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Slow on the Uptake

By Denault Blouin

“Fuck you.”

“Did he say, ‘Fuck you’”?

“Yeah. He just said it again.”

To whomever—was it Ginsberg?—on that long ten-tape “Tibetan Buddhism and American Karma” seminar (November, 1971) we were listening to in the winter of ‘73 in the Kootenays, bushwhacked ex-american drop-outs in our mid 30s.

Out of the States, yes , but still inseparably connected, wired to the news we’d left, Nixon’s descent, the war we’d organized against and then left because politics as such had become a dead end—missing something we loosely called spiritual, looking for a reality deeper than the dialectics of struggle through working with our hands on the land, holding candle-lit Ramakrishna-inspired satsangs on Sunday evenings, attended by New Age outlaw territory draft-dodgers, drug smugglers/growers, whole earth bushfreak refugees on the run from materialism.

Well, Rinpoche blew a hole in all that with Cutting Through. He obliterated it. He took on the whole culture, all of it. He ate it. He drank, he smoked, he fucked, he’d done psychedelics. (And only now, after reading Dragon Thunder do I finally realize the splitting pain and high cost of absence his family paid for the vast attention he gave to us, his students.)

He was not pure and he appealed to us—to me—because of that. In street-immediate language, Rinpoche brought spirituality down to an act I could practice, without having to change clothes, food, homes or jobs. There was a softness, a looseness and an intense color that clothed an intellectual rigor and an inscrutably seductive style that, if such things appealed to you, were irresistible.

Just as the West had once gone East to explore Tibet when it was called the Forbidden Kingdom, so Rinpoche had escaped Tibet for the West, but there was no kingdom forbidden to him here. With the eye of an artist, the mind of a warrior with utterly nothing to lose and an uncompromising compassion often difficult to fathom, he went right into the deep reaches of the culture, ransacking its kleshas—exposing its “something stinks” self-deception, addictive materialism, and blamelessly ignorant belief “in an external reality” that splits the world into us and them. And he located all of this where it lived most intimately: in the minds of his students.

At the very same time, Rinpoche recognized what was basically sane and genuine in the arts, science, business, religion, medicine, military and history of the West and the East, China and Japan, and he appropriated whatever he needed to establish a foundation for nine yanas Buddhadharma in the West. (The most startling and disturbing example of this being the formation of the Kasung, a military based on non-aggression with the motto, Victory over War. This was shocking, and still engenders wariness.)

I felt wary of Rinpoche, in fact, scared of him. Of course, at some level most of us were: the guru was like a fire, he said—too close and you get burned, too far and you’re out in the cold. Flames are never the same; he was always unpredictable, to say the least. I know now I was afraid to take a risk, afraid of getting flattened by one of those black wrathful axe-handed thangka figures that, for me, seemed to stand in shadow behind Rinpoche. I regret this now, for learning from Rinpoche involved a willingness to be totally exposed. In fact, in his presence one was already.

All of our trips—those little things we do underneath our reasons—became transparent around Rinpoche as he strove to cut through them to reveal the best in our nature and provide a path to realize it…those little things, the little lies we tell to excuse ourselves from responsibility, even for ourselves…the little things we do to get an edge on others…those little things (“It’s all little things,” he said) that let us slide by the fact of life: we’re going to die, what we do now matters to self, other, all sentient beings, the planet.

It was that vast and profound with Rinpoche. Every detail mattered. Neurosis was compost, and laughter.

That’s what attracted students to him. Serious students of religion and the dharma, mindbody investigators, burn-out refugees from other teachers, enlightenment seekers, spiritual travelers to the East, Western long-hair yogis, drop-out academics, intellectuals, digital pioneers, psychologists, doctors, alt. therapists, musicians, actors, dancers, artists, writers, college students, on-their-own teenagers, seniors, New Left veterans, hippies, dope smokers, acid heads, drinkers—the whole beat, freaking mix with Rinpoche in the midst. Eating it. Answering it.

That was the thing. To the most profound phenomenological and existential questions, Rinpoche had an answer in plain language that encompassed both the question and questioner in ways that not only sparked deeper insights and questions , but also addressed the vulnerability of the person asking the question in the first place. In other words, his answers often provocatively put you on the spot. And were meant for you alone; you couldn’t often generalize from his answers. Especially when the questions were personal and sometimes so tender they had been held for years. (Once asking a student what her work was, when she answered, “Psychologist,” he said, “Me too.”) And if he did not have an answer he would say so.

Rinpoche had an ability—it was beyond uncanny, it was precise—to see, first, that vulnerable, soft spot in people which made them naturally open and most fully human, and, second, to speak to that as the source of awareness itself which was, after all, the point.

Yet most of us missed it, and when it came to making an organization from those extremely smart and extremely confused students who came to him in the first few years, missing it created problems: sometimes vicious ambition and competition; “Rinpoche said” conmanship and deception; wastefulness; sexual predation (of both sexes); exploitation of women; alcoholism; abuse of power for personal pleasure and gain; unaccountability; and a cultish secrecy. There were prices to pay for our behavior later, final ones in the case of the Regent. American karma.

From the distance of the Kootenays in the BC Interior, during those first few years there were always pressing questions about where “our” money was going and what for. There were differences between spouses about priorities. “$250 for a donation to His Holiness? When we have three kids and need a washing machine? No way!” Or, “Sitting inside on a sunny Sunday when we get so few of them? Not me! You can.” So relationships divided, but Buddhism was not the root cause.

