's just that Rinpoche is the only one around who really knows how to deal with the spiritual materialism and hypocrisy that run this country. Once we get enough of our people in key places, we can just naturally replace their order with ours. But seriously, Sally, this man is really something. We don't have answers here, Rinpoche does not give answers, but what we do have is the Dharma. And basically all we do is sit, sit, sit. That's it. No sermons, no catechisms, no koans. Just sit, sit, sit."
"No koans?" I asked, distressed. I had anticipated trying out the little riddles that tested spiritual awareness.
"This is not Zen," Ned said firmly. "This is vajrayana Buddhism, Rinpoche style. We don't play games here. We just sit."
"I had particularly looked forward to koans," I said meekly, and joined Ned in his laughter. But my interest was piqued-what was this vajrayana Buddhism? Did the Tibetans and their students really want to take over the country? What was going on with Rinpoche's students, who so far seemed to be either cult-like robots or aggressive zealots? What was going on here?
"I've lived here for six months," Ned continued, in response to my original question. "I had to be on work study at first to stay here. Then I inherited some money, and I donated almost all of it to Vajradhatu. You see, if you really want to make a success of Buddhism, you've got to give up everything!"
Ned leaned back in his chair to laugh heartily. I did not know whether to take him seriously or not. He was a very appealing person, easy to talk with and much more relaxed than the other Karmê-Chöling people that I had run into so far. I suspected that I should regard much of what he said with a grain of salt. Although on the one hand I felt relieved to encounter a real live person among the other stilted residents, on the other hand I was disturbed at his paranoid references to an American culture that he, and I presumed others, despised and resented.
After lunch I was asked to join a work detail, and for the next hour or so I helped to vacuum the halls. Then I returned to my seat in the living room, and my book. I was relieved to re-immerse myself in the clear writing and intelligent printing and editing of Rinpoche's book. The book itself, a soft cover, was covered with gold paper with red printing, also with a mandala on the front as its principle design. The text was meticulously edited and typeset, so that the graphic design imparted a certain dignity and elegance beyond the words themselves, just as the shrine room's design created an environment beyond what actually transpired in the room.
Rinpoche wrote of creating a proper setting in one's mind, like a farmer's field that would be receptive to seeds of enlightenment. He pointed out that all delusions and deceptions could become like manure and used to fertilize this empty field to help the seeds of enlightenment grow. I found this idea comforting.
I was also reassured by the further touches of Rinpoche's hand all around me. The walls were decorated with large sheets of calligraphy covered with glass and framed in wood. These sheets, with thick black strokes of ink, were very short sayings, sometimes even a single syllable, in Tibetan. In their spontaneity, they seemed a direct statement from the painter to the viewer; in their simplicity, they imparted a powerful though non-threatening message. The message seemed inherent visually; at least, that was the only message I was able to discern, since when I later asked what the words meant, nobody seemed to know.
I had not anticipated actually meeting Rinpoche on my first visit, and I viewed the event with some trepidation. I would have preferred a little time to get to know the schedule at Karmê-Chöling and to study more of Rinpoche's writings. But the coincidence of my visit with his appearance was to me further confirmation of the destiny of it all. Despite my reservations about the other Karmê-Chöling residents, I never for a moment, then or later, doubted that Rinpoche was the spiritual teacher I had always yearned for or that the Tibetan teachings spoke directly to what I knew was true.
I kept my eye out for the meditation instructor that the young woman had promised would appear. But when another nubile young thing approached me, it was for a very different reason. "Rinpoche is coming!" she announced breathlessly. "We have to get ready for him! It is recommended that you wear a dress, if you have one! I think your things have been taken down to the dormitory. He'll be here in about 20 minutes! When you're ready, come back to the dining room! We will all form a double line for him to pass through! Don't forget to wear a dress!"
She had no sooner finished speaking than she zipped away and disappeared up the stairs. Suddenly the whole place was abuzz. Several people passed through the living room checking the tables for dust. Someone else pulled out the vacuum cleaner and re-vacuumed the rugs that had only be done an hour before. From everywhere came a flurry of anxious whispers and giggles. It sounded for all the world like a sorority house on prom night.
Reluctantly I looked for my bag in the dormitory and rummaged around for something appropriate to wear. I felt more like a cult groupie than an uncalculating pilgrim. Was my acceptance as a Buddhist going to hinge on whether I would wear a dress? I never wore a dress, and I certainly had not brought one with me this weekend. The best I could come up with were some dressier slacks (that were too tight) and a woolen Guatemalan poncho that was black with colorful figures embroidered on it. It would have to do. In my present frame of mind the black of the cape, with its Indian designs, well suited my growing feeling of misunderstood isolation.
I joined the other restless residents in the long hallway connecting the front reception area and the dining room. Everyone was whispering and gossiping and speculating on how soon Rinpoche would appear and what he would do when he got here. "He probably just wants to look around and inspect the house," said a senior student. "He'll probably come back after dinner to give a talk." This information proved to be accurate.
