Recollection by Kevin Lyons (see note below)
As the summer of 1974 came to a close, The Venerable Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, was busy teaching the Vipassana seminar at Tail of the Tiger in Barnet, Vermont. At that time, before the land was cleared and the current meditation center was built, Rinpoche would come to teach at Tail of the Tiger three or four times a year. In the cold winter months, seminars at Tail of the Tiger normally took place at the old Town Hall in Barnet village, and as the weather warmed and summer approached, a large circus style tent would be erected near what is today the visitor’s parking lot. The tent would then be filled with rugs and zafus and irregular-sized cushions of all kinds and colors; and a dais would be built with a table and chair from where Rinpoche would sit and teach. Although the tent was subject to the winds, and dust and sometimes the racket and din of raindrops pounding on its canvas roof, it had a comfortable intimacy and it was a wonderful place to spend a summer afternoon with Rinpoche as he turned the wheel of dharma.
From its beginnings, Tail of the Tiger has always been special. Tucked into the foundations of three large hills in Vermont’s northeast kingdom, it is a wild and vertical landscape of high granite outcroppings that are often hidden by low clouds and at once give the impression of being remote and magical. At its foot is a fast moving river partially fed by the numerous streams that originate at the higher pastures and in autumn reveal themselves only by mist rising above the forest canopy. The summers are hot and the winters often long and bitterly cold. Living there was a total gateway into the Dharma. Apart from the normal schedule of work, there was study and three hours of meditation each day. Beginning in February 1974, the community would close to the outside twice a year for Dathun, a month long sitting retreat. It was then, as Trungpa Rinpoche would say, that encountering oneself through work, study and practice, was a continual unmasking. It sometimes felt like a persistent assault on one’s comfort because life at Tail of the Tiger was both a struggle and surrender. If you wanted to stay, and were willing to commit yourself to living in the community, it was difficult to escape the intensity. The only place to hide was in the basement with the feral cats and the skunk.
As Rinpoche was teaching the seminar, sanghas across the country, but especially those at Tail of the Tiger and the New York Dharmadhatu, were busily preparing for the first visit of H.H. the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa to the North American continent. Although Rinpoche had spoken about the Karmapa a number of times in the past, on the whole we really didn’t know a great deal about him and we certainly didn’t know what to expect. After all, less than a year before, participants at the first Vajradhatu Seminary in Jackson Hole, Wyoming had returned to their individual Dharmadhatus and study groups and shared with sanghas what they had learned during the Hinayana and Mahayana sections of seminary. It was only then that many of us really began to understand the complexity and vision of the Tibetan Buddhist path. So with the upcoming arrival of the Karmapa, Trungpa Rinpoche was able to share with us his greater vision of lineage, and it would also gave legitimacy to the work that Rinpoche had been doing since arriving in America. In many ways the Karmapa’s visit would be a formal introduction into the trappings of the Vajrayana Path.
While at Samye Ling in Scotland, Rinpoche gave many of the conventional Vajrayana teachings. America, however, was an entirely different place. The country had just gone through one of the most divisive periods in its history due to the unpopular war in Vietnam and the emergence of the civil and feminist rights movements. People who went to hear Trungpa Rinpoche speak were, for the most part, well educated and eager to learn but, the counter culture was inundated with so many wild ideas about meditation and spirituality that Trungpa Rinpoche needed a meditation practice that would not create any more confusion and was by its nature grounding and universal. Trungpa Rinpoche introduced his students to the sitting practice of samatha-vipashyana meditation. It would be this practice that many of his students did for two or three years before being introduced to Vajrayana at seminary.
The year before the Karmapa came to the United States, he sent a remarkable woman and unlikely emissary in the form of Sister Palmo. Freda Houlston Bedi, the future Sister Palmo, was a graduate of Oxford University. While still a student, in the early nineteen thirties, she met her future husband Baba Pyare Lal Bedi, a man from a prominent Sikh family. In 1934 after their marriage they left England to begin their new lives in India. Eventually and inevitably Freda was swept up in the protracted Indian National Independence movement, and on one occasion, while attending one of the Mahatma’s Satyagraha, a principle in Gandhi’s movement of non-violence, Freda was arrested and detained along with her two children.