In late fall of ‘75 I took a fourteen hour Greyhound bus ride to sit my first dathun at RMDC and then attend the 2nd Annual Dharmadhatu Conference in Boulder. Fresh out of four years in the bush and a dathun held in buildings roughly equivalent to ones we’d build in Kootenays, I was not prepared for the high finish and the spiritual politics of the scene in Boulder.

At the end of a long table in a narrow room at 1111 Pearl sat the Directors of Vajradhatu in three-piece suits with their styled hair, quiet, smooth talk, and soft palms. These guys did not work outside. Noticing my reaction, one of the Directors of RMDC—a carpenter himself—cracked, “So what’d you think of those characters?”

Not that much.

Feeling self-snug (one of those nail-on-the-head CTR neologisms) and superior in my bib-overalls, Communist Chinese plaid flannel work shirt and Stanfield’s long-johns, I thought I’d left this high-powered American hustle behind. Fat chance. The organization came with Rinpoche and it was an operation. Not just the three-piece style, but the corporate command model entirely.

“American spiritual imperialism,” a renegade Canadian Vajradhatu resister called it. Managed from the top down. That’s what it felt like. Devotion, driven more by the Hindu model than the Tibetan at that point, was the heart of the practice, and it was expected of students with an attitude of arrogance and elitism I knew well, having been educated in it in East coast schools. I knew it, too, because, to be honest, I shared it and secretly—one of those little things—believed it. So as a member of the sangha I enabled it. Yet, at the same time, doing what the guru says, or what somebody says he said, was something I resisted, being well aware of opportunities for abuse of power, particularly with regard to sex and money.

There was a shadow of cultism about the scene, and I could not suppress my doubts or my cynicism.

I raised this matter at the beginning in my first and only interview with Rinpoche in February 1975 in Vancouver. Knowing of a seminar he had recently given, called “Cynicism and Doubt,” and how both evolve into warmth and devotion, I said that I could not give up either my doubts or skepticism. That did not seem to be a problem, he said.

My relationship to him was always distant. When I had key life-questions, people would say, “Ask Rinpoche.” But I never did because, as he said, we already know the answer. So I held the question and he was right: even though I did not want to face it, I knew the answer.

I never asked him dharma questions either, because my experience was that other students usually asked the same ones. Besides, I was afraid to appear a fool—as if that were not obvious anyway! That was a lesson I took about twenty years to learn.

Likewise with getting the point of pointing-out transmission. Only when I finally got it 25 years later by getting it from someone else (Mingyur Rinpoche, Halifax, 2004) did my cynicism and doubt dissolve in the certainty of the ordinary mind Rinpoche not only transmitted but embodied.

Only then, a quarter century after the fact, did I recognize that that was what Rinpoche had given a small group of us pre-Seminary vajrayana students in 1979 on that June day in a sweltering basement room of Dorje Dzong in Boulder, when he said, “It’s right here in this room right now”; or at Lake Louise to a Seminary of 300 people with a snap of his fingers in 1980; or at ITS’s in Boulder when he gave it on the spot, tantrika or not, in Fourth Moment stops.

Only since have I seen that devotion is, of course, to the teacher, yes. But however at the same time (a favorite triple negative of Rinpoche’s), it is the on the spot, right now awareness of emptiness-compassion inseparable—better vulnerability/compassion: again, and again and again. Gratitude goes to the teacher; practice is for oneself and others.

In this way I have come to understand the term “favorable birth.” It is not favorable in the sense that one has made one’s way up the karmic ladder by climbing over the lives and suffering of billions of other sentient beings who have not heard the dharma and one is therefore saved from endless rebirths in samsara.

Quite the contrary. The dharma sticks one choicelessly into the samsara/nirvana-inseparable squeeze. And that’s when practice begins. Even on the little I have learned and practiced, over the years since Rinpoche died, in tight moments when there was no choice but to act and act decisively without concept of consequences, I have felt him arise in my mind with that bracing confidence and clarity he exemplified. At those times, I have bowed to his presence.

Yes, alcohol wasted his constitution, but even when he sounded like he was reeling drunk on tape he always rounded on the truth, proclaiming it clearly, precisely, insultingly, outrageously.

I don’t think he had a choice. In fact he said as much when he was young, protesting in fuck-you anger to his tutor that he didn’t choose to be a tulku: “Nobody asked me to become a Trungpa…You found me!” And then at only 19, with the Chinese closing in on Surmang, when Khenpo Gangshar and Changchub Dorje “pressed him into the realm of insight-emptiness from which there is no escape,” “he” was gone. And we got him.

He came West at a pivot moment in world history. A time when, as he said, “confusions dawn everywhere, spiritual disciplines have gotten messed up and because of that, somehow or other, somewhere, vajrayana is possible to present. In this land of America, this beautiful land, this beautiful kingdom of America, vajrayana Buddhism has become possible to present.”

There will never be another like him. But there will be others. This is the tiger-riding, ego-corpse treading, crazy—“craziness gone wisdom”—lineage, a term which has fallen out of current Shambhala Buddhist vocabulary.

But that is the Tibetan Buddhist tradition he transmitted in its raw, pure, origin-al nature.

D. Blouin