As I stood waiting, my mood became more somber. What was I expecting, and what was I getting into? I had already decided, sight unseen, that this man was to be my teacher. Would he recognize me in the same way that I had recognized him? Would he be a calm, inscrutable Oriental, aloof and unreachable? Would he talk to me? Did I really want to talk to him?
We did not have to wait long. I could not see the beginning of the line, but "Here he comes," was passed along in whispers, and everyone stopped talking and stood up straight. Rinpoche appeared, accompanied and supported by several male students in gray suits. I noticed with surprise how dark his skin was; he was very short, and his limp was disabling, requiring him to lean heavily on his supporters. But the expression on his face burned into my heart and dizzied me. As he passed slowly along the line, smiling and making short personal comments to those he knew, his face reflected not aloof satisfaction and spiritual complacency but instead wore an unmistakable expression of intense pain.
Again I was playing the part of absurd pilgrim, this time driving uninvited to Rinpoche's seminary in Dixville Notch, N.H. The Balsams Hotel was less than an hour from my house in Bethel on this gray wintry day in early April. I was on a covert operation-Rinpoche's annual three-month course of study was an event shrouded with exclusivity and secrecy, open only to the "chosen few" of his students. But in another instance of preordained destiny, I had several weeks ago spent the day touring the Balsams and interviewing its owners for an article in the Advertiser-Democrat, and I felt I had a right to go there.
My mind spun with the pain and the intoxication of the last three weeks. I had returned again to Karmê-Chöling the week following my first visit. At home, much to Lee's consternation, I set up my meditation cushions in the living room and I wrote reams of poems to Rinpoche-more poems than I had ever written before at one time. During the third week I quit my job and returned again to Karmê-Chöling with the idea of living there. I threw myself into the center's meditation schedule, drinking up the elegant silence in the shrine room until it filled my head like whiskey. I bought all of Rinpoche's books and read and underlined them, always overwhelmed by their clarity and their truth. I wanted to give up everything for this truth that was the same as mine. But I could not tolerate the numb and depressed attitudes from the other Karmê-Chöling residents-Ned had left for seminary, and there no one else to talk with intelligently. By the end of the month, all of my nerves and senses were alive from the hours of meditation, and I felt that my heart was about to burst. But it seemed that this intensity only repelled the other residents, and I was increasingly out of place in their subdued and empty silence.
I packed up my things and left Karmê-Chöling weeping. All of this was for me like finding the Holy Grail, only to discover that neither I nor anyone else was allowed to drink from it. Where would I go from here? I had already given up my job, and in the back of my mind I knew that I was also in effect giving up my life with Lee. I was prepared to give up everything for the dharma, but I could not see giving up what I saw as the dharma itself to fit into the mold of a group of people whom I could only describe as "vajra zombies." It was a nightmare, with the cutting edge of reality. If only I could talk to the teacher!
My resolve to make personal contact with Rinpoche took root and grew as I sat at home the next morning in Bethel and listened to the rock music that had been forbidden at Karmê-Chöling. In his books Rinpoche spoke many times of the need for a guru, or a "spiritual friend," as he put it. In describing how to make contact with such a person, he wrote that the student should first give the teacher a personal gift as a sign of sincere intent and as a first step in becoming spiritually connected with the teacher. My resolve blossomed into a firm decision to do just as Rinpoche had instructed. I chose one of my own records by the Carpenters and gift wrapped it. Along with the record I included a three page poem that I had written to Rinpoche a few days earlier, a narrative poem that described my life history and spiritual aspirations.
Without further delay, I jotted off a note to Lee and left for New Hampshire. As with my first trip to Karmê-Chöling I again felt that my destiny was in the hands of a force greater than myself. This time underlying my fierce determination and conviction was a persistent high-pitched hum of despair. I knew that I could not lose this one. Underneath it all, I knew I could not win.
I found a parking space just in front of the entrance to the main building. It was the middle of the afternoon, and few people were around. Off the lobby I found the day care center, where I tried to find someone who could direct me to Rinpoche. It was the same old story! Nobody knew anything-not where Rinpoche was, not who I could ask for help, not where anything else was taking place at the hotel complex. Finally a young woman asked me whether I was attending Seminary. I tried to explain that I lived nearby and simply wanted to present a gift to Rinpoche, but she only looked at me blankly. Finally she suggested that I find a seat in the lobby and she would try to find someone to help me.
I did as she suggested, feeling suddenly strung out and tired. What I was doing was folly, but I could not stop now. All my life I had been looking for a teacher like this, a teacher who had written in his books all of the spiritual perceptions that I had carried alone in my heart for so many years. Nothing else in my life mattered to me more than these spiritual perceptions, and I was determined to at least make the ultimate statement of my allegiance to them-even if, were it necessary, I would die trying or, more likely, I would commit an irrevocable and unforgivable act of madness.
