The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

The impulse to believe the absurd when presented with the unknowable is called religion. Whether this is wise or unwise is the domain of doctrine. Once you understand someone's doctrine, you understand their rationale for believing the absurd. At that point, it may no longer seem absurd. You can get to both sides of this conondrum from here.

Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 11:00 pm

6. Alana


Years ago, before Alana found her way to Poolesville, she was called Betsy Elgin. She had red hair, an aloof sort of pristine beauty, and when she was growing up in suburban Maryland she had the usual questions about life -- the ones everybody thinks are appropriate for teenagers and embarrassing later on. But Betsy was not as remote, or as unfeeling, as she appeared. She just had a way of hiding her feelings. When she got pregnant her senior year of high school, she hid that, too -- six months pregnant under her graduation robes and not even her parents knew. She and her boyfriend got married when they were seventeen. raised their daughter, and, four years later, they had another.

She had grown up in a Protestant household, but in her early twenties Betsy attended lectures on Buddhism. It was the sixties, and Eastern religion was in vogue. The lectures were dry, though -- just lists of books to read. words to memorize. Later on, following another burst of spiritual passion. Betsy had a born-again Christian experience. A bit later she was divorced and remarried.

As she grew older, Betsy's youthful questions, and sense of wonder about life, left her. The days became ordinary. She was working as an insurance secretary, raising her two daughters, feeding her two cats. vacuuming the carpets in her suburban town house, and trying, on the side, to start her own interior decorating business. The mystical did not present itself: The strange connections between things went unnoticed. Her husband -- an insurance agent, NFL football referee, bodybuilder -- was utterly grounded in materiality. And if Betsy ever raised doubts about the way they were living their lives, he'd say, "Why are you even asking that question? The universe? Why are you talking about the universe?"

When Betsy was thirty-five years old. a friend told her about a psychic who lived in Silver Spring. "You pay her twenty dollars and she goes into a trance and tells you about your past lives and other crazy stuff," her friend said. It was a hoot, really -- the kind of thing Betsy could have a good laugh with her girlfriends about later. "I went to see this channeler, and ... " But when Betsy called the number she was given for the psychic. her heart was pounding. A sweet voice answered -- not the old witch she had imagined -- and Betsy made an appointment to see Catharine Burroughs on a weekday afternoon in the fall of 1983.

Betsy arrived at a redbrick apartment building in Silver Spring and found the first-floor apartment where Catharine Burroughs lived. Betsy had come from work, and was wearing a camel suit with matching camel-beige pumps and handbag. Her hair was bright red and down to her shoulders. Her body, even under the boxy suit, was noticeably strong and curvaceous.

A heavyset woman with a pretty face answered the door and smiled very warmly. "Dh, you're so beautiful!" she said.

"You are too!" Betsy blurted back. She looked down at Catharine's African print skirt and perfectly manicured red nails. There was an awkward pause and a fumbling for words. Betsy suddenly felt a great intimacy with this woman, which made her a little queasy.

She was led to Catharine's small living room, which, to Betsy's eye, needed decorating. Clearly this psychic wasn't making much money. "There were crates instead of furniture," she recounted, "and a lamp sitting on the floor because there was no table to put it on." Some large quartz crystals were scattered about -- lending a New Age feeling.

Once she was settled, Catharine explained to Betsy what would be happening during the psychic reading. She would meditate, she said, examine Betsy's energy on various levels -- the physical plane, the emotional plane, and the spiritual plane -- and tell her what she saw. It was a little like a checkup, she said. Then Catharine sat back in a green velvet, overstuffed chair and closed her eyes.

"How is your marriage?" Catharine asked.

"Fine," Betsy said. "Really fine."

Catharine said nothing.

"Is your father dead?"

"No," Betsy said, getting nervous. "I mean ... I hope not. I don't think so."

"I can see your father in your energy field," Catharine said, "but it's like somebody has taken an eraser and erased his face."

When Betsy heard that, she started to cry. "It was such a perfect description of my relationship with my father." she said later. "He was there but not there."

By the time the session was over, she had cried many times. With Catharine she felt as though she was talking with an old, dear friend, someone who knew her better than anyone else did. She had a feeling of being deeply cared for in a way she'd never experienced. Catharine had also said some incredibly nice things that made her feel incredibly good. She told Betsy that she was a "great being," a great spiritual being. And she said that someday -- while it might seem hard to believe -- Betsy's life would be completely different from what it was now. It would turn over, like a pancake. Her whole world would become spiritual.

"Is your full name Elizabeth?" she asked.


"Why don't you call yourself that?" Catharine asked.

"I've always been Betsy."

"The names we use are very important -- and have great spiritual significance. Betsy's a cute and nice name, but ... Elizabeth has nobility. And it suits you."

At the end of the session Betsy was invited to attend a Tuesday night "teaching" Catharine was giving at her apartment -- every week, she explained, she gave lectures on various spiritual subjects. And when Tuesday night came Betsy returned -- and this time, the place was crowded. She quietly found a spot on the floor with a cluster of Catharine's other students -- and introduced herself as Elizabeth. Later, when Catharine caught sight of her, she smiled warmly, almost proudly, and invited Betsy -- Elizabeth -- to attend a Friday night lecture, which was reserved for the more advanced students.

On Friday, Catharine lectured about kindness and compassion. She used the phrase "developing one's Christ nature" along with other Christian language, which made Elizabeth feel comfortable with the Center for Discovery and New Life even though, as she would put it, "many of the people in my class were very strange. I mean, way out there .... I remember one night where two women were talking about this occult stuff they'd done, something involving putting candles around the room and ghosts and negative beings appearing. I was like, What am I doing here? What am I getting into? But Catharine always saved me. She was always very kind, and dealt with me on a level that I could understand."

Soon Elizabeth's weeks began to pivot around these evenings. And when Catharine moved her center to Kensington, Elizabeth continued to commute from Gaithersburg -- sometimes to her husband's dismay.

Eventually Catharine felt that Elizabeth was ready to attend a class where the lecture was channeled -- this took place every Thursday, with a group of ten or twelve students who had been with Catharine for a year already. "She was more nervous than I was," Alana said later. "She said, 'I'm warning you, it's really strange. I close my eyes and I twitch and I talk in a man's voice.' " But Elizabeth felt flattered to be invited -- and she trusted Catharine. In just a few months the women had become close friends. "When you first meet your teacher," Alana explained, "there's a big rush of merit and karma coming forward -- that she's helping to pull forward -- and a lot can happen very quickly." Elizabeth also felt a great love for Catharine, and a sense that she had found something she'd been searching for her whole life. Their bond, she said, was like a "deep spiritual marriage." In fact, they had formed a friendship that was intense enough to threaten both their husbands and become a source of stress at home.

By early 1984, Catharine was offering two weekly classes in Kensington, each lasting about two hours. She didn't want to charge fees for her teachings, so donations were suggested. The class for newcomers, the Tuesday Class, began as a series on attachment but evolved into an exploration of Eastern philosophy. The Thursday Class was reserved for Catharine's original group of students or by invitation -- because of the unusual nature of the evenings. It was on Thursdays that Catharine channeled an entity who claimed to be the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. Actually, the voice of Jeremiah played a kind of emcee role at these sessions, introducing the students to an assortment of other entities who were speaking through Catharine and sharing their wisdom. There was Enoch. There was Santu, a high-pitched voice who said she "came in love." And there was Andor, who claimed to be the head of the Intergalactic Council.

As time passed, the class became familiar with the various personalities. When Catharine's voice turned deep and masculine, the students greeted Jeremiah like an old friend. He addressed members of the group. encouraging them. advising them, joking with them -- while they sat stunned. "I remember pulling up in the car in front of the Kensington house," said Wib. "and looking over at Jane or Shelly and saying. 'How could this week be any more incredible than last week?' But it always was."

The basement of the Kensington house was stuffy and crowded with students the night Elizabeth first came to hear Catharine channel a lecture. Elizabeth carried her tape recorder and walked through yet another crowd of strangers -- Catharine's core students. like Wib and Jane, Shelly and Eleanor. She found a place on the floor in front, next to the green velvet chair where Catharine would sit, close her eyes, slump as though she'd fallen asleep, then awaken in a trance. But Elizabeth didn't get a chance to meet Jeremiah that night. Instead, Catharine channeled a new entity who called herself Ms. Buddha. She spoke about the nature of love and how ceaseless prayer could really change the world. "The whole thing was so sweet," Alana recalled. "When she came out of the channel, she was disoriented for a while. But then she looked over at me and said, are you okay? Was that too strange?'"

After her introduction to the Thursday Class, Elizabeth found herself even more involved with the Center for Discovery and New Life -- she spent her time after each evening in Kensington excited about the next one. She gained a reputation for being "spiritually evolved" and able to connect with Catharine in a profound way. She was also loyal. When the group began its twenty-four-hour-a-day prayer vigil, Elizabeth became the most loyal participant of all, arriving at 4:00 A.M. to take a two-hour shift before driving to work.

Elizabeth felt incredibly fortunate -- blessed -- to have found Catharine, or have had Catharine find her. She enjoyed the camaraderie of the group and relished her status as Catharine's confidante. The classes continued to become more dramatic. Catharine channeled yet another new entity -- White Moon, a Native American spirit -- and afterward nearly fainted from exhaustion. She also channeled information about herself, explaining that in a previous life she had been one of the female disciples of Christ responsible for passing down the Gnostic texts. And, in a private moment with Elizabeth, Catharine revealed that in a past life they had been romantically involved. In fact, Elizabeth had been her consort.

While Elizabeth's new spiritual life was crowded with extraordinary events and romance, her old life -- particularly her marriage -- seemed increasingly dead. People often talk about individuals changing in a marriage, but Elizabeth didn't feel she was changing as much as becoming more herself. Her husband had come to a few classes in the early days, but it was harder and harder to share the things she was learning with him and her young daughters. She felt pulled in two directions. A large part of her existed in the spiritual world with Catharine. A smaller part was with her family at home.

It was both sad and strange to feel so in touch with her heart, so much more compassionate about the world -- to be part of a ceaseless prayer vigil -- yet to have become an absentee mother.

"I was still in my tight little box," Alana recalled, "and I was not happy. I remember lying in bed thinking, Here 1am in my perfect town house with my perfect little kids and my perfect little husband and everything ... but why do I feel so empty?"


She wasn't exactly sure why she was joining Michael and Catharine at National Airport -- they were welcoming a Tibetan lama who was arriving from India -- except that Catharine had indicated that it was a good thing to do. And Elizabeth always paid attention to suggestions like this, even the smallest ones.

The center had sold rugs to raise money for some young Tibetan Buddhist monks, but Elizabeth wasn't sure what the connection was between the visiting lama and the rugs. Did he run the monastery where the monks were? Was he related to the Dalai Lama? Everything was pretty blurry. It seemed blurry to Catharine and Michael, too. If Kunzang Lama, the guy who'd gotten the students into selling the rugs, had ever mentioned that Penor Rinpoche was a big deal in India, it had been lost on all of them. Nobody seemed to know that he'd been recognized as a tulku when he was two or three, or that he'd performed a great number of miracles as a child, or that he'd fought the Chinese with guns and hand grenades to get out of Tibet in 1950.

Like the other students, Elizabeth was still reeling from recent developments in Kensington and not thinking about much of anything else. After initiating the round-the-clock prayer vigil, the group had decided to change its name. Rather than the Center for Discovery and New Life, which sounded flaky and self-centered -- and the new in New Life was a little too close to the new in New Age-they would be the World Prayer Center. This name matched their sense of purpose and the feeling that they weren't about self and self-improvement -- or self-work as the New Agers like to call it. The World Prayer Center was about praying and compassion. Selling the rugs had figured into their new focus, too. The group wasn't the Kensington Prayer Center. It was the World Prayer Center -- a global place, with an agenda to pray for world peace.

Alana would later remember the first meeting of Penor Rinpoche at National Airport as undramatic. There was a crowd of Chinese, which seemed to part for a short Gandhi-like figure. And rather than the romantic accounts that would be circulated years later -- in magazine profiles and newspaper articles -- about sobbing upon the sight of him, or running into his arms as in a shampoo commercial. Catharine said little at the airport as Penor Rinpoche appeared, according to Alana's account, but she did seem "very wide-eyed."

They went directly from the airport to a welcoming lunch at Mr. K's, an expensive Chinese restaurant in downtown D.C., and afterward, driving to Kensington, Catharine spoke up for the first time. "She said she couldn't believe how much the Tibetan lama was checking her out over lunch," Alana later said. Catharine seemed to feel that Penor Rinpoche had been waving a spiritual metal detector over her body. She felt a sense of invasion and, at the same time, the presence of great spiritual power. "She'd never met anybody who could do that," Alana said. "Her first instinct was to try to block it out, and then she decided, No, I'll just live with it."

Several days later Catharine called Elizabeth at work. Her name wasn't on the list of students who had signed up to meet privately with the Tibetan before he returned to India. Elizabeth said she had been busy and didn't think she had the time. "This is an opportunity," Catharine said, "and I don't think you want to pass it up." She told Elizabeth to arrive early and plan to spend a few minutes meditating before meeting with the lama. She suggested having a couple of questions ready for him.

"So I went over there, and I'm thinking, What am I going to ask him?" Alana recalled. She kept worrying about possible questions, but nothing was coming to her. "He was seeing people in the living room," she said, "and I waited downstairs to be called up. And something really bizarre happened while I was sitting there, meditating and waiting. I finally thought of a question to ask him, and then, suddenly, the answer came into my mind. When I thought of another question, it happened again. Three times .... It was so weird. That's when it started to dawn on me that something special was going on."

And when Elizabeth was called up to the living room, she was stunned by the appearance of Penor Rinpoche. He didn't look anything like she'd remembered. "At the airport, he looked short and fat -- a little guy. But sitting on that sofa, he suddenly looked immense."

She asked him a couple of questions about her life, which he answered quickly without much interest. "I was completely me-centered at the time," she said later, "all caught up in self." But when Elizabeth asked how she could be useful in the world, he said, "In this life, you need to learn to take refuge in nothing but the three precious jewels." Then he gave her a blessing, by putting his hands on her head and blowing on the top of her head. "I remember my body was shaking, vibrating, and when he blew on me it went right through me, like a strong clear feeling," she recalled.

When Elizabeth emerged from the living room, she saw Michael. "What are the three precious jewels?" she asked.

''I'm not sure," he said, "but there's a book in the office that might explain." Downstairs she found a book, The Door to Liberation, and she looked up the three precious jewels. She came across something called the Refuge vow. There were three sentences, one for each precious jewel:

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

Catharine and Michael were anxious to hear a report from Penor Rinpoche afterward -- a sense of how he felt the students were doing, and if they'd been taught properly. The rinpoche told them, unequivocally, that both Catharine and Michael had a strong connection to Mahayana Buddhism. He said that Michael had been a Buddhist scholar in prior lives. He told Catharine that she had been a Buddhist practitioner and teacher over many lifetimes. "Bodhisattvas come back again and again for the sake of sentient beings," Jetsunma remembered Penor Rinpoche saying, "and you are a great, great Bodhisattva."

"I remember hearing." Alana recalled, "that he said the very fabric of her mind was the Dharma."

Their students had "very good intention," the lama continued, but they needed to learn better technique. For one thing, they had to be taught to "dedicate their merit." This was very important. Immediately afterward Michael went down to the office and poked around in a few books trying to figure out what Penor Rinpoche was talking about. Eventually he found a Tibetan "dedication" prayer:

Throughout my many lives and until this moment,
Whatever virtue I have accomplished,
Including the merit generated by this practice,
And all that I will ever attain,
This I offer, for the welfare of sentient beings.
May sickness, war, famine, and suffering
Be decreased for every being,
While their wisdom and compassion increase
In this and every future life.
May I clearly perceive all experiences
To be as insubstantial as the dream-fabric of the night,
And instantly awaken to perceive the pure display
In the arising of every phenomenon.
May I quickly attain Enlightenment
In order to work ceaselessly
For the liberation of all sentient beings. [1]

The next evening Penor Rinpoche was scheduled to give another talk. About twenty-five students sat close together on chairs lined up in the Kensington living room and listened patiently. It was sometimes hard to follow the Tibetan -- things were left out in the translation. But at the end of the talk the students were very clearly asked to repeat a string of words. A few of them noticed that other Tibetans in the lama's entourage seemed to be crying. "We had no clue what he was saying," Alana recalled. "It was like gobble-dee-gook, gobble-dee-gook, gobble-dee-gook. And we just went gobble-dee-gook, gobble-dee-gook, gobble-dee-gook after him."

Then the translator spoke: "You are all Buddhists now. Congratulations."

On the last night of his visit, at the barbecue in his honor, Penor Rinpoche sat on the back porch eating hot dogs and potato chips. When Catharine noticed that he was alone she took Elizabeth aside and asked her to go sit with him. "Do 1have to?" Elizabeth asked, with a laugh. "I mean, what am I going to talk to him about?"

The next morning, as the lama's trunks were being loaded into the car, Catharine and Michael felt a vague sense of relief that their normal life would return -- but also a sense of sadness. They sat with him for a few minutes in the living room, hoping their warm smiles would communicate their intense feelings about him, and their appreciation for what he'd brought to their students. "Now we have a connection," Penor Rinpoche said, smiling back. "You can be a center here, my center, and let's see what happens."

Did His Holiness have any advice for them? Michael asked.

"To start," the lama answered, "you need to find a bigger place."

"We are already looking for a bigger place," Michael said. "But a bigger place costs money. We don't have much."

"Find a bigger place," Penor Rinpoche advised, "and the money will come."



1. Translated by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche.
Site Admin
Posts: 20692
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 11:07 pm

7. Becoming Buddhists


It wasn't long after the departure of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche that Catharine and Michael seriously began looking for a new center. Michael, in particular, felt an urgency to get organized -- and to find a way over some very high hurdles. One was money. He kept in mind what His Holiness had said and tried to have faith that things would work out. He contacted real estate agents, talked with banks about funding, and eventually learned how a limited partnership could be formed among members of the center to raise the capital for a down payment.

A formal announcement had been made to all students, too, that Penor Rinpoche had expressed interest in staying in touch with them -- and had been impressed by their "intention." Perhaps because of the need to raise money in a short time, or a desire to incite the enthusiasm for the changes ahead, there was a bit of confusion about exactly what else the Tibetan had told Catharine and Michael. Word began to trickle out that Penor Rinpoche had told Catharine that she was "a great bodhisattva." There were hints, too, that she was possibly the incarnation of a great Tibetan lama. It was Michael whose imagination seemed sparked by the news and who seemed most noticeably delighted by it. Catharine glowed when talking about Penor Rinpoche -- as though her real father had finally shown up at the door-and Michael entered a time of energetic planning. If Catharine were indeed an important spiritual teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, something ought to be done about it. As he would joke many times, "Give me a sacred cow and I'll milk it."

"Michael had a catalytical effect on my life," Jetsunma said many years later. "He had an element that I was missing: ambition."

It was hard for most of the twenty-five or so members of the World Prayer Center -- that "ragtag group," as Wib had described them -- to comprehend the enormity of Michael's dreams for them or, indeed, the predictions of Penor Rinpoche. The Tibetan holy man had seemed quite confident that the center needed to find a headquarters with space to accommodate hundreds of students at formal ceremonies and empowerments. This seemed an impossibility. The World Prayer Center had ten thousand dollars in its bank account, and with the exception of Eleanor Rowe and a few older and financially secure students, most of the members were struggling to get by.

But Catharine had taught them to believe in things that were almost unbelievable. She had told them all, in private consultations, that they were special beings, great beings. They had been born for a specific purpose. They had a mission beyond money. Penor Rinpoche had come and seen that.


By the middle of the summer, just six weeks after the Tibetan's visit, the search for the World Prayer Center's new location had boiled down to three choices, all in Maryland: a large Victorian house in Laurel, a former Greek Orthodox church in Bethesda, and a white colonial-style mansion with a guest cottage on the outskirts of Poolesville. Each was within a forty-five-minute drive of downtown Washington, D.C.

Feeling unable to decide, Catharine and Michael attempted to contact Penor Rinpoche for help, but the lama was traveling and temporarily unreachable. They remembered a vision that Reed Brown, the spiritualist minister and psychic, had shared with them two years before. They would eventually settle in a spiritual center, he predicted, and it would be "a large house with white columns." This seemed to suggest the Poolesville house, which had six thin white columns in front, in a dimestore Gone With the Wind manner. When Penor Rinpoche was finally reached, he told Catharine and Michael to pick "the biggest place with the most trees around it." This pointed, quite decidedly, to Poolesville. The mansion sat on eight acres of grass, just off River Road, and was surrounded on all sides by trees. But the asking price was high: $880,000.

It was a muggy day in July when Catharine and Michael decided to look over the Poolesville house carefully, despite the fact that there was no foreseeable way the group could raise even a 5 percent down payment. They toured the place with the current owner, Darwin Trynor. an older gay man whose longtime lover had recently died and been buried behind the house. As Michael began to tell the story of the prayer group and Catharine's recent encounter with the visiting Tibetan lama. Trynor asked them to stay and visit over drinks. He seemed taken with Catharine in particular -- her husky laugh and bawdy sense of humor -- and gave her a hard time about how her long red nails perfectly matched the print of her dress. The meeting went on for hours, cocktail after cocktail, and finally ended when Trynor passed out cold on his way upstairs.

The next day he called Catharine and Michael, insisting that their prayer group buy his house. It was meant to be, he said. He could feel it. And he was willing to knock two hundred thousand dollars off his asking price -- as long as they agreed to one condition. When Trynor died he wanted to be buried next to his partner in the backyard. But when a vote was taken among members of the World Prayer Center, it turned out Catharine was the only one who wanted to buy the big white house. "People thought it was too far away," said Jon Randolph, "and tacky."

Still nervous about making such a huge purchase with so little cash in hand. Michael arranged to have photographs of the Poolesville house faxed to Penor Rinpoche in Hong Kong, again asking for his help. His Holiness agreed to do a Mo, a divination procedure commonly used by Tibetan Buddhist lamas. Each lama tends to employ his own Mo techniques -- usually tossing prayer beads on a cloth or throwing a pair of dice with mantras inscribed on each side. But the results of a Mo performed by an esteemed lama are considered highly reliable. Through Penor Rinpoche's attendant it was reported to Catharine and Michael that the Poolesville property looked good and they should proceed with confidence.

Quickly efforts to raise a down payment among the twenty-five regular members of the World Prayer Center began, and the six students who had the best credit histories -- Ted and Linda Kurkowski. John and Catherine Windolph, Don Allen, and Karen Williams -- formed a limited partnership. It was decided that all the partners, except the Windolphs, who already owned a farm nearby, would live together in the Poolesville house, along with Michael and Catharine and Catharine's two sons. Each would pay rent to the limited partnership -- raising the monthly mortgage payment of nearly $7.200. With the details worked out, an offer was made and accepted. Darwin Trynor, worried that the group wouldn't be able to come up with the cash down payment of $70,000, arrived at the closing with $100.000 in a briefcase to lend them if they needed it. In October 1985 they were able to move in.


Elizabeth yearned to be closer to Catharine during these months of excitement and felt a strong pull to move to Poolesville. The center and its students seemed to be hoisting anchor and sailing off on a great adventure together, and there was a funny feeling of events compounding, of each day being filled with more hours and changes than anyone thought possible.

Walls were knocked down in the house, and downstairs two large rooms were created for teachings, in addition to a community room, where the students could eat meals together. Carpets were laid, a twelve-seater hot tub was removed from the back, and plans for Buddhist altars and other sacred decorations were made. Students who had experience doing construction were called upon to lead work crews. Wib taught David Somerville to hang drywall, and David taught Jay Allen. Richard Dykeman, one of Catharine's students in Michigan who was also a professional carpenter and builder, was asked to move to Poolesville temporarily to help with the renovations. Since there was no room in the main house, and Don Allen and his son, Jay, were living in the guest cottage, Richard pitched a tent in the nearby woods and slept there, off and on, for the next three years.

Michael quit his daytime job selling Apple II computers in Bethesda and applied himself entirely to settling into Poolesville and creating an impressive Buddhist center. He boned up on Buddhist texts, tried to figure out how other Dharma centers were run. When he bought four hundred dollars' worth of crystals at a gem and mineral show and sold them back to students for twice the price, he got the idea to open a gift shop on the premises and decided also to sell the Buddhist books that he and the other members would eventually want to read. He had extraordinary drive and energy, and focus.

Catharine was unwell a great deal of the time after moving into the Poolesville property. She suffered from phlebitis, was forced to spend weeks in bed, and had begun to gain weight again. "She was expending a tremendous amount of spiritual energy," Alana explained later. "She would be vacuuming and cleaning, cooking dinner for her family, then coming downstairs to channel for two hours. She was teaching another class and doing consultations that lasted hours. It was unbelievable. And, on top of all that, she was dealing with many students and their many needs. What a juggling act!"

Elizabeth had been suffering, too. She wanted to spend more time in Poolesville and even less time at home. She went to Catharine for advice and, in a channeled consultation with Santu, she was encouraged to divorce her husband. Her life had flipflopped, just as Catharine had predicted two years before. Elizabeth found an apartment in Germantown and moved in with her two daughters.

It was hard for Elizabeth, those first few weeks alone in Germantown, even with Santu's blessing. Ambivalence nagged her. She felt herself going back and forth in her mind, from her husband to Catharine. She felt fragile and confused and began to see more of Catharine -- leaning on her for support and advice throughout the divorce. As for Catharine, she joked that she felt a bit lost herself. Michael had become preoccupied with the new center and making some kind of official change to the practice of Buddhism. Having Elizabeth around was a joy. She was smart and had a wicked sense of humor, which she sometimes used at the expense of the other students -- and at Michael's expense, too. Over the summer and fall of 1985 it became clear to everybody that Catharine and Elizabeth had grown closer than ever. "We were all jealous of Elizabeth, like crazy," said Karen Williams. "She and Catharine were so close, right away ... and Elizabeth was so damn spiritual." But it also wasn't long before things would change again.

"Once the marriage split up, and my little box started to fall apart," Alana explained later. "everything that happened wasn't necessarily spiritual." It was hard to make all the adjustments to her new life -- particularly a life in which she had no primary relationship. This caused tension in her connection with Catharine. "I was needy and compulsively fixated on her and our friendship," Alana said. "I was trying to make that replace what I had given up. I felt a need to have something."

Catharine quickly saw what was happening, according to Alana, and began to pull away. The lunches together, shopping trips, and visits to the Silver Spring beauty salon abruptly ended, along with the laughs and good times. "As soon as I got needy around her, she cut it off," Alana said.

Angry and hurt, Elizabeth went out "like a junkie," she said, looking for another love relationship to fill the void in her life. She went through a period of promiscuity, becoming sexually involved with several men at the center and others outside. For nearly two years "I was either at the temple," she said, "or out on a date. It was a bit crazy." Her daughters were left alone at night. Eventually the older one moved out to live with her father. Her younger girl, just sixteen, was "close to the edge."

"I don't know what else to say," Alana said, describing those years, "except that I wasn't a good mother." In time, she would be come close with her daughters again -- and even become a doting grandmother. "But I'm not sure I know why things turned out so well." she said.


Aside from occasional faxes from His Holiness Penor Rinpoche. Michael and Catharine received little assistance or instruction. Michael would send lists of questions he hoped would be answered. And he and Catharine would get letters back, translated badly and rarely answering their questions. As for money, the Tibetan had none to give. His own monastery in southern India was far poorer than any middle-class American suburbanite could imagine. Penor Rinpoche had built it by himself with just ten monks. mudbrick upon mudbrick, after clearing a dense sandalwood jungle infested by cobras. At the time, he had not yet become the supreme head of the ancient Nyingma lineage. a school of Tibetan Buddhism that counts hundreds of thousands of members worldwide. He had only his approval and a vague sense of patronage to offer the World Prayer Center. But, as his new American students discovered, whenever they encountered other Tibetans in the West, the reputation of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche was unassailable. He was considered a traditionalist and a cautious conservative man. Weight and attention should be given his every word and suggestion. If he told them to start a large center in Poolesville, they should. If he told them they were already practicing Buddhism, they were.

