by Padma Dorje
Turtle Hill is part of a larger mandala of Khenpo students across the planet. Even here in the southeast, the sangha is gradually growing.
Currently, there is a small group living in Huntsville Alabama, and weekly meetings of folks in both Nashville and Cookeville,
but the original connection with the Lamas came about through a gathering of friends on the Cumberland Plateau during the late 1980's.
The following piece is excerpted from a forthcoming book by Michael White.
Each summer there would be a series of parties, typically every Saturday night, at various farms around middle Tennessee. We would come together and eat and play music. We would play volley ball till dark and then get high as kites. We soared through the stratosphere like a flock of crazed birds. But late in the evening, after the music, there would usually be a small group of people sitting around the bonfire discussing philosophy or poetry. After a few years of this, the discussions were more interesting than the parties. The parties had a certain sameness about them but the discussions were more far ranging.
Eventually a small handful of us decided to start a little group to study all the esoteric traditions that we could learn about. We would meet once a month in someone's home and then, about every five or six months, we would have a planning meeting and lay out an agenda for the next few months. Whoever agreed to host had to make a presentation about some esoteric tradition and had to lead the group in that style of meditation. At the first meeting there were eleven people. Word spread in our underground community and at the next meeting there were twenty-five. From then on there was no shortage of people trying to cultivate an awareness of meditation.
However, after about a year we exhausted the knowledge of the people who were willing to host and make presentations. At that point it became apparent that we were going to have to bring in more sophisticated teachers and we started planning our first retreat. One of the women in the group had a brother who attended a Zen Center in Madison, Wisconsin. She contacted her brother and asked if it would be possible to have someone come down and spend a weekend with us. After some negotiations we had an American monk, Steve Hagen, a student of Zen Master Katigari, who agreed to come down. We paid his plane fare and took up donations for his expenses. The guy was thrilled, no one in the group had ever experienced Zen meditation and he took it very easy on us.
The retreat was a big hit, after that we started having weekend retreats hosted at different farms once every few months. We made contact with all sorts of traditions. We had a Sufi teacher come for two retreats and had a teacher from a Native American tradition put on a sweat lodge. I made contact with the Gurdjieff school and, after making my first visit to Claymont, had one of their dance teachers and a piano player come down for a retreat. We had some members of the group who were interested in theosophy so we contacted the Theosophical Society and had a teacher from their organization do a weekend on Ruldolf Steiner.
Then the next year I was in New York City and had the opportunity to visit with John Giorno. I got to know John through the Giorno Poetry Project and his recordings. He had made a series of records of his work along with recordings of William Burroughs, Ginsberg and a host of the most avant garde poets in New York. It turned out he owned the building where William had an apartment on the Bowery in lower Manhattan.
So I figured out that John was a student of Tibetan Buddhism and asked if he knew anyone who might come to middle Tennessee and give some teachings on the Vajrayana path. I thought that there might be some American students who would be willing to come for a weekend and was surprised and delighted when he said that he knew two Tibetan brothers who might be willing to come. I asked if he would ask them, since I had never had the opportunity to meet them. He agreed and we stayed in phone contact until he had the opportunity to raise the question with them. I was delighted when he told me they would be willing to come in September. It was one of my wildest dreams that two Tibetan Rinpoches would come to our little group.
I couldn't believe that two traditional Tibetan Rinpoches were actually coming to my house for a retreat weekend. Susan was a bit unsure since she had not been taking part in the meditation groups. She wasn't sure she liked the idea of having thirty or forty people over for the weekend. The week before their arrival we started decorating the house. I had picture books about Tibetan Buddhism and we looked at all the pictures of the inside of the temples and tried to do what we could to transform the house into the likeness of those temples. The day before the retreat we took all the furniture out of the living room and the dining room and put it all in Coree's room and then built our first shrine on top of the record cabinet. I covered the counter with maroon cloth and put a concrete Buddha in the middle with some candles and some incense. Then we took bright colored fabrics and covered the walls and draped fabric over the stairs and hung it in ribbons down from the loft. It looked great.
Then on Friday afternoon I went to the airport and waited anxiously for their arrival. When they deplaned it was not difficult to recognize them. They were the only ones on the plane in maroon robes. When I saw them coming I lit some incense and had a home made kata, a white scarf that is used for a traditional greeting in Tibet, and an orchid.
The older brother, Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche, was about 40 and his brother was about 30. They were very jovial and seemed delighted to be here. It was an hour and a half drive from the airport to the house. We started out on the Interstate and after about thirty miles got off onto some back roads, then the back roads got narrower and narrower and then, when we came to Jackson County, we were on winding country roads. Finally we came to East Fork Road and then back East Fork to the dirt road that leads to the house. They apparently had not been in the country much and seemed surprised to be driving on a dirt road. The little dirt road leads into a narrow hollow, with the road right beside a little creek. Then it goes through the woods and comes to an end in the front yard of the house.