Freda worked for most of her life in India’s Ministries of Public Welfare. It would be the invasion of Tibet in 1959 and the momentous refugee crisis, that brought Freda into contact with the Tibetan Diaspora and subsequently changed the course of her life. The Indian Prime Minister Nehru, who looked with empathy at what was fast becoming a crisis on India’s border with the occupying Chinese, asked Freda to give assistance to the Tibetan refugees streaming from Tibet into India. Freda with the encouragement of the Dalhi Lama opened the Young Lamas School in Delhi. It was there that Freda was to first meet Chögyam Trungpa, who she asked to teach young Lamas. During this time she also met the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa. In 1966 Freda went to Rumtek Monestary in Sikkim and the following year was ordained by His Holiness, and by doing so she became the first westerner to be ordained a Tibetan Buddhist nun. In the Autumn of 1973, Sister Palmo visited a number of Kagyu centers in the United States. She came to test the waters, and to gather information for a possible future trip by His Holiness. The Karmapa, who had great trust in Sister Palmo, gave his consent for her to give a number of lungs and other teachings. That autumn I was introduced to Sister Palmo when we took a long meandering road trip from Boston to Tail of the Tiger. While on that journey, due to my curiosity about her life, she told me a story about a mutual decision that she and Bera had made. Both of them wanted to spend their last years pursuing a spiritual life. Bera went to seek his Sikh roots and Freda her Tibetan Buddhist Path. I have no doubt that Sister Palmo’s favorable account to the Karmapa was partially the reason he would come to the United States the next year.
My encounter with the Karmapa began when Michael Chender of the New York Dharmadhatu asked me if I would go to New York City to assist the monks traveling with His Holiness. I understood that apart from the more obvious tasks of caring for the monk’s transportation, lodging and meals there was a greater purpose in making them feel comfortable and welcomed. I planned to attend the upcoming Vajra Crown Ceremony and I knew that I would see The Karmapa during the ceremony, but other than that, I had no real expectations of spending any time with the him. I was going to be busy enough. It turned out that the Karmapa had one practice that I wasn’t aware of: when the Karmapa went somewhere, his whole entourage went with him.
The night before the Karmapa landed in New York City, there was a community meeting at the New York Dharmadhatu. Trungpa Rinpoche explained to the New York Sangha what to expect in the coming week. New York City was fast becoming a magnet of the Kagyu Lineage. Kalu Rinpoche was in town giving an empowerment, and Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche wanted to go to JFK to greet His Holiness as he passed customs and officially entered the United States. During the sangha meeting an unfamiliar person who obviously had some mental health issues interrupted Rinpoche by making a loud hissing sound and using his fingers like a rake across his mouth. Rinpoche, who was usually very accommodating, stuck out his arm like an exclamation point and said get him out. This was for me the first understanding of how important this visit was for Rinpoche, and that we couldn’t resort to being laid back and hoping that everything would work out. This was significant to him and he convinced us that it was of great consequence to us as well. No one left the room with any doubt in their minds.
The next day, with all the waiting and anticipation over, His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa’s plane landed at JFK Airport. A room was set aside for an official greeting and since I was there anyway waiting to meet the monks, Rinpoche asked me and a few other students to prostrate to the Karmapa in a traditional Tibetan welcome. After the prostrations, the official dignitaries made offerings of khatas to the Karmapa. He seemed very touched by the joyous welcome which was, for some, a happy reunion. It was for me the moment when this legendary person I had heard about became flesh and blood before me. And my worried anticipation about meeting him was swept away by his joyful mood and glowing smile. It was difficult not to get swept up in the festive moment and enthusiasm. I recall being surprised that for a large man he was so graceful on his feet. With the greetings ended, and the fatigue of the monks and His Holiness evident, we left for a lovely compound on Long Island Sound that was owned by a patron. After everyone was settled, the Karmapa and his monks recited their evening prayers after which His Holiness retired for the evening. I slept on the floor in the library which had a lovely spiral staircase leading to the room occupied by His Holiness and the Vajra Crown. That night I slept with one eye open.