But Michael and Catharine were hesitant to contact other Dharma centers in America. For one thing, many of the other centers were not in the same school or did not adhere to the various Palyul customs, and the differences only confused their students. Also, the Burroughses had begun the World Prayer Center their own way -- and wanted to continue to expand as they saw fit. Many of the other Tibetan Buddhist centers tended to be loaded with intellectuals and, Catharine thought, elitists who bragged about how many empowerments or teachings they'd received. She wanted her center to be vital, have a broader appeal, be focused less on intellectual matters and more on action and compassion. "We're builders," she liked to say, "not academics!" But there is more to Tibetan Buddhism than good intentions, and the builders had a lot of studying to do.

In the spring of 1986, Michael invited two Tibetan brothers, both scholars or khenpos, to visit from New York City and give traditional Buddhist teachings, which Catharine did not feel qualified to give. Khenpo Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal taught the students the Seven Line Prayer, a beautiful and haunting chant that is the fundamental invocation of the Nyingma school and is used to open every teaching. Later on Penor Rinpoche began sending lamas to Poolesville. Dr. Lobsang Rapgay came from Nepal to teach, and Chagdiid Tulku came from California. "We were sort of desperate to get a lineup of people who could come and teach," remembered Karen Williams. The students were taught about the Seven Nonvirtues of the Body -- which, much to their dismay, forbid Tibetan Buddhists from performing oral sex or masturbating. The students were surprised to learn about the eighteen hell realms where a Tibetan Buddhist could wind up. There are hot hells, like the Black Line Hell, where one's body is cut into pieces with burning saws, or the Roundingup and Crushing Hell, where one is thrown into a mortar of iron the size of a valley, along with millions of other beings, and where everyone is beaten with hammers and crushed to death. There are cold hells, like the Hell of Blisters, where one is tormented by blisters from the freezing temperatures, or the Hell of Burst Blisters, where one's blisters from the cold are continually bursting open. There is also the Hell of Great Lotuslike Cracks, where one's skin turns dark red and splits into sixteen pieces that are penetrated by worms and eaten. [1]

The students were taught phowa, the prayers and visualizations that are done at the time of death, in the hope of having a good rebirth. They were also taught Vajrasattva, a fundamental purification practice. While Catharine had taught her students various homemade meditations over the years, none were as complicated and precise as the images Buddhist practitioners are routinely expected to memorize and visualize while praying.

But there were also some striking similarities. In her "Expanded Light Practice" meditations, Catharine had taught students to imagine their bodies becoming purified by white light, and that light slowly expanding out, to purify the universe. In the Vajrasattva practice, as it is taught in the Nyingma tradition, one imagines that the deity Vajrasattva is embracing his consort over one's head. From their union "a cloud of nectar" drops onto the crown of one's head, "falling like drops of camphor." The nectar seeps thoroughly inside one's body and mind, and cleanses one from the contaminated actions of the past, negative emotions, and the afflictions of desire. It purifies "actions and afflictions which cause all suffering," the prayer goes, and asks that "sickness, spirits, sins, obstructions, faults, infractions, and defilements of myself and all beings in the three realms be made completely clean." [2]

The deity and his consort dissolve into light, and become one with the practitioner, and light rays shine out in all directions. Or, as the text has been translated:

Like a sun shining in a dark place, the rays clear away all darkness and suffering, spreading first to the hells, and then to the realms of hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demi-gods and gods. The realms of all six types of living beings are purified and transformed into the eastern pure lands of Vajrasattva, called the Very Joyous. [3]

By the summer of 1986, it was hard to believe it had been only one year since the group had first met His Holiness Penor Rinpoche. So much had changed. But the transitions had continued to leave Catharine tired, overextended, and overwhelmed -- and Penor Rinpoche was too far away to help. She was unable to teach, stayed in bed most of the time, and, when she was finally hospitalized for phlebitis, her weight was close to two hundred and fifty pounds.

Frustrated and concerned, Michael called Gyaltrul Rinpoche, who was very close to Penor Rinpoche. Michael spoke honestly about his wife's condition, and Gyaltrul Rinpoche suggested that Michael and Catharine come to Oregon without delay. He had heard about Catharine already, from Penor Rinpoche himself, and he was looking forward to a meeting.

The connection between Catharine and Gyaltrul Rinpoche, by all accounts, was strong and immediate. When she arrived on his doorstep -- in bad health and with many questions -- he interrupted a retreat, took her into his private home, encouraged her, and made her laugh. Gyaltrul Rinpoche had a full head of black hair and a huge gap-toothed smile. Unlike Penor Rinpoche, he spoke English well and was quite familiar with Western culture. Gyaltrul had recently married a willowy blond American scholar and translator, Nanci Gustafson, who had taken the Tibetan name Sangye Khandro.

Gyaltrul Rinpoche had such a lightness to his spirit-a cheerfulness and silliness -- that he made misery seem impossible in his presence. He started calling Michael "Chopsticks" behind his back, because he was so thin.

"Look!" he said to Catharine one morning, as they giggled about Michael over coffee. "You've only been here two days and we're already family!"

She wanted to start a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, Catharine confessed. Some of her students had already inquired about becoming monks and nuns. And she herself was beginning to believe that she could do more, and live more peacefully, practice more deeply, if she took vows and lived as a nun. She had already imagined herself shaving her head and wearing robes. Did Gyaltrul Rinpoche think this was a good idea?

The Tibetan was impressed by her aspirations -- and her drive and intention. He told Catharine that she was surely an incarnate lama, one who had taught for many lifetimes. How else could one explain her teachings, her students, the center she had built? "You're here for a reason," he told her. There was no doubt of that. "Tibet is falling, and the Dharma is going to be lost. It makes sense that some of the high lamas are being reborn here." The fact that she had been born in 1949, the year before Tibet was so violently taken over by the Chinese, seemed important to him.

He encouraged Catharine to see Penor Rinpoche in India, to "investigate" her past-life connection to Buddhism. A lama as great as Penor Rinpoche could tell Catharine who she was, he said. And if she were to become officially recognized as an incarnate lama, it would benefit her center, her students, the monastic orders in the United States, Tibetan Buddhism in the West, and, eventually, all sentient beings.

Gyaltrul Rinpoche insisted that this was the only answer. She needed to see Penor Rinpoche again in person. But to Catharine, going to India seemed so far off, like taking a trip to Oz.

The rinpoche had another message for her as well: if Catharine didn't lose weight, she would die.


Gyaltrul Rinpoche visited Poolesville for the first time a few months later, to have a look around, to watch Catharine teach, to meet some students, and to give what is considered the essential foundation practice of Tibetan Buddhism, Ngondro. When one becomes a Tibetan Buddhist in the Nyingma school, it is Ngondro that one begins practicing, and. ideally, one completes Ngondro before moving on to other teachings and other practices. Ngondro is designed to purify the mind -- to bring students to a greater understanding of their own nature so that, ultimately, they can benefit other people. In India it is common for a monk to have completed Ngondro by the age of eight. There are four parts to the practice. The student does one hundred thousand prostrations. These are followed by one hundred thousand Vajrasattva purification mantras, one hundred thousand Mandala offerings, and one hundred thousand Guru Yoga contemplations.

Gyaltrul Rinpoche was very serious with the students at times. "Do this, and it will end suffering!" But he also made jokes: "Don't do this, and your toes will fall off!" It wasn't easy to do prostrations at first, and the students would get together and discuss their embarrassment, their awkwardness. "What if my parents walked in," Wib said, "and saw me right now?"

As you prostrate, you repeat refuge prayers -- I take refuge in the Guru, I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha -- and one visualizes the three jewels. But as Gyaltrul Rinpoche outlined the visualizations to the Poolesville students, they seemed impossible to follow. He read pages and pages of descriptions, but they were hard to picture. "There was something about a refuge tree, and all these Buddhas appearing in the tree," remembered Chris Cervenka, "and something else about lotus petals. . . . Later on we ordered a poster of the refuge tree to sell in the gift shop, and that made it easier."

In Poolesville the students were determined to finish Ngondro as quickly as possible. Group sessions were held in the Dharma room twice a day so that students could do their prostrations together in sets of five hundred.

It was something like an aerobics class -- people came in workout clothes and running shoes, shorts and jogging bras, headbands and wristbands. Traditionally, a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner keeps count of prostrations on the beads of a mala -- which is like a rosary -- the same way one keeps track of one's mantras. But in Poolesville, Michael and Richard Dykeman started using plastic clicker-counters, the ones that security guards use to count attendance at large events. Every prostration, another click. It was much better than having the mala swing around and hit you in the face. The other students took to the innovation, and during the sessions that was the predominant sound in the room -- besides knees and elbows cracking -- breathing and clicking, breathing and clicking, breathing and clicking.

Some people could do one thousand prostrations in one session, take a walk around the temple, and do another thousand that night. The weeks passed, and then the months; the entire sangha was doing prostrations. There was almost a buzz, a sense of euphoria, that came with doing long sets of them-and afterward the students talked about how alert and strong they felt. It wasn't just Catharine who was looking and feeling better. Within just a few weeks they all started feeling healthy and good. "I really felt I was changing," said one student, "and felt a change in my life. And I believed -- I think we all did -- that it was the beginning of something very important."

"How long have you been a Buddhist?" people would ask. And the answer was a little complicated: ''I'm not sure," Elizabeth would say with a laugh. "Are we Buddhists yet?"

And it was like that for the next year or more. A sense of fumbling and bumbling along. They read books on Buddhism, watched videotapes of teachings. They recited the Seven Line Prayer over and over and over and over. They did Vajrasattva, completed prostrations, imagined the Mandala, an idealized universe, and tested out new visualizations. They tried to ask questions of visiting lamas without seeming too stupid or too American or just plain rude. Slowly it began to unfold. Slowly they saw more, understood more, and the bizarre words grew more comfortable. The exterior world of suffering was called samsara. The teachings were Dharma. They weren't a prayer group anymore; they were a sangha. Catharine wasn't Catharine, she was the guru. Their prayers were called mantras, the fruit of their actions was called karma, their faith was called devotion. There wasn't a God anymore, but Buddha nature. And they weren't praying for world peace so much, either, but the liberation of all sentient beings.

Gyaltrul Rinpoche was surprised by the enthusiasm he saw in Catharine's students. He also loved that she had attracted "normal Americans" and not just lots of "ex-hippies like the other Dharma centers." He was stunned by the notion of a twenty-four-hour prayer vigil -- which continued in Poolesville. And when he was told about the episodic prayer rounders, as Catharine called them, when her students would pray together for twelve hours straight, he said, "How can you get people to do that?"

The impatience of Americans is both naive and endearing. To the Tibetan mind, suffering is endless, forever, has no beginning and no end. It isn't something that anybody expects to solve so soon. Catharine's students seemed to believe it was possible to achieve enlightenment in one lifetime -- and that the end of suffering was close at hand, not an infinite number of lifetimes away.

In the Nyingma school, lamas can choose to be celibate or not -- to be ordained monks or nuns, or to marry and have children, and Gyaltrul Rinpoche had personal advice for Michael and Catharine, too. "You have started such an amazing temple," he told them one night, as they drove him and his wife around Washington, D.C. "Let me tell you something. Never get divorced. And never sleep with the students. It causes such problems in the sangha."

On that first trip to Poolesville, Gyaltrul Rinpoche also saw Catharine channeling -- something Penor Rinpoche had never witnessed, or been told about. From the back of the large Dharma room, the rinpoche watched Catharine in a trance. She was sitting in her green velvet chair. She was speaking in the deep voice of Jeremiah, who briefly turned the floor over to the soft, feminine tones of Santu. "It is I, Santu," she said, "and I come in love." Gyaltrul Rinpoche watched solemnly, and respectfully, as the students began asking questions.

"That's very interesting," the Tibetan said, turning to Michael. "But there's no Jeremiah or Santu. It's all her."


Early in 1987, when Catharine was preparing for a trip to India with Michael, she called Elizabeth out of the blue. It had been nearly a year since they'd spent time alone together, and Elizabeth's commitment to the center had been flagging. Catharine said she was worried about Elizabeth, had been thinking a great deal about her. She'd had dreams, too.

"You have one foot in samsara and one foot in the Dharma," Catharine said to her, "and I think there's a good chance when I get back from India that you will be gone. And I am giving you permission to go."

Elizabeth said nothing.

"You are still young and beautiful," Catharine said, "and you think you can still find happiness out there, in the world. I know you have this spirituality inside you, and eventually you will return. It might be two weeks and it might be twenty years. But you will be back and you will say, 'Oh my God, what have I done with my life?'"

Elizabeth was close to leaving the center -- in many ways felt she was already gone. Since Catharine had stopped being her friend, Elizabeth had become less and less interested in practicing or praying, in doing the prostrations and becoming Buddhist. It was such hard work -- and without Catharine's daily attentions and encouragement, it had been nearly impossible to stay committed. But she was thrown off by Catharine's remarks about how she would return one day. Looking for guidance, she decided to do Vajrasattva practice.

"I started to do Vajrasattva," she said later. "It's a very powerful practice, a powerful purifying practice." She did it day after day, for many hours. She imagined the nectar falling into the crown of her head. She saw the rays of light flowing out in all directions. She imagined the nectar and the light cleansing her body, cleansing her spirit, and she imagined exhaling the cleansed pure breath of blessings into the world. Over and over she blew out blessings upon the world, purifying, purifying, purifying. And after a time she experienced something real, she said. Something so real and so true it was hard to put it into words. "It was like," she said, "I was seeing that all of my suffering was caused by the fact that I had already, in my heart, offered everything .... I saw that I was truly a nun -- a nun in the true sense of the word. Renunciation. That I had already offered, somewhere, sometime, everything I had, and that my suffering came from my trying to take back what I had offered, as though I were trying to take back a vow."

Elizabeth went to see Catharine in her private quarters. It was days before Catharine was leaving for India. They sat down on a sofa together, and Elizabeth wasn't able to speak right away. Catharine sat quietly and waited.

"I want to become a nun," Elizabeth said. "I want to become a nun because I am a nun."

Catharine began crying and kept crying. And Elizabeth started crying. They held each other for a long time. "She wasn't saying anything," Alana described later, "but she had this look on her face, like, Finally, she's figured it out."



1. Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Boston: Shambhala, 1998).

2. Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche, Tantric Practice in Nying-ma (Ithaca. N.Y.: Snow Lion. 1982).

3. Ibid.
Site Admin
Posts: 20692
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 11:12 pm

8. The Stupa Blessing


I took a break after my visit to Ani Farms and didn't wander out to Poolesville again until the week after Thanksgiving. I had a few unanswered questions. things that nagged me -- mostly about the stupa -- things that only somebody like Sangye could answer. But Sangye was still unreachable. recuperating in a cottage on the temple grounds. So I went looking for David Somerville. He worked most days in a trailer just ten yards from the Migyur Dorje stupa.

There was snow on the grass in front of the temple. but the narrow dirt road to the stupa was deep in the woods and still dry. When I reached the end it was four in the afternoon and the sky was growing dark. The stupa was gloriously tall and articulated now -- with a throne or bum-pa. garlands around a faceplate. and an elegant spire. It had been finished just yesterday in a hectic rush of meritorious activity. Sherab had pulled an all-nighter in the barn, painting Migyur Dorje's robes, then hauled the faceplate to the woods in the back of a truck. David Somerville had wired the seventy-pound faceplate to his back. then climbed thirty feet up a ladder that was leaning against the stupa. Doug Sims and a few others on the stupa crew had stood on scaffolding and fixed the faceplate to the concrete with long, tamper-proof nails, one of them having to be driven right through Migyur Dorje's head.

Just as the work was done -- a crystal ball was placed on top of the spire -- white fluffs of snow began falling lightly. I'd already heard via the temple grapevine how miraculous and auspicious the snowfall had been, and now the melting remnants of this good omen lay among the cedar chips.

David was working inside his trailer, and I could see him through a small window. A warm yellow light reflected on his face. When he looked up and saw me, he opened the trailer door and offered me a chair inside.


I really didn't know David, except to see him across the room at various Sunday teachings. He was tall and lean and had wholesome good looks -- dark hair, light blue eyes, a white toothy Kennedy smile. He and his wife, Sylvia, were among the most respected lay practitioners at KPC, and two of Jetsunma's earliest students, but they seemed to exist largely beyond the beehive atmosphere at the temple. They dutifully attended the teachings and prayer shifts, and their three young daughters attended the fledgling grammar school, Pena Choling, but otherwise the Somervilles managed to keep a low profile. If Jetsunma herself hadn't urged me on several occasions to see David with any questions I had about the stupa, I might not have met him. And Wib, as her emissary, often echoed her advice. "Ask David Somerville that question," he would say, or "David would know about that. David has a pretty complete understanding of how a stupa works."

When I once told Wib that I'd spoken to Doug Sims about the stupa, too, and that he'd been very helpful -- remembering dates and details, and walking me through the building process step by step -- he received this news with surprise. "Doug?"

"He's really been great," I said.

"Really? There's probably other better people, like David or Sangye ... "

When I explained that Doug had the sort of mind that made my work much easier, in that he actually remembered, in a quite orderly and linear fashion, how the stupa had been built. it seemed to provide further evidence of Doug's failings. "Oh yeah." Wib laughed. "His mind works like that."

In contrast, David was thought to possess what was called a subtle mind. This meant that his mind was clear, sensitive, and operating at a profound level of understanding. Doug's mind -- and my own, I had to guess -- was pedestrian and tuned to surface. We suffered from something I hadn't quite figured out yet, called Ordinary View. At KPC, I had recently come to learn, everybody had a rap, And once you had a rap, it couldn't be refigured unless by Jetsunma. Wib was seen as sweet but a bit dopey -- and at times deluded -- while his wife. Jane Perini, was considered nearly perfect. "She gives the teachings when Jetsunma is away." r was told several times before I realized the magnitude of the compliment. Sherab was thought to be something of a work in progress, a little like the young Maria in The Sound of Music. Eleanor Rowe, whose younger son was a monk at KPC, was a moneybags -- always mentioned as "an important contributor." Ani Aileen was blunt and generous and "Gyaltrul Rinpoche's favorite ani in America." Alana was clearly a terrifying force within the sangha, a kind of Mother Superior figure, and students spoke about her with careful neutrality or the backhanded compliment "Underneath all that. she's a softy." Talking about fellow sangha members in this way wasn't gossip, or considered harmful. It was simply the passing along of lama wisdom. If one could come to see situations and people the way Jetsunma did, one would be that much closer to enlightenment.

Along these lines a number of the children at the temple were singled out for their good "qualities." I was told by several people that Wib and Jane's oldest daughter, Tara, was "thought to be very special" and "possibly a young tulku" -- and I wondered how her little sister felt about not being as special. The older daughter of Rick and Chris Finney, a composed and beautiful red-haired girl named Eleanore, had been detected as clearly important -- I'd heard that several visiting Tibetans had eyed her and whispered comments to Jetsunma. There was also Jetsunma's daughter, Atira, a precocious and sweet-natured seven-year-old. "This monastery won't die when I do. Someone will take my place," Jetsunma had said during one interview, when I asked what would happen to KPC after she was gone. "There are some children here with very special qualities .... One I'd give the job to right now."

Among the ordained community there was also a sense of hierarchy -- and reputations that some monks and nuns had trouble shaking. The spiritual world was in many ways as brutal as the newsroom I came from. Tall and elegant Ani Alexandra was once criticized by Jetsunma at a large sangha meeting for "floating on the surface" and "not connecting," I had been told -- afterward she received subtle and not so subtle insinuations from her fellow Buddhists that she was superficial. Another nun had been told by Jetsunma that she liked feeling important. Ani Dechen had a long history of changing raps, particularly for a nun so young. At seventeen, when she first came to Poolesville to study, Jetsunma had proclaimed Dechen "delicate" and a "hothouse flower" and told sangha members that she needed extra care and feeding. Several years later Jetsunma revealed that she thought Dechen was "insecure" and had become "an approval seeker" -- which prompted the sangha to be a bit tough on her. Still later, when Dechen seemed rebellious -- had trouble paying her rent and fulfilling her obligations at Tara Studios -- Jetsunma simply declared her "a brat," which was where her rap was in the winter of 1995, when I met her. There was also one young monk who was discovered to own several Playboy magazines -- a breakage of a celibacy vow -- but I'd been told that his "addiction to masturbation" had been cured by Jetsunma. How she did this, though, was a mystery.

Cruel or not, the monastery continued to thrive -- and occasionally the monks or nuns overcame their raps, by sheer hard work and perseverance. Sangye was one. Ani Rene, the daughter of devout Quakers, was another. They stood out from their peers and were seen by all as very pure: honest, subtle, unencumbered by neurosis and egotism. They exuded integrity and clarity of purpose. They both happened also to be good "practitioners," which meant they were accomplished at meditation.

In general, one's ability to perform the daily prayers and traditional meditations of Tibetan Buddhism -- or what is referred to sometimes at other Dharma centers as "the quality of one's practice" -- was downplayed at KPC. Part of this was Jetsunma's distrust of dry intellectual achievement and her preference for outgoing. outdoorsy students who liked to build things. But a larger part of her bias was the result of the nature of her teachings. As in Zen and other forms of Buddhism. the Tibetans believe there are many paths to enlightenment and realization -- enough to suit any kind of student. Lamas instruct and guide students. and give them practices tailor-made for their needs. Each center has its own style, and each teacher has his or her own leanings.

The path that was emphasized in Poolesville was called Guru Yoga -- which is sometimes called Deity Yoga or Deity Generation. It is a practice designed to train the mind and heart of a student to see the lama as a living Buddha and ultimately to become one with him or her. It is thought that devotion to one's lama alone can bring about enlightenment. To prepare one's mind for the practice. the lama is visualized in space and time, and the lama's special qualities -- pureness, perfection. primordial wisdom -- are contemplated, and the student must feel a strong desire to achieve whatever the lama has to teach. There are long visualizations and recitations and prayers that follow, but without complete faith in the lama. and belief in the lama's buddhahood, there is no benefit.

Jetsunma seemed naturally able to instill devotion and had attracted loyal students -- an ability that had greatly impressed Penor Rinpoche -- so it seemed fitting to the Tibetans that she would emphasize the Guru Yoga practice at her center. It is essentially an uncomplicated practice, too, simple ideas, one general concept, which is applied verbally and visually. At other Dharma centers Guru Yoga is often considered one of many fundamental practices leading to more advanced work. But in Poolesville. Guru Yoga and the path of devotion was the predominant philosophy. Jetsunma taught that by surrendering to a higher power, in this case surrendering completely to her as the Guru, one could achieve happiness and compassion. She acknowledged, of course, other routes, far more esoteric practices or high teachings -- that are popular among an elite crowd of American Buddhists -- but Jetsunma had always felt these would be off-putting to many of her students and too inaccessible to appeal to a broader spectrum of Americans. She felt there was a snobbism at the other centers, and a sense of competitiveness about how advanced their practices were. She often reminded her students that becoming "heart-centered" and "kind" is ultimately the goal of Buddhist teachings and that the simplest Tibetan Buddhist prayer, Om Mani Padme Hum, is known to bring about enlightenment.

"Many of my students wouldn't make it at a conventional Dharma center," Jetsunma had said, and the more I came to know about her temple, the more accurate this assessment seemed. The truth was, a number of her students had trouble practicing at all. It was often repeated how Tom Barry, or Tashi, a big bear of a monk who was a longtime student of Jetsunma, had stood up at a sangha meeting in the early days and said he was still "new to Buddhism" and couldn't "practice worth a damn," but he knew that when he died Jetsunma would take care of him. Sherab admitted similar feelings. "The connection I feel is really with her," she had said to me. "I hate to admit this, but I'm very weak in my sit-down meditation process ... and if you took Jetsunma out of the equation and stuck another Dharma teacher in there, it just wouldn't be the same for me."

Alana was another self-described "bad practitioner." In the ten years since she had taken the Bodhisattva vow, she had not yet completed the initial phase of Ngondro -- the one hundred thousand prostrations. She saw her job as Jetsunma's attendant as a higher calling and a far more profound practice of Buddhism than repeating mantras and meditating. "The way I see it," she once said to me, "I can stay at home and visualize Tara above my head, or I can go to work and see the real Tara every day."


Inside the heated trailer David sat down on an office chair with casters and rolled back and forth on the linoleum. He propped his work boots upon a box. Lately he'd started thinking he might take the trailer farther down in the woods -- where it would be out of sight -- and keep running his own construction business there. After six months in the woods, and making his business calls from the trailer, he wasn't sure he wanted to leave.

Looking out the small trailer window, I could see why. The stupa was magnificent. The concrete was gray-green, the color of a rainy day. At the very top the crystal ball was resting on a crescent moon shape. The crystal was meant to represent the sun, and the empty, clear mind, as well as purity, and soft light, and something called nondual suchness. In the spring there was a plan to gold-leaf the surface of the stupa -- an expensive and timeconsuming job, as David described it. I winced at the thought. Gold seemed a bit garish ... it also seemed, I had to confess. a very Jetsunma touch.

"I have a question to ask," I said to David. "You seem to be the expert on matters related to all things stupa."

"Fine." He laughed. "Fire away."

"Why did Sangye fall?"

David leaned back in his chair and grew more serious. This was exactly the sort of question that Buddhists seem to enjoy pondering, if they feel qualified. "From one point of view," he said, "we were told that when Sangye fell it ripened a lot of negative karma in a fairly benign way. He's still walking six weeks later. And he could be a quadriplegic right now. Look at Christopher Reeve, he just fell off a horse. "

I nodded and remembered how one of the nuns at Tara Studios had referred to Reeve this same way, using the exact phrasing. Just fell off a horse ...

"So from this point of view," David continued, "it's wonderful that Sangye ripened all that karma, all that negative karma."

This was what confused me. "He fell because of the ripening of his negative karma?" I asked. "Not because of obstacles trying to prevent him from building the stupa?"

David thought for a moment. "In order to get a correct answer to that, you should probably ask Jetsunma," he said. "But from my understanding, it's probably a little of both. You can't really separate these things out. The sangha is the body of the lama, and so, yes, of course, we are individuals, yet the body functions as one. So to say it was Sangye's individual karma would not be correct. You'd have to say it was a combination of his karma and then, perhaps, a little bit of, you know, obstacles. "

I nodded again. Obstacles. The Tibetan Buddhists never talked about bad luck or bad planning or bad timing. There seemed to be only . . . obstacles.

"People sometimes will do things, even unintentionally, that ripen karma and purify karma for a group of people," David said. "You might not even be aware that you were doing something to cause negative karma to ripen -- or that helps the sangha or all sentient beings. Who knows?"

This intrigued me. It seemed an unconventional concept, and something I hadn't read about in the Buddhism books. "So Sangye's fall helped everybody at the center?"

"Quite possibly," David said.

"And possibly helped all sentient beings?"

"That is what I've been told," David said.

Outside the trailer we heard a shuffling of feet. A loud knock rattled the thin metal of the door. David jumped up, pulled the door open. A strange hooded figure was standing before us.

The elusive Sangye Dorje had come out to circumambulate the stupa and had seen the lights in the trailer. As he stood at the door, I could see that he was wearing two hoods -- a brown jacket with a hood over a maroon hooded sweatshirt. And when he pushed them back, the face that emerged was sweet and young, ruddy-cheeked and clean.

"Hey," he said. "Is there an extra chair?"

"You want to join us?" David asked, sort of incredulously.

"Is that okay?" Sangye said. "I can wait outside."

"No," I blurted out. "Please stay."

The monk was wearing soft-soled suede work boots and walked with great care and a certain rigidity. He leaned on a tall, stainless-steel cane that was bent into a crook at the end and covered in black rubber. David brought him a chair, and Sangye sat down very slowly -- a cartoon of Buddhist mindfulness, except that, instead of living in the moment, he was obviously just in pain.

As he took off his brown jacket and unzipped his sweatshirt, a chest brace became visible; it covered his torso from collarbone to hips. At first I thought a blue thunderbolt had been painted on the front, but Sangye told me that it was a Tibetan phurba, a ritual dagger that symbolically pierces through delusion and negative demonic spirits. And underneath the phurba. in gold letters, the words SUPER MONK had been painted -- the handiwork of Sherab Khandro.

"We were just talking about you," David said.

Sangye raised his eyebrows.

"And why you fell," I said.

Sangye paused for a few moments. "Negative karma that ripened," he said. "Jetsunma told me personally that it requires a tremendous amount of merit to get to the point where you are working on a stupa -- and you spend merit to get the chance to work on one."

"I thought you received merit by working on a stupa," I said, "not spent it."