I honked the horn as we approached and everyone came running out and formed two parallel lines. Susan was standing at the head of the line with more flowers and another homemade kata. Everyone in the lines had incense and as they walked between the lines of people everyone bowed. When we walked into the house and they saw all the fabric on the walls and the crude little shrine they both stopped dead and said, "Wow". We all got a big laugh out of that and escorted them to the cushions we had laid out for them in front of the shrine.
There were about thirty-five or forty people at the house. We all sat on the floor and after formally greeting them we relaxed with some tea and then started the first teachings. The elder brother spoke in Tibetan and the younger translated. They seemed very familiar and at ease. He started right in, "In this world every sentient being has problems or fears or something uncomfortable they have to struggle with and fight. Every person goes through this at some time. Where do these things come from? We should not look externally, these things are totally dependent on our inner state. What is this inner state? We have many different things in our body but when we say inner state we refer to the mind. The mind is the producer, the cradle, of all our different experiences. When we are able to tame the mind into a peaceful, crystal-like relaxed state, at that moment all our visions and all our experiences are calmed. Until you are able to tame your mind you can experience peace and harmony only for a short time, if at all. It doesn't matter how many external techniques you try to use, only when you tame the mind will you find ultimate peace and joy and understanding of one's self and others."
"Sentient beings, whatever they are doing, in all their activities are looking externally and searching in different directions. If you look for happiness externally you may find a temporary kind of happiness, but you will never find absolute happiness. When sentient beings look for happiness they typically find temporary happiness which sooner or later turns into sadness or suffering. Happiness is followed by suffering and after the suffering, perhaps more happiness. So they are never resting in an ultimate state of happiness. To look for happiness and peace externally will not bring ultimate happiness. This can be understood by examining your own experience or by reading history or by looking at your memories. When we realize we cannot find happiness or peace in external ways it means we are looking in the wrong place, that we are not experiencing the natural state as it is."
"It is like people who are very thirsty digging in rock to get water. They dig and dig but it is difficult to get water from the rock. This doesn't mean that they don't have good effort. They have intention and they know you can get water from the earth. Eventually when they don't get water they get tired of the work. Therefore we should not look externally for peace and happiness, we should look internally, inwardly. If you seek peace and wisdom and understanding then look within your mind. You can find peace and happiness and joy and satisfaction within your own mind."
"The nature of mind is very profound. It is very wonderful and very blissful. The natural state is not hollow or essenceless. It is full of qualities, full of wonderful things. The mind is the source of both Samsara and Nirvana. Samsara is the world and Nirvana is the state of enlightenment, the mind is the source of both. It is the source of liberation and understanding. Everything you need to find peace and happiness is contained in the mind."
"In the Nyingma School there are teachings called Dzog Chen. These are called the "Great Perfection" and they are the highest teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Padmasambhava. Dzog Chen teachings are directly related to our present thought or present mind. I will tell a story, it is a true story. In Eastern Tibet, where we were born, before the Chinese invaded there was a very famous Dzog Chen master. He went from village to village giving Dzog Chen teachings. His students were not only monks, but also nuns and lay practitioners, both men and women. Many people came to receive teachings from him. His techniques were quite famous. He started his students with the foundation teachings for Dzog Chen practice. After he finished the foundation practices he would tell them, 'Now it is your responsibility to find your mind. Go anywhere, go where ever you can, and find your mind and bring it to me.' Then, even if the student wanted to stay he wouldn't let them, he insisted they go off to find their mind and bring it back. He sent them off in all directions. They went to different places, some went to the mountains, some to the river and others in different directions. He instructed them to stay at least three days. Many of his students thought they had to find something to bring back. One student who felt very devoted went to the different places and looked for something to bring back. So he went along the big river and found a nice round stone. He brought the stone back and told the master that he had gone walking by the river and found this stone which he felt represented his mind. The master was very famous for being strong and wise. When he saw the small stone he grabbed the man by his collar and said, 'Look at what you are saying. Are you crazy?'
At that moment the man was frightened and sad. Then the master said, 'This rock is not your mind but that is your mind that is now getting sad'. The man had heard many teachings but had not gained any understanding, now for the first time he understood about the mind and after that he became a famous master also."
It was amazing to see the two Tibetans with their shaved heads and robes sitting in front of the group in my living room giving what turned out to be the most profound teachings about meditation that we had yet to receive. I couldn't believe it, it was like having the Buddha come to the hollow for a visit.