Quite early the next morning, His Holiness and his attending monks began their morning chants and prayers. Practice for them continued wherever they were. The Karmapa was extremely generous, encouraging us to join in. Of course we didn’t understand what was being said because it was all in Tibetan, but nevertheless, sitting practice was the perfect rejoinder because it didn’t intrude and actually contributed by promoting awareness, and through silence. After breakfast we headed to New York City but made a short stop at Stonybrook University and its extensive collection of Tibetan texts. The Karmapa was given a tour of their library by the faculty and through the translator spoke for an hour about different books the library owned.
Without any further delay, we left in three cars for New York City. As we entered lower Manhattan, the curiosity and excitement of the monks was growing, Every window in the car had a face pushed flat against it as they marveled at the manmade mountains towering above them. It was one of those moments when a translator wasn’t needed to understand what they were saying.
Our first destination was a tour of the United Nations. A U.N. representative walked with us through the empty halls of the General Assembly and the Security Council explaining to His Holiness how the United Nations works Our final stop in the U.N. was the chapel where His Holiness was to give a short puja and blessing. The U.N.chapel had all the splendor of a conference room. The chapel itself was a fusion of the religious beliefs of all the member nations, and in the end was so inoffensive, it represented none of them.
After the United Nations, with the required diplomatic visit behind us, it was time to do what everyone does when coming to New York City for the first time. We went to the Empire State Building. The major renovations to the Empire State Building were still a decade away, and the Art Deco lobby was partially hidden by a lowered ceiling. We took a few elevators that shook occasionally and trembled, but when we reached the observation level the elevator ride was forgotten and everyone was in a joyous spirit. It was a beautiful afternoon and the visibility without haze was as close to perfect as you can get. Things became a little more relaxed while all the monks and the Karmapa took their time slowly moving about the observatory. We spent a couple of hours and went through many quarters while using the coin-operated binoculars.
That afternoon the Karmapa gave an abhisheka that was open to the public. I had never been a part of an empowerment and it was a new experience to most of the people in the room. We all paid attention and tried to participate as well as we could. Trungpa Rinpoche assisted the Karmapa by passing him the ritual objects needed for the abhisheka. After His Holiness blessed an object he would pass it back to Trungpa Rinpoche, which then with the help of a small cadre of helpers worked its way quietly through the room, with Rinpoche explaining what was happening along with the proper responses for different parts of the ritual. When the ceremony was over people approached the Karmapa with khatas and gifts. This was the first opportunity the Karmapa had to meet with students.
The next morning after prayers and breakfast we went to the Bronx Zoo Aviary which had recently opened. We were so fortunate because we received a tour of the beautiful facility early in the morning before it opened to the public. The Aviary was built like a tropical rain forest, with occasional piped-in thunder and monsoon rains from sprinklers high up on the dome.Viewing from an observation platform, you could watch the tropical birds fly from tree to perch.The Karmapa had a wonderful time. I had heard stories about the compassion that he showed towards animals and his love for them was unmistakable.
Later that morning we entered the zoo for large mammals. We were met by a zoo official who drove the Karmapa here and there on a golf cart. Unexpectedly the monks became upset because they lost sight of His Holiness and his golf cart. Fifteen minutes later, just as panic was beginning to show on their faces, the Karmapa reappeared as unexpectedly as he had left, smiling broadly as if he knew the torment this would cause his monks. It was at the gorilla enclosure that His Holiness really became animated and began to call out and play to the gorillas using monkey sounds and a deep resonant imitation of gorilla-speak. Some of the gorillas even howled back. I think that the morning we spent at the Bronx Zoo was the highlight of his fun time in New York.