"It's like," Sangye explained, "if you had ten thousand dollars and invested it wisely. Then you could have one million dollars in fifty years. But in the meantime, you'd be poor. And that's why, immediately after the construction of a stupa, you've spent most of your merit and the period afterward can be very difficult."

David shifted in his chair.

Sangye finished his thought. "Right after we finished the thirty-six-footer in the parking lot -- in 1988 -- the whole crew of us, four of us who worked on it daily, had a very hard time," he said. "The other two monks eventually left the sangha. Ani Rene also had some difficulties ....

"David, you did a lot of work on the other big stupa, too," Sangye said, turning to his friend. "I can't speak for you ... "

"I don't know, really," David said. He looked a little stunned.

"Maybe it was too long ago for you to remember," Sangye said.

"Yeah, maybe," David said, then paused, as if to plumb his memory some more. "We've had some rocky times. Sure. The whole sangha's had problems," he said. There was another extraordinarily long pause. "That's interesting. The impact is supposed to be immediate? I didn't know that."

"You spend all your merit," Sangye explained, "but then every day that the stupa's functioning, and people are walking around it, the merit is coming back to you. And if it's up a thousand years from now, that's merit increasing and increasing, every day. We'll be reaping benefits in future lives, and it won't stop until this stupa breaks down."

David looked out the small window. The twilight sky was darkening to a deep blue. He rolled his office chair around. "I have faith in Jetsunma," he said finally. And he turned to me. "I don't know how familiar you are with how you die and go into the bardo and whatnot, and I'm convinced that Jetsunma is going to be there for me and pull me through the bardo -- and in a very positive way. And as a matter of fact, after Sangye fell, I stayed up one night thinking I should get a life insurance policy -- maybe I was next -- but then I thought, I don't need that. Jetsunma isn't going to let me fall. I'm the only one left. And that faith ... who knows how it works, even from a simple psychological perspective. Maybe if I really believe that I am not going to fall, I won't. But I think there's more to it than that."

"That's why we have teachers around," said Sangye, "to take care of things like that."

"Especially," said David, "when you are dealing with a stupa that's so potent."


The morning of the stupa blessing, the hot sunshine came and went, along with a very cold breeze. The snow piles were shrinking on the ground, and the grass in front of the big white temple facade was green again. Chimes tinkled in some far-off tree. And inside the warm foyer of the temple, I heard muffled singsong chants coming from the prayer room.

The ordained had been up since dawn. Fresh water had been poured into hundreds of offering bowls on the altars in the prayer room, the candles had been replaced and lit, the incense sticks renewed. A wooden platform had been taken out to the woods and set up for the lamas, with chairs and a small table. Flowers and candles had been laid at the base of the stupa, and a corn wreath placed in the center. There was a cabbage plant, several poinsettias, and chrysanthemums. There were pieces of fruit -- apples and oranges mostly -- and peacock feathers, crystals, precious stones, sprigs of boxwood. Doug Sims had been out at sunrise with more cedar chips, hundreds of pounds, and spread them in a circle around the bottom of the monument, to dry up the ground and keep people from slipping as they circumambulated. But more than that, cedar would purify the place and prepare it for sacred activity.

Wib had been busy on the phones, talking to the media -- and he had already called me. Jetsunma had woken up that morning with a broken tooth. She did a practice, Wib told me, then left with Alana for the dentist's office.

As I was throwing my coat over the top of a crowded coatrack and taking off my shoes, Rinchen passed me on her way into the prayer room and gave me a hug hello. "Coming in?" she asked, holding the door a bit ajar. "Not yet," I said. A few moments later Sherab passed by, too. "Did you hear about Jetsunma?" she asked.

"Her tooth?"

"Hopefully, it's the last obstacle that she has to absorb."

Sherab walked through the prayer room doors, and her maroon robes seemed to vanish inside the dark maroon cave. Through the little glass windows in the doors, I could see Tulku Rigdzin Pema -- the Stupa Man -- sitting on a large throne. There were bright colors and fabrics glowing around him. His small mouth and pencil-thin mustache moved ever so slightly. His eyes were open, but he followed no text. He was leading the group in the Noble Light Rays practice, the one he had done hundreds of thousands of times, perhaps a million times, in order to become a Stupa Man. It is a practice to purify and remove obstacles. It creates a clear space for blessings to occur.

He moved his arms, made a gesture with his hands called a mudra. His arms were long and spindly. His skin was golden brown. Most of Jetsunma's students were on the floor, sitting on soft pillows and little back-support chairs that looked like something you'd take to the beach, There was a glut of figures in maroon who blended into the colors of the room, I saw the back of Wib's white mane. I saw the long blond braid of his wife, Jane, nearby. The Somervilles were there, Doug and Shelly Sims, Eleanor Rowe ... about fifty or sixty people in all. Jamyang, the Stupa Man's attendant, was speaking. The group chanted, prayed. Drums went tat-a-tat-tat. The Stupa Man held up a large brass bell and rang it several times. Even from outside I could smell the cedar and mint rising from the burning incense. The prayers converged and then separated into distinct strains.

I stood in the warm foyer for the longest time. The praying went on, the chanting. I watched through the windows. I felt pulled inside, to become a part of the room. Something true was happening there -- inside the prayer room -- but it also seemed far off and vaguely ridiculous. I wanted to go inside, but an awkward feeling kept rising in me.

Sherab's beautiful, deep voice was rising, leading the prayers. She was an umze, a chant leader.

How do spiritual people do it? The confusion, the conflicting worldviews, believing in things that make no sense, really, and telling yourself that they do. Faith came in waves for me, and I wasn't good at enduring the lean times. For me, it had always been more comfortable to remain a fence sitter, a nonjoiner, a perpetual admirer from afar. Still, there I was -- standing in the foyer with my shoes off. Something had drawn me, something I wanted. At the same time there was something there that kept me outside, too, something I didn't trust.


Several TV cameras were set up and waiting for the ceremony to start when I arrived at the stupa site. I watched two reporters struggle with equipment and notebooks, and locate a young American monk named Konchog Norbu, who was their press contact. The blessing of the stupa was a solemn occasion, as solemn as anything I'd seen the students in Poolesville do. Riding in a truck earlier, some nuns and I had spotted Sangye limping along the road with his cane, on his way to the ceremony. Sherab gunned the accelerator and pretended to be aiming for Sangye as the other nuns whooped and rolled the truck windows down.

"Oh. Is it okay to laugh?" one of the nuns asked.

"It's always okay," Sherab said. But once we had arrived at the stupa, the smiles left their faces and the nuns seemed purposeful and intense -- even as they stood waiting for the prayers to begin. The stupa was believed to bring more benefit to the whole world than ladling a thousand cups of hot soup to the homeless, or finding a cure for cancer.

The smell of cedar was everywhere. Large green boughs of it had been cut down, set up in piles, and ignited. The greener and fresher the cedar, the more it smoked.

It was so solemn and so quiet I could still hear the two creeks nearby, and the squawking of the crows in the trees. I stood with Sherab and Wib, and watched the sangha slowly assemble -- about seventy or eighty members. The monk named Jon Randolph arrived, with his long face and wry eyes. Kamil, the monk from the Virgin Islands, gently dropped off some fruit at the base of the stupa. As I scanned the gathering crowd. I realized that I was slowly coming to know many of them. I knew some of their stories already. And in the months to come I would hear more.

Three chairs had been set up, for Sangye and two other sangha members who had recently injured themselves. One of them, it turned out, was Karl Jones -- Jetsunma's current husband and consort, a handsome young redhead who was wearing a cowboy hat and a long, dashing Australian outback coat. He had broken his foot several weeks ago. I'd been told, while angrily kicking a piece of furniture in Jetsunma's house. The story interested me. since I'd read somewhere that the Buddha said you could burn aeons of precious good karma accumulation in one moment of intense anger. The last chair was for Jetsunma's younger son, Christopher, a beautiful boy with a head of dark curly hair, who was wearing jeans and a camouflage-print jacket. He had dropped a concrete brick on his toe while working on the stupa. Sangye sat down next to them, with his cane between his thighs.

A blue Toyota Tercel pulled up to the stupa site. Behind the wheel I could see Alana in robes and sunglasses. Her face looked ghostly in the glare of the windshield, and tired. Jetsunma emerged, wearing a black leather jacket with many zippers, black high-top boots. and black gloves. She was holding a string of red prayer beads and looked very thin, as thin as I'd ever seen her. Her face looked beautiful, too, not puffy, as it often did. Her makeup had been perfectly applied. She floated over to Konchog and the TV cameras.

One reporter sidled up to her after Konchog had arranged an introduction. "People will come here, why?" he asked her.

"I think for hope." she said. She squinted in the sunlight and brushed a strand of hair away with her fingernail. She seemed perfectly nonchalant about the TV camera hovering just inches from the side of her face. "As Buddhists, we pray that if people are hungry, that we would be food. We pray that we could be a bridge for travelers or a shelter for those who are in need. And this stupa provides for us a way to offer to the world a place of pilgrimage and a blessing."

Big bundles of incense sticks were burned at the foot of the stupa, and, as the ceremony began, the ordained put on another layer of robes, a bright golden cotton, that are reserved for formal occasions.

Sherab struggled with the heavy cotton, and I helped her put the robes on -- then worried that I wasn't supposed to touch them. "What are these for?" I asked her. "I've forgotten what it's called. exactly." she whispered, "but the yellow robes represent another level of vow."

There was a card table in front of the Stupa Man. On it were photographs, images to be blessed. There were little tormas, or colored clay ritual cakes, set on a plate as offerings. Three crystals sat, with the bright sunlight hitting them, next to a round mirror. Tulku Rigdzin Pema sat down wearing golden robes and sunglasses, and brown rubber-soled shoes.

After the Seven Line Prayer began. Jamyang brought the ritual objects for the Stupa Man to bless. The tulku held everything with a white scarf. There was a dorje, a little lightning bolt. There was a little gray-silverish bum-pa, a little ritual vase with a spout and a spray of peacock feathers coming out the top. The Stupa Man poured oil onto a plate. A long strand of five-colored string was held up between the tulku and the stupa. "That's something like a telephone line." Wib explained from behind me. "It symbolizes a connection between them."

A bowl of warm dry rice was passed. It was yellow and necked with tiny filaments of crimson saffron. We took handfuls of the rice and began tossing it in the direction of the stupa. as though it were a bride embarking on her honeymoon. The entire crowd began chanting now, out loud, the lyrical and lilting Seven Line Prayer. Jetsunma was wearing a cordless body mic, and you could hear her voice above the rest.

Hung orgyen yul gi nub jyang tsham
On the northwest border of the country of Urgyen
Pema gesar dong po la
In the pollen heart of a lotus
Ya tshen ehhog gi ngo drub nyey
Marvelous in the perfection of your attainment
Pema jyung nye zhey su drag
You are known as the Lotus Born
Khor du khadro mang poi kor
And are surrounded by your circle of many dakinis.
Khyed kyi jey su dag drub kyi
Following you, I will practice.
Jyin gyi lob chhir sheg su sol
I pray that you will come to confer your blessings.
Guru Pedma Siddhi Hum
Oh Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum

An owl flew low over the crowd. The smell of saffron grew thick and soft in the sunlight. Steam rose from the mounds of melting snow. Jetsunma stepped down from the wooden platform and began circumambulating the stupa, the cedar chips crunching under her boots. After she'd made several passes, the crowd began to follow her, began walking around and around, their heads bowed, their faces serious. It was a blur of gold cotton and maroon -- maroon parkas, maroon knit caps, maroon chenille scarves and wool turtlenecks. I stepped down to join them.

The Buddhist scriptures describe the benefits of circumambulating stupas -- and decorating them with offerings of gold, flowers, incense, and devotion. You honor the seeds of enlightenment by doing this and the seeds of enlightenment within yourself. Circumambulate a stupa and, according to the sutras, you are promised a long life, good health, mindfulness, clear perception, and intelligence. You are promised a radiant appearance, too, freedom from greed, joy in giving, enjoyment of life, strength, perseverance, self-discipline, profound understanding, great renown. Devote your spare moments to walking around a stupa and the benefits come in this lifetime and in lifetimes to come. It is written that you will dwell happily in the womb in your next incarnation, receive a beautiful body, be born easily, and drink happily at the breast.

Once the ceremony was over, the crowd began to talk among themselves. "Did you see that owl?" somebody asked.

"The owl ... "

"Incredible. "

"Did you see the rainbow in the sky earlier?"

"Really, a rainbow?"


Jetsunma grabbed the edges of her black leather jacket and pulled it tighter around her as she walked to the car, then turned, suddenly, to face the crowd. "I can't remember a day this happy, ever," she called out. Alana smiled and opened the car door for her lama, then got behind the wheel again and they were gone.
Site Admin
Posts: 20692
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 11:17 pm

9. Who's Ever Heard of Ahkon Lhamo?

-- WILLIAM JAMES, The Varieties of Religious Experience

There was great fanfare and rejoicing when the Poolesville students sent their lama off to India for the first time, in February 1987. There was a feeling of restless anticipation, too. They'd been told that Catharine was an important reincarnation -- possibly something called a tulku -- and Penor Rinpoche had agreed to look into the matter and discuss it with her.

Just before leaving for India Catharine arranged fifteen-minute private meetings with each student, the kind of one-on-one face time most of them hadn't gotten in a long while. She and Michael could be gone as long as two or three months -- and Catharine was concerned that the group might disintegrate. She tried to say things that would encourage a sense of commitment in her absence. Again and again she told students that she loved them and reminded them that they were "great" beings. Many students came forward at this time, as Elizabeth Elgin had. to formally announce a wish to be ordained.

Elizabeth hadn't spoken to her fellow students about what had transpired during her private meeting with Catharine -- that she'd declared herself a nun -- but several had seen her leaving Catharine's rooms in the temple that day. Elizabeth's eyes looked red and swollen from crying, but her face, they noticed, seemed smooth, relaxed. She had a glow that could only be described as beatific. "She never looked more beautiful than that day," said one sangha member, "and word got out pretty quickly that something miraculous had happened between her and Catharine." In recent months the two women hadn't spent much time together. But in the days leading up to the India trip, they seemed again inseparable. Michael and Catharine were full of wonder themselves, and intense curiosity. Gyaltrul Rinpoche had told them that Catharine was surely a tulku, a reincarnated somebody. But who? "Get a name," Gyaltrul Rinpoche had instructed Catharine before she left. "Be sure to ask His Holiness to give you a name."


Catharine and Michael were accompanied to Kennedy Airport, in New York, by Ted and Linda Kurkowski -- to help them check in, get their baggage handled, and pay hundreds of dollars in extra freight. The Burroughses traveled with eight large suitcases on rollers and several carry-ons. A few women in the sangha had gotten together and made dozens of chubas -- Tibetan robes that wrap around the body -- for Catharine to wear and a number of happi coats out of silk. The students had raised the money to pay for Catharine and Michael's entire trip overseas and handed Michael an envelope with ten thousand dollars in cash -- to buy statues for the temple, and for offerings. They had purchased new clothes for Catharine and a number of exquisite and unusual gems and crystals, a mala made from ten-millimeter lapis lazuli beads, and one piece of clear quartz the size of a fist to give to Penor Rinpoche and other Tibetan dignitaries. Among the eight pieces of luggage was one reserved for Catharine's toiletries -- including her blow dryer and hairbrushes, her hair conditioners and sprays, a few months' supply of Lee Press-On Nails and Estee Lauder makeup.

Jane Perini was left in charge of the Monday night teachings in Catharine's absence. In the Dharma room one afternoon, Catharine was overheard giving Jane this piece of advice: "If you aren't getting people's attention, do what I do: make up a crisis."


It was a hard trip, starting with a twenty-hour night on Air India. After arriving in Bombay. Catharine and Michael checked into a Holiday Inn and kept trying to reach Penor Rinpoche at his remote location in Bylakuppe by telephone, but they weren't able to get through. Eventually, after they reached Bangalore, a monk named Perna Dorje turned up and hired two taxis to take the Burroughses to the monastery in the south: one taxi for them, another for their luggage. It was a seven-hour ride from Bangalore to Bylakuppe, on bad dusty roads in a car with intermittent air-conditioning. They had come to India at the hottest time of year, in one-hundred-degree heat and 100 percent humidity. It was also the end of Losar, the Tibetan New Year, a chaotic time of nonstop festivals, dances, teachings, performances. and demonstrations, celebrating the two weeks of miracles once performed by Sakyamuni Buddha.

They were greeted warmly by Penor Rinpoche when the taxis arrived at Palyul Namdroling, his large monastery compound in Bylakuppe, but they were surprised by the lack of modern conveniences. There was no air-conditioning in any part of the monastery, including Penor Rinpoche's small mudbrick house. Electricity came only once a day. There was no hot water, either, and, in keeping with Buddhist respect for all living things, pest control was out of the question. There were untouched beehives everywhere. and monks walking through swarms of bees without a thought. After a couple of weeks in the guest hostel, Catharine's legs were raw and swollen with sores from bedbugs.

Their days were spent at teachings, given by the old and venerable Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a lumbering giant of a Tibetan -- nearly seven feet tall -- who had to be supported while he walked to and from his throne. Once inside the large dark temple, the lama read so slowly into his microphone that three weeks of teachings and empowerments went on for three months. Hoping to make an auspicious connection with the ancient lama -- who had recently become the head of the Nyingma lineage -- Catharine and Michael took him the large, perfectly clear quartz crystal, and the lapis lazuli mala, as an offering. They were thrilled when they learned, secondhand, that their gifts had been a huge hit. And they were told over and over how delighted Khyentse Rinpoche was to see them. But the lama was there to give teachings, not to make new American friends or recognize tulkus, and all morning, all afternoon, throngs of students came to hear him. There were yogis and lamas, a thousand monks or more, scores of tulkus, and a sea of lay practitioners from all over the globe wearing their best clothes. Khyentse Rinpoche's microphone was wrapped in a white silk scarf or kata, and his words were broadcast by loudspeakers to an overflow crowd sitting on the temple grounds. Everywhere Catharine and Michael looked there were hundreds of people meditating, visualizing, and reciting mantras -- and at the day's end a tally of mantras accumulated by practitioners was made public on a scoreboard.

Days passed this way, then weeks. Catharine and Michael sat respectfully in an area roped off for Westerners, right behind Khyentse Rinpoche's throne. It was an impressive temple, and over the years Penor Rinpoche had been criticized by other Tibetans for its opulence. Inside the magnificent space with a fifty-foot ceiling were huge pillars painted turquoise and red and seating for three hundred. The walls were painted with Buddhist deities and smothered with statues, altarpieces, enormous burning incense sticks, and brocaded fabrics in rich reds and gold. Catharine and Michael were the only Americans in attendance but for one lone fellow, a student of Sai Baba, a Hindu lama who was famous for being able to make ashes fall out of thin air.

At night they grew restless. How long would the teachings continue? When would the recognition come? There was a feeling of endlessness, of a visit without a plan and a loss of control. Loud thighbone horns began sounding at four in the morning to wake the monks, and huge drums were pounded. The food was another thing entirely. They were fed a diet of rice and dhal -- a yellow, liquidy paste made from overcooked lentil beans and curry. Occasionally there were a few vegetables, boiled cabbage or potatoes, and bits of gristly meat. But Bylakuppe wasn't a rich place, and there were thousands of monks to feed. As for venturing outside the compound, the neighboring town of Kushalnagar at the time was just a series of mud huts, with no stove or restaurant.

Each evening Michael would recap the day's events into a tape recorder he'd brought, and each week he'd send a ninety-minute tape back home to Poolesville. At the Monday night meetings the tapes were played for the students -- with some listening in by speakerphone from home. There were descriptions of the hoards in the streets of Bombay, the dirt, the starving people. There were accounts of Penor Rinpoche's monastery. After a tape was played in which Michael mentioned that Catharine was having trouble sleeping -- that her bed was on the ground and bug infested -- the sangha sent two inflatable air mattresses. On other tapes Catharine expressed concern that some students wouldn't hang on, continue being Buddhists, if she died in India or never returned.

Michael reported that the Tibetans in Bylakuppe called Catharine Jetsun-droma, which is the Tibetan name for the goddess Tara. It was quite an honor, actually. One night she channeled Jeremiah for them, and the Tibetans seemed to enjoy it.

Eventually, Michael decided to pay a visit to Penor Rinpoche, to ask about Catharine's recognition. So far the lama had been utterly silent on the subject -- and hadn't asked to see Catharine privately to discuss it. Everyday after lunch Penor Rinpoche received visitors. They would line up outside his small cottage holding katas, usually asking for a blessing or a name for a baby.

Michael joined the line one day and waited his turn. Once inside he found himself among cages of singing birds and large aquariums of fish. His Holiness sat near a picture window looking out on papaya trees and a lush garden. His attendants and other lamas sat on the floor around him. An aluminum lawn chair with woven plastic strips was brought out for Michael. Penor Rinpoche seemed glad to see him -- and offered Michael some coffee.

As they drank together Penor Rinpoche smiled and nodded his head. But he left the questions to Michael. After mentioning the teachings and expressing how he and Catharine were enjoying Bylakuppe, Michael tiptoed up to the subject of Catharine's possible tulku status. He wanted to be respectful and tried to keep a lid on his impatience. Would the recognition be taking place? Penor Rinpoche's responses were evasive and vague. Michael grew worried. He didn't understand the Tibetan tradition of the broad hint, a lama's way of communicating indirectly. And he didn't know that being too direct is considered unsubtle and insulting. "I remember telling you at dinner in Maryland that she had obviously been a serious practitioner in the past," Penor Rinpoche said.

"Has this matter been investigated?" Michael asked.

Penor Rinpoche pursed his lips, looked down at his lap, and the subject was changed.

After a couple of weeks Michael returned and asked again about Catharine's recognition and if the lama could give her a name. This time he told the lama that students back home were growing anxious and confused. He and Catharine were more than happy to be patient, he said, but the students in Poolesville needed to hear what Penor Rinpoche had to say. Michael held letters the students had sent requesting information about Catharine's recognition and begging to be told who she was. Again Penor Rinpoche changed the subject. "It's too soon for recognitions," he said.

On Michael's third visit Penor Rinpoche seemed noticeably irritated when the subject was raised. And he grumbled in Tibetan to his interpreter, a scholar named Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso. The two Tibetans talked for a while, then Khenpo told Michael that Penor Rinpoche had very much hoped to delay the recognition until the following month -- when he would be able to travel to Nepal with Catharine and give her a Bodhisattva name on an auspicious date. He had wanted to make the announcement at the great Stupa of Bouddha, the holiest place in the world. Once there he planned to present a "recognition" letter to Catharine. This would have been the most auspicious way to proceed -- and would have resulted in fewer obstacles. But because of Michael's insistent pressuring, and the demands of the students in Poolesville, Penor Rinpoche had decided to delay no further.

Within a day or two Penor Rinpoche called Catharine and Michael into his rooms and presented them with two scrolls, which proclaimed Catharine Burroughs the official reincarnation of Ahkon Lhamo. They were told that Ahkon Lhamo was a saint, a woman, a student of Migyur Dorje, and one of the founders of the Palyul tradition -- a lineage within the Nyingma school -- which Penor Rinpoche had headed for decades. "If people need to know how you can teach, you show them this," the rinpoche said to Catharine.

Penor Rinpoche said he felt a strong connection to Ahkon Lhamo. As a young boy in the Palyul monastery in Eastern Tibet, he had held the human skull or karpala of Ahkon Lhamo many times and prayed that someday he would find her incarnation. Since her life in the seventeenth century, she had not been reborn -- or at least hadn't been recognized. But now, Penor Rinpoche said, he felt that his prayers had been answered. The brother of Ahkon Lhamo, Kunzang Sherab, had been recognized a handful of times, and his modern-day incarnation was Gyaltrul Rinpoche -- his trusted friend and ally in the West. Gyaltrul Rinpoche and Catharine were past-life brother and sister, which explained the immediate connection between them.

Catharine smiled, her eyes full of wonder. Michael sat solemnly by, making mental notes of the conversation. It was useless to complain and rude to communicate even the slightest hint of disappointment. But who was Ahkon Lhamo? Truthfully, he was a bit puzzled by the news. In time he and Catharine would learn that not many Tibetan Buddhists outside the Palyul tradition had even heard of Ahkon Lhamo. And in time Catharine made jokes about wishing she'd been recognized as a more important historic figure -- Yeshe Tsogyal. for example, one of Guru Rinpoche's primary consorts. In a great number of Catharine's past-life dreams and memories, she had been an exalted personage. She was a ruler of ancient kingdoms, a traveler from splendid faraway galaxies. She'd told her students in early teachings that she had known Jesus Christ and been by his side as he died.

But in a way the Ahkon Lhamo recognition was a relief -- something Catharine and Michael came to understand in time. Catharine didn't speak or read Tibetan and had virtually no formal training in Tibetan Buddhism. Had she been recognized as a terton -- a higher level of tulku -- there might have been pressure on her to perform, to live up to a splashy lineage. As Ahkon Lhamo she would be freer to find her own way. With no other Ahkon Lhamo rebirths that anyone knew about, there was very little to live up to.


As Catharine had predicted, the unity of her students in Poolesville began deteriorating in her absence. They had held up well the first weeks she and Michael had been away, but arguments and anxiety had taken over in the second month. A number of students felt lost without her and were bogged down by the day-to-day operations of the temple. Until Michael left nobody could have guessed how much he did: the water-offering bowls he cleaned and filled, the candles he lit, the orders he placed for the gift shop. Money was also a problem. In order to make the mortgage payments several students had maxed out their credit cards and gotten cash advances. But the problems were mostly emotional. The students had grown dependent on Catharine, and her absence made them aware of a loss they'd been feeling over the last year as she'd receded. "She had been so accessible before. It had been so intimate -- like a family," said Jon Randolph. "There was a feeling that we were all in this thing together. And it was changing. It was very pronounced. We were the students. She was the teacher."

Catharine wasn't their friend anymore -- she was their lama. And this was really beginning to sink in. There was more talk than ever, suddenly, about ordination. It was a way of making a commitment to Catharine for life and perhaps another way of becoming close to her.

Elizabeth spent her days working on a huge project. Before leaving Catharine had called upon certain students to help build a retreat center on the temple grounds. It would be a place where visiting lamas and their entourages could stay during teachings and, at other times, a residence for students on retreat, who could pay to rent rooms at fairly cheap rates. There was a stable next to the temple building, and during April and May of 1987, a crew of students began converting it into a two-story dormitory. There was a central hallway on each floor and small bedrooms along either side. There was also some talk -- among students who had decided to become ordained -- that it might someday become a monastery residence, where Catharine's monks and nuns could live in truly monastic style.

Jay Allen was working on the project, and David Somerville and Richard Dykeman -- who was still living in a tent in the woods across River Road. Also working on the stable conversion was a guy who appeared from another Buddhist center; everybody called him Bucko. And the minute they met, he and Elizabeth began to fight.

"He irritated me so much," Alana said. "I guess I took one look at him and knew." What began as a feud became a flirtation and developed into a relationship. "It seemed so cool," Alana said. "We would practice together -- Ngondro -- and it was all so very Dharma. I thought, Isn't this fun, isn't this great: I'm in love and we're both into the Dharma together."

Students recalled how Bucko and Elizabeth would talk dreamily about their past lives together and how they were doing "practice together" -- assuming they meant they were attempting Karma Mudra, the famous Tantric lama-consort sex practices. Alana doesn't remember telling anybody at the temple that she planned eventually to become a nun, but word seems to have slipped out anyway, and other students came to their own conclusions about her relationship with Bucko. "Like most everybody, I guess, I assumed it was a big last fling before ordination," said Karen Williams. "What did I know? I was just an ex-flower child from Berkeley. A little fling never bothered me. . . . Otherwise, they were a weird match -- and on a major ego trip. They talked about how they were going to practice together and change the world."


By the time Penor Rinpoche began his series of empowerments -- preparing her for "recognition" -- Catharine wasn't feeling particularly well and Michael had come down with dysentery and lost close to thirty pounds. The monsoon season had begun, and the ground had turned to mud. The monks at Namdroling threw blankets down for Catharine to walk over, so the leeches wouldn't attach themselves to her on her way to Penor Rinpoche's cottage.