After the first teaching I escorted the Rinpoches upstairs to their room, we had fixed them beds in the loft. I talked with them for a while then went back down. The loft was just that and had no wall separating the upstairs from the downstairs on one end, just an opening with a stairwell and a railing. Now this group was almost to a person members of the local counterculture community. We all knew each other very well and were used to partying anytime we were together. So people started passing joints and there were bottles of wine and someone brought out some guitars and there were people smoking cigarettes. So pot and cigarette smoking was going upstairs and we were singing and playing music like wild. Then after about 1:00 I it occurred to me that we had better quiet down a bit and I moved the musicians outside. They eventually died down except for a couple of people who brought these big congo drums. They stood in the front yard playing the drums until almost dawn. Everyone else went to bed by about 2:00 or 2:30. When everyone was arranged in their sleeping bags I took a quick look around and fed the fire in the woodstove. It was a bright moon lit night. I went out on the porch and watched the two drummers standing in the front yard. The moon was almost full and it was a bright cold night. The drummers stood in the moonlight passing the rhythms back and forth from one drum to the other.
The next morning at about 6:30 I woke up. We had meditation scheduled at 7:00. I walked out into the living room, it was wall to wall with sleeping bags with everyone still sound asleep. I opened the door and went outside, there was Greg sleeping on the porch wrapped up in his bag. It had frosted and his beard was covered with the white frosting. I nudged him, "Time to wake up". He stirred and looked up at me in the pale light of dawn.
At about a quarter till I got out a conch shell horn and gave it to Greg and asked him to blow it. He stood on the porch and pursed his lips and gave out a wonderful resonant honk through the horn. Then I went upstairs and found the Rinpoches sitting up on their beds, they invited me over to sit with them.
"As you can see you have a very big job to do here in Tennessee. We are very wild and need great teachers to teach us how to tame our crazy minds."
They both laughed.
"I hope we didn't disturb you too much last night?" The realization settled on me that there was no way they could have been sleeping through all the noise and the music. They looked at each other with a knowing look but then told me,
"We liked the tabla," obviously referring to the drumming that was going on after all the other music.
"I hope that we were not too disrespectful. I didn't plan to have things get quite so out of hand, but this is just the way we all act when we get together. However, you are our special guests and if you like I will be sure that we don't stay up so late tonight."
They both assured me that they were okay about it and then we got up to go downstairs and start the morning meditation. I was really curious about how they would teach us to meditate, there were way too many people to fit in the living room and people were seated on cushions across the dining room and part way into the kitchen. There must have been about 45 people crammed in the rooms. I had a nice fire going in the Ashley wood furnace. I couldn't believe the atmosphere of the place with the two Tibetan Rinpoches sitting in front of the group. They had brought a xerox of a Tibetan mantra they passed out. It was called the Seven Line Prayer. They talked about how important this was as a mantra and then chanted it three times for us. Then he taught us the visualization for doing guru yoga and did an empowerment to give us the proper initiation.
He said, "Guru Padmasambhava was the first great teacher of the Vajrayana school in Tibet. Buddha Shakyamuni prophesied about Guru Padmasambhava many times. There are nineteen different predictions in the sutras and tantras about Guru Padmasambhava. When Guru Padmasambhava was born the King went to Guru Padmasambhava and asked five questions. He asked, ' What is your name? Where do you come from? What are your father's and mother's name? What do you eat? and What is your profession?' Guru Padmasambhava answered, 'The country that I come from is the unborn state, Dharmadhatu. My father's name is Buddha Samantrabhadra and my mother's name is Samantrabhadri. I eat duality thought and work for all sentient beings.' When the King heard these answers he was very pleased and asked Guru Padmasambhava to live in his palace and be like his son. He stayed in the palace for many years."
"When he left the palace he visited many places all over India and he did a lot of practice in the cemeteries. Then he came to Tibet at the invitation of King Trisong Deutsan in the middle of the eighth century. He brought the tantric teachings to Tibet and established the dharma. Many of the famous masters in that century attained realization as a result of his teachings."
"He also gave teachings that were hidden for the benefit of future generations. He worked with the assistance of a very famous Wisdom Dakini name Yeshe Tsogyal, one of his most famous students. Together they hid teachings and ritual objects in many different parts of Tibet. He hid many predictions, including general predictions for the world and particular predictions for the Tibetans. In the West many people have heard one of his most famous prophecies. He said, 'When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels the dharma will come to the land of the Red Man.'"
"Guru Padmasambhava is a totally enlightened being, he is the embodiment of all the Buddhas and enlightened beings. He is the Buddha for this generations and this time. In order to practice Guru Yoga, after you do the preliminaries, like the breathing exercise, visualize a lotus. The lotus should be a little above the level of your eyebrows and the leaves should have five different colors with different patterns. Picture Guru Padmasambhava sitting on the lotus and above him are the sun and the moon, realize his body is not made out of flesh and bone, his body is a wisdom rainbow body. There is a rainbow over his head with five different colors with all the colors sparking and radiating light in all directions. See him as the embodiment of all the Buddhas. He is smiling and radiating wisdom light to you and in all directions. Then recite the Seven Line Prayer and then the twelve syllable mantra. As you repeat this mantra see a very powerful white light on his forehead, a red light at his speech center and a blue light at his heart center. Each light is in the form of a syllable, the white light is the syllable OM, the red light is AH, and the blue light is HUNG. Then just as you are about to stop chanting visualize a strong white light like a shooting star come from the OM syllable, it enters your forehead and removes all the obscurations of your body, the red light comes like lightning from the syllable AH and enters your speech center and with it all the obscurations of your speech are removed. The third light is the strong blue light from his heart which enters your heart and your mental obscurations are removed."