Around midday we were off again to a luncheon at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. I thought that it was going to be a small affair but there ended up being about one hundred and fifty guests. Business people, local luminaries, priests, reverends and rabbis all welcomed the Karmapa who was having a wonderful time. He seemed delighted and surprised by the friendship and acceptance that was shown to him. A handful of us took on a new task–security for the Karmapa. For the most part it was for show because this group of people were fascinated by him. As his Holiness settled into his chair at the head table all of the guests took their seats. What happened next surprised me and has endeared me to the Karmapa ever since. When all the guests had been served, the Karmapa signaled one of the officials and told him that he wanted his security detail to sit down and have lunch as well.
On the morning of the Vajra Crown ceremony, His Holiness was shown a newspaper clipping about a bird store in the Lower East Side that sold bamboo bird cages. The Karmapa, as we had previously heard, was a devoted bird watcher, and when he was home in Rumtek Monastery he enjoyed going to the roof of the palace to watch them. With newspaper clipping in hand, the Karmapa decided we must all go to this bird shop, and forty-five minutes later the Karmapa, one translator, twelve monks and various hangers on descended on this little bird shop, to the shock of the proprietor.The Karmapa ended up buying four cages, but the owner was certainly at a loss about who his new maroon customers were.
That afternoon I went to the auditorium where the Vajra Crown Ceremony was to be held. Thankfully it was across the street from Macy’s since there were a number of trips back and forth to purchase bolts of satin which at the time was quite popular. Once again I was asked to be part of the security team which was just moving about the hall as unobtrusively as possible. In retrospect, there was little need for security because the crowd was so reverent. For most of the people attending the Vajra Crown Ceremony it was their first glimpse of the Karmapa and very exciting. On the stage of the auditorium, the Karmapa sat on a large throne with cushions draped with rich colors, and on a table before him were the ritual objects that were to be used during the ceremony. The Karmapa seemed oblivious to the noise of the auditorium that was quickly becoming full.
After receiving a mandala offering, he began reciting the Seven Limb Prayer. The Karmapa displayed a remarkable characteristic during the ceremony. When he raised the Vajra Crown to his head, he was absorbed with eyes turned inward as he said mantras, telling them with his crystal mala. It was not unusual that during different parts of the ceremony the Karmapa manifested in different ways to different people. During the part of the ceremony that the Karmapa wore the crown, monks played long horns, cymbals, and darmarus.
At the end of the Vajra Crown ceremony the crown was returned to its special box and His Holiness concluded the rites; all of the participants approached him in single file to receive his blessing. The Karmapa was grinning the entire time, especially enjoying babies who were presented to him for his blessing.
On the last day of his splendid and historic trip to New York City, we left for JFK airport. The Karmapa bid farewell to members of the New York City Dharmadhatu and thanked them for all their effort in making his first visit to New York so warm and welcoming. I went along to the airport to help the monks with their luggage and to say goodbye to each of them. As we all approached security there was a conveyor and metal detector that the baggage was required to go through. One of the customs officials picked up the box containing the Vajra Crown and put in on the conveyor. At that moment, the monk whose one responsibility was to safeguard the Crown jumped on the conveyor with no regard for himself, to try and rescue it. He was certainly ready to ride through the metal detector to recapture his prize! Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and when it was explained to the customs officer about the precious artifact that was in the elaborate box, he let everyone through. With a final wave of the hand they were gone.
It has been nearly thirty-eight years since His Holiness came to America for the first time. Soon after he left New York he would go to Tail of the Tiger and change its name to Karme Choling. He would then go on to Boston, Boulder, and other cities. After the Karmapa’s first visit everything changed. Gone were the hippie days. The counter culture became the culture and we became respectable members of it; but in the end both sides of the equation had their purpose and beauty and would define the years ahead. I will always be grateful to Michael Chender for asking me to go to New York City and be part of that remarkable week. I have attempted to put to paper events as I remember them.
EDITORS’ NOTE: We are publishing this recollection for a number of reasons.
One is to encourage others to put up similar accounts of encounters or experiences that affected their understanding, practice, and realization: these could be part of a series.
Another is to pose questions around this kind of account. What does it serve? If it’s your story, what does it mean now, in your personal practice? What benefit does it have to share it with others? How helpful is it to refer to past experiences with beings that you may consider special: how is that specialness, or ordinariness, transmitted through such a story, or through the effect it continues to have in your life?