Some of the teachings and initiations were confusing, too -- and Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso's translations were hard to follow. Catharine and Michael had received some of these empowerments or wangs already from Gyaltrul Rinpoche in Poolesville, but there were new ones mixed in. This is the Nyingma way of doing things. Each of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism has its own style. Teachings in the Kagyu lineage are a little like joining the Marines -- tough going, with hard-core lamas who emphasize three-year retreats. The Sakya lineage has a very formal, slow, gentle style of teaching. The Nyingma, the oldest lineage (Nyingma means "ancient ones"), has a style that is sometimes called flying in space. The Nyingma lamas give their students every possible kind of teaching -- high, low, esoteric, and basic -- in no particular order. It is up to the student to sort things out, to figure out how to complete Ngondro, to meditate, and, it is hoped, to develop inner qualities. The Nyingmas hold firmly to the idea that the Buddha seed is in all of us, and if you give enough people enough teachings, eventually the Dharma will take root.

The Gelukpas are the reform branch -- created in the seventeenth century in response to decay and corruption that had descended upon the other three lineages. The Gelukpas' style is the antithesis of the Nyingmas': orderly, emphasizing academics and proper preparation for higher teachings. The historic petty rivalry still exists between them. The Dalai Lama is a Gelukpa, and while he is the titular head of Tibetan Buddhism, the four schools are fiercely independent and his authority is vague and indirect. He is a universally respected spiritual leader and teacher. But his word is not law.

Catharine felt greater comfort in Bylakuppe following her recognition, as though a mission had been accomplished. She felt more relaxed around Penor Rinpoche, too, and began drinking butter tea with him in the afternoon. She wore her chuba and took to the new practices she was learning. But it wasn't easy. The heat was unabated, and the bugs continued to be a problem. Eventually Catharine's phlebitis came back -- and prevented her from doing tsa-lung, the physically demanding Tibetan-style yoga. As the weeks dragged on she started feeling more and more homesick -- missing her family and her students. She had heard that her younger son, Christopher, had pierced his ear and changed his name. While she wasn't sure what awaited her in Maryland, she was anxious to leave. But before that could happen she and Michael were supposed to accompany Penor Rinpoche on an auspicious trip to Nepal and, later, Tibet.

Nobody had talked to her about how to be a tulku -- or what a tulku is, really. She had little idea what the future would bring in the way of official enthronement and the ordination of her students. Nobody had given Catharine advice about how to run a Tibetan Buddhist center, either. It was assumed she already knew that -- once consecrated, her center in Poolesville would be the largest Nyingma center in the United States. But Penor Rinpoche did say that giving her a center, and the recognition as Ahkon Lhamo, would inspire Westerners and women in particular. He had asked for nothing from them -- not money or a formal financial arrangement of any kind. He had only one concern. That they practice, and practice well.

In Nepal, Catharine was disturbed by a phone conversation she'd had with Jane Perini, who told her about the affair between Elizabeth and Bucko. The truth was, both Catharine and Michael were exhausted -- and not getting along. It had been nearly four months of nonstop heat and humidity, of empowerments and translators, of eating rice and dhal. It wasn't until later that Catharine realized the hot butter tea she was drinking with the Tibetan every afternoon was also making her sick. In Nepal, she abruptly decided to cancel plans for Tibet and go home. They had stayed in India an auspicious number of days: one hundred and eight, the number of beads on a mala.


There were other reasons to leave Nepal early, at the risk of disappointing her Tibetan teachers. Catharine had woken up one morning worried that Elizabeth had left her "mindstream." She began circumambulating the Great Stupa of Bouddha -- and repeating Elizabeth's name. She called Jane and told her to tell Elizabeth that she must end the affair. "I see great negativity coming," Catharine said. "Negative karma. And I'm not sure how to stop it."

Later Catharine told Elizabeth that she could see the karma ripening, like the tip of an iceberg rising above the ocean. "We can see maybe the surface of the ocean, the tip of the iceberg," Alana recounted. "But the wisdom mind can see what's under the ocean -- and she was seeing miles and miles of deep, deep pockets of negativity."

A few skeptical members of the sangha suspected that Catharine was simply made jealous by Elizabeth's affair. At first Catharine told Elizabeth that she had broken a "samaya of the heart" by having the affair with Bucko. A samaya is a pledge of devotion to a teacher. Later on Catharine said that Elizabeth had taken a "deep vow" to her, which had been broken by her affair. Later still the story was amended again. "I thought I was having my last fling before becoming a nun," said Alana, "but what I didn't realize was, at the time of telling Catharine about my plans to become a nun ... that I had already, in a way, taken vows. And by being with this man, I was breaking them."

The seriousness of the situation became apparent to Elizabeth just a month after Catharine and Michael had returned from India. Elizabeth had moved into a group house in Gaithersburg -- jokingly called the Nunnery, since so many of its occupants had decided to become renunciates -- and one morning she tried to get out of bed and fell suddenly to the floor. The next thing she remembered was being in the hospital. She had a tumor, she was told: a meningioma, the size of an orange, on the surface of her brain.

When the doctors told Elizabeth that the tumor had been growing slowly for ten years, Catharine announced this was impossible. "If it had been there," she told Elizabeth, "I would have seen it. This has occurred much more spontaneously than that."

"The Tibetans call it rangjung," said Alana. '~ car spontaneously appearing out of a rock, or Adolf Hitler was a spontaneous appearance of evil."

Elizabeth was told she needed surgery in three days, and while she waited, Catharine had her move out of the Nunnery and into her lama's private quarters, where Catharine nursed her, prayed for her, and brought her meals. Among her students Catharine was also organizing a vigil. She employed a device she'd used back in the Kensington days-having all students called at home and told to join the sangha for a night of collective prayer. The morning that Elizabeth entered George Washington Hospital, eighty or ninety students were gathered in the prayer room. They opened with the Seven Line Prayer, followed by group chanting, group prostrations, then prayer and meditation. It went on for twenty-four hours.

"I only have two memories of the hospital," Alana said. "I remember feeling held in a kind of vibration of prayer, really feeling everybody praying and really kind of floating and being held and feeling okay, like I was going to be okay. It was strange. I felt the prayers like a hum, like a vibration."

When she woke up she was told her tumor had been removed. It was pronounced benign.

Catharine came to visit Elizabeth in the hospital and was startled to see her head covered in surgical gauze. There were tubes running into the bandages, and her eyebrows had been shaved off. When Catharine reached for Elizabeth's hand, her eyes flickered open.

"Do you know who you are?" Catharine asked her.

Elizabeth looked up. ''I'm a Buddhist," she said.
Site Admin
Posts: 20692
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 11:20 pm

10. Can a Woman Be a Rinpoche?


Talk of ordination dominated the spare moments of temple life following Catharine and Michael's trip to India. And it was the rare student who did not, at some point or another, imagine himself or herself in robes. The announcement had been made: Penor Rinpoche would be coming to Poolesville the following summer. He would be giving a long series of empowerments, consecrating the temple, officially enthroning Catharine, and ordaining the first group of her students. On Monday nights Catharine gave teachings and talked passionately about creating a monastery. To her closest students she indicated that she hoped eventually to join the nuns and take vows herself. Michael, she said, was considering becoming a monk. It wasn't long before word of this development leaked out.

"Taking robes," as it was called, seemed an easy decision for some. Ani Rene, or Deborah Larrabee, as she was known at the time, was certain she wanted a renunciate life. Catherine Windolph and three of her daughters had also come forward. Janice Newmark had talked to Catherine before the trip to India and learned that ordination was the right thing for her. Michelle Grissom -- even though she was only twenty and had never lived away from home -- cut her hair short and started wearing burgundy in preparation for ordination. Two years before, in her first private consultation, Catharine had told her, "I predict you'll want to be an ani! And you'll be a light in the darkness."

Elizabeth Elgin had made her decision, of course, and was living permanently in the main temple building following her surgery. Catharine wrote her long, encouraging letters and frequently dropped in on her old friend. "My mind felt so different at that time," Alana recalled. "The world appeared like Jell-O -- as though it were clear, very clear -- like you could pass through anything if you wanted." She had been purified, Catharine told her -- and she was sensing "how a purified mind feels after years and years of practice." Struck by seizures on occasion, Elizabeth was not allowed to drive or to leave the temple grounds without Catharine's permission -- an arrangement that continued for a year. "My karma was so funky still," Alana said, "I needed the protection."

For most others, though, the decision to become ordained -- or not -- was far more wobbly and tortured. After one married couple went to Catharine, saying they were thinking about separating in order to become ordained, word went out that all married students, particularly those with families, should stay married and not consider ordination. This left the single, unattached students wondering, What does Catharine think we should do? Chris Cervenka spent hours praying, wondering whether to become a nun. Karen Tokarz and Holly Heiss were famously undecided and seemed to change their minds each week. Many students wrote to Catharine asking for guidance. Jay Allen had written to her asking if he should take ordination, and Catharine said no. Jay had been a monk in so many previous lives, she told him, that it was unnecessary this time around. Others heard nothing from her, and wondered what that meant.

"I felt that some students needed the refuge of the vows," Jetsunma recalled later, "and the strongly defined boundaries -- particularly students who had alcoholic backgrounds or who were drug abusers. The vows would take them farther from the realms that were really hurting them."

The solarium in the back of the temple became an informal meeting place where students drank tea and coffee and discussed ordination -- what the vows entail, what the lifestyle would bring them, and the future. "Some people started avoiding the solarium, just to avoid the conversation," said one student. Others were drawn there, hoping to hear a bit of news that might help them make up their minds. Or hoping to run into Catharine.

"I was always trying to find out what she wanted me to do," said Jon Randolph, "what she thought was best for me.... But she remained studiously aloof. She wouldn't give any indication. So I tried to intuit what she wanted. And it was kind of crazy: Why wasn't I deciding myself? Why did I care so much what she thought? It was my decision, right? But I had that much respect for her sense of what was good for me, and what was good for everybody around her. So I kept looking for some kind of hint."

It was a blessing, and a relief of sorts, to be singled out for monastic life. Karen Williams was walking downstairs to breakfast in the temple one morning when Catharine pulled her aside. "I think it's about time you thought about ordination," she said. And later that day Karen cut her shoulder-length hair and began accepting a decision that had been made for her.

Catharine was a little less direct with her student Roger Hill. Roger had come to Poolesville from the Virgin Islands two years before -- just for a visit -- after hearing tapes of Catharine's teachings. On St. Thomas, where he had three children, an ex-wife, and a job as a schoolteacher, he'd tested several churches and spiritual avenues, but none of them had stuck. He'd always felt a hunger, a yearning, to connect with something greater. And in Poolesville he seemed to find what had been missing in his life. He moved to Maryland, became an active member of the World Prayer Center, welcomed the transition to Buddhism, and, after Catharine and Michael's trip to India, fell in love with another sangha member. The couple hadn't had much time together before Roger heard, secondhand, that Catharine objected to the relationship. When he wrote to her trying to explain his reasons for the involvement and why it was a positive thing, Catharine returned his letter with a handwritten response at the top. "The arrogance of this letter!" she wrote. "I can't really condone this relationship!"

Although he felt ambivalent, Roger quit the relationship immediately. "It was hard to adjust to having a guru so involved in my personal life," he said. "But after a while I began to see something else. I hadn't come to Poolesville to have a romantic relationship. I came for the path, the teachings. And my whole life had been looking for this path to practice. And it suddenly became crystal clear: the most expedient path and best path was to become ordained."

When the news leaked out, through various channels, that Catharine had been advised against becoming a nun, none of those committed to ordination seemed deterred. The students assumed that this directive had come from Gyaltrul Rinpoche, or even Penor Rinpoche himself. But it was Michael. in the end, who tried very persistently to convince Catharine to stay married to him. Her center would be more attractive to Americans, he argued, if she were an accessible Western woman with Western ways -- not an off-putting renunciate with a shaved head. She shouldn't give up her love of Motown records or her weekly manicure, her shopping expeditions, he argued, or her enthusiastic sex life. She was a Brooklyn girl. sometimes loud and outspoken, maybe a bit garish. Indeed, her Westernness should be emphasized. She was a new breed, a pioneer. And she should be out in the world. In time Catharine would come to believe Michael was right. "In my heart, I feel like a nun," she said, but there was a larger purpose to serve: She was going to lead her American sangha on a crucial mission to create a place for Tibetan Buddhism to flourish in America.

"The future of Dharma in the West is riding on us," she told her students. "Each one of you represents an aspect of Western life, a flaw, a downfall, that needs to be overcome. Pride, arrogance, laziness, dependency .... If this center does not succeed, and if I don't succeed, the teachings of Buddha will never take root here."


In the headlong rush to fulfill Catharine's ambitions and consider ordination, there was a palpable anxiety around Poolesville during the fall and winter of 1987. Financially, things continued to be unstable. Sangha members were still paying off Catharine and Michael's India trip, and, meanwhile, in anticipation of Penor Rinpoche's visit, new projects and costly renovations were being talked about. The temple itself had been refmanced -- after the property had been appraised at one million dollars -- to fund renovations and to help raise the capital for a one-hundred-thousand-dollar crystal collection from Brazil.

When students seemed concerned about finances, the cost of the crystals, and Catharine's strange disregard for money. they were told that they lacked insight and wisdom. They had Ordinary View and ordinary minds, while their gifted teacher was able to see far into the future. If it weren't for her vision, would there be a temple in Poolesville at all? "Catharine doesn't really get into limitations, and [issues like] money," said Jon Randolph. "She really doesn't compute it. But everybody else does -- and usually we get stalled on it to the point where we can't even function. We become paralyzed and everything seems impossible."

Something else was beginning to strain the atmosphere in Poolesville at this time, too. Catharine and Michael seemed unhappy together, and a sense of uneasiness trickled down from their marriage to the sangha. Catharine wasn't feeling well most of the time -- even after the difficult India trip she was seriously overweight. "She was always sick," said Karen Williams, "and always in bed." The students were told that they lacked merit. and this had affected Catharine's health. They were just calling themselves Buddhists; they weren't practicing deeply enough. "There was a feeling in the sangha that when we became Buddhists that we had suddenly become better people," said Eleanor Rowe. "Catharine complained that her students were acting like they'd just furnished their houses with nicer rugs. That being Buddhists enhanced us in superficial ways, that we felt more special."

Catharine didn't want her students feeling special, or better. This wasn't the point of Buddhism, she said. It is a path designed to diminish the ego, not enhance it. "You don't acquire, you offer," said Eleanor. "You are always giving back, letting go. And examining your motivation and examining your mind to see what's going on, to see if you're grabbing -- or having any hatred or anger."

The Tibetan Buddhist lessons on impermanence were useful at this time. Nothing remains the same, the students were reminded, and one must stay fluid and flexible. One's anchor should be planted deeply in the teachings and one's devotion to the lama. The ripples above in samsara -- and the tidal shifts of emotion and worry about material things like money -- are as constant as the weather changes, and as insignificant.

While the students were prodded toward greater self-examination -- and to complete the four phases of Ngondro -- Catharine enrolled in a weight-loss program at a clinic in Northern Virginia and embarked on a strict diet. She slowly began to slim down and feel better, and as she did she became more consumed than ever with temple renovations and improvements to prepare for Penor Rinpoche's arrival. The grounds needed landscaping. The grass needed seeding -- and somebody had better start mowing it regularly. She wanted two new altarpieces, dedicated to the goddess Tara and Sakyamuni Buddha -- with elaborate sculptures of the deities, hand-sewn altar covers, and matching rice and water-offering bowls. She wanted the seventy crystals in the temple collection moved to more auspicious locations, and spotlit with overhead lights and cylinders on the floor. She also thought it was time to build a stupa. What was a Tibetan Buddhist center without one?

Most of her students had never seen a stupa except in photographs and knew even less about how to build one. But Catharine had been inspired by them in Bylakuppe and Nepal and felt strongly that they provided a focus for practice and offered potent blessings to practitioners. She chose the site of her temple's first stupa -- next to the guest cottage where Penor Rinpoche would be staying. As for stupa builders, Catharine didn't wait for volunteers. Students were told, very specifically, that the lama expected them to pull their weight -- and much merit could be accumulated by working on temple projects, especially building a stupa. Building a stupa was an investment for the future, and the builders would reap benefits for many lifetimes to come.

By early 1988, six months before the Tibetan's visit, every sangha member was involved in some sort of elaborate temple renovation -- whether they had the time or not. Orders came through Michael in most cases. Increasingly reclusive, Catharine left the day-to-day operations of the temple to her husband as a kind of managing director. And it was the beginning of what some members came to call the Catharine Says syndrome. When Michael delivered news, it was always a little unclear exactly what Catharine's wishes were. Michael had a tendency to put a weird spin on the messages he delivered. "It always came down to, what did she really say?" said Karen Williams. "And what did she really mean?"

Jay Allen had been working for weeks on the new Sakyamuni altarpiece and had just finished nailing the altar into place when Catharine happened to appear in the prayer room. "Why is that altar on that wall?" she asked, startled.

"Michael said you wanted it there," Jay answered.

"No!" she shrieked. "Michael got it wrong! I wanted the Sakyamuni altarpiece on that wall," she said, pointing to the far south wall. "And the main altar goes there!"

Stunned into silence, Jay and the other students in the prayer room at the time quickly began plans for switching the Sakyamuni altarpiece. It would require weeks of work, they figured -- several days alone pulling out the hundreds of nails Jay had just hammered in. It was an expensive alteration, too, requiring the purchase of more wood. While it might have been natural to blame Michael for the mistake, within minutes a new understanding of events came to roost in the students' minds. There was a great lesson behind the mix-up -- a lesson that Catharine and Michael had perhaps devised for their benefit. It was a lesson about obedience and Correct View, and learning to follow their spiritual teacher without resistance. And rather than anger or upset about switching the altarpieces, another mood prevailed.

Stories about the great Tibetan saint Milarepa and his harsh teacher, Marpa, began to circulate. Marpa, the founder of the Kagyul lineage in the eleventh century, treated Milarepa like a slave and was forever driving him crazy with nonsensical requests. He ordered Milarepa to build towers, then tear them down, then build them again.

Marpa seemed cruel and sadistic, and at times Milarepa was near suicide. [1] Eventually, though, the abused student was said to have received the greatest Tibetan teachings available and, along the way, invaluable lessons in diligence, determination, surrender, and devotion. "We even started calling it the Milarepa Altar Incident," Karen Williams said. "And the altar was moved without a qualm."


She could have kept her name, Catharine Burroughs, of course. She'd only had it five or six years. But both she and Michael felt it was important that she adopt a new name to signal the changes in her life. Very briefly she called herself Perna Khandro, a name given to her when she took Refuge vows with Gyaltrul Rinpoche. Later, after a few other experiments, she opted for Ahkon Lhamo, the Refuge name Penor Rinpoche had given her. It would mark her passage to a place of prominence in Tibetan Buddhism and be a reminder of her recognition. But Ahkon Lhamo what? Other lamas use honorifics before or after their Tibetan names. They are rinpoches, tulkus, khenpos. How was this decided? In India, at the time of Catharine's official recognition, Michael had asked Penor Rinpoche, "What do we call her now?"

"Call her whatever you want," Penor Rinpoche said.

"She's a reincarnated lama?"


"But is she a rinpoche?"

"Whatever you like," Penor Rinpoche said, dismissively. "It's not my concern. Call her what you want."

He didn't explain to Michael that in Tibet and India a recognition doesn't come with a title. The title is granted by popular decision. A boy who was discovered as a reincarnated lama would often be called by his birth name -- no title or mention of his tulku status -- years later, in acknowledgment of many good works and teachings, of achievements made in this lifetime, he might be called rinpoche by his students and fellow lamas. As in the military, or royalty, there is a hierarchy of titles -- although not quite so specifically delineated. There are all kinds of rinpoches, just as there are all kinds of generals. And in Tibetan Buddhism it is always thought best to play down status and titles. Others might greet a lama and call him "rinpoche" as a demonstration of respect and recognition of spiritual accomplishment, but when referring to oneself, or putting one's name in print, a humble title is more appropriate. Penor Rinpoche, for instance, is actually a drubwang, one of Tibetan Buddhism's highest titles, but he chose to be called rinpoche, a more modest epithet. At his monastery in India he was called simply Penor Rinpoche. Americans felt the need to inflate this to His Holiness -- which is more commonly used when addressing the Dalai Lama.

Michael. however, toiled in ignorance of Tibetan custom. When he heard Penor Rinpoche say, "Call her whatever you want" and "It's not my concern," he didn't know enough about Tibetans to study those words for subtle hints and innuendo, for signs of underlying advice. Michael simply assumed that he was free to choose any title for Catharine, and, in a way, he was.

At first the students in Poolesville were told to call their teacher Tulku Ahkon Lhamo, but it wasn't long before they decided that was just too hard to say all day long. Another trial balloon went up. How about Ahkon Lhamo Rinpoche? Michael ordered stationery printed with the new title, but it didn't sound right to him. Most of the rinpoches he'd met were men. Could a woman be a rinpoche? The students began to make lighthearted jokes about it.

"Why couldn't we call her rinpo-chelle?"

"How about rinpochette?"

"Or rinpochess?"

Michael asked a few sangha members who had been studying Tibetan if there were other options. In particular he inquired about the title Jetsun. The Dalai Lama's sister was referred to as Jetsun. And in Bylakuppe there had been a dignified old nun staying in the monastery guesthouse who was highly revered. People addressed her as Jetsunma. The name seemed more fitting, and more feminine, than rinpoche. It was a high title, too -- a little splashy, not unlike Catharine herself. The new title and spiritual name finally were announced: She was Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo and would be referred to as Jetsunma for short.

"I remember Michael running around and correcting us all," said Alana. "If we called her Catharine, if we called her Rinpoche .... 'She's Jetsunma,' he'd say. 'Jetsun-ma. Jetsun-ma. Jetsunma. Let's all get used to it.'"

More important than a name or title, though, was that the students have a complete understanding of what a tulku is. It wasn't a common expression in America, and, even among Buddhists, it is only a Tibetan tradition. At Penor Rinpoche's monastery there were a great many tulkus, but that wasn't something that Catharine and Michael emphasized. Westerners tend to have a disregard for other cultures and non-Western religious practices. The center in Poolesville would never flourish if Americans couldn't see the uniqueness of Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo or if they had doubts about the spiritual accomplishment and perfection of tulkus.

The conventional definition of a tulku is an enlightened being who has evolved beyond the cycle of death and rebirth but chosen to return to the human realm -- to dwell again in samsara -- as a way to help sentient beings. Michael pushed the point further and, perhaps with the best intentions, explained to students that all tulkus are "living Buddhas," which is not the usually held view. Tulkus are magical, brilliant, powerful, and all-knowing, he told them, adding that Jesus Christ was in fact a tulku.

"Jetsunma is Buddha," Elizabeth often repeated to other students. "The very definition of tulku means an enlightened Buddha."

"We were taught that she was a tulku, and that tulkus were the most magnificent things in the world," said Richard Dykeman. "Tulkus walked on water, did miraculous things. That they incarnated for us, not for themselves. It wasn't until much later that I learned differently."

Along with Catharine's name change, and the instruction on the meaning of the word tulku, came a greater insistence on Correct View and formal displays of devotion. At other Dharma centers in the United States and India, students tended to prostrate to their teachers before receiving formal empowerments. But it was announced during a channeled teaching -- Jeremiah still communicated with the students on special occasions -- Jetsunma's students needed to do prostrations before their guru upon first sight of her every day.

These prostrations were not for Jetsunma, it was explained. The students bowed to her for their own benefit. It was simply a way to begin instilling Correct View, which would lead to greater devotion, which would lead to enlightenment. Prostrating was a sure way to reverse the Western tendencies of pride and arrogance. In India students automatically held their teachers in higher regard. In America this had to be taught.

It was also suggested, in a more subtle manner, that students should consider giving their teacher private cash offerings as a way to receive special blessings.



1. Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Boston: Shambhala, 1998).
Site Admin
Posts: 20692
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 11:26 pm

11. Hog-Tied


The entire sangha waited at National Airport for Penor Rinpoche's flight to arrive for his second tour of Maryland. But a thunderstorm had arrived first and caused delays. The students sank into the plastic chairs near the gate, watching the rain sheeting down beyond the windows as the flowers they'd brought began to wither. Their spirits did not droop, however. Jetsunma had reminded them that the bad weather was just another sign of the potency of His Holiness. The local gods in the skies above Washington were making a great show of noise and lightning.

When he stepped off the plane, though, Penor Rinpoche didn't appear pleased by the auspicious weather. His face seemed tight and grim. There were sixteen young monks trailing after him, as well as two attendants. And soon enough sixty or seventy of Jetsunma's students were lined up to greet him and offer their white katas for his blessing. They were surprised that His Holiness seemed a bit impatient with their scarves, their most humble prostrations, and all their grateful emotion. "He was like a short, stubby storm cloud himself," said one student, "and seemed to be gritting his teeth."

Only a few students had remained at the temple to light the smoke pots -- the boughs of fresh cedar set up along the entrance to the property. And when the rains washed out the chalk drawings of the Eight Auspicious Emblems that had taken hours to sketch on the cement driveway, they were redrawn in time for the lama's dramatic arrival. The temple had rented a black limousine for him, and he rode with Jetsunma and Michael and with Gyaltrul Rinpoche, who had flown in that day from Oregon. Behind them a big burgundy-colored van had been rented for the monks.

The sun came out during the drive, the kind of sunlight that causes windshields to glare. Strange mushroom-shaped clouds appeared overhead. It was hot and harsh, and the light struck River Road with such intensity that steam began to rise. Several cars of students raced ahead in order to line the driveway to greet the lama. The smoke pots were set on fire. Baskets full of rose petals were passed from hand to hand and tossed at the lama's limousine.

His Holiness, in spite of the long flight and the delays -- and that apparently grumpy mood -- didn't go straight to bed. He went into the temple, to the throne that had been prepared for him. His monks scrambled to assemble the large Tibetan horns they had packed. Opening prayers were chanted. horns were blown, more flowers were produced, and after the brief ceremony and remarks, the lama retreated to his white cottage and wasn't heard from until the next day.

His entourage of young monks. however, was impossible to miss. They were loud and playful. One grabbed a skateboard belonging to Jetsunma's younger son and was seen descending the hill of the parking lot all the way to the retreat center. The rest of his colleagues began unpacking their things with great jocularity. "Who speaks English?" they were asked by a sangha member, trying to help out. All the monks pointed to the one young man who spoke none, then exploded into hysterics.

Most of Penor Rinpoche's monks were seventeen and eighteen years old. The sound of their boisterous laughter was heard each night in the newly built retreat center, where they were staying. And in the morning they were sometimes hard to rouse. Back in India monks were not allowed to sleep past 5:00 or 6:00 A.M. "Don't let the sun shine up your shung-lam [ass]" is how the Tibetan expression goes. But in Poolesville the boys slept and slept. And when they weren't sleeping they were often misbehaving. It was explained later that Penor Rinpoche had brought only the naughtiest monks with him. boys he was worried about leaving behind.

The Poolesville students could barely contain their joy at Penor Rinpoche's arrival. He brought an exotic world with him, a quiet feeling of great wisdom and solidity, the assurance of spiritual patronage. It was as though the Wizard of Oz had showed up at the door. For months the students had been taught that it was an enormous blessing just to set eyes on His Holiness. If he singled out a student for conversation, or any form of contact, it was a sign of a student's good karma. Serving him in any way -- cooking, cleaning, driving -- was a great opportunity and a chance to accrue merit. It wasn't long before a subtle sort of competition began. Who would drive him? Who would cook his dinner, arrange the flowers on his throne, wash and prepare the bowl of fresh fruit in his cottage? Who would clean his bathroom or vacuum the carpet in his bedroom?

In India students saved pieces of hair and nail clippings of a lama to carry inside a gau or box or to wear in pouches around their necks. Students in Poolesville had already begun saving Jetsunma's discarded acrylic fingernails, and Elizabeth, who accompanied Jetsunma to the beauty salon, saved tufts of her cut hair. Even a discarded toilet seat from Jetsunma's house had been rescued and saved by her students as a precious relic. These relics were potent charms, it was believed, protecting students from disease and accidents. negativity and demons. Now the Poolesville students began to focus on Penor Rinpoche's bodily detritus. Would it be possible to score a lock of his hair? A piece of his fingernail? A cuticle clipping?