"Finally Guru Padmasambhava dissolves into white light and that light comes down through your crown chakra to your heart center and mingles with your awareness. At that moment your body is no longer a solid body, your body has become a transcendental rainbow body, a light body. Then, without any conceptions or distractions, remain in that state, inseparable from Guru Padmasambhava, for as long as you have time. When you finish dedicate the merit of your practice to all sentient beings. This is your basic instruction for your daily practice."
After this we sat together in silence for a short while and then it was over. The Tibetans went back upstairs and some of the women helped Susan fix breakfast. Everyone was stirring around in the kitchen and on the porch and in the yard.
When the Rinpoches were at my house for the first retreat we would signal the start of teaching with the conch shell. I would go on the porch and sound the horn. Khenpo later told me they considered that very auspicious because in the monastery in Tibet where they were trained they used a conch shell to signal the teachings. When I sounded the horn everyone gathered together and the Tibetans came down the steps and took their seats. They started with their chants. Khenpo explained that the chants were a very important part of the teachings and that we should just listen and try to keep our minds clear.
Then he started teaching, Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche teaching in Tibetan and then Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche translating into English. He gave an incredible talk about the nature of the mind. I had never heard anything like it. He said, "Natural mind is vast: it is more open than space, as clear as a crystal, brighter than the sun. You reach the state of natural mind by meditation. Just follow the natural way, without doing anything, without adding or subtracting, simply maintain your mind in the natural state as it is. If you follow this path then you will reach the inner nature of mind which is unchangeable and indestructible. Meditation is a simple method to reach that state. When you meditate you don't need any other activities. You don't need to think any thought or make any big efforts to change what you are. Just simply maintain where you are and what you are. Meditation is maintaining that natural state. If you maintain yourself in the natural state then all the unnatural things will be removed.
"In our usual state of mind we have many confused thoughts and different ideas. All that will clear up when you maintain your mind in the natural state. The present condition of our mind is very very active. If we look at the mind, if we just sit for one minute and look at how the mind is acting, we can easily see that it is wandering in many different directions. It is moving about like a drunk elephant, or like a wild monkey jumping from tree to tree, never stopping even for one minute. The mind is characterized by continuously arising mental activity. Different types of external objects bring different mental reactions. Feelings arise as a part of mental encounters with external objects. These feelings arise spontaneously. We have many different feelings, all of which can be summarized in three main categories: feelings of happiness, feelings of sadness or suffering and neutral feelings.
All these thoughts and feelings come from the mind. People who want to reach enlightenment should not look externally, they should search within themselves for their natural mind. Enlightenment means simply maintaining the mind in the clarity of the natural state. By doing this you can reveal the natural inheritance which is within each person. In order to do this you don't need anything special, just remain in the natural state. For example, if we want to clear up muddy water we don't stir it with a stick, just let it stay as it is and then the mud will settle and the water will be clear. There is nothing to do, just sit and relax."
It was wonderful hearing these teachings. Everyone's attention was totally attuned to what they were saying. When they finished the lecture they asked if there were any questions. Hands went up all over the place, they started fielding the questions.
The first person asked, "When I try to meditate my mind doesn't want to be peaceful, thoughts seem to constantly stream through my head."
They discussed the question in Tibetan between themselves and then Khenpo Tsewang said, "That is true. Almost everyone has this kind of problem, it is very difficult to train the mind to remain in one state. Thoughts continuously arise, one after another like waves. It is very important to sit in the right posture and then try to maintain one focus. That will help the mind settle down. There are, of course, many different techniques for settling the mind. The first is to focus on one object. You can use any kind of object but most of the time we use two kinds of objects, actual objects and mental objects. For an actual object you can use something like a small piece of crystal and concentrate on that. For mental objects you can use a small light or small syllable. In Dzog Chen a small syllable is visualized in the middle of the forehead, like the syllable AH spelled out in bright white light or just a small circle of bright white light. If you concentrate on that then gradually this powerful mind will become more and more calm. You can imagine a spot of white light in the middle of your forehead or you can imagine the letter in the air in front of your forehead. Or you can imagine the letter starting out in the center of your forehead and then kind of falling down to the tip of your nose. Don't go below the nose."