I sat in the lobby for a very long time, clutching Rinpoche's present in my lap. Finally I was approached by a sullen young man in a business suit, who introduced himself as Frank, one of the "vajra guards" who personally protected and assisted Rinpoche. He looked like some combination of a Mafioso and a Nazi storm trooper. He questioned me about my intentions, wanting to know where I lived, how I knew how to get to the Balsams, and what my package contained. Finally he informed me that I could not stay at the seminary, that I would have to drive back to Bethel. His style of speaking was eerily similar to the way I had been spoken to by psychiatric nurses and aides. "You need to go now," he said. "But you can give me your package, and I will give it to Rinpoche."
My dander rose. "I do not need to go," I replied angrily. "What I do need is to give this present to Rinpoche personally. That's all I want to do. I will leave as soon as I give it to him."
Frank remained irritatingly silent. After a while he departed, but he left me with a defensive anger mixed with fear and embarrassment. I felt like an outcast and a terrorist, realizing that I was now perceived as a threat to Rinpoche rather than an aspiring student. Would they continue to try to evict me before I had a chance to complete my mission?
Another student joined me, a flushed young man carrying several books. He launched on a lively conversation about Genghis Khan, whom he was currently studying and who evidently had something to do with the Tibetan Buddhists. I found it difficult to understand the point of what he had to say, but I was pleased and relieved that someone was trying to be friendly, even if he had been assigned to do so in order to pacify me.
A little later a man in his thirties came up and invited me to have tea with him. This was charming! We moved to another section of the lobby where someone brought us two cups of tea. Here at last was a cultivated person who treated my presence with dignity. He said that he was personal secretary to Rinpoche and very politely asked me about my personal experience with Karmê-Chöling and dharma study. He did suggest (again politely) that he could personally see to it that Rinpoche received my present, but when I demurred he did not press the issue. With the tea and conversation I regained some of my composure and returned to my original seat to await Rinpoche, whom I had deduced must pass through the lobby on his way to the dining room.
Rinpoche appeared from the front entrance amid a flurry of regular students in casual clothes and vajra guards dressed in business suits or flannel skirts. Like a military operation, the vajra guards flanked their leader on all sides, with several of them coming forward in my direction, presumably to protect him from me. But now was my moment, and like a good terrorist, I leapt into action.
Swiftly I dodged the guards and the students and placed myself directly in Rinpoche's path. It was all over in a moment-I offered my presents to Rinpoche, saying something inane like "I would like to give you this."
Graciously Rinpoche accepted the package and smiled at me. "Thank you very much," he said in his tiny little voice that in those few words genuinely welcomed my gift.
"You're welcome," I said, and retreated from his entourage, which continued without pause to the dining room.
Greatly relieved, and satisfied that I had successfully accomplished my mission, I returned to my car, intending to return to Bethel. But to my horror I discovered that it was snowing-not just a few flurries but a major storm that had already deposited several inches all over my car. Nevertheless, I got in the car and attempted to back out. But I was stuck; blinded by the thick snow on the windshield, I turned on the motor and desperately rocked the car back and forth, but it would not move. I struck the steering wheel and cursed. There was nothing to do but return to the lobby.
I was immediately greeted by my vajra guard friend, who stood over me with his deadpan stare. "I can't get my car out," I said. "I really had intended to leave right away. All I wanted to do was give Rinpoche his present. But now I can't get out. Could I stay here for the night?"
Frank nodded, but told me I would have to pay for the room. All I had with me was $10, which I tossed cavalierly at Frank's feet. "Thank you," he said. "I'll get you some dinner, and after dinner I'll take you to your room."
He was as good as his word. I was brought a plate of chicken and vegetables from the dining room, and after dinner Frank led me to a small room on the top floor in what used to be the servants' quarters. He gave me a few books to read, then left me alone. I sank exhausted into the white wicker chair next to the bed. It was a small white room, austere and tidy, and I suddenly felt comfortable and secure. The room was on the corner, and outside the dark windows on two sides I heard the wind howl and the flakes of snow snap against the glass.
One of the books that Frank had given me was the biography of Naropa, a story of that Buddhist teacher's struggle to find and receive teachings from his teacher. I read a chapter or two and then put the book down to enjoy the noise of the storm outside and the wonderful silence within. I went to bed early and slept well.
I awoke early as usual, and tiptoed down the stairs to look around before the other students got up. Off the dining room I found the large hall that had been set up as shrine room and lecture hall. The floor was covered with zafus of different colors-the personal cushions of individual students-and the walls were decorated with colorful silk banners. I sat for several minutes on one of the zafus in front of Rinpoche's chair. I yearned to hear him speak, to learn how to live the teachings, to be a part of what he was doing. But how could I ever get past the obstacles that seemed to be before me in the form both of his other students and my own impatience? I sighed.
Right after breakfast I left. I could not cope with trying to talk with the gaggle of vajra zombies that filled the dining room; I had thought that seminary students would be more intelligent and accessible, but the same situation prevailed as at Karmê-Chöling. My experiences just did not relate to those of Rinpoche's other students.
When I returned Frank's books to him, he took them with a smile. "Sit," was all that he said as I left. "Don't forget to sit."