The excitement about His Holiness's proximity went hand in hand with nervousness and insecurity. Even Jetsunma and Michael seemed to succumb to the jitters. Students were reminded about the proper way to tie a chuba skirt and grilled about deportment. They were told to make a display of humility when addressing His Holiness. and to do prostrations upon first seeing him in the morning. It had been easy to be in the presence of Penor Rinpoche before he had become a divinity in their eyes. Now, for many of the students. it was difficult to be physically close to him or even stand in the same room. "We were trying to do everything right," recalled Karen Williams. "And suddenly, I think Jetsunma was under a great deal of pressure to get her students in shape and the temple in shape. It was everything from how to wear a chuba correctly, and the zen. and how to practice correctly ... it was all form, as the Buddhists would say. Before the teachings were all about heart and compassion. And we lost that, the first couple years. We were all trying so hard to be Buddhists and not embarrass Jetsunma in front of her teachers."

"I remember feeling stunned by His Holiness," said another student. who would eventually become ordained, "and instantly sorry that I had spent so much time sewing altar covers instead of finishing Ngondro. When he started giving us the teachings. I felt unready for them. My mind was still gliding on the surface and not properly prepared."

The pace had been unrelenting over the last six months, and the temple projects still hadn't been completed. Even as His Holiness began to give his teachings, the twelve-week cycle of empowerments called the Rinchen Ter Dzod -- never before given in the West -- a group of female students were still sewing silk ruffles for the prayer room, redecorating the altars. A large new throne for Jetsunma was being built. And a crew of six students was desperately working to finish the temple's first stupa -- even though Gyaltrul Rinpoche had tried several times to discourage Jetsunma from building it. "It's too ambitious!" he said. "You'll make mistakes!"

And indeed, some dramatic blunders were made. To begin with, Tom Barry had accidentally run over the stupa's ancient relics with a bulldozer and ground them irretrievably into the dirt. When Jetsunma learned what had happened, she called Tom into the temple rooms and in front of a circle of stunned sangha members screamed insults at him for fifteen minutes -- explaining later that it was an effort to "purify his karma." Just about the time that Penor Rinpoche and Gyaltrul Rinpoche had arrived with replacement relics -- and to reconsecrate the land where the original ones had been so inauspiciously obliterated, the Poolesville crew learned that they had made a serious miscalculation in design. The cavity of the stupa -- the hollow chambers around the relics -- had been made unnecessarily large. After His Holiness told them these chambers had to be filled to the brim with offerings, and not left partially empty, it cost thousands of dollars to buy more rice and beans.

Meanwhile, most of the students still hadn't completed Ngondro -- even though Penor Rinpoche had urged them to do so before his arrival. "Jetsunma told us there was more virtue in building than in doing your own practice," one student recalled. "She taught that there was even an element of selfishness in practice- it was something you did just for you. And when the teachings began, the students who were involved in stupa building and altar decoration had trouble finding time to attend them. It wasn't uncommon for Penor Rinpoche to look up and see only half the sangha in attendance, sometimes fewer.

There were gentle jokes about Jetsunma during these months. She was Marpa, a slave driver. Or she was, behind her back. Our Lady of Perpetual Motion. But mostly, from her perch above the fray, she kept her students in perpetual motion. She seemed to know instinctively what they needed -- and how to heighten their devotion to her and the center. "It was organized chaos," said one student. "But it felt so good, it was like a drug." The more they poured themselves into working and building, sewing altar covers, mixing concrete, painting her throne, the more they'd feel a part of the temple, part of a family, and part of her. And when Penor Rinpoche praised the amazing growth of the Poolesville center -- as, indeed, he did -- the feeling of accomplishment was the entire sangha's to share. And so, as they worked, slaved, prayed, contemplated ordination, and tried desperately to finish Ngondro -- the one hundred thousand prostrations, mantras, offerings, and visualizations -- their feeling of fullness grew, and the sense that their lives had meaning.

Only three years before, when Penor Rinpoche had first visited Maryland, they'd been members of a small and undistinguished New Age group, a handful of people praying for peace in a suburban basement. Now they were about to christen their large, luxurious temple Kunzang Odsal Palyul Changchub Choling -- the Fully Awakened Dharma Continent of Absolute Clear Light.

They had credibility and patronage, and were on the verge of establishing a monastery. There were twenty students wishing to be ordained. Jetsunma continued to collect new names, and soon the tally came to twenty-two, then twenty-three, then twenty-four. Holly Heiss and Karen Tokarz had both decided to become nuns. And although he had loudly declared he had absolutely no interest in being a monk, Richard Dykeman -- the construction worker from Michigan -- while carrying an air conditioner out of Jetsunma's private quarters one day, told her he'd decided to take robes. "Why have you changed your mind?" she asked.

"Well, I can't sing," he said, referring to the monk's vow to never sing or dance for pleasure.

Jetsunma laughed. "And you sure can't dance worth a shit, either."

"Yeah," said Richard, "exactly what I was thinking."

"I guess," his lama said, "you might as well, then."

For some, the pull toward ordination was irresistible. For others, it came quietly, a strong and subtle force. What did they hope to gain? What were they about to lose? Students who had decided against ordination watched with relief -- and envy -- as the twenty-seven brave souls stood waiting their turn in the temple foyer, with shaved heads and malas, with eagerness and dread, numbness and shot nerves, about to take the vows. "Give me the hopeless," Jetsunma begged Penor Rinpoche. "Give me the ones who would never enter the path, give me the hardest to train."


At first Penor Rinpoche had been cautious about ordaining Americans. In the history of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, no American monk or nun had remained ordained or "kept robes." Americans tended to view the vows as fluid and temporary, as though a year or two as an ordained monk was akin to a spiritual Outward Bound experience. So when Penor Rinpoche came to Poolesville in 1988, he warned his new tulku that if she wanted him to begin ordaining her students in the Nyingma and Palyul traditions, Jetsunma herself had better make sure it was going to stick. And if her students took vows, they had better keep them.

Penor Rinpoche held nightly meetings that summer for those who had been accepted for ordination. The teachings were meant to prepare them for ordination on a mystical and spiritual level, but he had other methods of preparation, too. Previously the members of the sangha in Poolesville had seen Penor Rinpoche only as a beneficent Buddha. But during those long August and September nights, they witnessed his wrathful side. Before teachings began, there was a hazing. Penor Rinpoche would lay into them, yelling in Tibetan, pounding the desktop of his throne.

"Why are you doing this?" he'd shout in Tibetan. "You think taking vows will make me happy? It won't. ... You think it will make Sakyamuni Buddha happy? He's already enlightened. He doesn't need you." The prospective monks and nuns were asked to write him letters saying they would never give their robes back. When a timid woman from another Dharma center sent a letter asking if it was really true she could never give back her robes, Penor Rinpoche exploded in a rage.

Holding the letter above his head, pounding a table with his fist, his brown face turning dark red, he shouted, "How dare you ask this! Do you have to keep the vows forever? Yes, you do!"

Later that night Jetsunma asked Elizabeth to gather the ordination students for an emergency meeting. Elizabeth rounded them up in the garden behind the temple's prayer room. They stood in a half circle, waiting for a long time for their teacher to come.

Jetsunma appeared suddenly, walking quickly. She was carrying a baseball bat in her right hand. "Who wrote that letter?" she screamed. "Who?"

There was a moment of quiet. One monk was shaking visibly. Richard Dykeman said he was feeling sick to his stomach, and his hands were clenching. He hadn't realized yet that Jetsunma's baseball bat was plastic -- a Wiffle bat -- and not wood. Finally, the timid woman stepped forward. "I wrote the letter to His Holiness," she said.

"You aren't my student," Jetsunma said. '"And if you were, I was going to beat you into a bloody pulp! This is still a very bad beginning. for all of you -- to upset the mind of this wonderful lama with stupid questions .... Well, let me answer those questions again. These are vows you do not break. These are vows you do not break. If there is anyone here who thinks that these are vows that they can break -- or that these are robes they can give back -- I want you to back out of this ordination immediately."

In Buddhism there are ten basic vows. The first four vows -- or root precepts -- are considered very serious: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying. These are followed by six vows -- or branch precepts -- that are less serious: no intoxicants (alcohol or recreational drugs, et cetera); no singing or dancing or playing music; no wearing of perfume or ornaments to beautify the body; no sitting on a high or expensive bed; no eating after midday; no touching money.

While the first seven precepts seem pretty straightforward -- and the ordained in Poolesville held to them very strictly -- the writings of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh are sometimes used in Western monasteries to interpret the eighth. The precept against sitting on "a high or expensive bed" is really a rule against the desiring of luxury or any luxury item. And the ninth and tenth -- not eating after midday, not touching money -- which, if literally understood, would be nearly impossible to keep at KPC -- are considered to be precepts against gluttony and the accumulation of wealth.

There are two steps to becoming fully ordained. At one's first ordination a pledge -- the Getsul vow -- is taken to follow the ten precepts. Usually one or two years later, when one's ordination is completed, the list of precepts grows to thirty-six prohibitions: [1]

1. Taking a human life

2. Killing an animal or insect

3. For selfish reasons, doing an action that might incidentally cause the death of an animal or insect and not caring about it (cutting grass, digging ditches)

4. While doing something for others, causing an animal or insect to die and not caring about it (splashing water where an insect might live)

5. Sexual intercourse

6. Stealing or borrowing things and not returning them (includes not paying taxes when required)

7. Claiming to have spiritual powers that one does not have

8. Accusing another ordained of transgressing a root precept when he or she has not

9. Insinuating that a monk or nun has transgressed a root precept when he or she has not

10. Causing disharmony among the sangha through untrue slander or taking sides in an argument

11. Supporting someone who has caused disharmony in the sangha

12. Making untruthful complaints and remarks that could undermine laypeople's faith in the sangha

13. Telling lies

14. Criticizing a storekeeper in the monastery of giving more to some and less to others when this is not the case

15. Insinuating that the storekeeper of the monastery has given more to some, less to others when this is not the case

16. Claiming that a fellow monastic gave a teaching in return for a little food when this isn't the case

17. Criticizing a monk or nun for transgressing a precept in the second group when this is not the case

18. Abandoning the training or rejecting the good advice of a fellow monk or nun

19. Covering vegetables with rice, or covering rice with vegetables

20. Taking intoxicants

21. Singing with self-attachment or for nonsensical reasons

22. Dancing with self-attachment or for nonsensical reasons

23. Playing music with self-attachment or for nonsensical reasons

24. Wearing ornaments

25. Wearing jewelry

26. Wearing perfumes

27. Wearing a mala like jewelry, wearing flower garlands

28. Sitting on an expensive throne

29. Sitting on an expensive bed

30. Sitting on a high throne

31. Sitting on a high bed

32. Eating after midday (exceptions: if one is ill, one is traveling, or one cannot meditate properly without food)

33. Touching gold, silver, or precious jewels, including money

34. Wearing laypeople's clothing and ornaments, or letting one's hair grow long

35. Not wearing the robes of a Buddhist monastic

36. Disrespecting or not following the guidance of one's ordination master

Monastic life is designed to allow for a deep and committed practice of Buddhism. The lifestyle is meant to undermine attachment -- to family, to material things, to pleasure. The core of all these qualities is considered to be compassion. If a monk or nun develops enough compassion for others, and an understanding of the unseparateness or oneness of all living things -- the nondual, as Buddhists call it -- then following the precepts will make so much sense it will happen naturally and without great effort.

And by living according to the precepts a monk or nun is supposed to become ethical and trustworthy -- and therefore stronger and more confident. The ordained are asked to focus on the development of four special qualities: When harmed they are asked to try not to respond by harming others. When made angry they are asked not to react with anger. When insulted or criticized they try not to respond with insult or criticism. When someone abuses or beats them they try not to retaliate.


Just before ordination there was a sense of foreboding and strange occurrences in Poolesville. A deer was seen timidly approaching the new stupa and walking around it three times. An enormous black snake was seen at the site, too, slithering in a circle. Upstairs in the temple, Karen Williams opened her closet door one morning and a swarm of bees floated out on a gust of wind. Later on, a rattlesnake was found on the second floor, too, wound around the base of a coffee table.

Students talked about rangjung, the self-arising happenings, evil in the air ... like Elizabeth's brain tumor. It was true, they were told: Obstacles would come during ordination, and karma would quickly ripen. because of the intensity of the empowerments being transmitted, the vows being taken, and the great merit being accrued. Students were told to work hard, be careful, and do extra practices. "Everybody was on edge, nervous as heck," recalled Karen Williams. "All of us who were about to be ordained ... our stuff was coming up, and we were so busy and tired and stressed out. Working our jobs, building a stupa, doing practice, finishing Ngondro ... and then there was the deer, the snake, the swarm of bees."

The young monks in Penor Rinpoche's entourage seemed particularly bothered by some of the bizarre events and gossiped about KPC among themselves. The man cooking for them. an American Buddhist who had been hired for the visit, had become certain after a few weeks in Poolesville that Jetsunma and Michael were running a cult, not a Tibetan Buddhist temple -- and several of the young monks secretly began agreeing with him. One monk, Pema, kept pulling two young nuns in training aside, teasingly whispering, "Danger! Danger!"


"Cut. Cut."

"Cut what?"


"You're worried I'm going to cut myself?"

When they figured out that Pema was saying cult, they laughed. "Oh, you've just been talking to the cook again."


The ceremony was private, and the doors to the Dharma room were shut. Even Jetsunma was not allowed to attend the ordination of her students -- having never been ordained herself. Penor Rinpoche sat on his throne, presiding, and three students entered at a time, Altogether, there were twenty-three women and four men. They'd been prepped by the Khenpo brothers, who flew down from New York to answer questions, and by Gyaltrul Rinpoche, who'd offered a few pieces of advice about renunciate life. And they'd been prepped by Ani Marilyn, a respected older American nun from another center.

"Why do you want to become a nun?" Ani Marilyn had grilled Michelle Grissom, the waif whose mother had been a longtime student of Jetsunma's. Ani Marilyn seemed concerned that Michelle was too immature to make the decision wisely. "You're so young! You're only twenty! Are you sure you're doing the right thing?"

"I want to help sentient beings," Michelle answered, a bit automatically. Beyond this she really didn't have the words for her feelings about ordination. She had always wanted to be a nun -- that was all she knew. Later, the word came down from Jetsunma, through Elizabeth: "The decision to become ordained is between you and Guru Rinpoche, and it is nobody else's business if they ask."

Part of ordination involves taking vows and donning the robes. But before all that there's a list of important questions to be answered. Penor Rinpoche asked these questions in Tibetan, and they were promptly translated by Ani Marilyn. Elizabeth Elgin was in the first group of women to be ordained, along with Deborah Larrabee and Karen Williams -- and when their ordination was finished, Elizabeth pulled some of the remaining would-be nuns aside to brief them on the secret ceremony. In particular, she was worried about Michelle and two of the young Windolph sisters. They were only twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-two, respectively. "We were told no matter how strange the questions were, just answer them," recalled Michelle. Some of these questions were quite practical: One needed to be over fifteen years of age, not in financial debt, not a thief or a spy, and not mentally ill. Some were philosophical: One needed to believe in the karmic law of cause and effect and not hold non-Buddhist beliefs. Some were quite unusual: One had to say that one wasn't an animal or a spirit, or had committed matricide or patricide. Other questions were stranger still.

No explanations were provided. The novices were told just to nod their heads and respond to each question by saying "La med," which in Tibetan means "No, I am not."

The three girls stood facing Penor Rinpoche with Ani Marilyn nearby. They ran through a list of twelve or thirteen questions, then:

"One is not a hermaphrodite," Ani Marilyn said, very seriously.

"La med."

"One is not a eunuch."

Michelle held back a giggle. "La med."

"One is not crippled."

"La med."

They continued, with great seriousness, through thirty-eight such questions. One had to claim that one wasn't from the lowest caste -- wasn't a blacksmith or fisherman or an albino. One wasn't from "the Northern Continent." And then:

"One has not changed one's sex three times."

Michelle giggled openly -- and one of the Windolph girls joined her. Penor Rinpoche's face remained unresponsive, then stern. The last question wasn't so funny, but in some ways it was the oddest of all.

"One does not resemble a person born from another world or continent."

"La med."

But, as Americans, they did, of course. They resembled people from another continent -- and in fact they were.


Jetsunma waited in the temple foyer, greeting the nuns and monks as they emerged from the Dharma room in their new yellow robes. There were hugs and red eyes, some laughing. "I remember we were told not to show emotion during the ceremony," said Alana, "so I cried a lot afterward ... and felt an overwhelming deep joy. It's a very powerful experience. and something inside you does change." Jetsunma called her nuns and monks by their new names. Students of Tibetan Buddhism often receive a spiritual name after taking refuge or receiving an empowerment -- and new ordination names are given out, too. But at most Dharma centers in the West, Tibetan names are rarely used. In Poolesville, though, many of the students seemed eager to follow the example of their lama and use a new name as a way to signal a change of self -- and another way to make a break with old ways, old habits, and old attachments.

Janice Newmark became Rinchen. Michelle Grissom became Zomchi -- and later Dechen. Catherine Windolph became Samla. Jan Hoge became Palchen. Tom Barry became Tashi.

Some didn't want Tibetan names. Roger Hill asked for a new name -- but he wanted something vaguely Western that was chosen by Jetsunma. She renamed him Kamil. Some of the nuns, too, didn't like the prospect of carrying a Tibetan name and asked Jetsunma to give them a Western name. Deborah Larrabee became Rene. Angela Win dolph became Sophia. Vicky Windolph became Ella. Karen Tokarz became Dara. And, for several reasons, Jetsunma was partial to the ah sound. It is a sacred sound to the Tibetans and was emblazoned inside the karpala of the first Ahk6n Lhamo. To help her give A- names to her students, Michael bought a baby-naming book and made a list of names beginning with A for a group of special nuns. Karen Williams became Aileen. Diane Johnson became Alexandra. Maria Windolph became Arene. Judith Kreitemeyer became Ariana. Holly Heiss became Atara. And Elizabeth Elgin became Alana.

In the foyer after ordination, they gathered in their stiff robes and newly shaved heads. They shared a plainness now, and freshness, a spiritual beauty. They felt a sense of unity and oneness. And, looking into the eyes of their lama as she greeted them, they felt her boundless, unconditional love, they felt they caught a glimpse of Buddha. They had been nuns and monks before -- many of them believed -- in previous incarnations. And Jetsunma had been their teacher. It was an ancient connection, now renewed. But they weren't just renunciates and dedicated to the Dharma. "We were told," said one, "that we had married Jetsunma, in a way. And now we were hers forever."


People seem to remember little about September 24, 1988, but for the blaring of horns, the crashing of cymbals, the endless pounding of drums. The Dharma room was hot and crowded. Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo's enthronement was a long and serious affair. So serious that when Gyatrul Rinpoche tried to break the heavy mood by throwing a pillow at a newspaper reporter covering the event, everyone followed Penor Rinpoche's example and refused to laugh. The newly ordained were feeling quite strange in their huge yellow robes and emotionally drained. As they watched from the floor of the Dharma room, the exotic grandeur of the day was overpowered by exhaustion. "We all felt rearranged," said Alana, "and afterward it was like remembering a dream."

Several of the newly ordained, along with a handful of sangha members, had been up all night preparing the temple, cleaning, setting up buffet tables, arranging the trays of food for the tsog, or offering. Still others had labored over a last-minute painting of Jetsunma's new throne -- the sangha's gift to their lama in honor of her enthronement. Jetsunma herself had been up most of the night, too, worried that she wouldn't be able to blow a conch shell horn properly -- for the next day's ceremony -- and practicing until her lips were swollen.

A crown had been brought from India for Jetsunma -- it was large and heavy, made of copper and painted. At the beginning of the ceremony, a few monks from Penor Rinpoche's retinue tried to tie the crown on Jetsunma's head, but it wouldn't sit right on top of her thick mane, and the ties kept getting caught in her hair. She smiled good-naturedly, and a bit nervously. Penor Rinpoche sensed her embarrassment and said, "We don't usually have to put crowns on hair like that." A TV camera trained on her face belonging to one of Ani Aileen's colleagues from NBC, and others from local TV stations crowded together off to the side. The New York Times ran an article the next day. The Washington Post would later run a photograph of Jetsunma under her awkward crown.

A multicolored string was stretched between Jetsunma's throne and Penor Rinpoche's to signify the connection between them. Elaborate offerings were described by the Tibetan, and Jetsunma was instructed to visualize them. The sangha sat silently with katas, and at the end of Jetsunma's visualization they were instructed to approach her, one by one, and drop their white scarves at the base of her throne. At almost all other Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies, a student hands one of these white scarves to a lama and the lama gives it back, putting the kata around the student's neck. It represents a blessing the lama gives to a student -- and the scarf is usually returned. But in this ceremony the students left their scarves with Jetsunma until there was a large pile of white scarves, like a mound of snow. Blessings to her, from her students. Blessings upon blessings upon blessings. Some sangha members cried when they saw the pile. There was their beloved Jetsunma, her face round, her eyes warm, her mouth closed and holding in some emotion.

Later on there was lama dancing, a Tibetan tradition in which monks dance to horns and drums in ceremonial costumes and giant masks -- a sacred ritual dance, the only kind a monk is allowed to do. There were prayers, too, of course, and a huge spread of food outside. Lights had been mounted on wires above the grass. And as the hours went on, the emotion in Jetsunma's face, which had been so poignant at times during the ceremony, began to drain away. "She just looked stunned," said one nun.

And perhaps she was. The summer of 1988 had been exhilarating but difficult, and Jetsunma hadn't been protected from hard times. She wasn't herself that summer. She seemed preoccupied. "She'd been a nobody her whole life," said Richard Dykeman, "and now she was going to be somebody. She was going to be acknowledged in front of the whole world. She was desperate, and I sensed that desperateness in her."

For the first time since her childhood Jetsunma found herself governed by others, worrying about pleasing others, and subjected to male authority. Michael had always been pliable, willing, cooperative -- almost too much so. But Penor Rinpoche was another story. Repeatedly it seemed he had tried to humiliate Jetsunma during his visit. He had asked the ordained to circumambulate the entire temple grounds every afternoon -- the custom at his monastery in India -- and for some reason he'd made Jetsunma walk at the end of a line. She'd tried so hard to condition her students to be respectful of her and devout. Why did she have to walk at the end of the line? At times she worried that His Holiness was trying to break her, dominate her -- or perhaps he didn't like her. He seemed critical. He seemed very gruff. And he didn't refer to her as Jetsunma -- only Ahkon Lhamo.

Gyatrul Rinpoche had also been critical of her during the weeks leading up to her enthronement. In the past he'd been so upbeat, so goofy and supportive. Now he seemed more difficult, almost as though on behalf of His Holiness. He'd been horrified to learn from Kunzang Lama, one of Penor Rinpoche's attendants, that electric bug zappers were being used on temple grounds. "But we're Buddhists! We can't kill!" he'd said. Jetsunma had prayer flags put next to the zappers -- as a way to offset the bad karma from killing the insects -- but one night it was discovered that the electric cord had been cut.

Gyatrul Rinpoche had yelled at Jetsunma one day, when she had arrived two hours late for an event and kept people waiting. "How dare you make anybody wait two hours for you!" he shouted. "Why don't you come down a notch! You're too arrogant and proud! You need some humility!"

On another occasion he said, "You think this throne is a privilege, but it's not. It's a prison. The whole world will be watching you!"

When The Washington Post ran a story by staff reporter Don Oldenburg in which Jetsunma was referred to as a living Buddha, it was Penor Rinpoche who became enraged. He ordered the students out of the Dharma room the morning the article appeared and locked the doors. Sitting on his throne, in front of Gyatrul Rinpoche and a few others, he shouted at Jetsunma. "Are you teaching your students that you are Buddha?"

Jetsunma shook her head.

"You think because you are a tulku that you are enlightened?"

She shook her head again, and her eyes filled with tears.

"There isn't anybody enlightened within one hundred miles of this place!" the lama said. "Including me and Gyatrul Rinpoche. Are you telling me that you are enlightened and we're not? That you have more realizations than we do? Then I'm going to leave. You don't need me here. Because if you are enlightened, you don't need anybody!"

"His face was red," Jetsunma recalled years later, "and his temples were throbbing, and he said, 'How could you disappoint me this way?'"

Michael jumped in. "This is my fault," he tried to interject. "There's been a misunderstanding." But Penor Rinpoche ignored him and turned to Jetsunma again.

"If you ever call yourself a living Buddha, it would be a serious mistake!" he said. "This is incorrect view; your students will go to Vajra Hell, and if you continue this sort of thing, I'll never come back!"

Jetsunma and Michael told the lama that he had misunderstood the newspaper article. Jetsunma hadn't referred to herself as a living Buddha, somebody else had. And the reporter had clearly misinterpreted the remark. "I cried and cried and cried," Jetsunma remembered. "Don't ever claim to be enlightened!" Penor Rinpoche told her. "You are not enlightened! None of us should claim this! Even the Dalai Lama doesn't say he's enlightened!"

Afterward, Jetsunma shared some of her difficulties with her students. "Teachers will test you," she said. "You wouldn't believe how much." She shook her head, and her students were sympathetic. They had felt tested too, in the last few months. Penor Rinpoche had accused her of arrogance, she told them, and made her feel "young and raw and vulnerable. I was crying and sobbing," she said, "and he threatened to leave and all this horrible stuff." She told the students that His Holiness had "purified obstacles" from her life with his wrath. But later on she threw herself at Gyatrul Rinpoche's feet in distress. "Oh, don't worry," he had told her. "Sometimes lamas will test you ... What he said -- all those things -- they aren't true, are they?"

"You know," Jetsunma assured him, "they aren't."

The worst of the storm passed in time, but it never seemed entirely over. The tiptoeing and confusion continued. At dinner one night Penor Rinpoche looked up from the table and said to his new tulku, "How did you get that title, Jetsunma? It's higher than mine."

Michael and Jetsunma froze and shot each other an embarrassed look.

"Should we not use it?" she asked.

Penor Rinpoche looked at his lap.

"Should we call her something else?" Michael asked.

Finally, Penor Rinpoche shrugged his shoulders and said, "Well, it's your karma."

Others might have heard the not so subtle suggestion buried beneath the shrug. Others might have run out and changed their names immediately -- to avoid causing conflict, to avoid making trouble, to avoid being controversial. Indeed, something more humble and less flashy might have been more appropriate. But Ahkon Lhamo kept the title Jetsunma, and in time it became her -- and belonged to her -- an emblem of her aspirations and achievements, her ambition and unrest, too. The Tibetans never stopped asking about it, but eventually even they became resigned and philosophical.

"How do you feel?" Ani Aileen asked her guru the day after enthronement.

Jetsunma sighed a very long sigh. "Hog-tied," she said. "I feel hog-tied."



1. This list is taken from a handbook called "Preparing for Ordination: Reflections for Westerners Considering Monastic Ordination in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition," edited by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron (produced by Life as a Western Buddhist Nun).
Site Admin
Posts: 20692
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 11:31 pm

Part Three: Consorts

12. Dinner with Jetsunma

The Public ... They wanted a fairy princess to come and touch them and everything will turn to gold and all their worries would be forgotten.
-- Diana, Princess of Wales

It was a few weeks after the stupa blessing in December -- and nearly Christmas -- when I went to take Jetsunma to dinner. She lived in a converted barn that had been built for her by the students in 1993. It was tucked behind the temple in a place that seemed secluded although it really wasn't. Strangely enough, in all the months I'd been coming out to Poolesville, I had never noticed the building or even been too curious about it. Jetsunma had become such a mysterious figure to me -- a phantom -- that it didn't seem possible she lived anywhere but on some majestic hilltop, far from ordinary life.

I pulled up to her house and shut off the headlights. The large brownish building was decorated with white Christmas lights and two big stars on the roof. Some colored lights had been draped over the bushes.

Her older son, Ben, answered the door, and invited me in. Like his younger half brother, Christopher, he was tall and beautiful and had a confident air. He was in his mid twenties, and his hair was short and black and slicked down with some kind of shiny gel. He wore tight jeans and an earring in one of his ears. "Jetsunma is upstairs getting ready," he said. "She said to tell you she'd be down soon." As he disappeared around a corner, I took my coat off and dropped into an overstuffed sofa in the living room.

It was a cozy space, a comfortable cave of brown tones and soft velveteen and wall-to-wall carpeting. A large Christmas tree stood off to the side, with twinkling lights and wrapped presents underneath. In her students' homes the walls often displayed colorful mandalas, maps of Buddhas in their perfect universes, and on the tabletops there were little seated Sakyamunis and Amitabhas. But Jetsunma seemed to have created at least one Buddha-free zone.