Then someone asked, "How does concentrating on a spot of light relate to compassion?"
"You can meditate on loving kindness or on compassion or on a spot of white light or you can even meditate without any purpose or focus. Whatever technique or method of meditation you use, you are meditating on the nature of mind. Loving kindness and compassion are qualities of the true nature of mind. We have loving kindness and compassion as inherent qualities of the mind. Sometimes, due to our obscurations or to different circumstances, some people have more loving kindness and compassion than others. Through meditation, even though you don't particularly focus on loving kindness and compassion, they will be revealed because they are part of our nature. When the sun shines, the rays of light shine forth spontaneously; when you meditate, compassion arises spontaneously.
"It is good to start with loving kindness and to extend it to all sentient beings. You can start by extending it to one person, then enlarge it to ten people and then one hundred and then all sentient beings. You can start with those people you love and the neutral beings, then finally your enemies. That is very good."
Then someone else asked, "How would you describe the characteristics of primordial nature?"
"It is inconceivable but this does not mean that it doesn't exist. Primordial nature is not something that exists solidly like something you can examine physically. In order to find primordial nature we look to the mind and when we look carefully then you can experience the primordial nature of the mind. Primordial nature is said to be beyond conception. You can not really explain the primordial quality of mind. You can explain about clarity and vastness but really you cannot see it or feel it or touch it, it is beyond conceptual thought. Emotions and other activities of the mind can be explained but the primordial nature of the mind cannot be explained. Primordial nature is described with words such as clear light and emptiness.
"To give one example, if you look through the window and see the sky what do you really see? If you were not familiar with the nature of the sky and all you could see was the sky out the window you would think the sky is square. Similarly, the primordial nature of mind is totally beyond any vocabulary, beyond any words. We can say the nature of mind is clear light and emptiness, but, as I said, you really cannot express or even conceive of this mind. All you can do is look to your own mind, then you can experience primordial nature."
Next someone asked, "Is the goal of meditation to get beyond all conceptual ideas?"
"It is almost like that. When we describe the nature of mind it has many qualities; clear light, loving kindness, emptiness and wisdom. We inherit this nature, every single sentient being has it. There is no one who lacks these qualities. Even the worst criminal has compassion, love and wisdom. Every single sentient being has all these aspects, however, some have more, some less.
"When you meditate and maintain the natural state of mind, then spontaneously wisdom and compassion and loving kindness appear and shine out. Some people start meditating on loving kindness and compassion and then gain understanding of emptiness; other people meditate on emptiness and then gain understanding of loving kindness and compassion. Either way you are not going to miss anything.
"The quality of enlightenment is beyond thought. When you reveal the profound precious nature of primordial mind then you develop more compassion and more loving kindness. These qualities can not really be expressed with thoughts. This is beyond thought but not beyond the Buddha's wisdom, when you gain enlightenment you gain knowledge of all these things."
One of the guys in the group was a farmer, he asked, "I have cows that have parasites and plants that have insects, so my question is how can I have compassion and still deal with these things?"
"You can only do as much as you can without trying to do harm. When a mosquito bites you it is good to have tolerance and patience, as much as you can. In the beginning you cannot do everything with Bodhicitta. You have to develop Bodhicitta gradually according to your capabilities. We can not make gigantic steps and then stop totally, we must try to develop as much as we can according to our capabilities. So we start with the smallest point of view and then develop according to our capabilities."
He wanted to go on with this line of questions, "If I have a cow that is suffering from maggots, my compassion for my cow might be more than my compassion for the maggots."
"If you can't immediately have compassion for both you have to make a choice. If you must do harm then you should pray or have some good thoughts in the hope that the maggots will not have too much suffering. Definitely it is important that we always try to have Bodhicitta but you have to start by doing whatever you can to work toward this."
One of the women asked, "How can you have compassion for someone who does harm to other people, or kills someone?"
"It is quite difficult. We have to develop more Bodhicitta and try to bring harmony to others, that is our responsibility. We must try to develop a point of view that includes more compassion. If you can do anything to bring about beneficial activities or stop violent activities that really is all you can do. If you can't do that then it is beyond your capabilities. It is not your fault."
"Let's say someone is beating up and old person and stealing their money. How can I have compassion for this person?"
"If you don't have compassion for this that is ok. I think you should beat him with a big stick but just beat him on his shoulders or back."
Next someone asked, "Often I find myself in a situation where I can either give a person something that they want from me or I can give them what I think is best for them, which is usually not the same thing. What is the compassionate thing to do in this circumstance?"
"You have to use what is called skillful means. Your motivation is fine since you really are willing to offer help to others, that thought is beautiful. Next you need more than just this thought, when you are trying to be helpful that means you want to make them happy. But if they don't want help, then you should wait skillfully. If you attempt to help when they don't want help, then that will make them unhappy and will discourage continuation of your beautiful thought. So just rest for a while and then use skillful means."
Finally they called for one last question. Someone raised their hand, "I've heard you use the word rigpa, what does that mean?"
"Rigpa is the true nature of the mind, it is the totally fresh awareness which is the innermost nature of mind. Rigpa contains clarity and luminosity together with emptiness. It is fresh and uncompounded and very open, it contains loving kindness, wisdom and skillful means; all of these are rigpa. Meditation is very important to reveal the freshness and the rigpa nature which we all share."
The Rinpoches had agreed to come back to Tennessee and about three months after their first visit I called them and began arranging their next trip. It had been an incredible event to hold the first retreat at the house and I wanted to do it again. So the week before the retreat we pushed all the furniture into the back bedroom and left just enough room for Coree to get to her bed. Then we decorated the house, covered the walls with burgundy fabric and art work, build a shrine and then got a bunch of food. The day before they arrived I went out and got a car load of flowers and we arranged them that night. They were scheduled to come on Friday and leave the following Monday. We had arranged the agenda for the retreat in advance this time. We scheduled time for everyone to have a personal interview with the Rinpoches along with the teachings and initiations. All that along with the continuous flow of activity taking care of everyone and preparing meals.
We arranged the upstairs as their private quarters. There was a fold out futon for Guru Rinpoche and a single futon on the floor for his younger brother, Khenpo Rinpoche. They seemed very much at home there. We served their meals in the loft, they had a table and we had a phone for them and a shrine.
After the retreat it was several days before I got around to cleaning the upstairs loft and putting the beds away. I took the bedding off Guru Rinpoche's futon and folded it back into the couch. Then I took the bedding off Khenpo Rinpoche's single futon and picked the futon up to move it downstairs. When I moved it I saw a tissue crumped up on the floor under the mattress. I picked up the tissue and walked over to the trash can to toss it. I assumed he had blown his nose or used it and then stuffed it under the edge of the mattress and forgotten to toss it out. When I tossed it into the garbage I noticed something funny about it. It looked like there was writing on it. I reached into the garbage can and picked it back up and unfolded it. There were several lines of script written on the tissue.
I took it over to the table and looked at it under the light. There were five lines of script written on the tissue with a ball point pen. There was one symbol above the five lines and it was written in black while the five lines were written in blue. It was all in a very beautiful flowing Tibetan script. I was incredulous that he could write on a piece of tissue and not tear it up, nor could I figure out why he would want to write something on a tissue?
I had a three hole notebook in my desk. It had plastic sleeves inside that I used as a scrapbook. I took the tissue and put it in one of the plastic sleeves and put it in the scrapbook. I was very curious about what he had written and wanted to find someone to translate it at the earliest opportunity
A few months later Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, a great Kagyu scholar and meditation master was scheduled to come to Nashville. He was giving a weekend retreat at the Buddhist Temple. I went to the retreat and took the tissue with me. Khenpo Karthar gave all his teachings in Tibetan, the translator was a young Tibetan man named Ngodrup Tsering. During a break in the retreat I took him off to one side and showed him the tissue. He looked at it and then looked at me,
"Where did you get this?"
"Well there was this lama, a Rinpoche, and I found this tucked away under his mattress. Can you translate this?"
He looked at me with a startled look, "What do you mean under the mattress?"
"He was staying at my place and when I put away the bedclothes I found this tucked under his mattress."
He studied it carefully for a moment.
"Sure, I can read it."
"I've been very curious about it. What does it say?"
He looked at it again for a long time.
"You couldn't understand this." He said finally, handing it back to me.
"Listen", I said, "just give me a word for word translation and I will figure it out later. I just want to know what it says."
He took it back and looked at it again. He seemed to be reading each line of the text. Then he handed it back to me again.
"People who have been studying the dharma for ten years couldn't understand what this is about. Even if I told you the words that are written here you couldn't understand. A lot of these words can't be translated."
That was obviously all he would say about it. I was mystified and disappointed, even a bit peeved at the guy. I wondered if he knew what it said.
Khenpo Karthar was a great teacher. It was wonderful having him around for the weekend. He gave a public address at Vanderbilt and then did the retreat for the weekend. At the public address someone asked him if he could talk to plants. He replied that yes he could. Then they asked him how he speaks to the plants. He said he talked to plants in exactly the same way the person asking the question talks to the plants.
The retreat was in the Buddhist temple in town. The southeast Asian refugee community in Nashville sponsored the temple. It was primarily for the people from Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. At different times their were monks from all three countries in residence at the temple. There were also a few Americans who liked the temple and they had a meditation group that meets there. However the different monks always caused a lot of confusion to the Americans because all three cultures had produced different styles of Buddhist with different chants and liturgies each in their own native language.
Anyhow the refugee communities had gotten together and purchased an old church and turned it into the temple. It was the old Ebenezar Baptist Church located right on the edge of the black community. In fact the back wall of the temple looked out at one of the most notorious housing projects in Nashville. Several of us were staying over during the retreat, sleeping on the floor of the temple on the Saturday night of the retreat.
After the last teachings on Saturday night while we were bedding down in the dharma room I explored around and found a second story window that looked down into the alley that separated the temple from the housing project. As I looked down a car pulled into the alley. Then it stopped and about a half a dozen guys appeared from nowhere in the shadows and swarmed around the car. The car window came down and they made an exchange of some money for some kind of drugs, probably crack cocaine, and then the car drove off. It hadn't been stopped for more than a minute. I thought that was pretty strange. I went back and got several of the sangha members who were staying the night. We all went back and watched out the window. Cars were pulling into the drive in a continuous stream. We watched one car pull out and then in less than two minutes here comes the next one.
This car pulled into the alley and came to a stop, the guys appeared out of the shadows, and then a cop car came driving into the alley with the sirens blaring and the lights going. It was quite a scene, the black guys were trying to disappear back into the shadows, the cops were jumping out of the car with their guns drawn. They got the guy who was making the deal at the car window and the two black guys in the car and the cops made them get out and lay down on the ground while they handcuffed them. Another police car showed up and they loaded up the prisoners and drove all the cars away.
There were five of us sitting in stunned silence at the window. When the cops drove away we were all abuzz. We couldn't believe we had just witnessed a drug bust from the temple window. Then while we were still all raddling on about the cops and how it happened another car drove into the alley. It slowed down and all the guys appeared out of the shadows and the deal went down. We were astonished. It was like a whole cycle. We stayed there for an hour from about 11:30 to 12:30 watching the cars pull in and make the buy, then about every fourth or fifth car the cops would be back and there would be another bust. It just went on and on, finally we started drifting off to bed down in sleeping bags on the floor.
Khenpo Karthar was staying in Nashville on the Monday after his weekend retreat and several of us were invited to spend part of the day with him at the home of the person who had organized the visit. The Khenpo wanted a day of rest before he continued his teaching and travel schedule. I was curious about what a Rinpoche does on his day off. I arrived at the house about 11:00 A.M. and discovered that the Rinpoche had been in meditation all morning and hadn't come out yet.
There were several of us there and we went over the retreat and discussed the planning details. The translator was also there and he had lunch with us and told us about the other cities where they were visiting on this tour. He told us that at one of the stops they attended a conference that was bringing together representatives from several religions and there were a lot of Christian monks. He said that after everyone had given a talk about their tradition they opened the floor to questions from the audience. The first question was for the Rinpoche and he answered it, then the second question was for the Rinpoche, then the third and they had a half hour scheduled for questions and the Ripoche was the only person who was asked questions out of all the people on the panel.
Rinpoche had lunch privately and then continued his practice. After lunch I asked Ngodrup, the translator, for a private interview. We went outside and sat under a tree on the grass in the front yard. I brought my tape recorder and when we had gotten settled I turned it on.
I asked him about his personal history. I was surprised to learn he was from a nomadic family and had grown up in a yak hair tent with herds of goats and sheep. I asked him about the Rinpoche and their work trying to build a large monastic institution in upstate New York just out of Woodstock. After that I brought out the tissue with the Tibetan writing on it and told him the circumstances of how it had been written and how I had discovered it and that it is like a puzzle for me. This time he agreed to translate it for me.
I was very pleased. He examined it again and slowly went through it word for word. I had trouble understanding what he was talking about and there were several words that weren't translated and I had no idea what they were. Also he would talk about some of the words for quite a while explaining their meaning and it was obvious that no one word could be used to translate the concept for that word in Tibetan. But I was really glad to at least have a translation and I thanked him for his help.
Not long after that I had to drive up to Ohio to visit with my mother. My daughter went with me and along the way I had her put the tape of my interview with Ngodrup in the tape player. We listened to it all the way through and then went back and isolated the section where he translated the text. I had Coree get a notebook and as we listened to the tape we made a transcript. Then we took the transcript and worked out a translation for each of the five lines in the text on the tissue. It wasn't easy, especially for the words where Ngodrup had used several different English words to translate one Tibetan word, it was difficult to know which word to use to get a translation for that line of the text. It was a struggle to get it figured out so that each line formed itself into a sentence and they all related to each other. Then there were those untranslated words. We tried to spell them phonetically. I had seen the words in some of the books I had been studying but I wasn't familiar with them enough to understand their meaning. So we eventually muddled through and came up with a working translation. It was fun and a good way to pass the time while we were driving on the interstate.
When we got back home I looked through one of my favorite books, Lama Govinda's Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism and found the proper spelling for the Tibetan terms that weren't translated. This gave me a first draft of the translation. It read,
Emptiness nature is dharmakaya
Self luminosity is sambhogakaya
Variety of manifestation is nirmanakaya
This realization is absolute wisdom
This is the essence of the doctrine. How wondrous.
I decided to look up the terms dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya and try to figure out what they mean. I looked through the index of several books but didn't get much. Lama Govinda's books gave me the most detailed explanation and it was very technical and difficult to understand.
In a few months the Khenpos scheduled another visit and came to do a weekend retreat. After the retreat before we had to get ready to go to the airport I sat down with Khenpo Tsewang on the front porch. I showed him the tissue in the plastic binder. He seem surprised to see it.
"Did you write this?" I asked.
He looked at it carefully, "Yes."
"Was this something that you have memorized or did you just make it up."
"It's nothing that I have ever seen, I just made it up." He smiled.
"Well I call it the tissue terma." I told him.
He laughed and took it in his hands, repeating over and over.
"Tissue terma, tissue terma, tissue terma."
We both laughted. I told him the story of taking it to Ngodrup and how at first he wouldn't do it and then I finally talked him into it and then I showed Khenpo the translation we had worked out.
He read it in English very slowly.
"Would you translate it for me? I would like to hear how you do it." He readily agreed. This time I got a notebook and sat beside him and together we worked out a line by line translation. It read,
Dharmakaya is primordial emptiness
Sambhogakaya is radiant self luminosity
Nirmanakaya is the unceasingly manifesting activity of mind
Whoever relies on this completes the realization of the Primordial Buddha
This is the heart essence teaching of Samantabhadra.
It gave me a thrill to get it translated by Khenpo Tsewang. The whole thing was like a puzzle to me. I had solved the first part of the puzzle which was to get the damn thing translated. Now that I had it translated the second part of the puzzle was to figure out the meaning.
It was obvious to me that dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya were very basic principles that embodied some of the fundamental concepts in Tibetan Buddhism. The word kaya is usually translated as "body" but can also be "being" or even "characteristic". The phrase dharmakaya is typically translated as "truth body", sambhogakaya as "bliss body" and nirmanakaya as "body of transformation". However, I came across other translations like "absolute emptiness" for dharmakaya, "radiant visionary enjoyment" for sambhogakaya and "apparitional being" for nirmanakaya.
I thought about the meaning of these words, contemplated them and read everything I could find. I thought of dharmakaya as the most fundamental, as the ground for the other two, the base or the condition out of which the other two arise and into which they dissolve, the primordial emptiness itself, the universal essence, the undifferentiated commonality that all things share, the great chaotic void free of individuation, the inherent nature in each and every particular being in any manifestation, the cosmos experienced from the most all encompassing point of view.
Sambhogakaya then followed as the conceptual formulation of the principle of dharmakaya. It is the individual mind experiencing the view, where suddenly it is like the first rays of light at daybreak when realization dawns. It is the acknowledgement that the universal aspect of each thing is as much a part of that object as it's individual expression. The realization that the individual is something distinct and separate from all other beings and yet, within this individuality there is an essential nature that is identical with all being. This experience is called bliss. The sambhogakaya is the expression of the dharmakaya as it manifests in consciousness. It is the realization that consciousness is at some level exactly the same with all other being. The expression of this awareness is rapture, the rapture of losing yourself in something bigger, something that includes you in such a way that your individuality is not actually lost but is discovered to be a facet or an expression of a much larger unity. It is like the dew drop sinking into the shining sea. It is the mental and emotional perception of dharmakaya. Samghogakaya shifts the focus of consciousness out of the individual point of view, into a more universal focus of attention. Since this realization is clothed in conceptualization it is related to speech. It is the conceptual body of understanding that expresses the deepest aspects of experience.
Nirmanakaya is the physical embodiment of the principle of enlightenment. It is the actual presence of the person who has realized enlightenment. It is the individual manifestation of the primordial nature we all share in common and anyone who is an expression of this is in the realm of nirmanakaya. It is the physical vehicle for the representation of the dharmakaya. In this sense it also includes works of art. The painted images and statues of the Buddha and other realized beings are also considered nirmanakaya.
Taken together dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya are three expressions of enlightenment. Dharmakaya is the actual state of enlightenment, the naked awareness beyond conceptualization, beyond speech or expression in any form. Sambhogakaya is the expression of enlightenment in the thoughts and emotions of a person who is experiencing enlightenment. And finally nirmanakaya is the physical manifestation of enlightenment. The three kayas are symbolically represented by the three mantric syllables OM, AH, and HUM. Om represents the enlightenment inherent in all manifestations of existence and is the dharmakaya. AH represents the expression of enlightenment in consciousness and HUM the actual manifestation in its physical embodiment.
Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche
sitting in the woods near Cookeville Tennessee in the late 1980's
©turtle hill sangha, 1999
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