Archive for December, 2007

Meeting Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in Philadelphia, years ago

December 25, 2007

One of the most important events in my life was meeting Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in Philadelphia when he came to visit the Shambhala Center, which his father Chogyam Trungpa had created. I did not know what to expect, and I knew only a little about Buddhism then, and I knew nothing about the lineages of Shambhala. I did not understand how important he was as the new leader of the lineage etc. I did have some experiences with meditation and had worked with meditation as part of my own writing though. And I had read some of Chogyam Trungpa’s writings a long time before, and The Myth of Freedom had been one of the most powerful books I’d ever read.

The session with Sakyong Mipham included a Question and Answer period followed by a period of sitting with him. He was more than serene; he radiated warmth and humble compassion. There was something fearless and almost innocent about his presence, but when he spoke, he was too apt and too intelligent to be really innocent. The questions that people asked were quite revealing, but always of themselves. The answers he gave were always direct, clear and simple. I asked a question, too. I wanted to know what the value was of a teacher. (This sounds like a stupid question, now, but it was somehow not obvious to me then.) He answered that it was a good question, and he said that it would help you learn more quickly and easily.

Why wasn’t that obvious to me before? Maybe the same reason it took me so long to get an MFA in poetry—I thought I could figure it all out by myself.

Then he sat and meditated with us in the large room across from the Shambhala Center, which actually was a dance studio.

This is hard to explain because I never felt anything like this before—he was just physically sitting there meditating, but it was as though the room filled with his light, warmth, and powerful, fearless compassion and love for all of us there. It was not merely that I could see how he felt; it was like the feelings inside him were flowing out of him and into us. Nothing in Western science, religion or culture could prepare anyone for this—it was extraordinary. It was a very beautiful and life-altering process. It lasted a long time, but I wanted it to keep going. I wanted to experience it more and understand it. How was this even possible?

I never understood it until I read a passage from Turning the Mind into an Ally, a book that he wrote:

What the Buddha discovered is that we all have bodhichitta, ripe for nourishment. Within the bewildering maelstrom of thoughts and emotions that keep our sense of self solid, each of us already has the seeds of love and compassion. Bodhichitta is the radiant heart that is constantly and naturally, without self-consciousness, generating love and compassion for the benefit of others. It’s a stream of love and compassion that connects us all, without fixation or attachment. It has a tender sadness to it, like a wound that remains eternally exposed. It’s our true nature.

This passage reminded me of a few things. It reminded me that he was able to do this radiating of the heart of love and compassion, and that it did, in fact, have this tender and sad quality. It also reminded me of the one time in my life when I had an out-of-body experience. Then I remembered having a similar, powerful experience of this other way of being that was very much like the bodhichitta state of being that Sakyong Mipham describes. Trying to describe that accurately and well was one of the hardest things I ever tried to do in writing. The story was called “Out-of-body travel at thirteen.” I have read this story once in front of a real audience, and I have heard that the audience really “got it.” I also heard from a few readers that they really loved the story. That makes me think that maybe the message got through. It also reminded me of a phrase from William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” which was “the still sad music of humanity.”

Looking back over many years, I am grateful to Sakyong Mipham for the fearless way that he practices and writes.