I realized I was nervous. I had always prided myself on my ability to remain calm as a journalist, but I'd found myself a bit unhinged by Jetsunma lately. Since our lunch at Hunter's Run in the fall, she'd met me in the Dharma room a few times for interviews, and I'd seen her at ceremonies and teachings. Yet despite her continual warmth and friendliness to me, I'd noticed as the months had passed and I learned more about her, that, rather than feeling closer to her and more comfortable, I grew less so. For one thing, I always worried that I wasn't being respectful enough. Her students seemed so kind and thoughtful, and moved gracefully through the temple rooms, and when they began bowing before Jetsunma as she walked by, or prostrating themselves on the floor -- even her children prostrated to her every morning -- it felt strange to be the only one in the room who was not bowing, or prostrating, or offering her scarves. Others had revealed they felt awkward around her, too.

"We used to be friends and, like, went to dinner and stuff." Sherab had said to me about Jetsunma. "We really enjoyed each other's company. But once I became her student, I had trouble. I had terrible tulku trouble. I got neurotic, bitten by the protocol bug or something. How do I act? What do I do now? That can happen to you in this place. It's a mind thing. Your mind gets tight and reactive. Instead of being like, Ahhh, tulku, a wonderful presence of enlightenment in the world, enthroned in my heart, I was like a rabbit in the headlights."

"What you see, when you see Jetsunma," said Alana, is simply a reflection of your own mind. That's what a tulku is, a reflection, a perfectly clear mirror."

Or a hall of mirrors. I felt increasingly lost in Jetsunma's company and unsure of myself. Sherab was right. It was a feeling of tightness and mental constriction. There was also a feeling of impotency. Talking to her students over the past months, and hearing their testimonials of devotion, had had a bizarre effect on me. Rather than seeming like some beneficent goddess of mercy -- the woman who was leading Westerners out of the wilderness -- Jetsunma was quickly becoming something of a monster in my eyes. She seemed to dwell like Count Dracula, or Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, in an eccentric kingdom of her own creation where the rules of conventional society didn't apply. She communicated with entities nobody else could see. She traveled to galaxies no telescope had yet found. She spoke in spirits' voices. She made predictions based on dreams. She looked up at the sky, at rainbows and mushroom-shaped clouds, and said they were messages from the universe. One could make a list of these things or put them to paper -- as I would have to do one day -- and nothing would add up, nothing could be proven. Perhaps it was all smoke and mirrors, hocus-pocus, the shenanigans of a great con.

But there were facts, and as they began emerging from the haze around Jetsunma -- separating from the myths, past lives, dreams, and other uncertain ephemera -- l remained just as fascinated by her. She had a lunatic determination, a sense of mission. What drove her? Why are some people born with the ability -- or imagination and confidence -- to invest themselves so completely in the unseen world? All of her channeling, psychic consultations, predictions, and spiritual exorcisms. Little by little she had built something tangible from the invisible. "A teacher calls her students to her," Alana had once told me -- and indeed they had come, drawn to Jetsunma as though she had her own gravitational force. Once they were in her orbit, she pushed them, pressed them. She changed them. They paid more attention to their health, their conduct, their morals, their character. She had them praying in shifts that went on twenty-four hours a day. She had them building altars, cleaning offering bowls, pouring concrete, and prostrating one hundred thousand times to complete the first phase of Ngondro.

The students said they were practicing Tibetan Buddhism, but how many times had they saved the planet from space invaders? How many negative entities had been pacified? Their endeavors seemed laughable -- or insane -- but when I spoke to Jetsunma or heard her give a teaching, there seemed to be no more reasonable, practical person alive.

Afraid that my judgment was skewed, I'd even dragged my skeptical boyfriend out to Poolesville one Sunday to hear Jetsunma teach. He sat rapt through a two-hour teaching. "Oh, there's no question about it," he said later. "All those Americans with shaved heads and robes running around trying to be Tibetan are annoying, but she's got it -- whatever it is. She's incredible."

Tibetan Buddhists believe that everybody has a mandala or universe -- circles of activity and energy and perception. There is an outer mandala or display, which is one's appearance or apparent everyday reality. There is an inner mandala, one's quality of mind, one's energy and relative nature. And one's secret mandala relates to an ultimate reality or truth -- it is very simple and direct but also the most difficult to comprehend. I wondered what Penor Rinpoche saw when he looked at Jetsunma. Does wisdom itself have an energy that could be seen when she walked into a room?

And what had drawn him to her little brick rambler in Kensington ten years before, on his first trip to America, and then caused him to proclaim her a tulku? It had been an unusual step for a conservative man like Penor Rinpoche to take, and a controversial one. Jetsunma was the first Western woman to become a tulku in the male-centered religion of Tibetan Buddhism. "His Holiness has said that he meets tulkus in India quite often," Alana had told me. "But he doesn't recognize them. They aren't ready yet." Wib had suggested something similar. "There are probably bodhisattvas all over, and we just don't know it. Some poets, rock musicians, philosophers ... who knows? They don't all become teachers and set up monasteries."

I heard footsteps and looked up. Jetsunma was standing by the door with her daughter, Atira. The girl was seven and had the same wavy dark hair as Jetsunma, but her skin was paler and dotted with light freckles. She seemed, as Alyce Zeoli must have at her age, precocious and self-assured. Jetsunma and I hugged hello, and we discussed the Christmas tree. "Were you surprised I had one?" Jetsunma asked. "As a Buddhist, it's just hard to know what to put on top."

"A star?"

"Doesn't really belong there anymore," she said.

"An angel?"

"Nahhh ..." She scrunched up her nose and made a face. "That wouldn't work, either." She bent down, looked into Atira's eyes, and said good night, then walked over to a closet in the hall and pulled out a long black leather coat. It was then that I noticed she was wearing a blue- gray knit suit-with baggy trousers and a long jacket -- which was strikingly similar to the one I was wearing. And when I looked down at her feet, I saw she had on the exact pair of thick-soled brown Doc Marten boots that I had worn. A perfect mirror.

"Hey! I knew we were sisters," she said. "We've got the same Docs!"

By the time we walked to my car, it had begun to rain lightly. And I wondered aloud if this was a good sign. "It could be," Jetsunma said, "and, according to my astrological chart, I have a very auspicious meeting with a woman today. That has to be you."


The dinner, like every encounter with Jetsunma, had been an enormous hassle to arrange. Her private phone number had remained private, and her calendar seemed crowded with mysterious events. For a woman who rarely left the temple grounds, except to visit the acupuncturist, the chiropractor, the homeopath or hairstylist, she was awfully busy. Wib still called regularly, to ask how things were going and brief me on new developments at the temple. As soon as the stupa had been blessed, Jetsunma had gotten her students into high gear again. There were so many changes, it was hard to keep up.

Lately Wib kept mentioning something called the Mandarava recognition, so I asked about it. The year before, 1994, a Tibetan terton named Kusum Lingpa had visited the temple and apparently been so impressed with Jetsunma that quite out of the blue he'd declared her a reincarnation of Mandarava, a consort of Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, the Indian saint responsible for bringing Buddhism to Tibet. Kusum Lingpa was a funny guy, unpredictable and intense, and something of a crazy yogi. Being a terton, or treasure revealer, meant that Kusum Ling pa was capable of uncovering the hidden wisdom of early masters -- and the teachings came to him as revelations, often arising spontaneously into his mind. One of these revelations came in the form of a poem to Jetsunma, which Kusum Lingpa wrote upon arriving on the temple grounds in Poolesville. In the poem he referred to her as an emanation of Mandarava.

An emanation is a bit different from a strict reincarnation of a person. There are actually several ways of being a tulku, and various methods of being reborn. A great lama sometimes returns to earth with exactly the same personality intact -- with similar tastes and attitudes and talents. Other times a great lama simply lends "blessings" to a person -- and passes along a few traits or qualities -- this was the kind of tulku Jetsunma was, Penor Rinpoche eventually told me in an interview. To be blessed in such a way makes you a blessing tulku. And then there are emanations. Wib explained to me that it is possible for tulkus to spread out their qualities and become reborn as several people at once: each one of these is considered an emanation.

Even though it had been a year since Kusum Lingpa's visit, his revelation was only now having an impact on Jetsunma, according to Wib. She had just gotten used to the idea of being Ahkon Lhamo, and now the news of this second recognition -- even though it had not come from as revered a source as Penor Rinpoche, and it hadn't been roundly accepted or confirmed within Tibetan Buddhist circles -- was just beginning to sink in. She felt it held an important clue to her identity. "She's been considering this recognition a great deal, lately," he told me, "just sitting with this news a bit more deeply."

I looked up Mandarava in my reference books and found her easily. She was a very glamorous figure on the Tibetan Buddhist stage and loomed much larger than Ahkon Lhamo, who didn't seem to be mentioned in any of the books I'd found. Mandarava was "a peerless princess" from the kingdom of Zahor, "who could find no partner worthy of her beauty and intellect," according to one nineteenth-century scholar. [1] She was sixteen when she met the great Padmasambhava and became determined to become his disciple. In protest the king of Zahor had his daughter thrown into a pit of thorns and had Padmasambhava burned alive on a pyre of sandalwood. When the king came to inspect the damage, he found that the fire had become a clear lake. And in the middle of the lake, sitting on an open lotus flower, were Padmasambhava and his consort, looking "cool and fresh." [2]

The couple moved to a cave in Nepal called Maratika, practiced the yoga of longevity and achieved immortality. Later in her life Mandarava became renowned as a single mother, the queen of siddhas, or saints, and had numerous followers.

In light of her meditations on the meaning of the Mandarava recognition, Jetsunma was now considering a second trip to India in the spring of 1996. Wib told me that she wanted to visit with His Holiness, of course, but, more important, she planned to make a pilgrimage to the pit where Mandarava's father had thrown her. She wanted to visit Maratika Cave, too -- even though it was in a remote location that required a three- day backpacking trip with sherpa guides. Wib explained that by returning to these places where she had dwelt in a past life, Jetsunma would be able to "connect with Mandarava's mindstream," as he put it, and feel Mandarava's spirit much more alive inside her. He added that Jetsunma hoped I'd join her -- a prospect that both excited me and filled me with a strange dread.

"We're already beginning to do a little fund-raising for the trip," Wib said, and I sighed inwardly. I wondered how the temple stayed afloat. When I expressed sympathy to Wib -- assuming he'd be pushed to find the donors -- I was surprised to discover that he wasn't worried about how to pay for the India trip, or even how to pay the mortgage.

"Ladyworks is the thing I'm focusing on now."


Ladyworks was the other subject that Wib had tended to bring up in recent weeks. Sometimes I found the conversational shift from Mandarava's pit to Jetsunma's invention of a hair-conditioning gel cap a bit dizzying, but I had grown used to -- and looked forward to -- just this sort of wild twist in our talks. Wib and I had become friends over the months, and he knew that I counted on him to keep me informed. The Ladyworks business needed a boost of two to three hundred thousand dollars in order to "get it off the ground," he confessed. I found this amount staggering. Where on earth would it come from? I was fascinated by how the students at KPC, with Jetsunma's guidance and blessing, were always expanding beyond their means and getting further into debt. Meanwhile, the stupa was still in need of landscaping, benches, and an asphalt road. Not to mention the gold leaf.

I suspected that Eleanor Rowe would be hit up for capital, but there had to be others on the sidelines willing to hand over their extra cash. Wasn't it one thing to give money to support a Buddhist temple and another thing entirely to give it to a fledging hair care business? The hair- conditioning cap was already for sale in the Sharper Image catalog for one hundred dollars -- I'd sent one to my mother for Christmas -- but Wib said if the temple were going to make any money on the invention, it needed to be selling them directly by mail order. He sounded a bit beleaguered, and tired, when he talked about it, despite his efforts to seem upbeat.

"You can't sit around worrying about money," he said. "Money has always been our problem -- not our problem, our challenge." Buddhists like to be positive. "And it looks like we have to make a second infomercial."

"You've made an infomercial?" I asked.

"Yeah, and it had some incredible testimonials in it, but it hasn't tested well."

"And you're making another?"

"We're still deciding whether Jetsunma will be in this one or not."

"Jetsunma? She's in the infomercial?"

"That hasn't been decided yet."

"Not a good idea, if you ask me," I blurted, unable to contain myself.

"Really?" Wib sounded surprised by my reaction. "There was some thinking that it would be a blessing for people just to see her on TV and make a connection."

We wrangled about this for several minutes. This phenomenon of making a connection seemed to be a Tibetan Buddhist favorite, but it was something I had never fully appreciated. Wherever Jetsunma went, whatever Jetsunma did -- even the most routine errands and banal encounters -- was thought to bring benefit to the world. If people saw her on TV, they might make a connection with her that would allow them, somehow, to meet her in a future life and step onto "the path." Frankly, just proselytizing seemed simpler. But Buddhists don't believe in applications of direct pressure.

Connection or not, it seemed a low bow to marketing and commercialism for a spiritual leader to be selling a hair care product in an infomercial on TV. But this point of view didn't get anywhere with Wib. He kept raising the benefits of her appearance -- and how the infomercial guy at a production company in Northern Virginia seemed to think Jetsunma was telegenic -- until I got the distinct feeling that Jetsunma herself was pushing for it.

Wib was full of good intentions, but I began to suspect one could be too full of them. He seemed foggy, and lacking in critical judgment. There are a number of places where Tibetan Buddhism and conventional wisdom will never meet, and, when forced to choose between the two, Wib stuck with the Tibetan Buddhist perspective until the bitter end. To Wib's way of thinking, every single action of Jetsunma was a manifestation of goodness. All her ideas and intentions were above reproach. She was a pure being, a living Buddha. Whatever decisions she made were unassailable.

"Well," I said, finally. "if she wants to be in the infomercial, you can't really argue with her, can you?"

"It's not a matter of whether she wants to be in it," he explained. "It's what she decides will be of the most benefit. Selling the hair-conditioning caps may have nothing to do with it."

As for dinner with Jetsunma, it continued to hang in the air for another week or so. The date was moved twice, because of her health. And deciding on the location required more phone calls. "She likes sushi, Thai, and Italian food," Wib told me. "And sometimes she likes to sit in the bar and have a drink before dinner." It was finally decided that we would go to the Normandy Farm Inn, a large country French restaurant in Potomac.

"Pick her up at her house at seven," Wib called to remind me, the day before. "And be on time."


The atmosphere inside Normandy Farm Inn seemed flat next to the presence of Jetsunma herself. It was a comfortable old shoe of a restaurant, the kind of spot that Potomac families went to on the night the country club didn't serve dinner. I was pretty sure that Jetsunma's long black leather coat was the only one that had been checked at the door. And that she was the only tulku in the room.

We sat down at a table and ordered a couple of glasses of Merlot. We chitchatted a bit, about the book, how my interviews were going, and which of her students I'd talked to. I was entirely free to talk to any of them -- if the student was willing -- and Jetsunma always seemed to enjoy hearing about which ones I'd chosen to see and what I thought. When some names came up, she was critical. It always felt a little like gossiping.

When I said I'd liked talking to Sangye Dorje about the stupa, she beamed proudly. When I mentioned that I'd enjoyed getting to know Alana -- and observed that the students seemed afraid of her -- Jetsunma smiled again. "And they should be!" And when I said that I'd really come to like Sherab most of all, Jetsunma almost couldn't contain her joy. "She's great, isn't she? We used to be really good friends. Did you know that?"

I nodded that I did.

"How we got together is a pretty incredible story."

I wasn't sure I knew the details, I said. But I was going to be seeing Sherab in a couple days and I'd ask.

"I miss her company so much," Jetsunma said. "You know, I can't really hang out with the nuns. For one thing, there's all these things they can't do ..." She lifted her wineglass and shrugged. "And it wouldn't be fair for me to talk personally with them, like girlfriends."

After we ordered the same thing for dinner -- filet mignon -- Jetsunma produced an envelope from her purse. She had brought old family pictures for me to look over. There was a picture of her in Brooklyn as a very young girl, sitting on Santa's lap. In another snapshot she was wearing a funny Easter hat and her dress had a tiny bow tie. There were pictures of her mother, Geraldine. "I always thought she looked like Loretta Young," Jetsunma said.

I thought of Brooklyn and the other stories she had told me about: the cigarette burns and bruises, the way she had described how skin turns spongy after a beating, and the red turns to black, then green, and finally yellow. I looked down at the pictures scattered next to my elbow. I looked at the little girl on Santa's lap. Her wide-set, dark eyes had the same twinkle, the same wisdom, and the same sadness as the eyes of the woman across the table from me. It was impossible to imagine how someone could hit her.

"You look like Atira here," I said, tapping on one photo.

"People always say that," she said -- then paused. "But you knew that Atira isn't my natural daughter?"

"No," I said, a bit embarrassed.

"Do you know who Ani Catharine Anastasia is?"

Catharine Anastasia was one of the nuns I'd met that night at Tara Studios, working on the stupa garlands. I remembered she was a quiet woman with a plump face and watery blue-green eyes. I suddenly recalled the story I'd heard about her.

"Former drug addict? Homeless? Lived under a bridge?'

Jetsunma nodded and began to explain that before Catharine Anastasia became a nun her name was Jalee. She was single, had been off drugs for a while, and had been coming to Poolesville for nearly two years for teachings. In the fall of 1987 she came to see Jetsunma privately to say that she was pregnant. Her former boyfriend was the father, but they had no plans to marry.

Jetsunma was very happy for Jalee at first, she said. "Oh that's wonderful, just wonderful." Jetsunma told her.

But Jalee didn't seem too excited. "No, it's not," she said. Jetsunma thought she could understand why Jalee might be hesitant to become a mother. "She'd come so far -- really, it was unbelievable how well she was doing," Jetsunma said to me. "Maybe being a mother was one thing too much." She told Jalee that she should make arrangements to give the baby up for adoption. Again, Jalee didn't seem too excited. She felt if she gave birth to a baby, Jetsunma said, "she'd have to keep it.

"I told her," Jetsunma recalled, " 'Maybe you should keep it then."

"But Jalee shook her head, according to Jetsunma. "'I'd rather have an abortion,' she said.

"So I told her," Jetsunma continued, "'Look, I don't favor abortion. I could never kill something that grew in my body. To quote a comedian I heard on Comedy Central, If a shoe came out it would still be mine. I could literally never do that.'"

Jalee still seemed unconvinced, Jetsunma said. "Look," Jetsunma told her, "to a Buddhist a human rebirth is very precious. And this child may have used up all its merit just for a chance to be born. Don't you think this child needs a chance? If not with you, then a chance with someone else? It earned this."

Jalee remained quiet. "She couldn't give up a baby," Jetsunma said to me at dinner, "but she was able to have an abortion. This just didn't make sense to me. So finally, I had to get kind of heavy with her. I said, 'Look, it's like this: Terminate this child's life -- kill this unborn child -- and I cannot be your teacher anymore.'"

This had some impact. Her choice, as Jetsunma put it to me, "was now between what was convenient for her and me being her teacher. Well, she chose me. And she went ahead and arranged for the baby to be adopted through an agency."

As Jetsunma remembered it, in March 1988, when Jalee gave birth to a girl, Jetsunma went to the hospital to bless the infant before she was given up to the new parents. "So I went to bless this baby," she said, "thinking that was my lamalike duty -- and I take the baby, hold her up, and I get ready to bless her. She was ten pounds and two ounces. She had these beautiful round cheeks, this little apple head. She was beautiful, just beautiful. And the minute I saw her, I knew she was a Buddhist."

Jetsunma pounded on the dinner table between us, "I knew it! I mean, to the depth of my being, I knew this child had practiced Dharma. I knew it! To the depth of my being, I knew it!

"So I said to Jalee, 'Look, I don't know how to tell you this, but we can't let her go.'"

Jalee was stunned, "What? You're kidding," she said.

"I'm not. This kid has very strong karma with the path. She needs to practice. It's her right to practice."

While Jalee tried to wangle out of her adoption deal, Jetsunma went back to the temple and called a sangha meeting to ask if any of the students would be willing to take the baby. Several parents came forward -- Wib and Jane, Ted and Linda Kurkowski, Bob and Carol Colacurcio. "I also put my name on the list," said Jetsunma, "I thought, Well, I could afford another child, and I could raise her in the Dharma. I'm motherly, and I'd take in very lonely baby if I could. I'm just like that. But, frankly, I wasn't all that excited about it."

The next day Jetsunma went back to the hospital with the list of names. "You would take her?" Jalee said, shocked.

"Yeah, I think so," Jetsunma said, "But it's your decision."

The baby was brought in again, to be fed, and Jalee told the nurses to hand her to Jetsunma. "And it was something out of a movie. I mean, they hand her to me, and this baby just opens her eyes and looks right dead up at me, which newborns never do. She looks up at me, and I am locked into her eyes. I'm locked into her. And it's like nothing could have broken that bond. I don't know how to really explain it to you ...

"But I looked into her eyes and I immediately start crying," Jetsunma said. "And I said to Jalee, 'My God! This is my daughter! This is my daughter!' I was so happy, and I couldn't believe it, and I said to Jalee, 'Forget that list -- I'm taking her!' I'm like, This is an executive decision! She's mine! And I told Jalee that she would always be a part of this baby's life. She could watch over her. She could see for herself that she was happy and well fed and well cared for. 'She won't want for anything, I promise you,' I told her. She will be raised as I would raise a child. ... And Jalee was just crying and crying, beside herself with happiness."

After Jetsunma finished her story, I sat quietly for a moment, eating my dinner. They left their husbands, left their homes. They asked her where to live, whom to marry. They gave her their children to bless, and name. They gave her money, their time, their devotion. Once they turned toward her, nothing was ever the same. Jalee gave her a baby and then became a nun the next summer, shaved her head and took the vows and changed her name ... the way the others did, scores of them. And never looked back. At the time it never seemed like Buddhism was pulling them, or Dharma, the teachings. It was her, all her. But what was the difference?

Did they worship her? Worship is not really a word that Buddhists use. They talk instead about devotion and Correct View. Wib had told me a story about himself once that spelled this out pretty clearly. In 1988 he had sent Jetsunma a letter -- a routine self-appraisal that students did several times a year. In the letter he confessed that he hadn't been a good student lately. He felt that he'd been screwing up. He'd had some anger in his heart -- and felt he had broken samaya. His pledge of loyalty to her, several times. He was stunned when Jetsunma responded with a note saying that Wib was "very tough to teach" and she didn't feel up to the job -- that maybe he should "consider" studying with Gyaltrul Rinpoche in Oregon.

"She put it so kindly," Wib said, "but I was devastated. Really. And I immediately took her letter and went to the temple. And I remember that Jetsunma was sitting on a swing and holding Atira, and I was so devastated, my knees buckled. I just begged her and begged her. Please, please, tell me what I can do. Please be my teacher.'" Distraught, he began crawling toward her on the grass and sobbing. To spare her the intensity of his emotion, Wib said he finally went away to compose himself.

Wib told me that Jetsunma was very kind to him afterward and took him back as a student. There was a proper way to treat one's teacher, she told him, a way to hold a lama in one's heart. And it led to enlightenment. Wib's response had been appropriate, she told him, and he shouldn't feel ashamed or humiliated. "She said it was such a good sign, such a good response -- a sign of deep devotion to her," said Wib. Through the years Jetsunma had often told rooms of students the story about Wib crawling on the grass and begging her to be his teacher. "I'm glad, " said Wib, "that other students have learned from it."

It was hard to know what to think when I heard that story. And it was hard to know what to think when I had lunch with Ani Catharine Anastasia one day, to ask for her account of giving up Atira to her lama. Huge tears began dropping from her eyes as she revealed how hard it had been, and how much, still, she ached about what she had lost when she lost her daughter.

Even more painful, it seemed, was the fact that Jetsunma's version of what transpired between them is not how Catharine Anastasia remembers it. The nun wanted to explain, very carefully, that she was thrilled to give her baby to Jetsunma to raise -- it was a great blessing to make this kind of offering to your guru -- but she would have been happy to raise Atira herself, "It's true that I didn't want a baby at the time. I didn't think I could provide financially for it -- and I mistakenly believed it would prevent me from pursuing the path. Little did I know it was my path."

When Catharine Anastasia met with Jetsunma to tell her she was pregnant, she sought only guidance. She does not remember insisting on having an abortion. She remembers asking, "Should I keep this baby or put it up for adoption?" She also wondered if Jetsunma could "somehow magically pray the baby to its next life and make it okay to have an abortion."

I asked Catharine Anastasia how she reconciles herself with this misunderstanding, "I just do," she said. "There is really only one version of this story. Whatever Jetsunma told you is the real version. It's the only one that matters. Whatever I remember is just my experience, and only my experience."

People outside the temple had often asked me what I thought of Jetsunma. My friends and family and colleagues in journalism all seemed very interested, "Do you think she's the real thing?" a newspaper editor once pointedly asked.

"How would I know?" I answered, "The only thing that counts is that somebody came along -- one of the most revered lamas in Tibetan Buddhism -- and said that she is.

And later, when I learned there was a debate within the Tibetan Buddhist community about whether tulkus are divine beings, and incapable of corruption, I continued to feel the same way. It wasn't up to me, a journalist, to decide if Alyce Zeoli was really the reincarnation of Ahkon Lhamo or Mandarava. It wasn't up to me to decide if she had truly been at Christ's side when he died or once ruled civilizations on distant galaxies. Nor did it matter to me then whether she could, as she claimed, follow students into the bardo at the time of death and help them to transfer their consciousness to an auspicious rebirth -- or directly to Amitabha's Pure Land and enlightenment. These matters were solely the concern of her students and the venerable elders of Tibetan Buddhism, I decided. It was Penor Rinpoche who protected her from criticism -- and kept her in her job. And, presumably, if something went awry it was Penor Rinpoche she'd have to answer to. He'd elbow her along in the proper way. He'd be tough on her, wrathful and gruff -- the way he was during the summer of her enthronement.

But what if she just decided to stop listening to him? Who would she answer to then?


On our ride back to the temple, the rain clouds sat so low in the sky, and it was so dark, that I could barely see the road. I drove slowly and carefully. There is nothing quite like driving Jetsunma around on a dark road at night. I wondered what kind of horrible rebirth awaited me if I accidentally killed her.

As lightning flashed, the pavement ahead was suddenly illuminated. The only thing visible was the carcass of a dead deer by the side of the road, its neck twisted backward. When Jetsunma saw it she began murmuring prayers.

Dinner had gone on for three hours -- each story more amazing than the next -- until the large room at the Normandy Farm Inn had emptied out and Jetsunma and I were the only ones left, huddled like two shipwreck survivors clutching a tiny floating dinner table. The time alone with her, as Wib had predicted, was intense -- as though five weeks had been crammed into one sitting. Exhausted, we asked for one more pour of coffee and stumbled toward the door. She was less scary when she got tired -- sweeter and more human.

"I feel like I've been a chatterbox," she said on the way home.

"That's what you were supposed to do," I said.

"Before coming, I was thinking a lot about my family," she said. Normally she didn't like talking about her life too much, she said. It made her sad. She and her mother hadn't spoken in several years. Every time she had felt like calling her, she'd concluded that it was better not to. "I have never stopped missing my mother -- or missing having a mother," she said. "That's a hole that just never gets filled up, probably in all of us. " She paused for a long time. "I may not have a mother anymore," she said, "or a father, or my old family, but I have the stupa and I have Gyaltrul Rinpoche, who is the reincarnation of Kunzang Sherab, my brother when I was Ahkon Lhamo. My old brother. He's like my family. He took me into his house for days when I wasn't well, and he cooked for me and we ate together and laughed together, like a family. And I've got His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, who gave me the Migyur Dorje relics. He's like my family. ... And while, in one way, it looks like I have nothing," she said, "from another perspective I am the richest woman on earth, surrounded by family at the deepest place where I live."

We were quiet for a while. There were sounds of thunder, and the rain became an impenetrable wall of dancing water. It seemed as though the world had closed down around us, as it had at the restaurant. As though Jetsunma and I were the only people alive. "I've heard you might be coming to India with us," she said, "and that makes me very happy." She asked if I'd been told of the Mandarava recognition. I said that I had.

"Lately I've been having the most incredible memories of Guru Rinpoche's cave," she said. "It's very dark, and I have a memory of standing behind him and I am combing his hair with my nails. And there's dirt and twigs in his hair -- and I remember cupping my hands to my face afterward and smelling him, smelling this wonderful smell of Guru Rinpoche."

I smiled and nodded. It was hard to know what to say.

When we pulled into the temple compound and I saw the white columns of the main building, I felt tremendous relief. The night was over. Soon I'd be alone in my own car again. But then I realized something -- which seemed quite dire at the time: Jetsunma had no umbrella. How was she going to get inside her house? Was it my responsibility to keep her dry? What would Wib do? What would Alana do? One of the Buddhist books I'd read said that if one stepped unknowingly on even the shadow of a realized lama one would be sent to Vajra Hell. I had been surprised to learn there was such a place.

At the end of her driveway we said goodbye. "It's raining pretty hard," I said. "Can I walk you to the door with my umbrella?"

"Oh, that's not necessary," she replied, opening the car door. "My students are always treating me like that. Like if I get a little rain on me, I'll melt." And then she vanished in the dark.



1. L. Austine Waddell, Tibetan Buddhism: With Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology (New York: Dover, 1972).

2. Yeshe Tsogyal, The Lotus-Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava (Boston: Shambhala, 1993).
Site Admin
Posts: 20692
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 11:34 pm

13. Correct View

-- PATRUL RINPOCHE, The Words of My Perfect Teacher

The Tibetans packed up their horns and drums and bells and departed for Bylakuppe soon after the Poolesville temple was consecrated and its lama enthroned. The students escorted Penor Rinpoche and his monks to the airport and saw them off -- with flowers and white scarves and wet cheeks -- but with tremendous relief, too. His Holiness, as much as they loved him, was both a blessing and a bit of a pain. Once he was gone there was no longer an entourage to feed every day, or ceremonies to attend, or thrones to paint, or canopies to hang. The previous year's unrelenting pace vanished, too, and for a few months an atmosphere of calm and a sense of accomplishment took over the temple. Six men had become monks and were just getting used to wearing skirts. Nineteen women had become nuns and kept feeling the tops of their heads, where their hair used to be. Jetsunma had been enthroned. And Michael tended to crow a bit about how well things had gone.

Jetsunma looked ahead and became passionate about new building projects across River Road. The group expanded the temple's property to include sixty-five acres of woods there, and Jetsunma decided it would one day be the seat of Dharma in the West. A fabulous new temple would be built, and a monastery large enough for hundreds of monks. Jetsunma talked about starting a shedra, too, a monastic university to which scholars would come from all over the world to teach. There would be gardens and pathways, prayer wheels, prayer flags, and stupas. She wasn't concerned about the money all these things would cost. It was an important step into the future. "Don't you see?" she told them, "this opportunity is something you've prayed for over many lifetimes."

Each monk and nun was charged $300 a month rent to live in the retreat center where Penor Rinpoche's monks had been staying -- to raise an additional $4,500 a month. Wouldn't the ordained feel good about having their rent money going to the temple and helping to pay for the land across the street?

Very quickly the arrangements were made -- and fourteen new monks and nuns moved into the small dormitory-style bedrooms that ran down the sides of a central hallway. There were two twin beds in each room, a closet on one end, a sloping ceiling on the other. The monks -- Kamil and Tashi and Jon Randolph among them -- were on the bottom floor and shared a bathroom. And nuns -- Dechen, Dara, Atara, Rene, Alexandra, Catharine Anastasia, and Alana, and several others -- shared the second-floor bedrooms and a large bathroom with two shower stalls, two sinks, and two toilets.

The quarters were cramped, the meals they cooked for each other weren't good, and the conditions didn't seem very conducive to compassionate activity. "Too many chickens in the henhouse" was how Jetsunma would later describe it. Looking back, not many of the ordained said they enjoyed living there. In the common area, on the floor with the monks, there was a small kitchen and a large farm table for eating. Alana, who had become the "elder nun" and de facto leader of the ordained almost immediately upon ordination, was famous for leaving little notes everywhere, reminding the younger monks and nuns to pick up after themselves. ("Don't leave dishes in the sink!" and "Your mother doesn't live here!")

The mornings were the most hectic. The monks and nuns waited to use the showers and toilets, rushing to get ready for work. And the phone was always ringing. Parents were calling, and bosses, and Dharma friends. Now that so many of the ordained were concentrated on the temple grounds, the lay practitioners in the sangha tended to think of them as on-call custodians of the temple. When a lay member couldn't make a prayer shift in the middle of the night, the retreat center phone would ring. When the lay member forgot to close up and clean the Sakyamuni altar in the evening -- three hundred water bowls to be emptied and wiped -- the retreat center phone would ring.

Life in the retreat center was trying. "It was miserable," said one nun. "Not our finest hour," recalled another. Others have slightly fonder memories. "We did have lots of laughs," said Dechen. Alana remembered being newly divorced, newly Buddhist, newly ordained, and confined to temple grounds unless Jetsunma permitted her to leave-because her karma was still causing obstacles. "Really, someone remembers the retreat center fondly? To me it seemed like hell." But there were good times, surely ... like the night Jetsunma woke everybody up after a snowstorm -- went upstairs, banged on all the nuns' doors -- then ran outside, waiting to hit them with snowballs when they came out. The only problem was, nobody was allowed to throw a snowball back.

Or were they? This was part of their ongoing education as Tibetan Buddhists: What was the proper way to treat a lama -- particularly one so feisty and headstrong and given to wisecracks? If you went by the Tibetan Buddhist books. there weren't just rules about how to bow and prostrate properly, there were rules within rules, and thousands of pages of text to follow. One shouldn't step on her shadow, or tread on the earth where she had stepped. One shouldn't walk in front of her, or too far behind. When she stood up in a room, so must everyone else. And when she asked something of a student, the proper response was to thank her for the opportunity to serve her. [1] "If you bring your ordinary mind to a situation or person," the students were told, "your experience will always be ordinary."

Even so, the students continued to be ordinary and have ordinary experiences with Jetsunma. And they still leaned on her for assistance with the most ordinary decisions in their lives. 'Tm embarrassed by all the things she had to put up with," said Jon Randolph, "all the petty questions. She put up with it for years." They wrote and they called her, asking about which diet to go on, which car to buy, which flight to take home at Christmas, which colors to wear. Very early one morning Michael had picked up the phone and heard a student's voice on the line.

"Jetsunma, you have to take this call," he said.

"I haven't had my coffee yet."

"It's just too unbelievable," he said. "It's just too great."

What was the question that only Jetsunma could answer? "Is whole wheat really better than white bread?" It wouldn't become any easier as time passed. Even Jetsunma's most devoted students would sometimes feel like failures. And ultimately some students would leave. Being a Buddhist wasn't easy in America. One had to surrender to Jetsunma -- completely -- and somehow remain conscious while it was happening.

In the back of one's mind there were often little whispers, voices saying things one didn't want to hear. You were being stupid, foolish ... wasting your life. As the Tibetan lamas liked to say, "The chief American characteristic is doubt."


At first it seemed okay with Jetsunma that Richard Dykeman didn't want to live in the retreat center. He and another monk lived across the street in tents and seemed quite happy to be there. Richard liked the distance it gave him from the Ordained Hotel, as he called it, where it was always noisy and chaotic. And it was less obvious when he skipped the sangha meetings and read science fiction books in his car with a flashlight instead. The weird group thing around Jetsunma bothered him. The fawning and groveling, the whining and the need to get her attention. That wasn't Correct View. That was sycophancy, Richard thought. And when he went to the sangha meetings, he always felt like an outcast, "I was always big dumb Richard," he would recall. And he felt he had a reputation, undeserved, for flirting with women at the center.

Richard thought of himself as a maverick and not as spiritually naIve as the other ordained. He'd traveled the world, been a member of two Eastern-style cults, and been a student of a wild assortment of yogis and gurus. He'd met Jetsunma in 1985, when she came to speak to a Unity Church group he belonged to in Lansing, Michiga -- -and he'd felt intensely attracted to her. He felt her charisma but wasn't drawn in by it. "I didn't care about charisma," he said, "because I'd seen all kinds of charismatic people." But Jetsunma had something else. "She was magnificent, wonderful. A pure, pure teacher. She really opened up my mind -- and let me see the truth about myself."

Not long afterward -- along with a handful of other students from the Michigan center -- he moved to Maryland to be closer to her. "Her mothering juices were so intense," he said, "everybody wanted to be around and drink them up." He had helped renovate the temple building, build the retreat center, and work on the stupa. And in 1988 he'd become a monk. As for Correct View, he felt inspired by Jetsunma and respected her, but he didn't think it was smart to follow her advice about everything.

He was with two other monks in the woods one day clearing paths, when a group of nuns approached them, very excited. They said that Jetsunma had just revealed she'd had a dream: The sangha was going to build a hundred-foot statue of Amitabha Buddha on the land across the street.

"They came running up, all out of breath," recalled Richard. "'The statue! The statue!' ... Their eyes were flashing, and they were animated. 'We're going to build a one-hundred-foot statue of Amitabhah's going to be so wonderful!'"

The three monks stood with their arms folded. "The nuns were all in a tizzy," said Richard. "The Queen Bee had spoken. And here we were -- me and two other monks -- the people whose backbreaking sweat and broken bones this statue was going to be built on."

"Oh really, do you have a plan?" one monk said.

"A plan?" asked a nun.

"Where's the road going to come from?" asked Richard.

"Where are we going to get the money?" asked the first monk.

The third monk said, "Do you have any idea how deep the foundation is going to have to be to support a hundred-foot statue? Do we need permits? It could be an obstruction for airplanes."

The nuns started crying. "It broke their hearts," recalled Richard. "That was the thing I was always trying to expose, when I was there. Whenever Jetsunma tried to whip her flock into a frenzy, they would lose all touch with reality. And Jetsunma never seemed to care if you had to ruin your life to accomplish her ambitions. It was for the good of all beings. . . . But nobody ever dared say no to her."

Not long afterward Richard was informed that Jetsunma wanted him to move immediately into the retreat center. He was creating "bachelor energy," she said, on the property across the street. And that energy was drifting over to the temple grounds and affecting the other ordained. In a sangha meeting the monks and nuns were also told that Richard was "rebellious" and "needed to be confronted." It was for his own benefit -- and ultimate enlightenment -- that he learn Correct View.

Good-natured Kamil agreed to corner Richard in the back of the retreat center. "Richard," he said, "some of us want to talk to you."

Richard stood there, looking at Kamil's face. And he looked at the faces of the other ordained who had gathered in the room. "They were all trying so hard to be good little boys and girls," he thought. They had their list of rules about Correct View. And they were desperately trying to become enlightened to benefit sentient beings.

"Suddenly the futility of the place overwhelmed me," he said. "I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had made a bad decision to be there. I was looking at them -- they were so concerned and politically correct. We'd been told if you leave Poolesville and Jetsunma, you go to Vajra Hell. Have you ever read up on Vajra Hell? You are crushed and burned and chopped up over and over again, it repeats. You are there for eternity. I mean it. You leave her and you go down."

It was days, perhaps a week, before the other monks and nuns in the retreat center realized that Richard was gone for good. "I'd suspected all along it was a cult," he would say years later, "but somehow I was still sucked in." He never said a word to anyone. He just walked out the door, down the driveway, out to River Road, and was never seen again. Pretty soon it was like he had never been there. The sangha had a way of continuing, moving on, and forgetting the casualties left behind.


Correct View was ... so hard. It required vigilance and patience. How many more students might leave? Gyaltrul Rinpoche eventually offered Michael some advice: The more ordinary Jetsunma appeared to her students, and the more involved she was in ordinary life, the harder time her students would have learning Correct View. And if they didn't learn Correct View, they'd never learn devotion, and if they didn't learn devotion, they wouldn't become liberated. The Tibetan told Jetsunma that she shouldn't be concerned with household duties -- cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping. These should be done for her by students. It was also time for her to have an attendant. "Make yourself more rare," Gyaltrul Rinpoche told Jetsunma. "You've spent enough time with the students already."

Indeed, as time passed and Gyaltrul Rinpoche's advice was followed -- as the students began taking turns cooking dinner for Jetsunma, and as Alana became her official attendant -- it got a little easier for the sangha to see their lama as superhuman. And as Jetsunma became an even more remote figure at the temple -- breezing into the Dharma room on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings to give a teaching, then quickly breezing out-it became a little easier again. If students missed seeing her, the walls of the temple were full of her pictures, which they could study. Eventually little prayer cards with Jetsunma on them were printed up and sold in the gift shop. The students began to buy them, fix them to home altars, and put them on the dashboards of their cars. It was considered a blessing simply to see her face.

But what about someone who didn't need to look at a little prayer card? Someone who saw Jetsunma's real face every day? What about a student who had once been an intimate friend, a glorious consort in a past life, but had now become her servant?

People weren't jealous of Alana's proximity as much as they were afraid. The students were careful around Alana and watched what they said. And Alana didn't cry, as she had in the past, because she felt the envy of other students. She cried because of how difficult her life had become, and how impossible Correct View was to maintain. She was no longer the guru's best friend. She was now doing her dishes, washing her clothes, and cleaning her toilet. Out in the sangha she was known as the enforcer of Correct View. But in her own room Alana knew the truth: Some days she was so angry about being a servant, and torn, and full of doubts, that she fantasized about storming out the door.

"It was difficult, the first few years, to see her in very ordinary circumstances," said Alana. "It had an effect on me, and it was dangerous .... And I would have these terrible thoughts about her, and her family. Just horrible. And then she would complain about the food I'd fixed or something -- saying the salad wasn't fluffy enough -- in my mind, I'd say, Bitch!"

Alana would always struggle with Correct View. The years would pass, her status would rise and fall -- sometimes she was Jetsunma's best friend, sometimes she wasn't -- she would keep going. But what about the others who were close to Jetsunma? The ones who saw her in ordinary life?

What about the man who had seen her floss her teeth, pig out at dinner, and diet the next day? The man who had kissed her, made love to her? Was he a student, too -- and subject to the same conditions? When it came to a husband, which view was the correct one?


Life in Poolesville had grown difficult for Michael since India, and his own place at the temple had become less certain. Since the trip to India and his wife's recognition as a lama, Michael's own footing and sense of worth had slipped. Like Alana, he had experienced a slow but dramatic shift in his relationship with Jetsunma. Once he had felt sharing and equality in his marriage. He had felt valued. But increasingly his ideas were dismissed, his advice overridden, his protests considered improper. Jetsunma made fun of him -- for being skinny, for being short. She told him he was a Buddhist in his head but not his heart. As if to compensate for the status and love that he felt he'd lost, Michael became devoted to Atira, his adopted daughter. While Jetsunma had been unwell with phlebitis, and felt saddled with great responsibilities, it was Michael who spent most of his days with the baby, who bathed her, dressed her, fed her, and put her to bed every night. "I'm a fat, middle-aged woman who's already raised her babies," Jetsunma used to joke. "Atira is Michael's."

He had once thought of himself as Jetsunma's partner and manager -- almost as though she was a performer -- but now she seemed to be largely managing herself. She'd grown more confident in her position as lama, and it was hard to make suggestions -- everything had to be sugarcoated, every appeal had to be slightly deferential. Michael felt her distance, and he felt her growing contempt for him -- and for her students. At dinner she would imitate them, make jokes about them. And every week there were messages that she wanted Michael to deliver to the sangha -- suggestions, criticisms, commands. As her spear-carrier and go-between, he was sent to communicate Jetsunma's wishes, and more and more her wishes seemed critical.

As for Correct View, how could he maintain it? She was the woman he had married -- with the same mood swings, the same days of depression and fogginess, the same struggle with obesity -- but now these couldn't be considered as the manifestations of any psychological condition or even indications that she wasn't truly happy as a guru. Since she was pure she had no stuff, no baggage, no unconscious, no negative karma. Her depression and illnesses were attributed to external causes: the sangha had little merit, the sangha wasn't devoted enough. More and more lately, Jetsunma had begun to blame the problems at the temple on Michael and his karma. Since Jetsunma was perfect, any trouble that might arise could not possibly be her doing.

Michael felt enormous resentment that was now inappropriate to express. He had anger not unlike Alana's. Once people had looked up to him, asked for his advice. Once he'd felt good about himself -- his knowledge, his academic accomplishments, his own insights into Buddhism. Now these were only things for which his wife derided him. His role at the temple was fixed as her subordinate. There was no subject that he could know more about than she, and no decision that she couldn't veto. In the years leading up to her enthronement Michael had happily given Jetsunma more and more power in their relationship, but he had always retained some of his own. Now everything was different.

As for his job conveying Jetsunma's messages to the sangha, it gave him power but did not make him popular. The students had begun to feel that Michael enjoyed delivering harsh news. He had a sense of superiority. He seemed eager for people to be afraid of him. "Michael put things out in Jetsunma's name, repeated things she'd said about certain students," Aileen recalled, "and it's true, Jetsunma does whack people sometimes, and it's so dead-on it can be brutal. But when she does it, she's enlightened and it isn't judgmental. But when Michael repeated it, it didn't seem that way. And it bred judgment."

And because the pronouncement came from Michael, it was always hard to know what Jetsunma had really meant -- every word he uttered would be analyzed for hours. It was hard to trust Jetsunma's messenger -- or even like him. Nearly every student at one time or another came to feel the brunt of his anger.

"He played people and played games," Sangye Dorje eventually recounted. "One of the most effective ways of doing that is to be pleasant sometimes. And he went through phases. There were times when he was genuinely okay. He ran into problems when he had the most power. Jetsunma would give him a lot of power, and then she'd rip it from him. You got the feeling she was putting him through a process whereby he could realize his own poisons and his own negativity so he could overcome them, look at them, and acknowledge them."

And as Jetsunma had become a huge beneficent figure in their imaginations -- Michael, by comparison, seemed diminished. It was hard for people to accept him playing second fiddle to his wife, and it made him feel vulnerable to criticism, threats, and insurrections. Michael became famous for making late-night calls, for chewing students out, for having attitude and being unnecessarily negative, for scaring people and making them feel bad. "He had an edge," said Aileen. "Living in the temple together, he was always on my case about something -- and worried I was going to steal his wife."

"He did not have -- or appear to have -- many good qualities," said Sangye Dorje. "One of the things that I've struggled with and really tried to understand was why Jetsunma was ever with him in the first place."

"Sometimes it's hard to understand her relationships," Wib said, "but I've always thought it was because she's programmed to help people, and when she sees a need, she fills it."

"What did she see in him?" Jon Randolph asked. "I never knew."

But who, in her students' eyes, would have been good enough for Jetsunma?



1. Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Boston: Shambhala, 1998).
Site Admin
Posts: 20692
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 11:36 pm

14. Bally's Holiday Spa

We want to prove to ourselves that we are lovers on the grand scale, tragic heroes; not just ordinary privates in the huge army of the bereaved, slogging along and making the best of a bad job.
-- C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Late in 1989, Jetsunma was heading into Bally's Holiday Spa in Bethesda one night, with Michael by her side, when she first laid eyes on Teri Milwee. Even from behind the counter Teri exuded a jaded good cheer. The associate manager of the health club had her big feet up on the front desk -- and her arms folded behind her head. Her voice boomed out enthusiastically as she greeted the Burroughses and asked to see their membership cards. When she noticed that Michael had a cheaper membership than Jetsunma's, Teri immediately offered to get it upgraded. There was an employee contest at Bally's for signing up new memberships, and Teri wanted to win it.

Teri stood up. At six feet tall she towered over Michael and had the lean, strong body of a triathlete. She was androgenously appealing. She bounced with energy, and the mascara was very thick on her lashes.

"Come by the office later," she said in a deep voice, keeping Michael's card. "I'll see about an upgrade. I mean, don't you want a membership that's as good as your wife's?"

When Michael and Jetsunma dropped by Teri's office later on, they talked about their plans for getting Jetsunma in shape. She was convinced that she needed an exercise regime. She was sluggish and uninspired -- and heavy -- and had just turned forty in October. She told Teri that she wanted to change the way she looked, start bodybuilding and getting strong. "Of course, I'll never look as good as you do," she said. "But I can try."

When the couple told Teri that they "ran a Buddhist center out on River Road," they didn't mention Jetsunma's status within the religion. Teri didn't seem particularly interested in any case. "I was like, fine, fine," she recalled. "I'm an assistant manager at Bally's. You run a Buddhist center. It just didn't sink in."

But Teri felt a connection to Jetsunma -- and an attraction. There was something in her dark eyes, her warmth. She had a sense of understanding, of knowing, that Teri kept thinking about. Jetsunma had really paid attention to Teri, really listened to her, really looked at her, and Teri had found it immensely flattering. Teri offered to help Jetsunma put together a workout program and gave the lama her phone number. When Jetsunma called the next day to set up an appointment to see Teri at the club, Teri was thrilled. She devised a regime in which Jetsunma would be lifting weights on the Nautilus machines and on the Universe gym equipment, then doing StairMaster and other floor work and cardiovascular stuff. Even though Jetsunma was out of shape, Teri was stunned by the amount of weight she could lift.

"We clicked, something clicked," Teri said. The two women became friends -- very quickly, very close. "I remember looking at her," said Teri, "looking at her eyes, and going, Oh God, she can see right through me. I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but she hooked me, fast and tight, pulled me in and stuck me in her hip pocket."

Teri told Jetsunma about her life -- that after years of doing drugs, and dealing drugs, and indiscriminate bisexual sex, she had entered a rehab program in Northern Virginia. Seven years later, at thirty, she had settled into a steady relationship with a well-off professional woman and was happy. Teri admitted to Jetsunma that she had dreams of being rich herself and going into business. She had gotten some motivational tapes of Tony Robbins -- and had been inspired by them. She was making sixty thousand dollars a year at Bally's but had plans for investments and real estate ventures.

Jetsunma was caring, and full of advice. She seemed touched by Teri's generosity and spirit, and the story of her life. Two weeks after they met, she gave Teri a large, emerald-cut garnet ring. "Wear this always," Jetsunma told her, "it will protect you and bring you blessings." Teri found herself studying the ring all the time. She couldn't stop holding it between her fingers. And she couldn't stop thinking about Jetsunma.

"I saw her as beautiful and loving and everything I'd want in a companion," Teri said. "And when I met her, I began to see how much was really missing in my life." Teri didn't want to allow herself to hope for too much. She lived in a world where it was still largely socially unacceptable to be a lesbian.

Knowing how much Teri wanted to win the contest at Bally's, Jetsunma brought her sons into the club to sign up for memberships. She brought monks and nuns, too, and made an announcement at a sangha meeting about a wonderful personal trainer she'd found. She wanted her students to think more about their bodies, and their health, and living longer -- so they'd have time to practice, more time to help more sentient beings. Pretty soon Teri was joking that she'd signed up most of the Tibetan Buddhists in Montgomery County. At night she would catch the nuns before their workouts and ask them questions about Jetsunma and the temple. Why were they nuns? How did they decide? "I never thought about being ordained myself," she said later, "but I was so curious about who this woman was and how she had such an influence."

Jetsunma persisted in her transformation. As she lost weight she began wearing sexier clothes -- and started working out in tank tops and in thongs worn over Lycra bodysuits. "She really turned herself into the sort of woman who would attract me," said Teri. "Really put on the chicken suit and danced." One night Jetsunma asked Teri out for dinner, and when the restaurant where they were supposed to meet turned out to be closed, she brought Teri back to her rooms at the temple, where the relationship became, as Teri later described it, "very personal."

After that, Jetsunma asked Michael to give her some privacy -- space to be with Teri. The personal trainer was meeting up with the Dharma, Jetsunma felt certain. "She's about as interested in Buddhism as the man in the moon!" Michael exclaimed. As he grew more jealous and difficult, Jetsunma told Michael she was sympathetic and suggested that he place a personal ad in Washingtonian magazine to help him find someone special for himself. She and Teri became inseparable soon afterward -- talking on the phone every day, going out to parties, shopping, and spending the night together at the temple. In one month Teri's life had completely changed. She moved out of her girlfriend's house, bought a condo in Gaithersburg, and started making friends in Poolesville. "I just turned around and walked away from someone I thought I wanted to marry," she said. "I just moved out. In the span of a month."

She began coming to the temple on Wednesday nights and Sundays to hear Jetsunma speak -- and liked sitting in the front row. "I felt like I'd come home," she said, "like I knew these people, like this is where I belonged."

Sangha members took an interest in Jetsunma's new best friend and talked about all the attention their lama seemed to be showering on Teri. Clearly she was trying to hook Teri to the path. "Skillful, very skillful," they'd say. While Buddhists aren't really supposed to proselytize, lamas are known to be very crafty, and they use all kinds of techniques -- flattery, promises, even lies -- to expose a student to the Dharma. And it is thought to be an enormous blessing if a lama chooses to have sex with you. But the students in Poolesville thought Teri was just Jetsunma's new friend. "It was amazing to watch," said one nun. "When they were together," said another, "there was always a lot of energy in the room."

People were happy to see Jetsunma losing weight so quickly and feeling so good again. For nearly two years she'd been a recluse. Now she was going out at night, meeting Teri's friends, drinking and dancing. And in the afternoons she and Teri were often seen laughing together, their hands full of shopping bags. Jetsunma was buying new clothes to go with her new figure. And she had convinced Teri to change her style too, to wear more feminine clothes. Only a few members of the sangha suspected they might be lovers. "They seemed like best friends," another student would say years later. "And if it was more than that, then people assumed that Jetsunma was entitled to have any kind of relationship she wanted."

Not Michael, though. He'd grown increasingly nervous. It wasn't long before he guessed Teri and his wife had fallen in love.

"You said you were just bringing her to the path," he said to Jetsunma one night. "But you're having a love affair."

"I can't help it," Jetsunma replied, "if I'm enthusiastic about my work."


But the affair kept going on. Winter turned to spring, and Michael's frustration became hard to contain. Desperate for some help -- and some semblance of an authority figure in Tibetan Buddhism to rein in his wife -- he called Gyatrul Rinpoche in Oregon and told him what was happening: Jetsunma was involved with a woman who had become a student. Gyatrul Rinpoche, who felt strongly that it was a mistake for teachers to sleep with their students, offered to put a stop to the affair when he came to Poolesville in April 1990 to give a tsa-lung teaching. But when the lama came, Michael was stunned to see him being kind and supportive to Jetsunma and appeasing her. One night, while in the kitchen putting a bedtime bottle together for Atira, Michael overheard the two lamas talking on the other side of a partition.

"I don't know what to do about Michael," Jetsunma said. "He doesn't have Correct view."

"What? That big-ego guy? You don't need him," Gyatrul Rinpoche replied. "Get rid of him."

Later, when Michael confessed to Gyatrul Rinpoche that he was unhappy in his marriage, the lama said: "What is happiness anyway? The most important thing is to bring the Dharma to the West."

Jetsunma seemed to struggle for the next few weeks -- not able to get rid of Michael, as had been suggested, or to give up Teri. But by May, Michael had come to suspect that Jetsunma was trying to precipitate his leaving. While driving to the beach on a family vacation to celebrate his thirty-seventh birthday, she revealed that she had invited Teri to come along.

"I thought we would go out tonight for your birthday," Jetsunma said, "and tomorrow night I'll go out with Teri."

Hurt and furious, Michael endured the weekend -- and receiving a note from Teri: "Michael, thanks for sharing." But after another week or two he was gone -- first moving into David and Sylvia Somerville's basement, then finding Tibetan Buddhist friends outside the Poolesville sangha to put him up. Every night he returned to the temple to read to Atira and put her to bed. He wrote Penor Rinpoche, hoping for some advice from the man he considered to be his root guru. He received a letter back telling him that his separation from Jetsunma was "definitely karmic" and that Michael should begin doing a great deal of practice to try to reverse things. Michael also wrote up a resume and found work as a substitute teacher. It was his first job in the outside world in eight years.

With Michael gone, Alana became Jetsunma's go-between and private secretary -- in addition to personal attendant. She moved into the temple building, began delivering Jetsunma's messages to the sangha, and answered the growing number of questions about Michael with such finesse that nobody except the Somervilles really knew that the couple had separated. "Jetsunma just seemed very happy, and Teri seemed very happy," said one student, "and Michael was just an afterthought." And while Alana and Michael hadn't gotten along in recent years, and had often butted heads on the subject of Jetsunma's relationship with her former personal trainer, they were in silent sympathy. Alana was overcome with jealousy, too. "When Jetsunma is hooking a student like that, it's very intense," she said of her guru's affair with Teri. "And seeing them together reminded me of how Jetsunma had hooked me to the path -- the drinking and going shopping together." The beach trip, which had been such a turning point for Michael, had also made Alana enormously uncomfortable. "So imagine," she said, "I'm a new nun and I'm watching Jetsunma have this grand time with her new playmate and I'm home scrubbing the toilets. It was very painful. And I had no compassion rising in my mind, only pride and arrogance."

In time Alana came to view Jetsunma's attentions to Teri as part of her job as guru and found a way to live with it. Michael never could. "It all came to a head over Teri," said Alana. "Michael just couldn't see Jetsunma's small window of karmic opportunity to bring a student to the path. All he could feel was threatened."

Over the fall, the rumors about Michael and Jetsunma escalated and the white noise of gossip around the temple grew louder. Michael's job "on the outside" surprised people. But he was still seen coming to put Atira to bed. By Thanksgiving the sangha was officially told that their lama and her husband were separating. It was explained that Michael had "obstacles rising" and "great negativity," not to mention dramatic problems with Correct View. They were told, in whispers and asides, that Michael had not been a proper and deserving mate to their guru -- and the students found themselves feeling protective. When they were told that he had stolen money out of an account and was asking the sangha to pay him a salary for the rest of his life -- both of which he later denied -- they were dumbfounded. It seemed to them that Michael was even worse off karmically than they could have supposed. Eventually it was suggested to the students that any contact with Michael could be dangerous, that a conversation with him would poison their minds.

Jetsunma was the one who filed for divorce. "It wasn't like I kicked him out, exactly," she said. "But I told him that he could stay here so long as he stopped influencing my other students and talking badly about me. Michael has a very brittle, fragile ego. I left him, and ... lots of people could see why. He was kind of a rat."

They'd spent nearly a decade together, though, marked by incredible expansion and transformation of their prayer group and wild, magical moments. She had been singled out as a reincarnated saint. He'd been branded a supernatural heel. In the end their divorce was remarkably ordinary. Michael charged Jetsunma with adultery and alleged that she kept money hidden in secret bank accounts -- cash she'd received as offerings -- under the name of one of her nuns. Jetsunma denied there were hidden accounts. Their lawyers bickered over the usual assortment of ordinary things: money, possessions, credit card debt, and the custody of their daughter, Atira. As settlement Michael was given twenty-five hundred dollars in cash and a large crystal ball. By Jetsunma's decree he was never allowed to see his daughter again. The adoption papers had not been processed, it turned out, and Ani Catharine Anastasia was more than happy to give Jetsunma sole custody of her child. Legally Michael had no daughter. It was a loss he'd never overcome.


Just as suddenly as she had begun her involvement with Teri, Jetsunma ended it. "We've had fun playing," she told Teri, "but now I've got to buckle down and get back to work." Jetsunma stopped seeing her, talking to her, and returning her phone calls. Devastated, Teri began calling Alana to ask her to explain. "She was so heartbroken," said Alana. "She knew she wasn't going to be Jetsunma's consort in this culture, but she still had that ache. When you are close to Jetsunma, the love is so pure and strong and so unconditional. Who wouldn't want to be in on that?"

Eventually Jetsunma asked Alana to talk to Teri about the true nature of their relationship. Teri needed to realize that it wasn't a romance, it was work. It was about the Dharma, and about sentient beings. She needed to come to see Jetsunma as her teacher and not her love object. "It was very healing for me to be able to talk with her about it," said Alana. "Because I'd been through it so many times."

And at Christmas of 1990 -- one year after meeting Jetsunma in the lobby of the Bally's Holiday Spa -- Teri Milwee was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. Her hair was shorn. She donned the burgundy robes. She received a new name, Sherab Khandro, and became the loudest, funniest, and most physically fit nun in Poolesville. When news of this development reached Gyatrul Rinpoche in Oregon, he responded in unlamalike amazement. "Noooooo," he said incredulously to Jetsunma over the phone. "She's become an ani? How do you do it?

"Rinpoche," she said, "I guess I just know how to pick 'em."
Site Admin
Posts: 20692
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 11:43 pm

15. Sometimes Your Heart Has to Be Broken

-- JACK KEROUAC, The Dharma Bums

It was bitter cold on the night I drove out to see Sherab at Ani Farms. The snow was hard on the ground. and hot steam rose like breath from the hood of my car. The white farmhouse was dark when I got there, except for one lone light in an upstairs window. A piece of paper was pinned to the front door: "Martha -- If no one answers -- please come in. My room is at the top of the stairs at the front of the house. S.K."

Upstairs in her small room, Sherab's long body was stretched out on a twin bed. She was wearing maroon sweats and propped up against a red corduroy backrest. Her face seemed colorless and tired. After months of toiling night and day on the stupa, her back had finally given out, and the diagnosis was in: two slipped vertebrae. She'd been in bed for three weeks already, since the blessing ceremony, and showed no sign of recovery.

"It could be worse." She chuckled. "It's one thing to fall apart paying the rent -- and another thing to burn out making a stupa."

I sat down in a chair next to her bed, and we caught up. I told Sherab about my recent dinner with Jetsunma and the invitation to accompany her to India. "Oh, my God, I hope you're going to go," she said, her eyes growing large. I said that I was planning to. Was Sherab? "No, there's just no way I could afford it." The news made me sad. The trip had become quite elaborate -- pilgrimages to the pit, the cave site, and two weeks with Penor Rinpoche at Namdroling. The cost was $3,500 per person for airfare, food, and lodging for five weeks -- and very few of the ordained had that kind of extra cash. From what I could gather, it was mostly well-off lay practitioners who were going to India with Jetsunma. The head count was up to twenty or twenty-five, according to Wib.

Sherab held a heating pad against her back while we talked, and played with the electrical cord. A bottle of water was on the floor by the bed with two tangerines, a large bottle of aspirin, and a big foam neck brace that I assumed Sherab was supposed to be wearing at all times. She seemed subdued -- for her. She fidgeted, as though she couldn't get comfortable. I reached over to hand her a small tape recorder that I had brought, and once we started the interview, she kept gesturing with it, swinging it around, like a lounge singer with a cordless mic. "I'm far too gung-ho sometimes," she said. "In the past, when I worked on projects, I've gotten sick and couldn't stay with it. So this time I tried to be really smart about myself. I was careful. took vitamins, did warm-up exercises and stretches before work, and tried not to overdo it. And I made it through ... and then I fell apart."

I was surprised to see a tiny refrigerator in one corner of the room and a small coffeemaker on top of it. I had imagined that "monastic life" was more communal -- not a situation where you made coffee alone in your room. An altar was beside the bed, too. Sherab's own. The ordained all had personal altars for practicing in their rooms, whereas in the houses of the lay practitioners I visited, there tended to be one altar set up in a spare bedroom that the entire family shared. Sherab's altar had a little gold stupa on it, and a Buddha, and seven glass bowls for rice and water. A larger offering bowl was full of nuts.

Pinned to the walls of the small room were several photographs of Jetsunma, most of them in the five-by-seven-inch range. Near the bed, surrounded by red matting, a letter of some kind had been framed under glass-along with a picture of Sherab and Jetsunma standing next to each other and smiling. I stood to get a closer look.

"That was taken on the day I got ordained," she said, pulling a thick down comforter up around her.

"That's exactly what I wanted to talk to you about," I said.

Sherab looked up at the ceiling fan as though searching for the right way to tell the story -- so I'd understand, so I could see it the way she did. ''I'd be embarrassed and ashamed to tell the story of my life," she said finally. "There are things that I have done, places I've been, that just make me very sad. And ways of being and treating myself ... that have been just horrible."

I began to say something reassuring, but she continued. "But everything has changed from knowing her, and from following her lead."


Her childhood had not been happy. She began to drink in seventh grade, about the time her parents were divorced. When she was twelve or thirteen, it wasn't rare for her to be falling-down drunk on weekends. "I wouldn't want to say anything to hurt my parents now," she said, "but I felt lost. I felt a lack of love in my life, and that was painful for me as a child. So there was always an empty ache."

She began taking drugs -- pot, cocaine, a little LSD -- in high school and also took to selling them. "I always had an entrepreneurial side," she said. After graduation her mother kicked her out of the house because, as Sherab put it, "I was lying, stealing, and impossible to control. She was exasperated." After moving to Southern California, where her father was living and had remarried, she enrolled in Palomar Community College but didn't really enjoy the courses. She had few friends but got pregnant twice that year and had two abortions. She felt neglected and isolated. "I would sit upstairs in my bedroom, in this very nice little space they had given me, and all this material stuff that my father and stepmother had given me, but I didn't need any of it. I just needed someone to love me. And I needed someone to help me. I needed to connect with someone in my heart -- and it wasn't happening. I would sit up there and drink ten shots of Wild Turkey and listen to Black Sabbath and take some bong hits and go walk around the block and come back and nobody would notice there was anything wrong with me. Give me a break. I was an eighteen-year-old girl ... and screaming for help."

When her father had to relocate for his work, he left Teri in charge of a condominium and a car in San Diego, expecting that she'd find a roommate to help with rent and continue going to college. "I had no life skills at that point," she said. "I had the emotional stability of a twelve-year-old. I couldn't balance a checkbook and didn't have a credit card. I just couldn't take care of myself. And I was lonely. I remember a loneliness that used to wrack my bones, and I would lay in the middle of the floor in my house and just cry. I was so lonely. It was this deep, aching thing. And I started drinking more, and I stopped going to school. I quit my job and got another one at a factory, where I met some really wild people."

Her car engine blew up because she didn't know to put oil and water in it. She never got a roommate, never sent her father rent. She just took more drugs. Her father tried to send her back to Northern Virginia, but Teri refused to go. She drifted around the San Diego area for the next four years, living in Escondido, Vista, and other beach towns as a semivagrant, an addict who sometimes had sex in exchange for drugs and dinner. Her friends were prostitutes, drug dealers, a transvestite named Jerry, and a former Marine. Her hair was long and wavy and sun-bleached, she said, and she wandered around in bars at night in low-rider pants, halter tops, and bare feet. She wore stacks of cheap bracelets and piles of rings, and covered her face in thick, Mexican-style makeup -- white eye shadow, heavy mascara.

"Some stories I'll never tell," she said. "But I did become an intravenous drug user, and tried all kinds of things -- heroin, a long stint with synthetic morphine, and another long stint on crystal meth." Loaded on Quaaludes one night and drinking, she was arrested for inciting a riot and resisting arrest, and spent two nights in jail. She shared a cell with a woman who had been arrested for carving the word snitch into another woman's forehead.

She dated both men and women -- and "just connected better with women," she said. During these years there were "many, many relationships" and never any money. She lived in a camper van. She lived on somebody's sofa. Her friends were in and out of prison. "There was a period of real destitution .... I was homeless and unemployed for a period of time -- I didn't own a pair of shoes -- and I learned how to scam off the Marines at Camp Pendleton, hitchhiking rides, getting them to buy me dinner or drugs, then hopping the fence and ditching them."

At twenty-three she hit bottom. She returned to her sister's house and got into a drug treatment program. She kept clean by exercising faithfully and soon began competing in triathlons. She began working at Bally's, first as a personal trainer, then as an assistant manager, then in corporate relations. She fell in love with work, with making money, with buying things, and self-improvement. She bought Nightingale-Conant tapes and took Tony Robbins courses by mail. And she had dreams of becoming rich. "I had a nice car, a silver Ford Probe with the license plate 4EVRFIT. I was involved with a woman who had money. I had a closet of Ann Taylor and Ellen Tracy suits. I was making it, man." She was thirty when she met Jetsunma and fell in love. "But it was love in an ordinary I'm-in-love sort of way," she said. "It was the only thing I understood at the time -- the only way I would have of connecting to her."

At first her interest in Tibetan Buddhism was only a manifestation of wanting to please Jetsunma and become more a part of her world. She began going to teachings and classes, and was eventually asked by Jetsunma to serve on a new board of managers at the temple called the Troubleshooters. Her job was fundraising and finding ways to bring new students to the temple. "People were so nice to me," she said, "and I felt I really belonged there. It felt like home." She found herself strangely drawn to the ordained and began making friends with them. But she still never consciously considered ordination herself. She was young and successful, into making it big and looking good.

"Even in the beginning," she said, "these weird thoughts of being ordained would come into my mind, like I would be driving down the road, and all of a sudden I'd see myself with a shaved head and in those robes. I'd freak out! I'd have to pull over to the side of the road. No, no! Okay, wait ... This is a natural thought. Any young woman who saw all these bald women in these drab clothes would have a fear ... this could happen to you. It was a natural fear -- that's what I told myself. It doesn't have to happen. It doesn't have to happen!"

In the fall of 1990, when Jetsunma stopped seeing her, Teri was "devastated." She wrote her letters, but they went unanswered. She called but never got through. She had also noticed -- along with the other students -- that Jetsunma seemed to be spending a great deal of time with Jay Allen. a young male student. "Imagine meeting someone who can love the way Buddha can love," Sherab said. "Even as friends, she was so available, and it was so wonderful. And when that changed ... I was heartbroken. I thought, I can't leave! I belong here!"

She called Alana, trying to understand what had happened. "Is our friendship ending?" Teri asked. Alana told her that she wasn't seeing things properly. The relationship wasn't a friendship and wasn't romantic. "It's not like that," she said. "The relationship you have with Jetsunma is a relationship between a student and a teacher."

But Teri wasn't sure. It had felt like love. It hadn't felt like school. "I remember riding my bike to the temple from my condo in Gaithersburg to do some work on the land. I was riding like a mad person. My pain and upset and rage was coming out in that bike ride. I was just sobbing and sobbing .... I was crying oceans, oceans of tears. And when I got out to the land to work, Jetsunma was there, too, working, mixing concrete with her hands. And she just smiled sweetly at me. She knew what I was going through. And she knew I had to go through it. The moment required a broken heart. It required an opportunity to break some of these things inside me down. The pain had to be strong enough to get me to look at the world a different way -- and consider a different possibility."

At the end of November, on Teri's birthday, a lama called Yantang Tulku arrived from India to give a monthlong series of empowerments called the Ratna Lingpa and the Nyingthig Yabshi. The teachings were advanced -- and it was considered controversial to give them to students who had not yet completed Ngondro -- but Jetsunma communicated through Alana that Teri was ready to receive them, something that made an impression on the rest of the sangha. "She must really have the merit to receive that kind of blessing." said Alana.

Teri changed her schedule at Bally's to attend the empowerments and for the first time felt her mind turning toward the Dharma. The presence of Yantang Tullm was having an impact on all the students. He was an old and noble lama -- who had been imprisoned and tortured for many years by the Chinese. The bones of his feet had been broken, and there were burn marks all over his body. When he spoke of it, he told the Poolesville students that anger had never once risen in his mind while he was held captive. He understood that the Chinese had been held sway by their own negative actions and couldn't help themselves. Teri thought about how minor her problems seemed in comparison, and how much she wanted to be like him.

"I remember we were creating prayer wheels for the land across the street," she said, "and I was sitting in the prayer room rolling up these huge rolls of mantras that were going in the prayer wheels and thinking, What can I do, what can I do? How can I contribute? ... And it was at that point that this image came to me, appeared in my mind. I suddenly saw myself standing in robes and a bald head, and next to me, Jetsunma was looking up at me and really smiling.

"I remember feeling disoriented," said Sherab, "like I was in a spin, in a big swoosh of feeling. Disoriented from my broken heart, disoriented from my reaction to all the teachings, and watching all these ordained at the empowerments and thinking how beautiful they seemed to me.... I kept walking into the solarium and noticing a picture on the wall of all the early students in Poolesville before they'd become ordained. And Alana was sitting in the front row with her long, red hair, and I remember looking at that picture and not seeing Alana but seeing myself there. And it startled me. I remember thinking, My path was going to be similar to Alana's. And thinking, Oh my gosh! I'm going to become a nun!

"And I remember feeling at that point, huh, maybe that's possible. I didn't freak out. I had a very relaxed sort of feeling -- almost an acceptance .... Jetsunma had opened up a huge ancient yearning in me, and, suddenly, the thought of a simple one-onone relationship seemed very small."

In two years, she figured, she would be able to consider ordination. She would remain at Bally's, payoff her debts, save some money ...

Only a week later Alana left a message on Teri's voice mail saying that Jetsunma wanted to see her. It had been three months since she'd heard from Jetsunma, or been alone with her. Teri felt nervous about seeing her -- "like my mind was tight."

"What's going on with you?" Jetsunma asked her.

"I don't know," Teri said. "You tell me."

"No," Jetsunma said. "You have to own it."

They talked for ninety minutes -- about the Ratna Lingpa teachings, and Yantang Tulku's miraculous visit to Poolesville. They talked about the student-teacher relationship. Jetsunma told Teri that she missed being with her and still really loved her. "We hugged and cried," Teri said, "but I never said anything about ordination."

"Now I have something to tell you," Jetsunma said.

"I think I know," Teri said.


"You're with Jay Allen now."

"How did you know?" Jetsunma asked.

The next day Teri wrote a letter to Jetsunma saying she was having thoughts of being ordained. "I had written her a million letters, well, maybe not a million, since we'd met. And this was the first time she wrote back." It was Jetsunma's response that was on Sherab's wall, held under glass next to the picture of the two of them smiling.

Dear Sherab,

I was so glad to receive your letter. It was the clearest and most honest and real I've ever had from you. You're changing. I am happy at your thoughts of ordination. It is the purest offering, the most pristine method. Believe it or not, you would do well as a renunciate. You would be greatly blessed and your offering would produce a crop of merit and virtue sufficient to dispel the confusion .... In such a life are all the causes that remove the very suffering you have endured ever since you were a child. I pray endlessly that your confusion ends and your mind turns completely to its three precious jewels. I love you and want you to stop hurting. It's all I've ever wanted for you. If our relationship produces such beauty, such great benefit, then in my heart I will always think of it as perfect love.

Please keep thinking of the suffering of beings even if your mind returns to your own needs. Eventually love will be blooming like a child inside you and you will someday see it is your true face. I have always known it to be so.

I hold you close and pray for you always.

In the Dharma, Jetsunma

"I started sobbing and sobbing when I got her letter to me," said Sherab. "It was just so beautiful. Perfect love. I looked all my life for that. And that's what I was trying to find when she and I met."

Alana was sent to talk to Teri again -- Jetsunma wanted her to know that it was all right for her to take vows with Yantang Tulku and continue to work at Bally's Fitness. She didn't have to wear robes all the time. She could wear modest clothes to work, keep her hair short but not too styled, wear modest earrings and makeup ... and if Teri wanted, she could take genyen vows, the lay practitioner's vows, which are somewhat easier to abide by than the vows of the ordained. Rather than celibacy, one vows not to commit adultery. And rather than abstaining from alcohol, one vows not to become inebriated. "I became really excited by that," said Sherab.

The next morning Teri got up very early to do some work on the land across the street. It was around eight when a sangha member found her in the woods. "They're looking for you, Teri."


"They're looking for you at the temple, Teri. The tulku is ready for you to take your vows."

She crawled up on the back of a tractor and was driven to the temple, where the tulku was waiting. ''I'm in my jeans and T-shirt. My hair's flying. I go to the temple, pull off my work boots. I'm taken up to Yantang Tulku's bedroom -- where he was sitting up in bed. And I go in, sit on the floor of his room, and he chanted a bunch of Tibetan rights on me and stuff. The khenpo made translations. And Yantang Tulku was saying all this stuff and throwing rice on me, and I was saying, I do, I do ... thinking I'm taking the layperson's vows."

After leaving the tulku's bedroom Teri heard that Jetsunma wanted to see her. "So I went upstairs to her room, and she was brushing her teeth or something -- and on the table in her room was a set of robes and a gold blouse and belt. And she said, 'So when are you going to get your hair cut short?'

"'I'll see if I can get an appointment today,' I said.

"And these,' she said, pointing to the robes, 'are for you.'"

They were Jetsunma's own robes. "It was right there," said Sherab, "right at that moment that I became a nun.

"After I took my vows and put on those robes, I felt I had landed from an incredibly long flight," she said. "Like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders."


The house had begun to stir during our long talk, and after Sherab and I had talked for almost two hours, Rinchen knocked on the door to say that dinner was about to be served.

"Dinner?" Sherab asked, as though she were surprised.

"Dinner," said Rinchen, softly.

"Are you telling me to come?" Sherab asked.

Rinchen nodded. I hadn't planned on eating at Ani Farms. "I have dinner at home," I said to Sherab. "But I don't want to be rude."

"No," said Sherab, "I think they've planned on you."

Downstairs there was a central dining room, a kitchen, and a living room with a large television in the corner. Sherab put on her neck brace while giving me a slow tour of the sparsely furnished house. "In terms of feng shui, the far left-hand corner is the money corner," she explained. "So that's where you put your large electronic equipment or plants." There were also stacks of videotapes in the feng shui corner. The ordained weren't allowed to listen to music, but they had amassed and shared a large library of movies. The boxes indicated a certain affinity for action pictures, sci-fi, and ribald comedies. Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber were part of the collection and several taped broadcasts of the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. La Femme Nikita was out of the box and had just been watched. A favorite, it turned out, of Ani Sherab.

The dining room was dimly lit, and the table was set for six -- the five nuns who lived at Ani Farms and me. Slowly the nuns began collecting around the table, and I was offered a chair. Aside from Sherab in her sweats, all the others wore robes. There was Alexandra, a tall thin woman with a long, aristocratic face, who had cooked the dinner -- jambalaya, a spinach salad, and home-baked bread. Rinchen sat down on one side of me, with her gentle demeanor and glowing smile. Palchen, an older nun with thick eyeglasses, sat at the far right-hand corner of the table.

A nun named Dechen sat directly across from me. I remember wondering how old she was, because she didn't look much over twenty. She was small and thin, birdlike. Her features were delicate, and her skin was so fine and clear and healthy that it looked airbrushed. Her glasses seemed clownishly large for her face -- the glasses of someone who cared nothing about appearances. After our introduction she served herself food, looked down at her plate, and said nothing else.

Behind Dechen, on the wall over her head, was a movie poster-sized photograph of Jetsunma. It was the same photo used on the cover of the Invocation CD that was sold in the temple gift shop. Jetsunma's face was in profile. Her hair was long and curly and soft. She was hugging herself and looking off in the distance -- with her back turned slightly away.

Perfect love. As much as I respected Sherab, it sounded like the title of a pop song. It seemed hard to imagine that Sherab, or any of the nuns, could love Jetsunma in such an uncomplicated way -- or that Jetsunma could love them back in such a way. And I couldn't help but wonder, Was perfect love what Sherab and Jetsunma truly had? Love without fear? Love without ambivalence?

Another thing kept running through my head. The burden lifted. After she'd been ordained, Sherab said, she had felt "an incredible weight had been lifted off my shoulders." What was that weight exactly? What was the burden that she was now spared? Other nuns and monks had said similar things to me. It seemed as though an enormous burden of self -- the weight of will, of ego -- had been lifted from these men and women. Once upon a time Sherab had been alone, running her own show, and feeling "so lonely" and "lost." She saw herself as separate and apart from other people. Buddhism teaches that one's sense of self and one's separateness are an illusion, one of the many illusions of samsara. The self does not truly exist. The ego is all bluster and bravado -- because in the end it promotes and protects something that isn't actually there: You.

"We talked about my days as a personal trainer," Sherab told the other nuns at the table. She was sharing the highlights of the interview. "And I was telling Martha about my Ford Probe with the license plate 4EVRFIT ... Forever fit -- can you imagine the audacity?"

"And then," said Palchen, "you ran up against impermanence."

"Exactly," said Alexandra.

"Impermanence," said Sherab, "and Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo."

Sherab mentioned that she'd talked about her ordination -- and "the decision" surrounding it. The nuns all tittered a bit, and I realized, finally, that none of them thought of ordination as a decision. It was more intuitive and karmic and cosmic than that. "My sister cried," Sherab said. "I didn't tell my mother for six months, and my father couldn't accept it for years."

"None of our mothers was happy," said Alexandra.

"My mother didn't mind," said Rinchen.

"Or mine." Palchen laughed.

"Well," said Sherab, "dead mothers tend to be pretty neutral about it."

I looked around the dinner table and wondered what each of them had given up to be there -- what their old lives, and old selves, had been like. "There's a few of us who like to sit around and talk about how in love with Jetsunma we are," Sherab had told me. I looked up at the poster behind Dechen's head. Jetsunma with her back turned toward the nuns. A funny feeling began to creep up on me. Suddenly, instead of a table of warm friendly gentle souls -- as I had always seen them -- they began to seem like uncomfortable actors rehearsing a play. There was a certain carefulness, which as a journalist I was used to and had come to expect with most subjects, but not the Buddhists. Had it been there all along and I hadn't seen it?

Dechen remained silent, and I kept watching her face. Each time Sherab would say something and dominate the table, Dechen would pause, look up at her, then return to her dinner, with absolutely no change in expression.

"Jetsunma's personally invited Martha to India," Sherab said.

The table was quiet.

"I hope you're going," Rinchen said.

''I'm planning on it," I said.

The table was quiet again. "Are any of you going?" I asked. There was another moment of silence.

"I would give anything to go," said Sherab, "but I don't see how. It's pretty expensive." The other nuns nodded.

The telephone rang. Dechen jumped up nervously to answer it. She dashed around the corner to the kitchen and stood there for a long time talking quietly -- in a steady high-pitched and precise voice, the sort of voice you'd imagine a librarian would have, or an English professor. She laughed, a helium giggle, and then became serious again. The minutes passed. Her plate of jambalaya remained uneaten.

Sherab caught me looking into the kitchen. "Dechen's our resident teenager," she said. And when I looked around the table, all of the nuns were nodding.


Driving home, I thought how Ani Farms wasn't as I had imagined it. There was something dispiriting about the room -- the dim lighting, the periods of silence, the nodding nuns. It was weird how Dechen never spoke or smiled -- then disappeared for a phone call. And rising over this bleak scene was the marquee-sized poster of Jetsunma. I kept seeing her face in half profile, and her back turned. She seemed to be looming over the table, hovering over our heads, and listening to our every word. It was haunting and troubling ... in fact, there were just too many pictures of Jetsunma, period. I wondered if this was simply a cultural divide between East and West -- I thought about all those Mao posters in China years ago. Or was this the sign of something else?

It was one thing to have paintings of Buddha or Jesus, it seemed to me. They were dead -- and not, as far as I knew, making pronouncements from the grave. They were not telling followers who to marry, or naming children, or fund-raising. A living God is harder to accept.

I thought about Sherab's story. It seemed worth noting that she hadn't talked about ordination openly until she'd gotten the word, officially, that Jetsunma had taken another student as a consort. I wondered if she had held out hope, and if becoming a nun wasn't just a way to cope with the news -- and remain by Jetsunma's side.

"Are you still in love with her?" I had asked.

''I'm totally in love with her," Sherab had replied, without a moment of hesitation. "I love her style, her appearance. I love her sense of humor, her earthiness. I love the way she loves me. I love the way she loves other students. I love what has happened in my life as a result of knowing her -- she means everything to me, really. There's a part of me that knows there are people in the world who wouldn't approve of that. ... Oh, Sherab's been brainwashed, she's been carried down the road by this charismatic woman. But I can't give you one example of when she's led me astray. I just can't. Every time, even if it's been something that has been painful for me to deal with, it has made me richer and stronger and fuller.... And what's wrong with having a little leadership?"

Could romantic love be so easily transformed into something deeper and more profound -- and then lead to something beyond devotion to one's lama, devotion to all living things? That's the way it is supposed to work. One surrenders to one's lama and makes the first steps toward a surrender of self. When one learns to love the lama purely, then one can learn to love oneself -- and all beings -- in a pure way. But the very first step concerned me: the methods a lama uses to lure students to the path. Skillful means is a vague concept. It allows lamas to behave very badly, from a conventional perspective, do almost anything, in order to bring students to the Dharma. Tibetan Buddhists don't believe in door-to-door marketing like the Mormons, or getting on TV like the fundamentalist Christians, but, apparently, they believe it is okay to trick some people into becoming students. Was this manipulation or kindness? Wasn't it possible that Jetsunma had simply used the ruse of skillful means to get Sherab into bed? If what Jetsunma was doing was skillful means, then it wasn't adultery. If it was skillful means, then it meant sentient beings benefited. If it was skillful means, then all of Sherab's heartbreak and misery had served a wonderful purpose, had made the world a better place -- and Sherab a better person. If you bought this Tibetan Buddhist concept, then you bought that the capacity for enlightenment justifies all means. It meant that a lama could lie, cheat, be cruel, kill -- and it would result in benefiting all sentient beings. Who was keeping score except the lama?
Site Admin
Posts: 20692
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am


Return to Religion and Cults

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests