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 11:49 pm

16. The Sangye Era

Being a husband is a whole-time job. That is why so many husbands fail.
-- Arnold Bennett

Jay Allen was spending lots of time across the street in the woods, clearing land with some of the monks that autumn of 1990, when Jetsunma started looking at him differently. Suddenly, it seemed, she had come out of hibernation. She was thinner, happier, and stronger -- people said that at Bally's Holiday Spa she was pushing more weight than any of her monks. She was even working on the land, pouring concrete and hauling tree stumps. And she seemed to be noticing Jay. She was asking him questions and giving him a hard time about his clothes. He was twenty-six but still had a sloppy teenage way about him. Sometimes he went a few days without shaving. Sometimes his T-shirts looked a little worn out and wrinkled. His straight brown hair got stringy and stuck to his forehead. But he wasn't the sort of guy who cared. Mainly, he was into practice -- meditating, praying, and finishing Ngondro. And in 1987 he'd sold his motorcycle to buy himself some time to do it. He had once sat down on a cushion in the prayer room and announced, "I'm not leaving this room until I achieve enlightenment." Besides Tibetan Buddhism and his devotion to Jetsunma, his great love in life was watching football on TV and going to Washington Redskins games with his dad.

The two of them -- Don and Jay Allen -- had been students of Jetsunma since the early Kensington days. It was she who had told Jay that he didn't need to go to college. Ever since the Poolesville property had been purchased in 1985, the Allens had lived in a small white guest cottage on the temple grounds. Don was an administrator at the U.S. Postal Service, and Jay was working for a construction company started by one of the monks, but more than anything he liked working on the temple, building altars and stupas. He'd decided against becoming a monk in 1988 after Jetsunma told him he'd been one in so many previous lifetimes it was unnecessary this time around. Anyway, he wanted to get married someday and have a family -- but so far no serious girlfriends had turned up. It was hard to connect with somebody who didn't get Poolesville, and had no exposure to Dharma or Jetsunma. So the world in which Jay had become an adult was a rather limited place. But it was also a sweet place, and an awfully kind place. And increasingly, since Michael Burroughs had departed, it had become the kind of place where anything could happen.

Jay fell very hard and very fast once Jetsunma cranked up the heat. He was a boyish twenty-six. She was a seasoned forty-one -- and feeling adventurous and liberated from her unfortunate marriage. She swooped in with all the charisma and intensity he could bear. By the time Yantang Tulku had left, a month later, Jay was hers and she was his. It was a blessing, a fabulous mystical blessing. His ship had come in. In every moment with her, every touch of her skin, every kiss ... there were blessings and more blessings, twenty-four hours a day of blessings. Before he knew it she had given him a new name, to indicate his new blessed status: Sangye Dorje. And for a man who seemed in a rush to be enlightened, this was thought to be the quickest path: consort to the lama.


Nobody in Poolesville really knew what was happening, except maybe Alana or Ariana or Atara, Jetsunma's team of attendants. Just as some of the aspects of her relationship with Teri Milwee were never discussed openly with the sangha, the beginning of Jetsunma's romance with Jay was kept quiet. And so it seemed to some that one day Jetsunma was married and the next Michael had trouble with Correct View and was gone. It seemed that one day Teri and Jetsunma were best friends, and suddenly they weren't.

It was the dawning of a new age in Poolesville. Jetsunma had a new body, a new boyfriend, and an entirely new feeling about her. She had been on a buying spree for new clothes. The amount she had been making -- $24,000 net a year -- had been combined with Michael's old salary of $12,000 and gave her personal spending ability a big of a boost. She was gravitating away from the confining color of burgundy and heavy fabrics to light floral prints and short, frilly dresses. There were wisecracks at the time -- the sorts of cracks she loved -- about how eventually she was going to wind up with Richard Gere, a practicing Tibetan Buddhist. One night at a sangha party, wearing a particularly low-cut dress, she said, "Yeah, when Richard Gere finally comes here, I'm going to wear one of these."

The students felt liberated, too, free from the tyrannical presence of Michael and the tense environment that they'd come to blame on him. In the Sangye era the mood was happier, younger, more positive, and more energetic. Sangye was sweet and gentle -- and said to be very pure. Eventually Jetsunma would tell them that Sangye's merit alone had saved the center from collapse. This revelation that merit could be shared had a flip side: The merit or lack of merit of one member of the sangha could negatively affect the whole. It was a one-bad-apple kind of theory, which was why Michael, it was explained thoughtfully, was such a dangerous presence, a man of such demonically low merit that the entire group had been sinking with him. Once word got around that Jetsunma and Sangye wanted to marry, but Michael was still refusing to grant her a divorce, the level of rancor toward him increased. "We wanted to get married," Sangye said, "And we were going to get married, but Michael was not willing to budge ... It was a fight. And it was ugly. He really turned ugly after he left. But then, again, part of the reason he left was because he was already ugly."

Nobody questioned why all the photographs of Michael -- and, at the same time, photos of Jetsunma from her heavier days -- had been removed from the temple walls.

The mood in Poolesville continued toward a kind of breathy exhilaration during these months, aided, oddly enough, by the Persian Gulf War. Jetsunma explained that she had seen this conflict brewing for six or seven years -- in fact, the big world peace vigil that she had held in 1984 had largely been meant to "lessen the negativity in the Middle East." The effects of that vigil were now being realized, she said, and preventing the war from escalating into mass destruction and bloodshed. But there was more praying to do.

It had been a long time since they'd come together and prayed around the clock, perhaps not since Alana's brain tumor. The gulf War reminded the old-timers of the Kensington days: the sense of purpose, the light-headedness that comes from intensive prayer. Since they had become Tibetan Buddhists, it was as though their main focus had been to build. Everything had been about doing things correctly -- not about saving the world. "We were like the military," said one nun. "We had been training for this for years -- and were really excited to use what we'd learned. We were ready to roll."

Things seemed cozy in the sangha in those days. Their lama was happily occupied with a new love. Walking outside the main temple building to their prayer shifts, students would sometimes turn to look in the windows of Jetsunma's living room and see her with Sangye, snuggling in front of the television and laughing. Even Sherab thought they made a perfect couple and started calling them Mr. and Mrs. Cuddles. Atira still called out for Michael in the middle of the night, but she was turning three and growing attached to Sangye. A few people thought it was a little too soon, but she had already started calling him Daddy.

There was no official wedding, but the ordained hosted a party for Jetsunma and Sangye -- a Consort Engagement Party it was called -- at Ani Estates, where a group of nuns lived. Sangye arrived in an outfit that Jetsunma had picked out for him, new black pants and a black-and-red shirt. His hair was styled and gelled. He'd even shaved. The couple exchanged rings. The ordained had been told by Alana that it was a lifelong dream of Jetsunma to go to Hawaii -- and that it would be extremely auspicious for the monastic community to send their lama and her new consort there. So the monks and nuns raised the money among them and presented Jetsunma and Sangye with an engagement gift: a Hawaiian honeymoon, all expenses paid.


It wasn't unusual for Jetsunma to pay special attention to the pregnant women in her sangha and to fuss over new babies. She was "motherly," as she would say. And she seemed genuinely to love children. She always came to the hospital to see the new babies and bless them. She had named nearly all the children born to her students. It is an Eastern tradition, and thought to be auspicious and smart -- bringing good luck to the child -- to have a lama bless the baby and give it a name. Outside Penor Rinpoche's house in India in the afternoons there was sometimes a line of parents holding babies.

But it was unusual how much Jetsunma had begun to fuss over one child in the sangha. Earlier in the year she had taken an interest in the pregnancy of one of her longtime students, Chris Cervenka, who had married and become Chris Finney. She summoned Chris and her husband to her house to discuss the coming baby. Chris was a Teutonic blond with an angel face -- a good twelve years younger than Jetsunma -- who had been a student of hers since the Kensington days and had once seriously considered ordination. In all the seven years she had studied with Jetsunma, Chris had never been summoned to her lama's house. In fact, she had attended hours of teachings inside the stuffy basement in Kensington, had happily made the shift to Poolesville, and Tibetan Buddhism, and had married a man she met at the center -- Rick Finney was a journalist and an editor of Tibetan texts -- but she had never been a part of the lama's inner circle. She had never been close to Jetsunma or Michael. When special classes were held for the gifted sangha members, Chris had never been included. But she liked it that way. She worked in the gift shop, enjoyed the praying, the community life, the togetherness, had many good friends among the ordained. And she'd always had the vague feeling that proximity to Jetsunma wasn't necessarily a good thing.

"I've had a very clear dream about your baby -- the kind of dream I've learned to trust," Jetsunma told Chris and Rick. Chris was six or seven months pregnant. "Your baby is a very special tulku. I'm not going to tell you who he is, and I don't want you to even speculate about it, but you'd be amazed. And I can't wait to tell my teachers that he's back!" Later on the whispering began: some even hinted that Jetsunma believed the Finneys' baby to be the reincarnation of Dudjom Rinpoche, a previous head of the Nyingma school. He had died in the south of France four years before.

Technically, only very high lamas, like Penor Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama, make claims about another lama's rebirth. And it was unusual for Jetsunma to make this sort of claim. Rebirth and recognitions are tricky things, and usually the work of a group of lamas. But the more Rick thought about it -- and he couldn't help thinking about it -- he felt it was possible that Jetsunma had the ability to know what she was talking about. If it was true, and Jetsunma was right, it was a great, great blessing. According to Tibetan Buddhism, people die and wander lost and helpless in the bardo for ten to sixteen weeks before they are led -- by the force of their karma -- to various rebirths. [1] They can go to hell realms and ghost realms. They can reincarnate as insects and rats. A human rebirth is the most precious, and requires tremendous merit. But when lamas -- particularly an enlightened being like Dudjom Rinpoche -- die, their mindstreams remain in a pure realm until the time is right or the perfect parental situation comes along.

One thing seemed clear: For Dudjom Rinpoche to be reborn in Poolesville would reflect well on Rick and Chris, on Jetsunma, and on the sangha as a whole. It would also be an international event. What would become of their baby? Would the Tibetans want to raise him? Or Jetsunma?

In March 1991, when Chris gave birth, Jetsunma seemed shocked to hear that the baby was a girl and not a boy, as she had predicted. "Have you done anything to change the situation? Have you been fighting?" she asked Chris and Rick in the hospital. She believed that the sex of a baby could change in the womb as a result of disturbances in the emotional field. "Well," said Jetsunma, "something has occurred to make the baby change its sex." She held the baby, looked her in the eyes, and gave her the name Eleanore Victoria.

Only a few days later Alana called the Finneys at home. She told them that Jetsunma was very upset. Since seeing their baby she'd had a dream that the Finneys "wrapped Eleanore up in a blanket and took her away from me." Rick assured Alana that this would never happen -- and the dream prompted him to have a will written, singling out Jetsunma, or a trusted student of her choosing, to become Eleanore's legal guardian in case something should happen to Rick and Chris. As for the baby's status as a tulku, when Eleanore was about a month old, she was examined in the prayer room by Jetsunma, who announced to her parents afterward: "I think we're in luck!"

The interest in Eleanore continued to escalate as the months went by. For one thing, the child was lovely -- with brilliant red hair and an unusually confident gaze. Jetsunma often asked to hold her and sometimes took her into her own quarters to admire her alone. She had made a point of showing her to various visiting lamas -- Choje Rinpoche, Gyatrul Rinpoche, and Ngagchang Yeshe -- apparently for their approval. Once Jetsunma bent down to the little girl, who was just beginning to toddle around, and said, "Oh, I had a dream that you were living with me!" Then Jetsunma turned to an attendant and said, "Of course, it might be too early for that, since she's still nursing." Another time, when Rick was bragging a bit about his daughter's seemingly remarkable qualities, Alana looked at him with her cool, impenetrable face and said, "Will you give her to us?" Even though Alana would later claim she'd been joking, Rick had trouble believing her.

Eventually the proprietary feeling that Jetsunma seemed to have about Eleanore began troubling the Finneys rather than flattering them. For one thing, Jetsunma seemed often to question their parenting abilities. When Eleanore was two months old and suffering from a bad reaction to a DPT shot, Jetsunma became furious that Rick and Chris had chosen to have their daughter immunized. Their carelessness, she shrieked, had surely harmed Eleanore's delicate chi, or energy flow.

It seemed that Jetsunma's low opinion of the Finneys' parenting was infectious. Instead of getting praise for having such a sweet and lovely child, Chris and Rick felt criticized by sangha members -- as though people didn't believe they quite deserved to be raising the reincarnated Dudjom Rinpoche themselves. They began feeling nervous and wondering what was being said behind their backs. Word had clearly reached certain members of the Poolesville community that Jetsunma doubted they were raising their child correctly. They were told they were too protective of Eleanore. They held her too much and spent too much time with her: "Put that baby down, for heaven's sake!" one sangha member said huffily to them one afternoon during a teaching. Another time Rick was scolded, "You shouldn't be so attached to Eleanore! You'll only have to let her go in the end." "In Tibet, people weren't so possessive and territorial toward their children," one of Jetsunma's close confidantes told them.

Rick began to feel uncomfortable in Poolesville. In his darkest moments he grew convinced that it wasn't Tibetan Buddhism, but something far more homegrown, useless, and certainly not heading anybody toward enlightenment, that was being practiced there. Why was there so much whispering? Why was Jetsunma meddling in their lives? Rick began to worry constantly about his daughter and wife. And about the next baby they had on the way. But he kept quiet and kept his head low. He could see that Chris still believed deeply in Jetsunma and the center. He hoped it would be only a matter of time before she, too, would see things differently.


Jetsunma had left for Hawaii seeming happy with her new consort, full of hopes for the future. On their return to Maryland she and Sangye stopped in Oregon to visit Gyaltrul Rinpoche, and she was upbeat, even making jokes about Sangye's ability in bed. Once back in Poolesville, though, her mood dropped considerably. She had horrible dreams. She dreamed that all her makeup was removed from her face and all the polish from her nails. She dreamed that she was being stripped down and other realms were calling her. All the masks of samsara were being taken from her -- the facades and trickery that she used to lure students to the path. She told Sangye that the dreams meant she was going to die soon.

Overcome, Sangye and Alana begged Jetsunma to give them a session with Jeremiah -- just one more time -- to see what he thought they might do to prevent her death. Afterward, in the Dharma room, the sangha was gathered to hear the outcome of the meeting. Indeed, their lama was close to death, they learned. But not a death as much as "a moving on." She was taking off her fingernails and makeup and getting ready for her next incarnation. The students were stunned by the news, and many sat with tears in their eyes.

Alana jumped in when the pitch became emotional. "There's hope. We have a chance to save her. We could have lost her, but we still have a chance to keep her."

Jeremiah had told Alana and Sangye that the students in Poolesville had very low merit -- in fact, their merit had totally run out. The only thing holding the center together was the combined good karma of Sangye and Alana. And since the students were causing the obstacles, the students must try to turn the situation around.

The solution: Eight more stupas needed to be built on the land across the street by Jetsunma's birthday in October. There must be a "stupa garden" within the next six months in order to save Jetsunma's life.

It was during the summer of the stupa garden project that a new student, Karl Jones, appeared in Poolesville. He was tall, had a pale romantic presence, had been raised in Ireland and spoke with a faint brogue, and was barely out of his teens. He liked music and liked to think of himself as a composer. He was smart and artistic, too, if not a bit spacey. And he threw himself into the stupa garden project as thought it was a matter of life and death. Which it was, of course.

When Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso arrived in Poolesville that summer, the students took to him immediately. The respected scholar was sweet and open, and his English was much better than that of the other Tibetans who'd come around. But it was Karl, in particular, who gravitated toward Khenpo, following him around like a puppy dog. Unlike most new students -- who tried hard to fit in with the sangha -- Karl never bothered about making friends and being popular. He was a loner and only called attention to himself by being critical. He openly expressed disbelief that more students weren't taking time to study with Khenpo and attend his teachings. He was also critical of the old-timers, the First Wave, for not appreciating Jetsunma enough and for lacking proper devotion. She was a dakini, a sky walker, a female wisdom being. Nobody seemed to treat her properly. Before long Jetsunma herself was spending time alone with Karl and singling him out at her teachings.

"When Karl first came," Jetsunma would say later, "he felt he had an instant awareness of a connection with me. He showed potential for a lot of strength and devotion."

In the autumn, when the eight stupas in the stupa garden were completed, Karl took genyen vows for lay practitioners with Khenpo Tsewang.


They hadn't been together quite one year when Sangye began struggling as Jetsunma's consort. There was love, and lots of sex and very sweet good times -- but Correct View had been hard to maintain. For one thing, the inequity in the relationship was very difficult for Sangye. "It was hard to figure out what she needed," he would say later. "Part of serving [as a consort] is knowing what her needs are and trying to meet them as they come up -- really serving her in a subtle, effective way, functioning almost like a clairvoyant, knowing her needs before they are even obvious. There aren't many people who could handle that relationship ...

"If you really believe that Jetsunma is who she said she is -- and who the rinpoches say she is, and who His Holiness said she is -- you have to accept that she is going to live an extraordinary and unusual life," Sangye said. "And she will have extraordinary obligations and needs."

One night at a sangha meeting, while Sangye sat on the floor of the Dharma room, he said he had a confession to make: "I have failed as a consort." The problem was, he had fallen in love with Jetsunma in an extremely ordinary way. He had fallen in love with Jetsunma as a woman, just a woman. He had become attached -- in a selfish, possessive, ego-clinging way. And it had become impossible to see her anymore as guru.

Sangye apologized to the sangha for "letting Jetsunma down" and for "letting the sangha down." He appeared to be in real pain and great remorse. Alan sat next to him nodding, "The heat is hot when you're that close to the guru," he said later. "Your stuff comes up very, very quickly, out of the blue, and you realize your mind isn't as stable as you thought. Shockingly unstable ...

"I mean," he said, "your pride comes up. Your pride is confronted regularly, just as a man. I mean, she's the boss. And I can deal with an even relationship -- man-woman -- on equal grounds. I can deal with that. But to have the woman above me, that's hard. Really hard. And that's the way it has to be if you are married to your guru. You have to be okay with that. But it's difficult to deal with and not feel emasculated...You have to be very strong."

Jetsunma decided that Sangye needed to get away from Poolesville for a while, and away from the suffocating atmosphere of temple life. He had yearned to do an intensive retreat, but at KPC there had always been another building to renovate or stupa to build.

India. That was where he should go, Jetsunma decided. He could study, and practice, and consider his position as consort. He could recapture his old unselfish, ungrasping view of Jetsunma. And so, in the spring of 1992, Sangye left Poolesville to do a four-month retreat at Penor Rinpoche's monastery in Bylakuppe. Jetsunma even packed his bags.

Over dinner in New Delhi, he confessed to a fellow traveler that his goal for the retreat was to recapture Correct View and get over his conflict about the guru-student relationship. There were land mines wherever he walked, but he was determined to get through them and to see Jetsunma as a teacher again, and not as his wife.


Karl Jones had been described as "very special" all along. He had gotten Jetsunma's attention because of his devotion and musical ability -- and quite definitely because of the way he looked. In the winter and spring of 1992, she spent a great deal of time with him, talking about Dharma and their other common interests. She'd always wanted to be a singer, she told Karl. So when he started writing sacred music for Jetsunma, and looked at her with great devotion -- the kind of pure devotion that Sangye no longer seemed capable of -- she realized that he was a man who could serve her properly. "I work best in collaboration," she said later. And she encouraged Karl to collaborate with her.

Quickly they formed a singing group called SkyDancer -- with other members of the ordained community and lay sangha -- which was dedicated to "promoting compassionate living through musical creations," as the brochures for their concerts would say. Karl seemed to love the way Jetsunma sounded when she sang and only praised her abilities, even though, as one student would later note, "nobody had the guts to tell Jetsunma when she was singing flat, which was about all the time."

It was May 1992, and Sangye hadn't been gone a month, when Karl stood up before a packed crowd at a sangha meeting one night and made his own very personal confession: He felt sincerely and profoundly that Jetsunma's salary was too low. He was appalled that the sangha treated her so poorly. "It came out of the blue," Wib would recount later, "and seemed to spring spontaneously from a sincere place of devotion."

Jetsunma had the same responsibilities that a president or a CEO of a corporation had, Karl told them. The students sat hushed. So many details and responsibilities were falling to Jetsunma now. She had to run the center, teach, practice. She had to answer questions, and letters and calls. The sangha was growing. The center was growing, and quickly becoming a place for Dharma to flourish in the West. And what about all the sentient beings she was helping? How do you put a price on that? How can you?

Some of Jetsunma's oldest students were surprised. They realized -- although Karl probably didn't -- that she had just received quite an increase in salary after Michael left. The health benefits for her family were paid for by the temple. She had food that was offered to her by students, and groceries that were purchased every week by the temple. Her living expenses were paid for. She had a full-time attendant, a nanny, all paid for. What was there left for her to buy?

Karl seemed nearly overcome with devotion. Tears filled his eyes. His pitch continued. Jetsunma had special needs, and great health concerns. Lamas were known to absorb all the negativity around them and keep their students safe from disease. They had to take extra good care of themselves. Yet here they were, giving her a small amount and treating her like the most ordinary of persons. They were in the company of Buddha, a living Buddha, and only offering her the most meager salary -- nothing like Michael Jordan was getting to play for the Bulls, nothing like Lee Iacocca got to run Chrysler.

The night became emotional, as though Karl's passion, so touching and tender, so well expressed in his faint Irish brogue, had infected the crowd. Emotional speech after emotional speech -- declarations of love and worship -- followed. They had Buddha right there, in their midst, in Poolesville! God only knew what would happen to them if she ceased to be in their lives.

To their way of thinking, Jetsunma's value to them, and to all sentient beings, was inestimable. And once this issue had been raised it was nearly impossible to dismiss. How could they not pay her what she was worth? "If we woke up tomorrow and spiritual value became the coin of the realm," Wib said later, "she'd be Bill Gates."

The students who had been with Jetsunma since Kensington began to feel a bit sheepish -- and ashamed. Maybe they had taken her for granted. Somehow only a new student, Karl, could see that. Let's double it! Whatever she's getting now, let's double it! But ultimately they did better than that: They decided to give Jetsunma a hundred thousand dollars a year -- free and clear of taxes.

Three months later, when Sangye returned from India -- and learned that Karl Jones had given back his genyen robes and grown out his hair and was engaged to marry Jetsunma -- he was stunned. And heartbroken. "I never stood a chance," he said.


There was a fever of devotion that summer and fall, as though Karl had set the sangha on fire. There had never been a student so devoted, so sincere, so openhearted. He made everybody else look tight and ungenerous. At a Wednesday night teaching, Jetsunma told a roomful of students that Karl had made her come alive again, rescued her, pulled her out of a slump and made her excited about being a lama again. In past lives, Karl had made potent wishing prayers to be with her -- and with those prayers he had saved Jetsunma and saved the temple.

She went around the room and told her students their faults -- the things she'd felt about them for years and hadn't said. "You aren't great beings," she told them. "I told you that just to get your attention. The only way you'd listen to me was to appeal to your egos. But it was a lie."

Karl had come, out of the blue, and made them all see how much she was to them, how much they needed her. And how far they still had to go.


The Dharma room was thick with devotion the night the vote was taken to increase the lama's salary, but not many sangha members who were present that night knew the specifics of the financial situation at the temple. They didn't know how much money came in, where it went, or even how decisions were routinely made. In the early days Michael had looked after the finances, and David Somerville had kept the books. After Michael's departure there was still no formal or elected board of directors, only a small roster of students whom Jetsunma would appoint to help run things. Sometimes she referred to these students as the Board; she later renamed them the Troubleshooters, then the Pilot committee, still after the Transition Team, and then the KPC Finance Committee. But no matter what Jetsunma chose to call it, the duty required unflappable nerves and an enormous amount of Correct view. Bills were paid at the last minute, and creditors were always calling. The mortgages -- on the temple and the land across the street -- had been close to foreclosure several times. Since its inception KPC had never operated within its means nor obeyed ordinary rules of fiscal caution.

Jetsunma didn't seem to believe in caution. She believed in expansion, aspiration, prayer, and a positive attitude. If things weren't working out, it was usually because they weren't dreaming big enough. Time and time again when things looked the darkest, she would envision something even grander, more daring -- a new stupa, a school for the children, or a feasibility study on building a KPC waste treatment facility -- in anticipation of the new temple, monastery, retreat center, university, and hospice. And the Troubleshooters would somehow have to find a way to pay for it.

But the Troubleshooters had their weaknesses. Sherab "curled up in a ball" on her bed and cried rather than make the cold calls and fund-raising pitches that were expected of her during her first year as a member of the Troubleshooters -- despite the fact that she'd been in sales. Wib, who had years of experience in marketing -- selling corporate jets, telephone systems, pricey vitamins -- had many dark nights of the soul looking after the temple finances. Money was sometimes raised for one thing and spent on another, a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach that didn't bother some board members as much as it did Wib. "Things were always by the seat of our pants," he said. "As Bob Colacurcio used to say, 'Our feet planted firmly in midair.'" In 1992, Tashi Barry was asked by Jetsunma to manage things. And while Tashi enjoyed the proximity to Jetsunma, it was a job that he grew to dislike. "I was always delegating money issues to other people because it was always so gut-wrenching and upsetting and difficult to deal with personally and emotionally," he said. "We were always on the brink of collapse and foreclosure, and that was hard to live with."

The books had always been generally unavailable to the sangha -- largely because of the temple's embarrassed circumstances. The students had big dreams and had come to see themselves a certain way: They were custodians of the planet, bringing Dharma to the West. The meagerness of the account balances would have reflected a reality that didn't agree with their sense of purpose. Money was ordinary. Their mission wasn't. And to open the books after 1992, the year Jetsunma's salary was raised to one hundred thousand dollars a year, would have revealed the enormous burden that decision placed on the temple budget. Her salary was now one half of the total operating expenses.

The temple raised the ticket prices to empowerments and retreats -- teachings that were often free at other Dharma centers around the country. The suggested "tithing" amount rose that year, to three hundred dollars a person per month and six hundred per family. But, aside from Eleanor Rowe and Bob Colacurcio, there weren't many students who actually gave that much. People just did what they could afford. Many of the ordained had already given over their savings and retirement accounts to the temple and didn't make enough in their jobs to tithe large sums.

But Jetsunma's dream of building a colossal statue of Amitabha, the Buddha of limitless light, which had been just an ongoing and much kicked-about notion until 1992, now became quite adamant. A model was commissioned. A site was discussed. And to raise money for the project, four sangha members -- Wib, Bob Colacurcio, Linda Kurkowski, and Jon Randolph -- were sent to Taiwan. The Taiwanese were thought to feel a special connection to Amitabha, unlike Americans, who were unable to see the value of building such a statue. Penor Rinpoche helped arrange for Jetsunma's students to spend three months at a monastery in Taipei, but the foursome returned only partially successful. They had raised nearly a hundred thousand dollars. But the estimate for the statue was five times that amount.

Jetsunma had originally wanted a hundred-foot statue, then, after some students with construction and engineering backgrounds got to her, the size was reduced to seventy-five feet. It was difficult to tell Jetsunma no -- not just because she was a determined person but because of her divine status. "You could say no," recounted Tashi. "You could. But I never did. Others, like Don Allen and Bob Colacurcio, would worry that some decision was irresponsible, but I never went along with that. My sense was, This is the Buddha saying we need to build a statue, and we just need to do that, no matter what it looks like. And in the past it has always worked. We've always come through and built what we needed to."

In the early days, after Penor Rinpoche had prophesied that they would need a large temple -- large enough for fifteen hundred -- the students had assumed this expansion would happen effortlessly. And when the rinpoche returned in 1988 to give the Rinchen Ter Dzod empowerments, Jetsunma had told her students to expect standing-room-only attendance. But the crowds hadn't come -- and Jetsunma declared it was time to get better organized and do more outreach. Wib was assigned the job of drawing new people out to Poolesville, particularly on Sundays, when the teachings were more accessible. Jetsunma specifically wanted to attracted prosperous yuppies and professionals, not the "poverty mentality types," as she called them, who had been circling around the temple for years. And pretty soon Wib began to deliver them. "I'm not sure how he did it," said one nun, "but suddenly there were all these new faces every Sunday -- and they were always well dressed, seemed prosperous."

Indeed, a new crowd of people and students had begun gravitating to KPC in the early 1990's, particularly as the teachings of the Dalai Lama became more popular and the political issues surrounding Tibet became more well known. Bob Denmark, a successful accountant in Bethesda, was one of the new faces. Another, Bonnie Taylor, was a psychologist and social worker who had spent years searching for a spiritual home and felt she'd found it, finally, in Poolesville.

Another new face was Kathy Coon. From an old Yankee family with money, she was already a practicing Tibetan Buddhist when she wandered into the Poolesville center. But Kathy's first impressions weren't particularly positive. "The students seemed so self-absorbed and self-important," she would say later. "And Jetsunma seemed so unlike my own teacher -- who was such a steady, humble reflection of affection."

But as the years passed, and Kathy felt more starved for a connection with the Dharma and a Tibetan Buddhist environment, she spent time at KPC and eventually came to believe that Jetsunma was an "incredibly powerful teacher" and became "accepting of her." She thought the sangha seemed "corporate" and too well dressed -- "all the other Buddhist crowds I'd been around were scraggly and soft," she said -- and she'd felt "shy" at first, hadn't known how to contribute or feel special. After she gave her first lump of money, though, in 1992, from a trust fund left by her mother, Kathy discovered she had found a way to make friends. Even members of Jetsunma's inner circle came to know her name. Like Bob Denmark and Bonnie Taylor, who were also prosperous new students, Kathy started getting invitations to special teachings -- and pleas, often urgent, to make more offerings. The new students had no idea about Jetsunma's salary, or that its doubling had caused financial stress. But the years passed, the center seemed increasingly desperate for money, and Denmark, Taylor, and Coon each became more involved, giving KPC more of their time and money. "I responded to their desperation," Kathy said, "and also, I wanted to cut through my own clutching. I had my own worries about being too attached to money." Giving it away was supposed to help with that.


With her divorce from Michael about to go through, and plans for a wedding to Karl in the works, Jetsunma began reflecting upon the hard road behind her. The divorce had been ugly, and had taken a toll emotionally. She found herself concerned about the legacy of bitterness that she felt Michael had left in Poolesville. She wanted her marriage to Karl to heal the sangha and take the group in new directions. And just as she felt it was important for her to reflect on the previous ten years, and the end of her marriage, she felt it was important for the students to have a forum to dispel "negativity" and their hostility toward Michael. She had divorced Michael. Now it was time for the sangha to divorce him, too.

Newer students would not have been told about the special meetings held to discuss Michael. The inner circle was always careful to protect newcomers from the darker side of the center -- and the things they would not be able to comprehend correctly. Older sangha members were invited by phone to attend one of the three meetings -- held in private homes -- where students planned to discuss their feelings about Michael and vent honestly, in a sort of group therapy style. They read aloud from nasty letters they had received from him. They repeated the put-downs and criticisms that he had delivered. They shared how Michael had made them feel small and unimportant. He paraded his power, they said, and insinuated hurtful things in Jetsunma's name. Several sangha members had stories that lasted more than an hour.

"We all started to share our experience of him," Alana said, "and nobody, nobody, was sorry he had left. Isn't that sad? I had had a terrible time with him, but I thought all along it was just me. He was a powerful person and ran everything -- the temple, the office, everything -- and he wielded that power. He delivered messages to students, the way I do now, but he made people feel really, really badly."

Once Jetsunma got wind of how deeply people felt, she decided to organize one more event: an all-sangha Divorce Party, where students could speak their piece and say good-bye and good riddance to Michael Burroughs once and for all. Several students who heard about the party at the Wednesday night teaching made the decision not to attend. They said they were sick, or had to work, or had to stay home with the kids. "I knew what it was going to be about," said one nun, "and it wasn't for me."

The Divorce Party was held in the community room, and a table of food was spread out, along with a big bowl of a strong tequila punch for the lay practitioners. Eighty to one hundred students turned up, took a drink of punch or a shooter of straight tequila, and before long the room took on a cocktail party-like atmosphere, with Jetsunma the presiding presence, sitting off to one side with Karl.

On a chair in the middle of the room, an effigy of Michael had been set up. It looked something like a mummy, a piece of cloth bundled up and tightly wrapped with cords. And it had one special feature: a banana had been attached to the cloth to represent Michael's penis.

One by one, as the party got rolling, students were encouraged to vent. Many of them had come with prepared remarks, with toasts, gags, and long stories. There were great cheers and applause, and the students began holding their drinks high in the air and shouting. As the night wore on people grew louder and more drunken -- at one point all joining in a raucous singing of "Nowhere Man." As a person Michael was really a washout, the stories insinuated, and Jetsunma was well rid of him.

Alana arrived at the party with a gag knife stuck in her back and said, "Michael, you were my friend and then you stabbed me in the back." Ayla Meurer, one of Jetsunma's students who had moved from Michigan to be near her, addressed the effigy and complained about how Michael had caused her to suffer. Jetsunma shouted out, "Ayla, you can still walk a line! You aren't drunk enough!" Another student approached the dummy and began a satirical account of Michael's actions -- claiming that he had "cross-dressed in front of small children" -- and the crowd went wild.

The effigy of Michael was propped up in a chair closer to Jetsunma, so that she could watch while students walked up and stabbed it with their knives and forks. A line of six or seven students formed, including one nun in her robes who did a timid dance up to the body and very delicately stabbed it.

Reactions to the event were mixed, despite the hilarity and sense of raucous fun. Several Tibetans who were visiting Poolesville at the time returned to India with stories of the party and seemed perplexed and vaguely horrified. Rick Finney, already very doubtful of the goings-on at KPC, was reminded of the "Two Minutes Hate" in George Orwell's 1984. He felt sickened by the proceedings, particularly the sight of a nun stabbing at Michael's effigy. Many others remembered having a good time and feeling exhilarated afterward. "It was done in the spirit of a roast," said one student, "except that the person being roasted wasn't there." Alana would later describe it as "necessary."

Jetsunma herself read from a list of grievances against Michael that was three pages long. She told about having a vision of starting a prayer center many years ago -- and about how she'd made intense prayers that this vision come true. She had things she wanted to accomplish, and a big center to build. In answer to her prayers, she said, she met this demon. His name was Michael. The audience cheered.

Then she approached the dummy and said, "Michael, you look funny. Something's wrong here." Jetsunma made a fist and then punched it into the banana, smashing it flat. "That's more like it!" The room exploded in cheers.

At the night's end Jetsunma ordered that the effigy be thrown into the driveway in front of the temple, so everybody would have to drive over Michael on their way home. The bound cloth sat on the blacktop as the cars passed over it with their bighearted bumper stickers: PRACTICE RANDOM KINDNESS AND SENSELESS ACTS OF BEAUTY. Then a sangha member, drunk and carried away, stood over the flattened cloth and urinated on it.


Jetsunma was going to be married again, and with this decision came a whole new look and wardrobe. Her clothes were becoming increasingly hip and young. The frilly, superfeminine look gave way to black leather jackets and boots, and jeans as tight as she could zip up. Her shopping excursions to nearby malls, and into Washington, D.C., became legendary during this time, but she relied for the most part on ordering clothes from catalogs, and every week boxes arrived for her from Victoria's Secret and Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Rather than being dismayed by this apparently unspiritual activity, Jetsunma's nuns seemed proud of her. To them there wasn't anything unspiritual about Jetsunma, and her desires never sprang from ordinary emotions like vanity or lust, only from the compulsion to end the suffering of all sentient beings. And if Jetsunma's personal needs seemed to have increased since she had gotten together with Karl, it was only another opportunity for her students to exercise their devotion.

One of the great devotional stories of this time that circulated among the sangha was about Alana and the coat. One afternoon the attendant heard Jetsunma complain that she'd purchased a coat from a catalog -- and had been promised immediate delivery -- but the garment had been delayed and was now apparently lost in delivery. Alana hated seeing Jetsunma upset or unhappy. She made a few calls. When she learned that the coat was stranded in a Chicago warehouse, and most likely wouldn't arrive in Poolesville for another eight to ten days, she flew to Chicago, took a cab to the shipping warehouse, located Jetsunma's coat, and came home with it that day.

There were other stories about clothes. Once Jetsunma saw a pair of carved wooden clogs in a mail-order catalog that were very expensive, and a collection was taken up among the ordained to help her buy them. She didn't want them for herself, Alana explained. Jetsunma needed to buy the clogs so that a particular person in the ordering department at the catalog company would see her name on an order sheet -- and that would create the cause of this person to meet Jetsunma in a future life.

In the years that followed, this would become the explanation for Jetsunma's apparently liberal spending habits. She bought dresses not because she desired them but because she needed to "make a connection" with the designer. She used her credit card so billing clerks and Visa and MasterCard representatives could meet her in a future life and find the Dharma. "This is how compassionate she is," Aileen said. "She isn't interested in money, or clothes. She only buys all those things so that she can wear them once or twice and then give them away -- and the people who wear them afterward are able to make a connection with her."


When Jetsunma and Karl married in 1993, at the auspicious beginning of the year, it was done outside at the white stupa, under a huge blue sky. Jetsunma performed the service herself. And since there is no such thing as a traditional Tibetan Buddhist wedding ceremony, she made it up, from beginning to end. She held up a double-sided mirror between herself and Karl, and talked about the nature of mind. When they married it was "primordial wisdom" marrying, she said, and then the mirror was passed around and each member of the sangha was to look into it. A chalice was filled with wine, meant to represent "the nectar of bliss and emptiness," and passed around for all to sip from. Jetsunma wore a tight black top and a floor-length full skirt of tiny patches of multicolored silk, which had been made for her by a "sewing team" of students. During the ceremony she handed out a pincushion and a needle with a strand of burgundy thread to each guest. With this wedding, she said, she was "stitching the sangha up," and when they went home she wanted them to sew the thread into a piece of clothing, as a way to remember this day and their own participation in the sangha's "healing."

She had another gift for each of the guests -- laminated prayer cards with her picture on one side and her long life prayer written by Penor Rinpoche on the other.

The mood was jubilant, and there was a palpable sweetness between Jetsunma and Karl. The students had come to trust that the marriage was a good thing because they trusted Jetsunma. Most of them felt they didn't really know Karl well. He was never a go-between as Michael had been. That job was now Alana's. He was not the benevolent and lovable and pure Sangye Dorje, either. Karl had kept to himself, focused his attentions on Jetsunma. 'I've never really been able to talk to him," said one monk. "Nobody gets Karl but Jetsunma," said Alana. Most others agreed.

More than anything, Karl seemed very young. Jetsunma was forty-three when she married him, and Karl was twenty-three. The Tibetans in particular seemed fascinated by the age difference and would ask students over and over, How old is he? She had never intended to marry a man so young, Jetsunma eventually explained. They were together because of a "long-standing karmic connection." It was Karl who was supposed to be Jetsunma's consort and by her side during the bulding of the Poolesville center, she said. But because of an unfortunate turn of events in the bardo, where he had lingered too long, Karl had been born twenty years late, in 1969 instead of 1949. It was Karl's fault that he was so young. And it was something that Jetsunma would have to live with.


Jetsunma called her old consort Sangye into her rooms just a week after her wedding festivities. She felt it was time to talk. In the months since his return from India, and his discovery that she had taken up with Karl, he had moved off temple grounds and become a caretaker on a nearby farm.

"I want to talk to you about ordination," Jetsunma said to him.

He shook his head. "I'm not going to do that."

She reminded him that being the consort of a powerful lama was a tremendous blessing. "And the best way to keep the blessing intact," she said, "is to become celibate and never involved with ordinary women again."

Sangye had known it was a blessing to be a consort, but he hadn't heard this other part -- about becoming celibate to keep it.

"This blessing is very important," Jetsunma said. It might be more potent than any of the stupas he could build or all the hours of sit-down practice he could accomplish.

Sangye felt sure of his decision. Even if it was the fastest path to enlightenment, he didn't want to be a monk. He was only twenty-nine. He didn't want to give up sex or the prospect of having a family. And he didn't want to give up drinking and listening to music. He was sure about not becoming ordained. But he could feel Jetsunma working on him sometimes. "Psychically, she was bearing down on me," he said. "I mean, I could really feel it -- and I was irritated by it."

Eight months later a highly revered Tibetan master, Jigmey Phuntsok, arrived in Poolesville to ordain a new crop of monks and nuns. About a week before the Tibetan was due, Sangye began experiencing a great deal of discomfort -- tension, insomnia, frustration. Jetsunma's mind was pressing into his. She was working on him, he said later, she was trying to get him ordained.

He began visualizing Jetsunma in front of him one night. And he yelled at her, "Jetsunma! Hear me! I am not going to take ordination!"

The next morning when he awoke, Sangye felt a sense of quiet relief. He felt calm, too, for the first time in many months. Something else had happened: He had changed his mind.

Why? How? He had faith in Jetsunma, he explained later. "Why would she make me miserable for the rest of my life? Even if it were the best thing, the quickest path, she wouldn't want to make me miserable, would she? So I had faith in her, that she knew best." It was a faith shared by all of the KPC ordained and one they all believed would be unshakable.



1. Sogyal Rinpoche. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992).
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 11:52 pm

Part Four: Nun

17. Whisperland

Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits, nonetheless, calmly licking its chops.
-- H. L. Mencken

Like two of the monks and three of the other nuns in Poolesville, Dechen had been a student of Jetsunma since she was young. She was the smallest nun, and the youngest. She was just five foot one and weighed eighty-seven pounds. Her shoes were size four. When she bought regular clothes, she shopped in the children's section. She had pretty features, large brown eyes and smooth skin and a wide toothy smile, but she kept herself mousy and invisible, smaller than life. She was shy, modest. She liked to sew. She liked to read. Before she'd become ordained, she'd liked playing the piano. She had taught herself. Dechen was a virgin and just twenty when she became ordained in 1988 -- that long, hot summer when His Holiness was yelling every night.

Dechen's mother, Ayla Meurer, was divorced and working in Michigan as a sales representative for McGraw-Hill when she met Catharine and Michael Burroughs in late 1984. Ayla was a kind woman, a loving woman, but busy and overcommitted. Her spiritual pursuits and daily involvement in est seminars took up much of her spare time and passion. Her two children, Kyle and Michelle (as Dechen used to be called), were left alone a great deal -- and often fed themselves dinner at night. When Catharine Burroughs entered their lives as Ayla's new spiritual teacher -- coming to Michigan once a month to give lectures -- things began to change for the better. Catharine seemed genuinely interested in the children and tried to connect them to a growing family of her other students, in both Michigan and Maryland. And when the Center for Discovery and New Life turned toward Tibetan Buddhism in 1986, both of Ayla's children were enthusiastic converts. In 1987 the family relocated to Maryland -- as had Richard Dykeman, Bob and Carol Colacurcio, and several other Michigan students -- and joined the KPC mission to help bring the Dharma to the West.

While Dechen could remember her life before Jetsunma -- nights alone with her brother while her mother was at church and est seminars -- she couldn't imagine her life without her. Dechen's devotion to Jetsunma was unquestioned. And when Jetsunma told her in a private consultation in 1987 that her mother was the source of her spiritual and emotional problems -- that Dechen and Ayla had been involved with each other in a troubled way over many lifetimes -- she believed her. When Jetsunma told her to move out of her mother's house and live with another sangha member, Dechen did. When Jetsunma suggested her father wasn't the best influence in her life, Dechen stopped calling him. When Jetsunma told her that she shouldn't worry about going to college -- because eventually there was going to be a monastic university in Poolesville and a three-year retreat center -- Dechen felt sure this must be true. And when Jetsunma told her that she had trouble with "needing approval" and described her as a "hothouse flower," Dechen came to think of herself that way, as rare and delicate and not a strong person. Several years later, when Jetsunma revised her opinion of Dechen and publicly called her a brat, Dechen had to admit that she did act rebellious and bratty sometimes. To Dechen, there wasn't anything Jetsunma had ever uttered that wasn't true or a promise she hadn't kept.

At first Dechen had taken the ordination name Penor Rinpoche had given her in 1988: Zomchi. But later, when Jetsunma complained that Zomchi sounded like "donkey," she was given a new name, Dechen, pronounced DAY-chin. It means "great bliss."

She lived in the retreat center after taking vows and held various outside jobs over the years, as a receptionist, a secretary, and a systems tester for a computer programmer. For a while she drove a lunch wagon that sold meals to construction workers all over Potomac. When she pulled up in the van, the men yelled, "Hey, it's the flying nun!"

For many years her first thought every morning was of Jetsunma and the temple in Poolesville, and of her fellow sangha members there. She drove to work playing a tape of Jetsunma's teaching. When she met new people, she made a point of discussing the temple with them, told them funny ani stories -- about Aileen or Sherab -- and tried to leave them with a positive impression of Jetsunma and the Dharma. Kunzang Palyul Choling was her entire life and intertwined with everything else. She had wanted to be a Tibetan Buddhist nun from the moment she had heard there was such a thing, when she was seventeen, and she wanted to devote her life to ending suffering and praying for the world and doing no harm. Coming home from work, like most other members, she got out her mala and said prayers as she drove.

She had a good mind, and her memory -- an important quality for a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner -- was astounding. In school she had always tested well, but her grades were often poor because of a lack of discipline. She excelled, however, at Tibetan Buddhist practice. It engaged and nourished her. While practicing she was able to recall even the most intricate details of a long visualization in proper order without effort. At first students tend to learn the visualizations quite generally; with more practice they're taught to add more details. Each detail carries great meaning and has its own blessing or benefit. So the more details you can remember, the more blessings received. It bothered Dechen sometimes that she hadn't gone to college -- it felt like, not a mistake exactly, but perhaps Jetsunma hadn't understood Dechen completely. Was that possible? To feel more challenged mentally, Dechen began studying Tibetan in 1990 -- with Rick Finney or with visiting Tibetan lamas and khenpos. She liked academic work, but this, as well as a few other things about Dechen's personality, seemed to rub Alana the wrong way. Because of this, living in the retreat center wasn't easy. Alana complained that Dechen read instead of doing her chores, and that she was behind in her rent. Once Alana complained so bitterly about a pair of black sneakers that Dechen wore with her robes -- black was a "demonic" color, Alana told her -- that Jetsunma got sick of hearing about it and bought Dechen a new pair of shoes herself.

And it was Jetsunma who suggested that Dechen go to India to study at Penor Rinpoche's monastery in 1992, when the nun had told her in a private consultation that she wanted a career as a translator of Tibetan texts. It was at Namdroling that Dechen first encountered monastery life outside Poolesville. She was surprised by how different things were there. After she was paired with a seventh-year shedra student to help her study Tibetan, she was free and on her own. Nobody complained if she didn't pick up her clothes. Nobody cared if she read too much. "I was left alone to study -- and it was startling to realize that this was not just acceptable, it was respected." The main focus of the monastery was its shedra, or university, and an atmosphere of scholarship and learning prevailed. By comparison, KPC seemed like a place where only group activities were highlighted. It was a small, insular village where everybody knew your business. The emphasis was on not knowledge and study but emotion. "Everyone was supposed to talk about what was on their minds, and reveal things," she said, "and people invaded your mind and thoughts and privacy."

In this new freer environment Dechen came under the spell of a charming young Tibetan monk who was thought to be a tulku. He had come with Penor Rinpoche to Poolesville for Jetsunma's enthronement in 1988, and he had been as naughty and rebellious as the other young monks. Now, four years later, he was more mature but still a bit of a troublemaker. Dechen liked his personality. And she was impressed by his tulku status. "I believed what Jetsunma had always said, that tulkus could do no harm," she said.

He was a monk, but the young tulku seemed interested in Dechen and flirted with her. She found herself flattered by this, and while she had brushed away the advances of many other young Tibetans in Bylakuppe, she did not brush this one away. He was an enlightened being, and, Dechen said to herself, he could do no harm. When he told her it was okay to swim in a nearby pond with him and some other monks, she believed he was telling the truth. And on an overnight trip to Bangalore, when the young tulku told Dechen that it was okay for her to share a hotel room with him and some other monks, she also believed him. And when he said that she should sleep with him in one bed, while the remaining monks shared another, she did. "He was a tulku," she told herself, "and it was okay." Once the lights were out he whispered to her, "Ani, don't tell anybody." And he rolled over on top of her in the dark and began kissing her. And then he made love to her.

"What's going to be the result of this?" she asked him, after it was over.

"I have no mistake," he said. "But you have mistake." Dechen left the bed and closed herself in the bathroom. Panicked, she began laughing uncontrollably. She had broken a root vow -- sexual intercourse. The nonvirtue she had created could cause great harm. "I felt I had sent millions of sentient beings to the lower realms because of my broken vow ... And I thought, like Alana, I was going to get brain cancer and die on the spot."

The next morning, against the wishes of the young tulku, she called the temple in Poolesville. Rinchen answered the phone and told her that Jetsunma was at the beach. The next day Dechen was able to get through to Alana and eventually have a conversation with her guru. Dechen expected she would be thrown out of KPC for her actions, but, instead, Jetsunma seemed sympathetic. "This is a violation on his part," Jetsunma said. She seemed careful not to use the word rape. She instructed Dechen to discuss the incident with Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso, the head of the shedra at Namdroling, and use the word violation -- and when she did Khenpo was very kind but troubled by the fact that Dechen had called Poolesville already. This meant he would be forced to tell Penor Rinpoche what had happened, and the repercussions for the young tulku would be very grave. The tulku had been brought there as a young boy because he had been difficult to raise. Over the years Khenpo had taken a fatherly attitude toward him and had hoped to look after him until he grew up. But he had guessed right. After he told Penor Rinpoche what had happened, the young tulku was sent away. Dechen felt partly responsible, but she didn't know what else to do. Was violation too harsh a description for what had happened? It was true: she had flirted. She had encouraged him. Dechen felt overwhelmed. Everything seemed unclear. She wanted to go home suddenly, very badly. Before she left Khenpo said, "Tell no one what happened."

In Poolesville, Jetsunma was very comforting to Dechen. It was agreed that what had happened to her in India would remain largely a secret, but in order to purify the negative karma that had been generated by a breakage of the celibacy vow, Jetsunma told Dechen to temporarily give back her robes and enter solitary retreat. First in an upstairs temple room, later in a bedroom in her mother's house, she began doing Vajrasattva, the purification practice, sixteen hours a day. There was an early morning session, then breakfast, a late morning session, then a rest, followed by an afternoon and an evening session. She did not leave her bedroom for five months. Her mother brought meals to the door.

It's a confessional practice," Dechen said. "At the beginning of Vajrasattva, you are taught to examine everything, leave no stone unturned. You bare all your worst things, while doing prostrations and the mantra. There's nothing like Vajrasattva to make you feel like the lowest. Later on, you are purified and it's very gentle."

During the retreat Dechen completed eight hundred thousand Vajrasattvas: eventually she finished one million. The numbers aren't as important as the method -- which is called the four powers or the four potencies. The first potency is recognizing that you have done something wrong, the second is remorse, the third is confession, and the fourth is the promise never to do it again. But after five months Dechen begged to be let out. She had gotten to the part of the practice where she needed to examine her relationship with the guru, and she found that she couldn't. It was very strange. "You have to be very honest and accept responsibility," she recounted later. "And you see things you don't like. When I saw things I didn't like about Jetsunma, I wanted to stop."

Even after she had returned to regular life, had retaken her ordination vows and moved into Ani Farms, Dechen found she had difficulty understanding exactly what the nature of her relationship with Jetsunma was -- and what a tulku really was. There was a discrepancy between what was taught in Poolesville and what was written in the Tibetan texts. In the traditional book on Ngondro, it said that if a lama told a student to do something wrong -- or, as the Tibetan Buddhists say, nonvirtuous -- the student would still suffer the karmic consequences of that act, regardless of having been instructed to do it. Dechen began to wonder. Why would a text even suggest that a tulku could cause harm if tulkus were perfect?


It was the summer of 1995 when he arrived in Poolesville -- a man who can only be called the Monk. [1] He came to meet Penor Rinpoche and to receive the Nam Chu empowerments and teachings, then stayed for a while. It was a rare opportunity to take these teachings in America, and the Monk arrived with great hopes that, at long last, he might have found a monastery to call home. He had lived at many Dharma centers. He was an American, a famous practitioner, a former rock musician who had become a monk more than a decade before, learned Tibetan, read Tibetan, and done three-year retreats, a rare accomplishment in the West. He was so tall that he towered over little Dechen -- and he was so homely that she found him almost adorable. He was very traditional. He was excruciatingly honest. He was never out of his robes. He slept on the floor. And when he looked at Dechen -- as they began to work on some translations together -- he saw something that the others in Poolesville had missed. He didn't see an insecure approval junkie or a hothouse flower or a brat. When the Monk looked at Dechen, he saw how refined her beauty was, and how refined her mind was. She was smarter than any of them, he told her. The clarity of her mind and her ability to translate Tibetan would surely surpass his in no time.

They began driving to the Library of Congress together to work on texts. And in the car they would talk. The Monk had a chronic health problem and was often unwell. Dechen found herself worrying about him and wondering if he was being taken care of properly, if he had enough to eat and the right medication. She also began to think about how she might get him to stay in Poolesville permanently, instead of wandering from Dharma center to Dharma center. Why was he always wandering around? She respected him, admired him, and liked the way he treated her. She never wanted him to leave.

As her friendship with the Monk grew, she found herself having a harder and harder time at Ani Farms, where she had been living for a year and a half. The nuns were always on her case about something -- her messy room, the hours she spent on the phone. "If I left a book bag on the stairs, that was a huge problem"' Dechen said. Her domestic habits, she was told, were affecting the "energy of the house." She didn't enjoy sitting around, the way they did, psychoanalyzing students who weren't present, and she felt she had become the subject of the psychoanalyzing with greater frequency. It was true that the other nuns discussed her when she wasn't there. As Sherab would explain several years later, "I think it was difficult for her because a real maturation process had not taken place ... she seemed to need people's attention and approval. And she was always trying to act like a big girl, but she wasn't. There was a lot of door slamming and curling up like a ball on her bed and not coming out of her room."

About two or three months after they had become friends, Dechen became more open with the Monk about Ani Farms. It was hard being a nun, and having a job, and living in a group house where nobody seemed to like her. Over the summer all the ordained had gathered at Ani Estates and been asked to sign a paper that released KPC from the responsibility of taking care of them in sickness or old age. When Dechen signed the paper, she felt as though she were "signing away" her life. What kind of monastery was this? She had dreams of renunciate life, but why bother being a nun if you weren't going to have time to practice or go on retreats? Signing this legal document seemed like the death knell: Dechen would have to work as a secretary for the rest of her days, come home to Ani Farms and do housework and temple jobs, have the other nuns griping about her book bags on the stairs, and try to fit in practice somewhere. Apparently Dechen wasn't the only one who was upset -- when the papers were collected by Tashi at the end of the meeting, one of the monks had returned his document unsigned with "fuck you" written across the top.

Dechen had given up a secretarial job to attend the month-long Nam Chu empowerments. She had saved some money but was living off a dwindling supply. A month after the empowerments were over, she still hadn't found a new job, hadn't even tried, and in August her rent check to Palchen -- whose name was on the lease -- bounced. In September her rent went unpaid again, and the atmosphere in the group house grew icy and bitter. The household held an emotional meeting in September 1995 at which Dechen and Sonam, another young nun at the house who owed money, were informed that their debts were "intolerable" and "anti- Buddhist." They were both expected to find part-time jobs to repay their debts. Alana had suggested that Dechen get a job at McDonald's and that Sonam find something at 7-Eleven.

One night soon after the household meeting, Dechen woke up and saw that the lights in Sonam's room were on and the furniture was gone. She heard a window closing and the front door pulled open. When Dechen went downstairs to investigate, she found Sonam sitting in the front seat of a large airport shuttle van, which was taking her and all of her belongings away.

Dechen was devastated that Sonam was leaving. Sonam was one of the few people she got along with. And Dechen was stunned that Sonam would sneak off in the middle of the night. It wasn't a good thing to leave that way -- or to leave at all. Without the protection of Jetsunma, she would get sick, suffer obstacles, wind up in Vajra Hell. But looking at Sonam's determined face and her halo of stubby red hair, it didn't seem the right time to say any of that. Dechen could see that Sonam just wanted to be left alone.

"I guess you won't be coming to any more meetings," Dechen said.

"No, I guess not," Sonam said.

Sonam left her bed, a lamp, and a phone. Dechen was never sure why. She left her car, too, and arranged to rent it out to another nun as a way to pay off her debts to Ani Farms. She never came back to Poolesville. Her departure was unimaginable to Dechen -- and it left her even lonelier. Sonam had been her only friend, except for the Monk.

As she grew more miserable, Dechen confided further in the Monk -- mostly on the phone. In the past her complaints about Poolesville had been minor, that the nuns seemed to be micro-managed by Alana while the monks were left alone. But she found when she became braver, and started to talk more generally about the temple and how it was run, her friendship with the Monk began to blossom. And he took her into his confidence. He had his own concerns about monastic life in Poolesville. It was weird how the monks all had jobs, went to work during the day, and came home and watched The Simpsons on TV, and how Rinchen always seemed to be watching soap operas in the temple office. The building of the Migyur Dorje stupa was a fine thing -- the prayer room was full of bags of rice and beans and cedar chips -- but it seemed the students were geared only to building and painting and sewing. There were very few really strong, sit-down practitioners in the traditional Tibetan Buddhist sense. The Monk liked many of the students and had a good feeling about them, but they seemed to be racing around on the outside and stagnant inside. "Normally you go through lots of upheavals and changes in a Tibetan Buddhist community," he said. "You change or you leave." He found himself questioning: "Are these people progressing?"

He felt that Dechen needed to know that other Dharma centers in the country weren't anything like this -- weren't run like Poolesville and didn't feel like Poolesville. In fact, there was something a little creepy about KPC.

Dechen always defended the temple and her fellow ordained. This was a new kind of Dharma center, she said, and the students were pioneers. Why should it be like anywhere else?

Little by little, as they grew closer, the Monk revealed that he had questions about Jetsunma, too. She didn't act like other Dharma teachers and tulkus, he told Dechen. Her actions were so far off the map that it was hard to explain them. Why didn't she direct her students' devotion away from her and toward the teachings, the way the other lamas did? It was natural for students to fall in love with their teachers during an initial "honeymoon phase," but why had Jetsunma allowed them to worship her in such an overboard way? She might be the real thing, a true bodhisattva -- the Monk was always willing to entertain that possibility because he believed in Penor Rinpoche and Gyaltrul Rinpoche -- but her teachings were untraditional. They were often tinged with New Age thinking, and Jetsunma made bizarre claims.

It was highly unusual, for one thing, that she promised to meet up with students in the bardo. And it was unheard of that she or any of her students would claim that Jetsunma was a ninth-level or tenth-level bodhisattva, a profoundly realized being -- because Mandarava was supposed to be. "To speak of one's spiritual attainments is to lose them," the Monk told Dechen. As for her past-life memories and knowledge of the past lives of her students -- even if they were real -- they would ordinarily be kept to herself. No other lama he'd ever known talked this way. The Dalai Lama had often joked that he couldn't remember things that happened last month, let alone in another lifetime.

But even stranger was the emphasis on money. At the other Dharma centers it was discussed one day a year, usually around tax time -- and students were never browbeaten about giving. The Monk had been upstairs in the temple office over the summer and found a printout of the budget. Did Dechen know how much money Jetsunma received every month? Close to ten thousand dollars in cash. Tax-free. Dechen was stunned by the amount. "She has all kinds of expenses," Dechen said at first. The Monk wouldn't hear of it. This was an unheard of amount for a lama to be paid, he told her. Penor Rinpoche owned just his clothes. Gyaltrul Rinpoche lived very simply. Tibetans in general are frugal and financially cautious people. They don't have lifestyles that include huge wardrobes and beach vacations. And whatever money they get, they give to their Dharma centers. In India, Penor Rinpoche raised money to support and feed thousands of monks and nuns. He provided for them, not the other way around.

The Monk remembered how, at the Nam Chu, he'd been told by Wib that the sangha had given Jetsunma the same amount of money as Penor Rinpoche -- twelve thousand dollars -- even though she hadn't been teaching. Didn't anybody know that His Holiness was supposed to get more than she did, or the entire offering? And traditionally an offering made to a lama for a teaching was immediately given back to the center, not kept. Where did all Jetsunma's money go?

As more time passed the Monk made another revelation to Dechen. Did she know that Jetsunma was shopping around for a new consort? That Karl was on the outs? Dechen hadn't known anything about this, except that Karl had told her once that Jetsunma had slugged him one day -- so hard that he was knocked over a piece of furniture. And that Gyaltrul Rinpoche had told him that being beaten by Jetsunma was a "great, great blessing."

"New consort? Who?"

The Monk believed that Jetsunma had shown an interest in him. One day, in front of many students, she had walked right up to the Monk and kissed him flush on the mouth. She had praised his translations and told him she wanted him to stay and teach. A number of times he had felt her eyeing him -- putting out a certain seductive vibe. And one of her attendants had come to him, asking if the Monk could personally give Jetsunma the Dream Yoga practices and other high Tantric teachings. Since she hadn't done the requisite retreats and purifications, he had refused.

The funny thing was, while the Monk wasn't interested in Jetsunma he did seem interested in Dechen. He always found ways to tell her that she was special -- delicate and subtle and intelligent and aware. He showered her with praise. "I had never been treated so well by anybody," she would say later, "and nobody had ever said the things he did to me."

In late October, over the phone, the Monk admitted that he was falling in love with her.

"I know," Dechen said.

They were quiet for a while. "You aren't going to leave me now, are you?" she asked.

"I should," he said. "I should break this off."

"I have nobody left but you," Dechen said. "Sonam's gone ..."

She had no romantic feelings for him, she told him. He seemed to accept this, and Dechen was sure the subject would never come up again. It was a crush, she told herself. It was fleeting. And he had been a monk for so long that he surely knew how to deal with these things. But on Dechen's birthday in November, the Monk took her to dinner in Bethesda and to see Carrington, an Emma Thompson movie about a celibate love affair between two Bloomsbury bohemians. Before the movie he handed Dechen a poem that he had written for her. She read it and was stunned. It was romantic, emotional, and very physical. "It had a lot of imagery," she said, "and was a praise of every part of me."

She reread the poem in her bedroom, later that night, then crumpled it up and threw it in the trash. The next morning she fished it out again and flattened it. And she called him.

"You can't do this, you're a monk," she told him.

"I thought you'd never call me again," he said.

"I shouldn't," she said, "and don't write any more poems."


They were driving home from the Library of Congress one night in the car, and after a tender conversation they began to kiss. "It was stupid of me, but I didn't see it coming," said Dechen. They pulled the car over to the side of the road and continued their embrace. The Monk told Dechen that he loved her. He wanted to marry her. He wanted to take her away from Poolesville. Dechen grew quiet, and the Monk drove her home.

The next morning she felt once again that her friendship with the Monk had to end. But almost as soon as she'd decided that, she called him. They had to be friends. Who else did she have? Also, she felt herself on the verge of something. Was it love? She began to allow the Monk's fantasies to bloom inside her. She began imagining the possibility of not being ordained, of marrying him and living side by side, two lay practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. "And he told me about all these other Dharma centers we could visit," she said. "But I still didn't really want to be anywhere but Poolesville."

Just a few nights later, a stranger came to Ani Farms, a journalist who was writing a book about Jetsunma. Most everybody had heard about the book, and there'd been some tittering in a meeting about it. The sangha had been wondering when the rest of the world would begin to recognize Jetsunma and the miraculous work she had been doing for years.

The night I came to the farmhouse, Rinchen knocked on Dechen's door and told her to come to dinner. Dinner? Usually the nuns didn't eat meals together, and lately they hadn't been speaking to Dechen, much less allowing her to eat out of the general food supply, since she was not contributing her share of money. When Dechen said she wasn't coming to dinner, Rinchen explained she had no choice.

The dining room was dark, and Dechen felt odd and uncomfortable. She sat down across from me, as she would recount two years later, and witnessed the unfolding scene. She remembered noticing that I had long dark hair and was almost as tall as Sherab. She remembered that Sherab and I acted like kindred spirits. We were comfortable with each other, made jokes, and seemed like old friends. We had been up in Sherab's room talking for hours, too. Dechen remembered how the other nuns nodded their heads -- and acted like they had dinner together every night. It wasn't an act, really. Dechen understood how it was. When outsiders came you wanted things to seem a certain way.

Dechen was thankful when the phone rang and it turned out to be for her. She stood in the kitchen for the remainder of the meal and talked with the Monk while her dinner grew cold. Finally I left.

They were always talking on the phone in those days, and the Monk was always saying that he wouldn't leave Poolesville without her. Ordained or not, she couldn't remain in that place, he said. She needed to find another Dharma center where her talents would be appreciated and understood and she'd be left alone to practice and do three-year retreats. A healthy place. A good place. But he had to admit to himself -- when he thought of the Dharma in the West and his own experiences -- there were few if any good places.

There was Tibetan Buddhism, and the actual teachings of Buddha, and there were people, human beings, and all their accompanying needs and habits. There was Tibetan Buddhism, and there was a system that was employed to teach it. That system wasn't Tibetan Buddhism. And the politics within that system weren't Tibetan Buddhism. And the Tibetan tulku system wasn't Buddhism, either. It was just another system, created by people. Democracy had no place in it. Someday things would be different, he told Dechen. But probably they wouldn't live to see it.

Dechen found herself pondering the Monk's words and wondered if he was right. She also wondered if he was telling the truth about wanting to marry her. Down deep, she didn't believe him. And when she searched through her own feelings, she decided that she didn't love him. She didn't feel sexually attracted to him. But she felt it was possible that over time they could make a life together built around the dharma and grow to love each other. And she might be able to practice more that way than as a nun at Ani Farms.

She decided to test him, and herself.

The Monk went to New York for a few days, and he called her from the train on his way back. Dechen told him that she would drive into Washington, D.C., and meet him at the station -- -even though the city was shut down in a snowstorm. The Monk was surprised and seemed to have a sense of what the meeting was about. At the train station they were reserved in their greeting, but each knew what was coming next. Dechen had already gotten them a room in a D.C. hotel. They checked into a one-hundred-dollar-a-night room in their burgundy robes.

The next morning Dechen sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the Monk. He looked very sad. And she felt sad, too. She didn't want to give up her robes. And she felt strongly that he didn't, either.

I don't want to give up my robes," she said.

"I know," said the Monk.

"And I don't think you want to, either."


"You seem sad."

"Yeah," he said, sighing. "It's hard."


There was silence for a while between them, but not for long. They had grown into each other's lives, become best friends. They had much in common, felt on the same wavelength. And what they had together, they found they could not give up.

Not long afterward Dechen told him that she wanted to go to Jetsunma and confess. This was the only proper thing to do.

"Jetsunma? No fucking way," the Monk said.

"How about Gyaltrul Rinpoche? He's coming at the end of the month."

"Maybe. Let's talk about it later."

She had learned, when she had broken her vows before, that if one confesses to a breakage -- rather than being discovered -- the offense, the bad karma that had been generated, is rectifiable, o, as the Buddhists say, purifiable. The Monk insisted that this wasn't necessarily so. Essentially, they had just touched bodies and kissed. He had read the rules very carefully, and this wasn't a "root vow breakage"; it was considered less serious, a "branch" or remainder vow breakage." He had been very careful when they'd been together and had not entered any orifice of her body. Their breakages were only as serious as masturbating, he told Dechen, and because the root vows of ordination were not broken, they were not technically required to confess. It had been wrong, and unwise, he admitted, but they had been careful.

The Tibetan custom, he told her, is to handle these lesser infractions privately. You pick yourself up, do purification practices, and go on. And in his lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, this is true. But the Monk also new that in Dechen's -- the Nyingma school -- it is not. He told Dechen that, technically, it would take a jury of five monks who had held robes as long as the Monk had to weigh in on the situation. But there were no such monks in America.

He and Dechen went over and over the same ground. It became the daily argument -- with Dechen pushing him to talk about it again. The Monk claimed to know what was in the texts and how things were done traditionally. Dechen knew only what had happened to her before, in India, and how important it seemed that she had come forward on her own. But the days passed, and the argument between them went on.



1. He spoke with the author under the condition that his name not be used in these accounts.
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 11:55 pm

18. What a Lucky Child

Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama.
-- Flannery O'Connor

At the end of the year Gyaltrul Rinpoche came to Poolesville, but he never heard a confession from the Monk or Dechen. At first the Monk had agreed with Dechen -- they should go together to see the old Tibetan. But later he changed his mind. It would have been hard to see Gyaltrul Rinpoche in any case. He hadn't come to Maryland to see students as much as to minister to Jetsunma. In phone conversations she had told him that she had been down lately, feeling at sea. There was so much work to be done still. And she feared that her marriage to Karl was ending and wanted Gyaltrul Rinpoche's advice.

The lama arrived around Christmas but soon after became very sick with a stomach virus. He stayed downstairs, in his quarters of the temple, and saw nobody. When Jetsunma came down with the same flu, Alana explained at a sangha meeting that the merit of the students must be awfully low to have caused such illness. What was causing this low merit?

Dechen sat in her chair and began to worry. Later she asked the Monk again to show her the texts that said they didn't need to go to the lama and explain what happened. "Just do some confession on your own and Vajrasattva," he told her. "There's no need to go to anybody."


After Gyaltrul Rinpoche's departure there were two sangha meetings to discuss the fallout from his visit and new developments at the temple. They were held on separate evenings. The ordained met in the prayer room and the lay practitioners in the larger Dharma room. As was usually the case, only a small circle of students who were close to Jetsunma had any idea of what was coming. Gyaltrul Rinpoche's visit was heard about secondhand, in whispers, if you were the sort who listened to the whispers or were around the temple enough to notice changes.

The white noise around the temple in those days was mostly about Karl. He'd had an unhappy look on his face all year. While the inner circle had known that Jetsunma 's relationship with Karl had been stormy for months, that he had been living at the monks' house in Poolesville over the summer, the split between the lama and her consort was just now going public. As usual, before an actual announcement was made, Alana had been a subtle conduit for leaks that helped the students adjust. "Gyatrul Rinpoche pointed to Karl and said, 'You! Get back in robes!'" she told a few members of the sangha in passing. "He told Jetsunma that Karl didn't belong in her house anymore, but he didn't belong with the lay practitioners either. He is a strange case, neither fish nor fowl."

Neither fish nor fowl. This had certainly been the sangha's impression, too. Nobody knew what to make of the young man Jetsunma had taken as her fourth husband -- fifth, if you counted Sangye. Karl had always been a mystery to them, an unknown force inside Jetsunma's house, although more like no force at all. He rarely spoke to sangha members side from a mumble. And, increasingly, he had looked glum or brooding.

Alana had told several close students that Jetsunma felt very bad about the ending of her marriage. Karl was young -- way too young -- and hadn't known how to treat her. Jetsunma had asked Gyaltrul Rinpoche why she'd been married so many times and why things never worked out. "You were damaged as a child," he had explained. "Give yourself a break. This is your compassion. It's like you can't help yourself. You see a bird with a broken wing, and you just go for it, you want to save it. Look at Michael. Spiritually, isn't he better off?"

"Well, yes," Jetsunma said.

"Look at Sangye Dorje. He's a geylong monk now. Isn't he better off?"


"Karl -- is he better?"

"Well, yeah."

"So shut up!" Gyaltrul Rinpoche said, with a chuckle.

"But I just go from one to the other?" Jetsunma asked. "Is this what my life is going to look like?"

"So what?" Gyaltrul Rinpoche asked her. "They're all better off, aren't they?"

"That makes me sound like some kind of machine."

"Well, you are," Gyaltrul Rinpoche said. "Why do you want to be like other women? Can they liberate beings? Take all these feelings, and meditate on the emptiness of them, the emptiness of everything including feelings. You have these feelings because this is your display -- but they aren't really anything. And, yes, you are a machine. "


Chris Finney got a phone call from Sylvia Somerville, one of her closest friends at the temple, telling her about a special meeting to be held following Gyaltrul Rinpoche's departure. From the urgency and seriousness in Sylvia's voice, Chris quickly guessed that the meeting wasn't open to all sangha members. It was one of those meetings, the dark meetings, the laundry-airing meetings. Over the years she had seen new students pulled out of the Dharma room and told -- gently and kindly -- that it wasn't really appropriate for them to be present.

Lately Chris had been avoiding the meetings in Poolesville. She had two daughters now, and life was busier. Also, a shift had taken place inside her. She wasn't sure whether it was her and Rick, and what they'd been going through, or whether the place itself had changed. Chris kept her doubts about KPC to herself. She had found it easier simply not to raise the subject. And when anything about the temple came up, Rick seemed careful not to say too much.

Fortunately, the attention paid to the Finneys' older daughter, Eleanore, now four years old, had died down. This might have been because a young boy had been found to be the rebirth of Dudjom Rinpoche, which would rule out little red-haired Eleanore as his reincarnation. But the Finneys felt that the meddling had continued. Over the summer, during Penor Rinpoche's visit, Rick had not attended teachings. He had looked after the couple's daughters instead. Chris was sitting on the front porch of the temple one afternoon, talking with Alana and Atara, when the two attendants began discussing Rick. "He really doesn't get it, does he?" one of them said. Chris didn't know what to say and felt defensive.

A few days later Rick was approached by Atara, who said she had a message from Jetsunma. They stood on the porch for a few seconds; then Atara pulled him into the temple foyer. "Rick, " she said, Jetsunma is deeply concerned. If you don't pay more attention to your involvement here, when you die you're going to go further and further down, and your daughters will go further and further up. And you'll never see them again."

When Rick relayed the conversation to Chris, she grew concerned. She felt strongly that it was Rick's business where he practiced and whether he accepted Jetsunma as his root guru or main teacher -- but she also knew that sometimes couples at KPC were encouraged to separate. What would she do if she had to make a choice?

Rick had been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for more than two decades already -- in his twenties he had studied with Geshe Lobsang Tharchin, and later he had spent six years as a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a gifted Tibetan lama who died in 1987. And Rick felt that he had seen what havoc a brilliant but self-destructive tulku could produce. Trungpa Rinpoche, although Rick admired him greatly, was a terrible drunk who lived a rather posh upper-class English lifestyle, and, albeit married, he slept with a large circle of students.

And although Rick felt strongly committed to the dharma, in the past years he had given up on KPC. It was one thing to put up with some bad behavior from a real tulku and a qualified Dharma teacher, but Rick had come to suspect that Jetsunma wasn't even that. He had tried to keep his views to himself, and hidden from Chris, but suddenly, it seemed, Jetsunma had gotten bolder in her meddling. If it was no longer okay with Jetsunma that Rick wasn't taking the teachings in Poolesville, he worried that very soon it wasn't going to be okay that Chris was married to him. He also couldn't help but worry that Chris would leave him and take the girls with her.

With his wife's approval Rick decided to write a letter directly to Jetsunma -- hoping to clear up a misunderstanding about his lack of involvement at the center. He tried to be direct and honest and not disrespectful. He explained that he was supportive of Chris's involvement in Poolesville, but he had made a decision to hold another teacher of his, Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen, as his root guru.

He addressed the unresolved questions about Eleanore, too. On several occasions in 1991 and 1992, it had seemed to Rick that Jetsunma had wanted custody of her. Jetsunma herself had joked about wanting to raise her. Alana had asked Rick, "Will you give her to us?" Rick took the hints of a lama and her attendant seriously. And he felt he needed to tell Jetsunma that rather than pleased by these attentions, he and Chris had felt harassed.

He enclosed a twenty-dollar bill with the letter and gave it to Atara. Rick and Chris had heard many times that if you wrote to Jetsunma it was appropriate to put some cash in the envelope. "We were told if there wasn't an offering in the letter -- as a pro forma thing," said Rick, "that she wouldn't even consider it."

Months would pass before the Finneys heard a reply. And as Chris waited, she felt a change in herself, a new feeling. Having a doubt about one's lama, or about the Dharma, according to the Buddhist texts, has serious repercussions. Chris thought if she doubted, she would lose her way, lose the Dharma. And she would lose her friends, her social life, her spiritual life. What would she have then? "In the past, I had thought that if I examined some of this," she said later, "I would almost disappear -- like I physically couldn't keep integrated anymore."

Chris worried about her samaya with Jetsunma. In Tibetan Buddhism a student makes a deep and lifelong vow to honor, respect, and obey the root guru, in exchange for the Transmissions of wisdom and empowerments to come. A broken samaya is a broken pledge of devotion, a dishonoring of the guru, a dishonoring of one's true nature, making further spiritual transmissions problematic. Early on Michael Burroughs had put a punitive Christian spin on the concept by telling students that a broken samaya could result in Vajra Hell -- a bad rebirth.

The students were supposed to train themselves to have utter faith in Jetsunma -- as blind as possible. But the doubts were unstoppable for Chris that summer, like a bad taste she couldn't get out of her mouth. She suddenly remembered episodes that she had long since buried: the time that she had cried inside the temple and been told to leave the grounds because her emotions were "damaging" the crystals. She remembered how she'd been "Vajra-commanded" by Jetsunma to work at Tara Studios, even though she was pregnant and became allergic to some of the chemical compounds being used there. Why hadn't Jetsunma been able to foresee this?

Then she caught herself. She tried to see things another way -- to go around the mountain, as Jetsunma always taught, and see it from a different perspective. Chris remembered all the high lamas who had visited the beautiful temple rooms in Poolesville. The Tibetans were always so taken with the look of the place, with the appearance, and with the warmth of the students with big smiles and profuse bowing and humility. The lamas seemed almost misty-eyed when they came to Poolesville, as though the best of Tibet had been re-created there. Chris trusted their reactions -- and wanted to keep trusting them. Penor Rinpoche, she kept telling herself, couldn't be wrong. Could he?

Doubt was like a disease, or a weed, or an infestation. Chris remembered hearing Alana describe how she struggled with her own doubts. She used to say that one small kernel of doubt that lasted one moment could result in your leaving Poolesville six months later. Chris had watched Bob Colacurcio go through some bouts of it, and seen the strain on his face. She'd thought she'd seen it on Wib's face, too. But they had wrestled their doubts and come back even stronger. There was almost a sense of exhilaration that came with wrestling doubts and winning the fight. Rick had been told by Jane Perini once, "If you mistrust her, you distrust your own enlightened mind."

Maybe that was all this was. Chris doubted herself -- and therefore doubted Jetsunma.

In late September, after three months of waiting, Rick received a phone call from Atara saying that Jetsunma had read his letter. Her response to him was in his file folder in the solarium -- where messages were left for students. Rick drove immediately to the temple, sat in the pew in the foyer, and opened Jetsunma's note. The handwriting was sloppy, an angry scrawl. Jetsunma seemed to have been outraged by his letter to her. I don't know what Alana meant by what she said, why don't you ask Alana? her note said, according to Rick's recollection. I can't believe how many statements made by my students are attributed to me ... How self- important! How arrogant! How ungrateful! I won't even address the other questions. She also returned the twenty-dollar bill. Here's your twenty. I don't want your money. Rick read at the bottom of the last page. Give it to the stupa fund.

Things were even worse than he'd thought. Rick looked at the note again, at the handwriting. "She's a total psycho," he said to himself. After a few days Atara approached Chris to ask if she and Rick had gotten Jetsunma's response. "Yes, we did," Chris said.

"What are you going to do?" Atara asked.

"I don't know what I'm going to do about the letter," Chris told her. "I haven't decided."

But lately when Chris did Guru Yoga practice in the evenings, instead of imagining Jetsunma over her head as the guru, she imagined the substantial and beneficent figure of Penor Rinpoche. Suddenly her mind became much calmer.


It was a cold night in January -- and four months since Rick had received Jetsunma's note -- when Chris arrived a bit early at the temple for the special meeting. She was alone. Rick was home with the girls. Chris took her shoes off in the foyer and left her coat on top of a crowded rack. The Dharma room was packed already, and Chris found a cushion and took a place on the floor near Sylvia Somerville.

Alana was standing in her robes in front of sixty or so students. Chris looked around and realized they weren't all old-timers -- there were some fairly new faces in the crowd. Chris was surprised. And she wondered how some of them would react. Alana began by discussing Gyaltrul Rinpoche's visit over Christmas. The sangha needed to know that the Tibetan's illness was surely the result of the students' karma, their low merit.

It was unlike her, but Chris found herself arguing with Alana in her mind. "Bullshit! We just built a stupa! Just the biggest, grandest thing ever. And it wasn't hastily done. It was done in all the right ways!" If there was truth to this merit business, Chris was thinking, then this calculation wasn't right.

Alana moved to the main thrust of the meeting. Significant changes were taking place in Jetsunma's life. Chris noticed that Karl was on a cushion in the front row, at Alana's feet.

Jetsunma was concerned that the students didn't realize how much she had suffered in her marriage to Karl, it was reported. Jetsunma had heard of people complaining. Poor Karl, poor Karl, and she felt that some students seemed sympathetic to him. But it was time for the students to become aware of a few things -- to help them realize what Jetsunma had been going through these last two years. Karl was immature. He had bad role models for relationships. And while he had been sent through a Twelve-Step program and psychotherapy to help clear up some of these bad habits, he still was unthinking and inconsiderate, and continued to treat Jetsunma very badly. Alana recounted how one night Karl was watching TV with the family when Jetsunma began to feel sick. She went to the bathroom and began vomiting, and Karl kept watching TV -- he never came to see how Jetsunma was.

Chris could hear several students gasp in horror.

"Karl's ego needs to be cut down," Alana said. "He doesn't seem to realize what he has. And he seems to think he can dominate her!" It was up to the sangha to break him, "like a wild mustang," Alana said. "Karl needs to be reminded who the lama is around here."

Chris had a hard time looking at Karl. His head was down, and he was staring at the floor. She saw the back of his neck and his profile. He was twenty-five years old but suddenly looked much younger.

She looked around the room -- at all the people with whom she'd cast her lot for so many years. They appeared to be taking in this attack on Karl as though it were a new teaching, the latest instruction. And nothing seemed odd to them about it. "Each and everyone of us has to take it upon ourselves -- whenever we see him doing something that isn't right -- to break him," Alana continued. There were many Wendys in Poolesville, she told the crowd, the types who liked to help out Peter Pan and might feel compelled to take Karl under their wings. They should not do this.

Chris found her mind racing. Had she been blind all these years? How many moments of insensitivity had she witnessed? How many misguided lessons in compassion? She couldn't believe that the spiritual center where she had spent so much of her life, and where she had uttered so many prayers, had so many dear friends, allowed this. "They were just nodding their heads like zombies," she said.

The room opened up for comments, and people talked about Karl angrily. They were disappointed that he was treating Jetsunma so poorly. One after another students spoke. Chris watched as Wib and Jane said their piece. "We're just so clueless, all of us," Wib said. "We don't understand what a blessing Jetsunma is. And here Karl is, with the emanation of Tara, and he's not treating her appropriately."

Palchen said, "People come into the gift shop and inquire about Jetsunma's marriage. What do I say to them?"

"If you were doing Guru Yoga properly," Alana said sharply, "you wouldn't have to ask that question."

Other people were ordinary and needed to keep vows and live more conventionally, Alana said. It was important to remember that Jetsunma was not ordinary and wouldn't be living ordinarily. "I know that some of you have been commenting on Jetsunma's sex life," she said, "and the number of partners she's had ... and seem to have judgment about that." She paused and looked around the room, as if singling out a few students with her eyes. "She should be able to have as many partners as she wants, and nobody should bat an eye," Alana said. "And just because Jetsunma is married didn't mean she couldn't have others. That is the nature of a consort relationship. It isn't necessarily exclusive ...

"Whatever she does, you should accept it unconditionally," Alana said. "You should be prepared to have that kind of devotion to a lama. And, ideally, if you saw a dakini walk down the road and cut the head off a sweet infant child, your only thought should be, Oh, what a lucky child. "

Chris waited a few moments, then rose. She stepped through the crowd to the door. Out in the foyer she felt suddenly better. It was going to be easy to walk out, she told herself. Very easy. She reached for her coat and quickly slipped on her shoes. How could she have missed so many obvious signs for so many years? How could she have lived that way -- paying so little attention to the truth? There were two Poolesvilles. There was the one she allowed herself to see and the one that was hidden, the one she had never wanted to face. She could hear Alana's voice still, inside the Dharma room. The attendant had switched tacks and was asking the sangha for devotional stories -- wanted to hear people talk about what a difference Jetsunma had made in their lives. There didn't seem to be any immediate volunteers.

Rinchen stepped into the foyer from the solarium and smiled at Chris. "I'll have that brochure done soon," Chris told her -- referring to an unfinished temple project she had been working on. What version of the night's events would Rinchen be telling herself in the future? How would this night look to them, all of them, when they thought back on it? Would they even remember it? When she got outside Chris turned around to look at the facade of the temple again. She took in the whole place suddenly, all of it, the large white porch and huge columns, the roof and the sides. It was as though she had never really seen it before. Her ears were ringing, the way one's ears ring after a concert, and she could still hear the talking inside, and Alana's voice, and the students mouthing their stifled words of devotion.

She took in a breath, then exhaled. "I will never come here again," she said to herself. "Ever."

The next morning she left a voice mail for Jane Perini. "Based on what I heard at that meeting last night, I won't be able to be a member here anymore, " Chris said. Soon afterward she got a call from Sylvia Somerville. "I can't believe you're leaving," Sylvia said. "You've been there right along with us, since the beginning. I feel like we're climbing a mountain together and you just let go of the rope. We were making progress going up the mountain ... we're going up and now you're going to fall."

When Chris heard that -- about going up the mountain and the rope being cut -- she didn't imagine herself falling. She felt herself rising, flying, soaring.

Can I ask something?" Sylvia said.


"Would it be easier to stay if you weren't married?"

"No," Chris said. "It wouldn't be easier."

The phone rang a lot after that, but Chris didn't answer it. She didn't want to talk to Alana, or hear about her broken samaya, or anybody's explanations, or one more thing about Jetsunma's compassion, ever. She new what she knew -- and nobody was going to try to take it away from her again.


The meeting for the ordained about Karl hadn't bothered Dechen too much. It felt like many meetings she'd been to before. She was more troubled by a chilly phone call she'd received from AIana soon afterward. Alana was exasperated that four months had passed since the Ani Farms household meeting and Dechen still hadn't gotten a part-time job. From what Alana had heard, all Dechen was doing these days was translating Tibetan texts with the Monk and Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso. That would have to stop.

"You are no longer permitted to translate until you have gotten a job," Alana told her, "and have begun to make payments on the money you owe Palchen."

Dechen saw the Monk later that day and immediately began complaining. "This is ridiculous," she said. "How can they do this? How can Alana have so much control over my life?" As she drove the Monk to a doctor's appointment, he urged her once again to find another Dharma center. Afterward they found themselves sitting in the parking lot of the Safeway in Darnestown for six hours, talking about KPC and the way it was run. Recently it had been discovered that Sonam had gone to Tashi Choling, Gyaltrul Rinpoche's center in Oregon. Wouldn't Dechen be happier there? There were many centers, lots of places where she could be an ani and not be told where to live or how to spend her time. Dechen was too upset to think about it, so upset and rebellious that she suggested to the Monk that they find another hotel where they could be alone together. So they did.

Alana called again, a week later. "We need to meet with you," she said, "to discuss some things. Some problems."

"A meeting?" Dechen felt a twist in her stomach.

"Yes, Dechen. A meeting. On Saturday morning at ten o'clock."

Dechen felt her heart pounding. She felt certain that Alana knew about her and the Monk. "What problems?" she asked, her voice becoming tight and dry.

"We need to talk about Palchen and the money you owe her," Alana said.

"Oh, that," Dechen said. "Okay."

She was still shaking when the phone rang again a few moments later. "I heard something in your voice just now," Alana asked her. "Did you break your vows?"
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sun Dec 04, 2016 12:00 am

19. The Great Blessing

You have to see through the luster of all the things you play with. You have to take the inner posture of leaving the party.
-- Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

Dechen borrowed her mother's white minivan the next morning and drove to the town house in Darnestown where the Monk was living with five other monks. She parked on the street and went inside. "I'm going to see Khenpo," she told the Monk, "and I think you should come, too."

On the drive together there were long periods of silence. When directly confronted on the phone, Dechen had told Alana about the affair. And when Dechen insisted that she had not "broken her vows" -- meaning her root vows -- Alana had accused her of obnoxious hairsplitting. "You were together alone on a bed in a hotel, and you say you didn't break your vows?" There were several rounds of this until Alana simply said, "I can't talk to you anymore," and hung up. Dechen then called the Monk and told him what happened.

"You told Alana?" he said, in horror.

But later that night Alana called again to say that a meeting with Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso had been scheduled for noon the following day and that Jetsunma would see her in the evening. Nobody had suggested that Dechen bring the Monk along. That was her idea.

The drive to the temple seemed very long, and dreadful. Now she saw that it was a mistake not to have confessed. This was the worst possible outcome -- to be found out by Alana and dragged before Khenpo, the venerable Tibetan scholar. She had memories of India, of having gone before the very same man once before with news like this. The irony staggered her.

Dechen and the Monk walked inside the temple together and found Khenpo upstairs, in a suite of rooms he always used when visiting. He ushered them inside and sat down on a purple sofa in his bedroom. Khenpo was a short man with a small mustache and a perfectly round head. He was younger than most Tibetan scholars -- still in his fifties -- and while he seemed easygoing and simple, he was also known for having one of the best minds in the Nyingma school. There didn't seem to be an esoteric point that he couldn't elucidate or a question he didn't have an answer for. More than anyone, the Monk had been awestruck by Khenpo's intellect and wisdom, by his subtlety and clarity. The Monk had hoped to stay by Khenpo's side and keep working on translations with the scholar. As a teacher he was revered in both the United States and India, where he ran the monastery in Bylakuppe and the large university as well. For the last couple of years he'd been coming with greater frequency to Poolesville to give teachings and instruction. For a while now the Monk had suspected that Khenpo's trips to KPC were designed to keep Penor Rinpoche informed of the students' progress there, and -- in light of some of the New Age overtones to Jetsunma's teachings -- make sure that her students were also offered something more traditional.

Dechen sat at Khenpo's feet. The Monk sat farther behind, in a display of great humility and modesty. Khenpo seemed to want no further details -- he'd already heard enough from either Jetsunma or Alana -- and launched immediately into an angry diatribe. His face looked pained.

"How could you do this?" he said to the Monk. "You've been a monk for twelve years! . . . You may have some realization, but without moral discipline you have nothing."

"And you!" he said to Dechen. "You knew! You knew you needed to confess!" She looked back at the Monk. He said nothing.

Khenpo explained that it was true: their root vows had not been broken. They had broken a branch vow, which would now remain forever broken. But he was clearly appalled. "The hiding! The secrecy!" If they had come forward and confessed, the negative karma could have been purified. But because they didn't come forward and were found out after a confrontation, the vow would forever be broken, and forever unpurified.

Dechen listened very hard for instructions and advice from Khenpo during the twenty-minute meeting. "Do Vajrasattva practices," he finally said, but he didn't suggest an amount. They could try to purify the karma, but, basically, "Nothing can be done at this point."

Driving home, Dechen said, "I won't say I told you so."

"Good," said the Monk. They said nothing else.

Dechen didn't mention the meeting she had scheduled that evening with Jetsunma. She assumed it would be one on one, and assumed she'd be reamed out. The Monk came from another school of Tibetan Buddhism, and it wasn't really Jetsunma's place to reprimand him. He had already pondered this himself. Technically, Khenpo was the only person in Poolesville -- besides perhaps Alana-who should ever know what had happened between the Monk and Dechen. When vows were broken it was a private matter. If it became public it would be an insult to Khenpo, suggesting that his advice alone wasn't enough -- and showing a lack of respect for his ability to handle the situation properly.

Still, the Monk had a bad feeling about this vow breakage. He had a feeling it wasn't going to remain a private matter. Jetsunma didn't seem to care about doing things in a traditional way. And Poolesville wasn't like the other Dharma centers; it didn't feel like the other Dharma centers. It was the kind of place where anything could happen.


After she dropped the Monk at the town house, Dechen began the drive back to her mother's. She felt small behind the wheel of the lumbering minivan, and the burgundy robes felt heavy on her skin, a demanding weight that engulfed her small body. She drove on Quince Orchard Road and began thinking about whether she should remain in Poolesville. But she worried. If she couldn't make it as a nun at Kunzang Palyul Choling, the largest concentration of Tibetan Buddhist nuns in America, where could she?

The sky was dark, the color of fresh wet concrete. It was about two o'clock on the afternoon of February 9, 1996. She made the left-hand turn onto Longdraft Road and never noticed the small beige car in the oncoming lane. It was going fifty miles per hour. When the two vehicles collided, the minivan was totaled. So was the other car -- its front end was flattened up to the windshield.

Dechen was dizzy when she squeezed out of the minivan, and she brushed the broken glass off her robes. She stepped over to the small beige car. "Are you okay? Are you okay?" she asked. The driver was a middle-aged blond woman in a business suit. She looked dazed. "I can't really feel my leg," the driver said. Dechen stood next to the car and worried -- until other cars began to stop and their drivers told Dechen to get back into the minivan. Her face was covered in blood. When the paramedics came, they put her in a neck brace and carried her to the ambulance, where the driver of the other car was already stretched out. Together they were taken to Shady Grove Hospital in Gaithersburg. The driver of the car had a sprained leg and a bruise on her shoulder. Dechen had lacerations of the face and head from the broken windshield glass -- she had forgotten to wear a seat belt -- and after receiving fourteen stitches and being given Vicodin for pain, she was told that she was still in shock and needed to rest.

Sherab and Dawa arrived at the hospital -- they'd driven by Quince Orchard Road and recognized the crushed white minivan as Ayla Meurer's. At first the two nuns assumed that Ayla had been in an accident, but once they realized that it was Dechen who'd been driving -- and that she was going to be okay -- both nuns turned critical. "How could you get in a car accident?" they asked her. It was more evidence of the negative karma that Dechen had been accumulating lately. They immediately called Alana from Dawa's cell phone. Dawa spoke with Alana for a moment, then handed the phone to Dechen.

Alana's voice was cold and stern. "Don't think that this means you can get out of tonight's meeting," she said quickly. "Jetsunma says you aren't hurt that badly."

By the time Ayla arrived at the hospital, her daughter was being released. As they drove, Dechen felt her shame and despair drifting into numbness. Scattered around her face and short, dark hair were shaved marks and cuts, and the thread of the stitches. "I already heard that you're fine," Ayla said, "so I can say that I'm really mad at you. How could you break your vows?"

Ayla handed Dechen a folded bundle of yellow robes -- the robes the ordained wore for ceremonial and special occasions. She'd been called by Alana and instructed to get her daughter out of the hospital, give her the yellow robes, and take her directly to Ani Estates. There was going to be a meeting. In the car with her mother, Dechen stared straight ahead at the road. A meeting. She felt nothing. She never got hysterical when unexpected things happened like this. Her reaction was always delayed. And, anyway, the last thing she was going to do was cry.

"You know," Ayla said as she dropped Dechen off, "you're in serious trouble."

It was about four-thirty when Dechen arrived at Ani Estates, the large, beige stucco-and-wood tract house on Spates Hill Road where five nuns -- Dawa, Dara, Aileen, Alana, and Dorje -- lived. Dechen walked into the house alone and saw that activity had already begun. Several nuns were in the kitchen washing large offering bowls. Atara was standing in the middle of the living room, repeating Jetsunma's instructions. "Jetsunma says there should be chairs lined up in here, like this," she was saying. "And Jetsunma says there should be an offering out for the ordained" -- so pretzels and chips and other refreshments were to be set out. The table in the dining room was to be removed, "and under here," where the dining room table was, "Jetsunma says there should be two chairs."

Dechen had been inside the house many times, for all kinds of reasons. She'd come frequently to borrow movies there from Aileen's video library. She'd exercised on the Health Rider. She'd helped with some Tibetan translations there. She'd even lived there for a week once, when she had no other place to live -- and she had cleaned the house to make money. When Jetsunma and Sangye got together, their Consort Engagement Party had been there. And over the summer Dechen had attended the meeting of the ordained at Ani Estates where everyone was asked to sign a paper relieving the temple of any responsibility for taking care of them. But never had Dechen -- one of the mousiest of the nuns -- been the center of any attention like this. She sat on the floor in the corner and watched the preparations. She watched Atara stage- direct and everybody follow her orders. She noticed that the vertical blinds were drawn.

The house grew darker as night fell. As the monks and nuns began to trickle in, it was clear most of them had very little idea of why they had been called to Ani Estates. The meeting was mandatory for all ordained. Only Sangye Dorje -- later admitting that he had a sense of what might transpire -- quickly volunteered to take the prayer shift and remain at the temple. As the rest of the nuns and monks arrived, they saw a table of food and began picking at the snacks. Dechen had moved to a spot on the carpeted stairs that overlooked the room and tried to keep her head down. She was feeling a bit woozy. She kept touching the stitches on the top of her head, and it was weird that they didn't hurt. One cut on the left side of her face kept tickling her. She overheard whispers among the monks -- they were always the most clueless. "What's going on? Do you know?"

The Monk was among the last to arrive. He came with Konchog and was told to sit away from Dechen until the meeting began and not to speak with her. He sat on the floor in the front hallway and furtively looked up to the stairs, trying to catch Dechen's eye. She only looked away.

Then Atara led them to the dining room and told them to sit on the chairs under the lights. Dechen found herself looking around the room, and at the monks and nuns in the chairs lined up facing her. One by one she looked at their faces. She had known many of them a decade, since she was seventeen. She had sat beside them, prayed beside them, learned to prostrate beside them, been ordained beside them. It felt like they'd been through the wars together. They'd followed the voice of Jeremiah, made the move to Poolesville, enthroned their lama, watched Michael's leaving, built the stupa garden, and seen Jetsunma marry Karl. They'd done all-night prayer rounders together, floated through the exquisitely beautiful White Tara retreat and the amazing Rinchen Ter Dzod, and sat together through last summer's Nam Chu empowerments. They'd kept a twenty-four-hour prayer vigil going, without a break, since it started in the dark basement of the little brick house in Kensington ten years before.

Here was the largest collection of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in America. They were kind people, good people. Dechen admired so many of them, for wanting to dedicate their lives to something good, for building such a beautiful Dharma center. For trying to live by their ideals.

A broken vow wasn't a small matter. The results would be profound and long-lasting. The bad karma would spill inevitably into the path of everyone in Poolesville and create obstacles. It would cause ripples that would produce more suffering. Dechen and the Monk had not just betrayed themselves and their own Buddha nature but defied the guru and hurt the entire sangha. Why hadn't Dechen been able to see that all along? Why hadn't she come forward months ago?

Most of the lights in the house were dimmed. And the lights in the living room were shut off. Only the lights over Dechen and the Monk were kept brightly lit. Alana was wearing burgundy robes and stood in the dining room before her fellow ordained.

"There has been a vow breakage," she said.

The room became utterly quiet. "Nobody is ever to speak of what happens here tonight. And remember, everything you see is compassionate activity." Alana looked squarely at the Monk. "You are not to speak -- either of you -- or defend yourselves in any way."

Some headlights flashed behind the windowpane in the front door. Dechen saw that Jetsunma had arrived. The front door flew open, and the room of ordained rose to their feet. Jetsunma quickly pulled off her black overcoat in the foyer and tossed it to Atara. Underneath she was dressed entirely in black, too-black wool and black leather.

"You fool!" she shouted at the Monk, as she ran toward him, then struck him hard on the head with her open hand. The Monk lost his footing and staggered momentarily. When his balance was regained, he realized that his wire-rimmed glasses had been knocked to the floor and he couldn't see.

Jetsunma studied him briefly. With his glasses off the Monk looked like a mole-soft and blind. "Sit down!" she yelled. The Monk and Dechen began to drop onto the seats of their chairs, and Jetsunma yelled again. "No! Sit on the floor! You don't deserve to sit on the same level as these other ordained!"

Dechen sat on her knees. The Monk sat cross-legged on the ground, with the large lights swinging overhead. "I brought you into our hearts!" Jetsunma yelled at him, then bent down to punch the Monk again hard on the side of the face. "We took you into our homes! And this is how you repay our kindness? I should throw you through that sliding glass door but you don't have the merit."

The ordained were quiet, barely moving in their chairs. Dechen looked out into the living room; in the shadows she could see the outlines of a few nuns who were holding their stomachs. One monk had his hand over his mouth.

"This is a stain on all of us -- and has harmed all ordained forever." Jetsunma yelled, continuing to punctuate her comments with blows to the Monk's head. "This has shortened my life, the lives of our sangha, and made it harder for all future ordained to keep their vows. And it's shortened their lives as well. They worked so hard to keep their vows purely, and now you've made it so hard!"

Dechen looked up again and heard Tashi sobbing.

Jetsunma turned to face the little nun. Dechen stared up at her. "And you!" she yelled. She struck Dechen across the side of her head with the heel of her hand, not far from a few stitches. "I've taken you into my heart! I've done everything I could for you!" She slapped her again on the forehead." There are words for women like you, but I won't use them!" she yelled. "It disgusts me to see you in those robes. It disgusts me to see your face!"

Dechen looked up into Jetsunma's face and never broke her gaze. Jetsunma had a look that Dechen never remembered seeing before. She was almost. . . smiling. But it wasn't a smirk as much as a leer. "What you said happened to you in India before, what you told me," Jetsunma shouted, "that isn't what really happened, is it? You lied to me." She backhanded Dechen again.

Jetsunma began listing instructions for Dechen to follow. The young nun felt herself focusing on all of Jetsunma 's words, all her advice and instructions, hoping to remember every moment. Dechen was never to look at or speak to the Monk again. She was to put her yellow robes on her altar and prostrate to them every day. She needed to get a job and payoff all of her debts. She had to stop "leaning on" the other ordained. She needed to do one hundred thousand Vajrasattva practices, but Jetsunma wasn't sure that was enough. As a punishment, she and the Monk were going to clean the temple every day -- the bathrooms, the floors, the kitchen. And every moment that Dechen wasn't either cleaning or working to pay off her debts, she was to be practicing. As for reading or TV or any other "enjoyments," there were to be no more than four hours per week. She talked about how little remorse Dechen had. "You have never done a single thing that I have ever told you to do," Jetsunma yelled angrily, "so I have no confidence that you'll do it now."

Dechen followed her lama's eyes. She soaked up her lama's words. These were blessings, she told herself. Each word was a great blessing. Each slap and slug, a great, great blessing. Dechen tried to be as submissive as she could be and tried to find a posture of accepting all the blessings as they came her way. This wrathful display -- as it was called -- would only help to purify any negative karma that had been created by her contact with the Monk.

The Monk had been very still, but he turned slightly to see if Dechen was okay. She was cowering. She was humiliating herself: He wanted to yell at her, "Get up! Get up!"

Jetsunma turned to him again. "You may keep your robes but not wear them," she said, "and if you were in better health, I'd make you clean every toilet at the temple eighteen times a day with a toothbrush." She pointed to the crowd in the chairs. "Their toilets!"

Dechen was to clean toilets, too, she said. "I can't tell you not to come to teachings, but if you do, sit behind an umbrella or something. I don't want to see your face. . . . And I've talked to Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso about this -- you may not keep your robes!"

At this Jetsunma walked out. The room remained perfectly still. Alana returned to center stage. She announced that Jetsunma wanted the ordained to tell Dechen and the Monk how this evening had made them feel -- sharing their anger and outrage would help Dechen and the Monk "with their remorse."

Ani Rene spoke first and addressed her comments to the Monk, with whom she had studied. "Driving in the car with you one time," she said, "you criticized some lamas and poisoned my mind with gossip!" she said, shaking with rage. "I felt sick for an hour, and I could have just ripped you apart." Tashi was so overcome with emotion that he could barely get the words out. He was horrified by what had happened, particularly by the fact that Jetsunma's life would now be shortened. Then came Konchog, the young monk who did press relations for the temple and who was a scholar. He also addressed his remarks to his friend, his housemate, his fellow monk. "I had so much faith in you, " he said, fighting back tears. "You kept your vows for so long. And you talked about how the Dharma texts were more important than Jetsunma, and you almost turned my mind away from my teacher."

The nuns of Ani Farms each spoke to Dechen. Palchen said that Dechen needed to face her total irresponsibility and lack of thought for anyone but herself. Alexandra mentioned Dechen's thoughtlessness. She had never contemplated how her breakages would affect anybody but herself. Sherab was the angriest. "You're always rebellious, and everything has to be Dechen's way!" she yelled. Another nun talked about how she'd helped Dechen out when she broke her vows last time, how supportive she'd felt. This was different. "Countless sentient beings," she said, "will be hurt because of this."

But most of the comments were directed at the Monk, and they continued for forty-five minutes after Jetsunma's departure. In the following ten days there were two more meetings -- where Dechen and the Monk were required to confess the details of their affair to the entire ordained sangha. At one point, as Dechen tried to give an account of exactly what had transpired between them sexually, the Monk began shouting; "Shut up! Shut up! It's none of their fucking business!" And it was this attitude, his indignation and pride, which seemed to fuel the anger of his peers. One by one in all three meetings, the ordained told the Monk how they really felt about him, how egotistical he was, how deluded, how he lorded his knowledge of Tibetan and all his studies and retreats and expertise in Tibetan Buddhism over everybody and made them feel bad, how he'd tried, with all his talk of tradition and other teachers and other Dharma centers, to turn them against their lama. He had taken many empowerments, but he'd somehow missed the boat.

The Monk didn't know these people well -- he had been in Poolesville only eight months -- and it shocked him that they would have such intense hatred for him. It also surprised him that Jetsunma should feel so strongly -- to scream at him, and slug him, to threaten to throw him through the sliding glass door. He had refused to give her instruction in some high teachings, and he'd ignored what he felt had been her romantic advances: was that the explanation for her rage? But what had he done to the rest of these people to make them so angry? The attacks on his character were personal, and brutal. This is like something out of the Spanish Inquisition, he was thinking. He knew what Jetsunma would say, of course, that to strike a student was to give him a great blessing. There was a long tradition of teachers hitting students in Tibetan Buddhism. He had heard that in Tibet students were sometimes beaten unconscious with logs and clubs. Penor Rinpoche himself, the legend went, had cured one of his students of cancer by beating him to a bloody pulp -- then collapsed outside on the grass and sobbed. But hitting a student in this country, wasn't that a great risk? Was this monastery life in Tibetan Buddhist America?


In the following weeks Dechen went overboard to live by Jetsunma's edicts and purify herself. She spent two or three hours a day cleaning the bathrooms or floors or whatever Rinchen told her to do. She did her Vajrasattva. She went to the bank, consolidated her debt. With credit cards, back-tithing. and what she owed Palchen in rent, the total came to four thousand dollars. She found a job right away, as a secretary in a publishing house. And since Jetsunma didn't want to see Dechen's face, she listened to her lama's teachings on Wednesday nights while scrubbing the solarium floor. She was largely shunned by the sangha but felt soothed by her mother.

They stayed up late at night, talking about how Dechen had come to veer off her intended path, how she felt dried up spiritually -- and did not trust the words of her lama. Ayla Meurer spent hours with her daughter after the night at Ani Estates. going over every detail of the evening, and every word Jetsunma had spoken. Ayla admitted that she'd had difficult times at KPC over the years, too. Michael Burroughs had said and done many things to hurt her. She'd sometimes felt rejected and ignored by the inner circle. But to her Jetsunma was like Jesus Christ, a miraculous savior of the entire planet. And over the years she had felt great blessings flow from Jetsunma and she'd been able to find her own path, her own way of studying Tibetan Buddhism. She encouraged Dechen to find her way, too.

Dechen spoke a great deal with Ani Catharine Anastasia, her assigned mentor in the ordained community. Catharine Anastasia helped her see that the Monk was not her friend and had never truly cared about her; he'd only planted poison in her mind. He'd come into her life and turned her against the guru, turned her against Poolesville. In a moment of guilt and renunciate fervor, Dechen threw out all the robes that she wore while she had been with him, and she returned all the Tibetan texts and manuscripts he had given her.

The loss of her robes was too much even to consider. If Dechen wasn't an ani anymore, who was she? As Jetsunma instructed, she put the folded robes on her altar and prostrated to them not just three times a day, as Jetsunma had instructed, but nine. She continued to keep her vows assiduously, even after Alana made a point of reminding her several times that she was no longer a nun, and Sherab left an angry voice mail for her when she wore burgundy jeans and a burgundy T-shirt to clean the temple. "How dare you wear burgundy!" Sherab said. "You aren't a nun anymore. " But Dechen was determined to earn her robes back, and Ayla encouraged her. She told her daughter that anything was possible, if she paid back her debts, lived responsibly, practiced Vajrasattva, and kept practicing and practicing. In every spare moment of the day, Dechen did. "I was very remorseful and sad," she said later, "but I was trying to get myself together."

When Chris Finney called her one day in late February, Dechen was surprised to hear her cheerful voice. It seemed like a long time since anybody from the temple had called her -- and sounded friendly. Chris had a small business making prayer beads that were sold in the temple gift shop, and she was calling to offer Dechen her supplies. She could make some decent money stringing the malas, and Chris said she knew that Dechen probably needed it.

"You're not making malas anymore?" Dechen asked.

"I'm not coming to Poolesville anymore," said Chris.

"You aren't?' Dechen asked. This seemed unimaginable. Chris was one of the founding members -- one of the First Wavers.

"No," Chris said, and then she mentioned something about seeing a lama in Frederick, Maryland, now. "We're just going on with our life in another direction."

Dechen didn't inquire further and, frankly, didn't want to know any more. The repercussions of Chris's departure were too horrible to think about. Dechen would rather break her vows a hundred more times than break samaya.

Chris didn't offer any explanations, either. She just made plans to give Dechen all her beads and wire and wire cutters. The truth was, through the Dharma grapevine she had heard about the night at Ani Estates and was wondering how Dechen was holding up. News can travel fast in a temple when something unusual happens. But when Chris asked Dechen how she was doing, she said, "Great! I'm doing great."

And that was truly how Dechen felt. Her mother was being kind and helpful. Dechen was paying off her debts. She liked her new job at the publishing house. Her boss, a woman, was supportive. "You don't know what you're worth, do you?" she said. And Dechen was already looking at the classified ads -- to see if she could afford a studio apartment in Gaithersburg.

A few nights later Dechen was dusting the Guru Rinpoche altar in the prayer room when the sangha gathered in the Dharma room for a teaching from Jetsunma. Dechen had moved into the solarium to begin cleaning tables when she heard Jetsunma's voice. "If you could sample Your teacher's mindstream," she said, "if you could sample the nectar of what your teacher actually has to give you . . . it is contained within this teaching."

Dechen could hear Jetsunma 's voice almost too clearly, coming from a loudspeaker in the kitchen. "I hope that all my students who intend to remain my students are here tonight," she said, "and those who are not here, I'm afraid I'm sorry to say that it may be due to causes having been created that make it not possible or not easy for you to receive what comes directly from the mind and the intention of your teacher."

She began to read a poem she'd written to the sangha, which she explained had been inspired by the activities of two of her students. It was called "War Cry:"

I have seen you.
I have heard your voice.
I have smelt your smell.
I have lived
And died with you.
I know your name. . .

Bitch, whore,
Whatever garment you wear
I will know you.
Your smile is no seduction
To me.
I know you.

You will appear
In lovely forms,
Seductive, caressing, singing songs
Filled with promises.
It is then I will appear
Far more beautiful than you
Adorned with garments
Of pure aspiration

Resplendent with gold and gems
Of pure bliss.
From my mouth will come
The ambrosia of Dharma
And from your
Grasping arms
I will steal my children away,
Like a thief
In the night. . .
And lead them to

Dechen felt herself sinking to the floor. She put her hands over her face. She felt her breath stop. More than the night at Ani Estates, more than anything, this poem hurt her, like a knife in her stomach.

Be warned,
Whore-mother of suffering,
I am coming.
I am relentless!
Not one of my children
Will I abandon to you.
I will meet you on
Every hill and mountain.
In every ocean, in every country.
In the sky, in the six realms,
In form and formless lands,
No hell or heaven will
Hide you from me.
I will never stop.
Like a tigress
I will come,
Mouth dripping with blood,
Claws extended.

I will come and slay you,
I will rip you apart
Cut up, shredded,
Sliced and diced,
No one will know
Which part to call Samsara.
I will finish you.
You will not enslave my children.

Then I will shed tears
To heal you.
I will scoop you up
In my arms,
Tenderly I will hold
Your head.
My eyes will shine
Wisdom and compassion upon you.
My body will be your home.
My speech will sing lullabies
Of pure virtue.
Then you will remember
You are my child too.
Yes, you too.
Then, beloved child
Who is never separate from me,
We will depart together.
We will be in Paradise.

Jetsunma began explaining the poem, line by line. Of course, it wasn't literally about two students, it was about the entire sangha, and it was about samsara. "Whore indicates an awareness that samsara is completely unwholesome," she said. "Samsara is just simply filled with degradation and unwholesomeness, with shit and garbage. There is nothing here but garbage, and so whore is a word that indicates the complete unwholesomeness of it."

She kept reading.

From my mouth will come
The ambrosia of Dharma
And from your
Grasping arms
I will steal my children away;
Like a thief
In the night

"Skillful means are indicated here," Jetsunma said. "The bodhisattva will come like a thief in the night. And I'll tell you that there have been many times that I have stretched the truth, quite a bit, in order to hook sentient beings, that I have elaborated in order to hook sentient beings, that I have put on my chicken suit and danced in order to hook sentient beings, and I know that if I have done that, my humble self, then I know that the great bodhisattvas have done it much more. Whatever means are necessary! . . . When bodhisattvas meet with their students, whatever skillful means are necessary are legal!"

Dechen stayed on the floor, unable to get up. She felt a bit light- headed and confused. How long would this punishment go on? "There are many, many stories of great bodhisattvas who did not even follow the norms and traditions of the society in which they were born," Jetsunma said, "or the society in which they practiced. They threw all that out the window. And they did so because skillful means were necessary to overcome such a terrible demoness as this whore samsara."

Dechen slipped into a back room of the temple until the teaching was over and then found a ride home with Bob Colacurcio. She mentioned nothing to him about the poem. A few days later she got up the courage to talk to Catharine Anastasia about "War Cry."

"That poem -- was it about me?" she asked over the phone.

"I was sure you were going to think that -- you're so self-centered," Catharine Anastasia said. "It's not about you. It's about Wib and Jane."
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sun Dec 04, 2016 12:08 am

Part 1 of 2

20. Come into the Fire

In Gandhi's case the questions one feels inclined to ask are: to what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity ... and to what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud?
-- George Orwell, "Reflections on Gandhi"

That winter, while continuing my reporting in Poolesville, I prepared for the trip to India. Wib phoned my house almost daily with updates and news bulletins about Jetsunma's Pilgrimage, as the trip was now being called. An itinerary was faxed to me, along with helpful hints for travelers. The average temperature in India during our stay was expected to hover around one hundred degrees. Shorts and short skirts were not appropriate attire at Penor Rinpoche's monastery, in keeping with traditions of modesty, although sleeveless shirts were okay. For a small fee the monks would wash my clothes in a nearby river, although it wasn't polite to ask them to wash undergarments. When I told Wib that I had gotten the first round of recommended immunizations for the trip -- diphtheria, tetanus, meningitis, typhoid -- and pills to prevent malaria, I was stunned to learn that none of the Poolesville Buddhists were getting them. "We have a homeopath who is an herbalist," he said, "and we've been told the hepatitis shot doesn't work anyway." Really? I said.

"And Jetsunma's acupuncturist is coming on the trip, and she takes great care of us and protects us. She's a brilliant healer."

Wib's updates made it clear that Jetsunma had moved into another expansive phase. She was looking for a documentary filmmaker to record her pilgrimage, and Wib asked if I knew any. He was still trying to hire a helicopter to take Jetsunma to Maratika Cave so she wouldn't have to hike. He had written to the Dalai Lama's private office in Dharamsala, too, hoping that Jetsunma and His Holiness could finally meet. And, expecting throngs of Indian worshipers to follow the emanation of Mandarava wherever she went, Alana and Aileen were producing thousands of postcard-sized photos of Jetsunma -- prayer cards -- to hand out. ''It's finally starting to feel like a reality," Wib said. The entourage had grown to thirty, including the lama, her three children, two attendants, an acupuncturist and massage therapist, as well as Wib and myself.

Over the months I'd become familiar with the manic pace of life at KPC. Expansive dreams were always followed by enthusiastic planning, followed by round-the-clock building projects and praying. The six-month stupa project was immediately followed by a pilgrimage to India, and searches for documentary filmmakers and Nepalese helicopters and hopes for meetings with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Jetsunma also appeared to be entering an important new phase of her life -- the Princess Mandarava Phase. "The recognition is really starting to manifest," Wib said.

"Things are in transition," Alana had warned me." Jetsunma's display is changing -- the way she presents herself to the world. . . well, you'll see."

In the middle of the India planning, Ladyworks had reached another crisis point. Wib called to ask if I thought the temple needed to hire a $4,500-a-month public relations person in New York City to handle the Ladyworks account, which now included a line of shampoos and conditioners that Jetsunma had created. He also wanted his memory refreshed: Why did I feel Jetsunma should not appear in the infomercial herself? Ladyworks posed all the problems that a modern-day lama has in life now, Wib said. If people had trouble with Jetsunma and the infomercial, it was probably because Jetsunma didn't fit the idea they had of a spiritual leader. She was a pioneer, he explained, she broke the stereotype and "challenged" everybody to see a Tibetan Buddhist lama in a new way. "She's a woman, for one thing," Wib said, "and she's got this long hair, and she's an American. And she's started a business. It's hard for people to grasp all that."

He was being indirect, but when he talked about "people" having trouble with Jetsunma and the infomercial, I knew he meant me.

Did Jetsunma really want to become famous as the lama who hawks shampoo? I felt frustrated by her apparent lack of wisdom. Why was she so impatient to make money? And if she was perfect, how come she had such lousy taste? In a conversation with Ani Aileen -- who I thought of as a sensible person and a fellow member of the media -- I found myself venting a bit and was relieved to hear her response. "Don't get me started on that infomercial," she said. "I'm not stepping into that karmic morass again. . . . I've stopped trying to train them about the real world. They'll have to make mistakes and bump up against it and learn on their own."


It wasn't long after these conversations that Wib called to say Jetsunma wanted to arrange a dinner so that "everybody could talk." Wib, Alana, and Jetsunma were gathering at the Normandy Farm Inn. I was told to bring my "questions about India," but Wib also made it clear that we would be discussing Jetsunma's "PR options" and what I expected would come her way as a result of my book. "You can talk about what you see happening," Wib said vaguely, "and Jetsunma can talk about what she sees happening." I needed to discuss "my goals," and she would discuss hers. This seemed a bit weird to me, since I thought it had all been covered months ago -- and the book's release was at least two years off. Wib also suggested that I should share my ideas and thoughts about Ladyworks.

"What do you mean?"

"We're still making some decisions. . . . Ladyworks might "come up."

"My thoughts about the infomercial?"

"If it comes up."

I met Wib first in the bar, where we waited for Alana and Jetsunma and had a drink. He talked about his life -- his childhood in Rochester, his WASP upbringing, the country clubs and boarding schools and summers on Nantucket. He said nothing disparaging about his parents, or the way he was raised -- "we're very close" -- suggesting only that he and Jane were doing things differently. He had worked at the temple for eight years without a salary, and Jane supported the family with a successful graphic arts business. Their daughters were attending the Buddhist school at KPC and being taught about not killing bugs, not lying, cyclical life in samsara, bodhicitta. "In Poolesville, I'm sure they think we worship worms at the temple." He laughed. "Because every spring we take the school kids to the bait shop. We buy all the worms and then liberate them in the woods."

Jetsunma and Alana arrived -- looking as odd a pair as ever, the lama in her designer pantsuit and nails, the nun in her shaved head and robes to the floor. In the first few minutes we discussed everything from the weather and India to Jetsunma's marriage to Michael Burroughs. "He's such a smart guy, really, and has so much going for him," Jetsunma said. "But he's got nothing to show for it, really. He always has just enough money to eke it out every month." Before I could question why Michael Burroughs's financial status should be a marker of his success in life, the conversation moved on, with tremendous swiftness, to Jetsunma's more promising future.

A documentary filmmaker had been found to join Jetsunma in India, Alana was thrilled to report. His name was Byron Pickett. He lived in Santa Fe and was the friend of a sangha member who had moved out West. He seemed to have big aspirations, too -- the kind everybody in Poolesville liked. His documentary about Jetsunma's pilgrimage was going to be very high quality, shot on film, not video, and Byron was already talking about showing it at the Sundance Film Festival one day. The fact that he had no funding, or money of his own, didn't seem to bother Wib or Alana. In fact, they seemed to believe that it was their responsibility to pay for Jetsunma's documentary, and they were starting to wonder how.

Alana began asking me questions about my book -- when might it come out? How many copies might it sell? And would Jetsunma be asked to make TV appearances to help sell it? A book tour together?

"You may not be happy with the book," I said, a bit uncomfortably. "And Jetsunma may not want to go on TV to talk about it. You know, as much as I like you all, I can't be writing it to please you."

"For some reason, I'm not worried," Jetsunma said. "I'm sure I'm going to like it, and I have a feeling it's going to do really well."

I thought of all the other predictions she'd made -- the sure-fire successes. None of them ever seemed to pan out.

"I'm glad you have such confidence," I said, "but I'm not expecting much success."

"You aren't?" Alana asked, and her mouth dropped open. She looked at Wib with a concerned expression, as if my negativity revealed a questioning of Jetsunma's wisdom.

"I'm going to try to enjoy writing it," I continued, "and not worry about the outcome."

Wib and Alana smiled and seemed relieved. Then Jetsunma chuckled.

"You're sounding like a Buddhist," said Wib.

"You're figuring out attachment," Alana laughed.

"I can see," said Jetsunma, "we're starting to rub off on you."

Maybe it was true. Maybe I had started thinking more like them. Lately I had found myself paying great attention to the weather, as though it bore some message from the mystical world. I'd started shepherding bugs from my house rather than killing them. I had marked in my Filofax calendar when the planet Mercury would be "retrograde" -- it was considered a bad time, astrologically, to write or travel or sign contracts. I had grown so fond of the Migyur Dorje stupa that I had taken friends out to see it, left little offerings of necklaces and rocks on the ledge of its base, and prayed many times there for my father, whose health was worsening. I had prayed for the world on occasion, then dedicated the merit of my prayers to benefit all beings. At one point I'd even called a real estate agent in Poolesville about farmhouses to buy there or rent. It was a whimsical notion, I suppose, but I had looked at a few.

I'd had a few weird dreams, too. In one Jetsunma transformed into a huge tiger -- beautifully golden with thick, black stripes. She was hunched over a huge, bloody chunk of flesh. Over and over again I saw her ripping at the flesh, tearing off bits of meat, her mouth dripping with blood. And in another dream, soon after my first dinner alone with her, I dreamt that I was sitting at a table with her and her face kept changing, swelling, then growing thin, as if my vision were twisting and twisting, becoming distorted. I heard her say, "Wib and Alana are like my right and left eyes." The room began to breathe, in and out, the walls were breathing, exhaling and inhaling. I grew panicky, and a voice inside my head began to yell: "Run for your life! Run!"

Maybe I had started to enter their magical, spooky world and was enjoying some success with the concept of attachment, but what disturbed me was how much the Buddhists suddenly seemed to be living in mine. They were working out their public relations quandaries and getting deeper into debt. Money was constantly on their minds. Jetsunma didn't seem spiritual as much as driven. When I was asked what my "goal" was for the book, I said that I wanted to "tell a good story." Jetsunma's goal was somewhat grander. "I want to see Buddhism belong in America, as any religion belongs in America. I want to see it become another option, something that fits, suits us -- not some exotic foreign practice, some cult that belongs only in the East."


It was probably the modesty of my goal and my lack of aspirational energy that led Wib to place the next phone call to me, a few days later, asking who owned the movie rights to my book. Had I sold them?

"That seems a bit premature," I said.

"Well, who owns them, anyway?"

I thought that I owned the rights to the book and Jetsunma owned the rights to her story. "But I'm not sure," I said.

Wib invited me to Jetsunma's house on the coming weekend. The documentary filmmaker was in town, and Jetsunma thought I should meet him. "He has some interesting ideas," Wib said. "And it would be great if the two of you could work together on some things." I could hear a hesitation in Wib's voice. As blue-blooded as he might be, he wasn't someone who could hide his anxiety.

"Has he found the money for his documentary?" I asked.

"We're still trying to help him with that," said Wib. "He seems like a nice enough guy -- and Jetsunma has a strong past-life connection to him."

"Wib," I said, "can I just say something that's on my mind?"


"You realize that if you guys pay for this documentary, it won't really be a documentary, don't you?"

"You mean if. . ."

"It's going to be considered another infomercial."

Wib called again the morning of my meeting with Byron and Jetsunma -- wanting to bring me up to date on the latest developments. Byron was now actively trying to sell the feature film rights to Jetsunma's life in Hollywood, and a screenwriter named Andrea King had become very interested. She'd written a Rob Reiner movie, I was told, and something for Steven Spielberg -- and her concept for the Jetsunma movie was "fictionalized" and a "romantic comedy with serious parts."

I wasn't sure what to say, but I think I managed a sound of acknowledgment that wasn't quite a groan.

"Byron came up with the idea," Wib said, "and Jetsunma got -- we all got -- very excited. And if he can sell the movie idea quickly, the money would help him make the documentary. And then the center wouldn't be involved."

The logic of this was somewhat skewed, I pointed out. If Byron was selling a feature film about Jetsunma to Hollywood, why would he bother with a documentary? Furthermore, did he really know what he was getting into? The story of Jetsunma didn't need fictionalizing -- the truth was weird enough. And was America really ready for a romantic comedy about Tibetan Buddhism? More to the point, was America ready for Tibetan Buddhism at all? Suddenly things that had troubled me all along had become too glaring to ignore: Surely Jetsunma could have built a monastery with all the money that had gone into her houses or her wardrobe or simply the cash offerings she received for teachings. I couldn't help but think about the way her old lovers became monks and nuns to "keep the blessing intact." Would all that be in the romantic comedy, too?


Wib met me at the door to Jetsunma's house wearing his usual uniform of perfectly fitting blue jeans and a starched striped shirt. His friendly face was edged in stress. His brow was knitted, and there was a perceptible jumpiness to him.

Jetsunma was sitting on a sofa against a wall in the living room. She was wearing a black fuzzy sweater and dark pants, and, as I walked closer to greet her, I was stricken by the sight of her face. She had applied a startling amount of makeup, the amount an actress would wear for a theater performance. Rising above the dark red lips and colored cheeks. her eyes were raccooned by bright blue eye shadow. I'm not entirely sure why, but I felt afraid.

I joined Wib and Alana on the floor near Jetsunma's feet, and was introduced to Byron Pickett, a young guy with a mop of brown hair and big, earnest, dark eyes. He looked amazingly like the actor Robert Downey, Jr. He wore jeans and a work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and he had made himself so at home -- stretched out on the floor like one of Jetsunma's sons -- that he seemed to have been living in her house his entire life. He also appeared to be very comfortable at her feet. The entire first hour was spent helping him solve his immediate money problems and containing his excitement over the giant movie deal before him.

"I feel like I've just won the lottery," he said, smiling up at Jetsunma.

"Andrea King can't wait to start," Alana told me.

"She's really hot," Byron said to Jetsunma, and his eyes grew wider. Jetsunma nodded and smiled excitedly. "And she's ready to just drop everything and do this."

"I can't believe this is happening," said Wib.

"I know," said Alana. "I'm pinching myself."

"Gosh," I said, pathetically trying to join in and seem enthused. "It's really something else."

Byron estimated that he needed $80,000 in order to go to India with a proper film crew; he'd use that footage to raise another $250,000 to finish the documentary. The first lump of cash was something he was hoping the Buddhists could give him -- and he kept directing his pleas to Wib. "I only have one month to make all these arrangements," Byron said, "and I'll need to spend five days in meetings trying to sell the feature film, and another week to finish some editing I'm doing." I got the impression that Byron was one of those people who tended to make his problems everybody else's. When the conversation would veer away from his needs, he would return to them again and again. Finally, as he was pressing Wib for money for the third time, I asked if he'd considered the ramifications of having KPC pay for his documentary.

Byron looked at me blankly. "What ramifications?"

"Well, it's not journalism if the center pays you to make the documentary."

Byron just looked at me, like I wasn't speaking English. "Really?"

"Do you understand that if these people pay for their own documentary, it won't air on PBS or wherever you had in mind?"

"Really?" he asked again, then looked down at the carpet. He pulled out two photographs that he wanted Jetsunma to see. They were pictures of the stupa, apparently taken on the day the lama and the documentary filmmaker met. "This was the day we talked and walked around the stupa," he said to Jetsunma. "And look there. . . in the sky. Doesn't that look like a rainbow?"

A hush fell over the room. Alana's and Wib's heads swerved to see Jetsunma's reaction. Ahhhh . . . a rainbow. It was Byron's final trump.

Jetsunma squinted at the picture. "It sure does. Yep," she said, nodding with great approval.

"Well, that's a good sign," said Alana.

"Very auspicious," said Wib.

"I was lying on the beach once," Jetsunma said, "and looked up, and there was a Dharma wheel made of clouds over my head -- and another time, a lion-headed dakini."

The picture was passed around. I had a hard time seeing the rainbow -- which perhaps said more about my state of mind than about the rainbow's actual existence. Byron didn't have a dime to invest in this project, and he had little experience, but he had a rainbow.

"Gosh, I just can't believe this is happening," Jetsunma said.

I looked up again at Jetsunma. Her blue eye shadow was glowing at me like a giant neon sign that I had refused to see all along. They called it aspiration, but it looked like desperation. They called it desire to help sentient beings, but it was just desire -- in all its human glory. They talked endlessly about the danger of grasping and ego clinging, but how was this different? There was no patience, no calm or peace, no sense of a long view in that living room. There was no emptiness. There was only frenzy, rushing, reacting. They'd convinced themselves that they were saving the world, putting an end to suffering -- and a plan as grand as that dwarfed all the obstacles and information and good sense that stood in their way.

She'd been a regular woman once -- modest and kind, open-hearted and well meaning, by all accounts. But now, since Penor Rinpoche had come along, she wasn't just a gifted teacher, she was an infallible saint. Every thought she had was pure, every desire sprang from a divine place. The "recognition" had brought Jetsunma many things -- but it had also brought her here: She was enthroned on a sofa wearing a mask of makeup while her dearest friends had to sit on the floor at her feet. She was removed from life and kept from intimacy, from equality, from the delicious ordinariness of daily existence. Even her children had to prostrate to her in the morning. She was kept from having a real relationship or a real marriage to an equal. Suddenly, I felt an aching compassion for her, a kind of empathy -- and a great sadness. Had she been ruined by all the bowing, the prostrating, the worshiping?

Pretending you are special is the most human thing of all, I thought. And it is that very urge that keeps people separate and unhappy. Being ordinary and accepting it is a great accomplishment. Doesn't Buddhism teach that?

Byron broke his lingering eye contact with Jetsunma and turned to me. "They love your title," he said. "Everybody loves it. 'The Buddha from Brooklyn.' It was the first thing that Andrea asked -- if we can use it for the movie."

"Use the title to my book?" I asked, incredulously. "No, you can't."

"Maybe once you read the screenplay, you'll relent," said Alana.

"I can't imagine that," I said.

After Alana left to make coffee and tea, I looked up at Jetsunma again. Now that my own property -- my book, my title -- was threatened, I was experiencing a surge of territorial boldness, or something close to it. "Don't you want to be a little more patient about this?" I asked.

She looked back at me with a mysterious smile.

"Are you sure you want a documentary and a book and a movie all coming out at once about you?" I continued. "Aren't you concerned that this is too much?" I was thinking about the Ladyworks infomercial, too, but I didn't mention it. And I was thinking about all the things that I had learned about her -- how the money for the Amitabha statue was raised in Taiwan, then used to pay for her new house. How her salary was half the operating budget. I thought about Michael Burroughs: he was out there somewhere, surely, with a story to tell. Hollywood pictures have a way of drawing all the darkness forward.

"It will bring a great deal of attention to you," I said, "probably not all of it positive."

"I'm a trusting person, and I'm not worried," she said, finally. "I have a connection with you, and I trust you. I have a connection with Byron, too, and I trust Byron. I think you both have tremendous potential, and I believe in you. I've always lived this way, as a trusting, positive person, and not worrying about things that aren't controllable. . . or being scared and cautious."

She mentioned her astrological chart. "This very week begins an inevitable public cycle," she said. "I apparently have the karma to become very famous -- and there's really very little that I can do to stop it. This appears to be true for the next seven years. And my chart indicates that nothing I am involved with publicly during this period of time can hurt me."

"Well, then," I said. "I guess we can all breathe a sigh of relief."

Wib and Byron chuckled.

Alana was entering the room with a tray of mugs and said, "Anyway, if they don't make a good movie about Jetsunma, I sure wouldn't want to be them -- with all those Dharma protectors around. They'll all start dropping dead of heart attacks."


I spent many hours trying to recover from the night at Jetsunma's house before I realized that I might never recover. I was angry at first, then, as a few days passed, I found that I was mostly sad and disappointed. And I felt silly. I had wanted to believe in Poolesville. There was so much that I had ignored, for many months, so many things too obvious to mention -- things that a normal person, any journalist, would have been suspicious about from the beginning. For a long time I'd been intimidated by the newness, the strangeness, the exoticism of Tibetan Buddhism -- by the beautiful and beckoning prayer room and by the lilting chants and by the magical stupa. I was a cynical person, but something about Poolesville had made me lose my cynicism. I was confident, but somehow I had lacked confidence. And I hadn't wanted to use my own judgment.

Four days after the meeting at Jetsunma's, I called Wib to tell him that I wouldn't be joining everybody in India. There were a number of reasons for this: one was that I didn't want to be out of the country for five weeks. My father was much worse, and I didn't want to be away from him. It was the truth, but only part of the truth. Most of the truth was still inexpressible: I couldn't go to India in good faith, and therefore I didn't want to go at all. The funny thing was, if I were worth anything as a journalist -- a real member of the newsroom tribe -- I would have wanted to go more than ever. But perhaps I didn't belong in the newsroom any more than I belonged in Poolesville.

Wib was stunned, of course. We talked for a brief time, then he called me back thirty minutes later. He'd just gotten off the phone with Jetsunma. "She says she is just rocking back on her heels with this news," he said. She offered to have the sangha do a puja, or prayer service, for my father. That was very generous, I said.

"She feels that you and she have entered into a great adventure together and now you are missing out on India," he said. "From her standpoint, it's the culmination of all kinds of personal changes. She said to tell you that her childhood is important, but what she's going through now is more important, and this trip is more important. She says that her entire reason for being is this trip to India."

I didn't know what to say.

"She understands the conventional wisdom standpoint of your dilemma, but she has a different take on the world."

"I realize that," I said. "But I have a take on the world that says my father is more important than whatever book I'm writing. And I don't have much longer to be with him. I need to be honest. . . you see, I'm not sure I believe I'll have another chance to be with him in some future lifetime."

Wib was quiet for a moment. "She wonders if there is something else bothering you, another reason you aren't coming."

I liked Wib. He'd been good to me, patient with me. It was hard not to be honest with him. "Well, I suppose I wasn't exactly looking forward to the entourage, the logistics. . . and now, with a documentary being shot, a film crew. It was becoming too much. I was turned off by all the new developments. Byron and the movie deal."

"I know what you mean," Wib said. "But she trusts him."

"I know."

"She's just looking for a big net -- not fame or fortune," he said. "She is looking for the biggest net to scoop up human beings and liberate them from samsara."

Later that day he faxed me a copy of Jetsunma's long life prayer, written for her by Penor Rinpoche at the time of her enthronement. Jetsunma herself had asked Wib to send it to me -- and suggest that I give it to my father. Sitting in my office, I watched the white pages come out of the fax machine, and I left them there.


I enjoyed my self-imposed exile from Poolesville during February and March. Aside from a lunch with Wib and Alana -- during which Alana handed me a mysterious poem that Jetsunma had written, called "War Cry" -- I heard nothing from the Buddhists. As soon as spring began to arrive, I threw myself into garden work and planting. And, again, I headed out into the countryside to look for a place to move.

While the group was away in India, I spent several weeks visiting my father in San Francisco. We watched movies and talked, and in the afternoon I sat alone in his quiet living room poring over a stack of books I'd bought on Tibetan Buddhism. They were written by various masters and monks -- teachers of great renown, lineage holders with fabulous pedigrees and exotic names. Each book seemed more enticing than the next. They were slim, smooth, and had glistening jackets in vibrant colors -- brilliant oranges and yellows and pinks. The face of the Dalai Lama looked out from several of them, with his shy and jolly smile.

Inside, the words were calming. The prose was clear and graceful. Suffering was discussed dispassionately, rather the way a doctor might discuss cancer, and the terrible troubles of samsara were tossed lightly about. There was a feeling of buoyancy in the pages, a spaciousness, as the Buddhists would say, and also a feeling of depth and clarity, as though the reader were swimming in the deepest ocean and seeing the bottom perfectly. I devoured the books and enjoyed this sort of armchair Buddhism. The books were like seductive postcards sent from a sunny and relaxed state of mind -- a pure land you could only hope to visit one day. And by their example Buddhism seemed like something rational and reasonable, an unemotional and unmessy philosophy of kindness. There was no sense of struggle in the texts -- none of the fumbling and bumbling that I'd seen out in Poolesville and none of the confusion and anguish that I had sensed around Jetsunma.

Perhaps these books were written from the mountaintop, I told myself, and what I'd witnessed at KPC was the dire climb to get there. . . the ugly battle toward selflessness, the ego's forced surrender, the unaccountable desires of the guru, the razor's edge. It was hard to imagine what Jetsunma's students had been through all these years, and none of it from an armchair. Their spiritual training had been brutal, almost cruel at times. They'd been lied to, manipulated. They'd been squeezed for money. Yet their devotion seemed profound. What was really going on in Poolesville, and what were they getting in return for their devotion?

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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sun Dec 04, 2016 12:08 am

Part 2 of 2

Stories of the India trip came my way eventually. As with so many events in the life of Jetsunma, I put the puzzle together as best I could based on dribs and drabs, whispers, overheard remarks, and full-blown accounts over dinner and lunch. It had been a difficult pilgrimage -- for some an absolute misery. Byron kept his film crew in a constant state of upheaval and confusion. Jetsunma seemed beleaguered and emotional. Alana described the five weeks as "lots of hardships. . . but the spiritual purposes were met."

The weather in Bylakuppe, where the group spent nearly two weeks at Penor Rinpoche's monastery, was so hot and dry and dusty that, as Aileen would put it, "we didn't know whether to open or close the windows, so we kept doing both all day long." Byron and his crew followed Jetsunma around with cameras and convinced her to wear her black leather jacket in the hundred-degree heat as a visual symbol of her "Westernness." During the day the group attended long empowerments in the main temple -- all in Tibetan. And at night Penor Rinpoche invited his American students to join him on the patio of his cottage, to watch installments of a fifteen-hour videotape production, The Life of Guru Rinpoche, that his monks had put together themselves. It was shot in a warehouse using one camera and one microphone, and the monk who played Mandarava wore a pair of halved coconuts for breasts.

Gyaltrul Rinpoche -- who was also visiting Bylakuppe at that time -- kept elbowing Penor Rinpoche whenever Mandarava would appear onscreen. "Ugly! She's so ugly!" He laughed with his big, gap-toothed smile. And all Jetsunma's students tried to laugh, too.

But the visit to Penor Rinpoche's monastery was, according to Aileen, "something of a courtesy call." The true purpose of the trip was for Jetsunma's students to accompany their guru as she visited the famous Mandarava's pilgrimage sites in Nepal. The group numbered thirty-two, counting the film crew and a monk sent by Penor Rinpoche to accompany the travelers, and logistics were complicated. So that Jetsunma could meet up with Mandarava's spirit or mindstream, the entire group flew from Bangalore to Delhi, then took another flight to Kathmandu. After seeing the sights in small groups and circumambulating the great stupa of the Kathmandu Valley, they jammed themselves into two buses -- Jetsunma alone had twenty-one pieces of luggage in India (her students were allowed one bag each) -- and traveled to Pharping, where Guru Rinpoche had practiced in a cave.

Helicopters took them over terraced farms in the Himalayan foothills to Maratika Cave, where Mandarava had practiced with Guru Rinpoche centuries ago. The cave was enormous, with a wide mouth. Inside, it was dark and dank, and there were so many bats that the students had to cover their heads with hats and plastic to keep dry amid the showers of bat urine and guano. Byron and his crew set up a generator and cables and were able to flood the dark cave with eerie streams of white light. Jetsunma slowly walked around the edges of the cave, trying to connect with Guru Rinpoche and his consort -- feeling for a sense of them, their spirits, their energy -- and leaving white scarves in the spots where she did.

They flew again to Delhi, where another long bus trip took them to a lake that had been created when Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava had been set on fire. It was on a visit to a small grotto called Mandarava's Cave that Jetsunma finally felt a true merging with the young princess's mindstream. The place was well-kept and marked with a plaque; a lama was even living and praying and maintaining an altar there. A handprint of Mandarava's still existed on the cave wall, and after the lama pointed it out to Jetsunma, she reached up and put her hand inside the print. It fit exactly.

On another excursion to Mandi, the group tracked down the "pit of thorns" where Mandarava had been thrown by her father. But the pit didn't appear to be a highly venerated pilgrimage site. Located in a bad section of town, at the end of several crooked streets and an alleyway, it had no signpost and no indication that it had been visited by any worshipful followers for years. The pit was at the bottom of a small, dirty staircase, and inside it was tiled like a public toilet and lit with harsh fluorescent light. Jetsunma fell against Byron when she saw the state of the site and began sobbing and moaning. It seemed the Buddhists had simply forgotten this place -- or, worse, had forgotten Mandarava. Taken back to her hotel, she was inconsolable. In the morning she told her students that she had cried all night. The "sacred energy" of the pit, she explained, was nearly gone because of neglect.

Of all the stories that came home with the pilgrims to India, perhaps the most puzzling was that, despite Wib's valiant efforts, the Dalai Lama was not available to "receive" the Poolesville group or able to meet with Jetsunma in Dharamsala. I had to wonder why the Dalai Lama didn't have a moment to meet with emissaries from the largest monastery of Tibetan Buddhists in America. Or why, in all his visits to Washington, D.C., he had never ventured to Poolesville or ever stood for a photo op with Jetsunma, the only woman tulku teaching in the West. What had the Dalai Lama heard about her? What was her rap in the larger world of Tibetan Buddhism? It wasn't as though Tibetans are so spiritually advanced that they never gossip among themselves about various tulkus and recognitions. In fact, the ones I'd met seemed endlessly fascinated with the subject.

Months after she'd left, the monks in Bylakuppe couldn't get over the brash American woman who had arrived at the monastery with her cadre of nuns and her black leather jackets and her film crew, all her makeup and luggage and helicopter rides. Jetsunma was strange, controversial -- and a subject of unending speculation. It was said that she ran a "personality cult, " that she "thought she was a movie star." She was a "laughing-stock" in Bylakuppe, according to K. T. "Thubten" Shedrup Gyatso, an American monk who visited the monastery the following year. "She made an amazing impression," he said: "a bad one."


My own oasis of serenity did not last long. At the beginning of April, just a few days before the group was due home, my phone began ringing with news from another distant, magical land: Hollywood.

I grew up in Los Angeles and still have friends there -- some of whom work in the movie business, some in journalism. They called to alert me to a movie deal that had been recently signed. Daily Variety, the trade paper for the entertainment industry, had run an article announcing that the screenwriter Andrea King was being paid four hundred thousand dollars for a feature film idea that she had pitched to Turner Pictures. It was a dramatic comedy "based on the true story about a Jewish-Italian woman with long fingernails and big hair who was raised in Brooklyn and was proclaimed a reincarnation of a Buddhist leader." Her movie was tentatively titled "The Buddha from Brooklyn."

At first when talking to my friends, I found myself defensive of Jetsunma and the movie deal. These were good people, I said, but misguided. It hadn't been intentional misappropriation of my title, just more bumbling. But as I struggled to be generous, a bad mood descended upon me. Hadn't I made it clear to Byron that I didn't want to "share" my title with him? I became overwhelmed by a vicious sort of territoriality, something journalists are taught if they don't have it naturally. And as I waited for the entourage to come home, my possessiveness about my title grew into an obsession. My title, my book. The days passed with this ugly feeling inside me growing. Having just read a pile of books on Buddhism didn't help; it only made me feel worse. I was now fully aware of my egocentrism but felt powerless over it.

Several days after Wib's return, I faxed a copy of the Variety story to his house along with a letter complaining that my title had been "stolen." Surprisingly, it was Alana, not Wib, who called me the next day. She was cheerful but impersonally so -- as though she'd drawn a line in the sands of her mind about exactly how cheerful she could be.

"How was your trip?" I asked.

"There were a lot of hardships," she said. "We are certainly glad to be back in the U.S., where it's clean."

She'd read my letter, and discussed its substance with Jetsunma, who was a bit "taken aback" by my concerns and accusations. They'd all been traveling in India for five weeks -- how could she know what title Andrea King was using? This wasn't her concern, and, furthermore, why didn't I just pick up the phone and call Andrea King myself? Looking back, I'm not sure why I didn't.

We scheduled a meeting with Jetsunma for the following week, but when the day came I received a call from Alana saying that Jetsunma was "having a hard day" and couldn't possibly get together. Unlike Wib -- with whom I tended to chat for a while, Alana was abrupt. Trying to get her to chitchat about temple developments was like trying to sweet-talk a wall.

Soon afterward Alana set up another appointment for me to see Jetsunma, but this one was also canceled at the last minute. Jetsunma was feeling "lost and foggy and weird," Alana said. She was having a hard time "reintegrating" to America after being in India so long.

And rather than hanging up quickly, as she had done in the past, Alana dropped a few pieces of new information. These had the feeling of prepared remarks, not a casual conversation. Jetsunma and Byron were having "some problems," Alana told me. There were some papers to sign still regarding the movie deal, and Jetsunma was reconsidering whether to give Byron the rights to her story. He needed to "shape up," Alana said rather mysteriously. In India, Jetsunma had made several overtures to Byron, trying to get him to "come closer," but he had balked.

"Overtures?" I couldn't help but wonder if they'd been romantic.

"He said to Jetsunma that he needed to have journalistic distance."


"We've seen this many times," Alana said. "Being around Jetsunma brings out the worst in people, and sometimes the best. You never know which."

"God only knows what it's done to me," I said.

Alana laughed -- something I was grateful for, to be honest -- and her voice became deeper and sort of hushed. "There's a real story to get, Jetsunma wants me to tell you. And the person who comes into the fire, who gets closer in, will get it. Jetsunma says, 'So far only Martha seems to have the balls."

In the following weeks Alana arranged two more dinner appointments with Jetsunma; both were canceled at the last minute. When I called Alana to set up others, I heard nothing back for a long time, then she left a voice mail one day saying Jetsunma was "unavailable until at least August."

The Buddhists were always talking about impermanence, but around Jetsunma impermanence was even more impermanent. It was a whole new era all over again. As the weeks passed I found myself missing the old stupa days. I missed Wib and how he used to call every few days with news and friendly updates.

I left a message on Wib's answering machine. He phoned me back a week later. "Why am I dealing with Alana?" I asked him right away. "Where have you been?"

His voice sounded rough and tired, as though he'd been up all night. "I've been through six weeks of utter hell and change since India," Wib said. "It was a total lesson." When I asked specifics, he said he wasn't really "able to talk about it." In any case, he was looking for a job in the real world, which he needed, he said, "for my self-esteem." He was also "getting out of the temple businesses, and out of the inner circle."

There was more. He and Jane had "separated," he said, something that Jetsunma had advised them to do. Wib was no longer living at his cozy house in Potomac with his wife and two daughters but in an apartment complex by himself. "Jetsunma thinks we need some time apart."

"Oh, I'm so sorry," I said. And I felt a sadness descend on me. Wib and Jane were separated? Jetsunma suggested it?

"You can always call me," Wib said, "about anything. But I'm so out of the loop now, I'm not sure how much help I'll be."

"It's been kind of weird, the last couple months."

"I feel sort of responsible," he said. "I got you into this deal, didn't I?"

"Sort of."

"Hey," he said, "whatever happened with your book title?"

"I'm going to Los Angeles next week to work on that," I said.

"That was so gross of them to take it."


I didn't just look into the title when I was in Los Angeles that spring. I also began another mission, scrounging around for some other writing assignments about spiritual life in America. I had a feeling doing so might help answer some of my questions about Jetsunma and what I'd seen in Poolesville. What attracts certain people to certain leaders? More than anything, I wondered why spiritual leaders arc always getting into so much trouble. Are they simply held to a higher standard -- do we expect too much of them? Are they corrupted by power? And why is it that if people are charismatic enough, it seems easier to overlook their glaring faults -- and the fact that they don't practice what they preach?

In an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism written by the Dalai Lama, I came across several pages devoted to the importance of finding a pure teacher when one begins to study. The tone is cautionary. "It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect. Personally, I myself do not like this to be taken too far," the Dalai Lama wrote.

The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple. Therefore, whenever I teach this practice, I always advocate that the tradition of "every action seen as perfect" not be stressed. Should the guru manifest un-Dharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting Dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason. . . .

Make a thorough examination before accepting someone as a guru, and even then follow that teacher within the conventions of reason presented by Buddha. [1]

There were similar references to this perspective in books by Gyaltrul Rinpoche and Patrul Rinpoche. [2] But I had to wonder how a new student who knows nothing about Buddhism could be expected to distinguish a pure teacher from an impure one. How was anyone, even a seasoned student, to feel sure she was in the presence of "the real thing"?

Charisma, according to the Dalai Lama, has nothing to do with it. [3] I wondered if it was like choosing a husband or anything else -- you either fall in love at first sight or it takes years to reach a decision, and even then, it is an intuitive one.

I looked into writing profiles of other spiritual leaders and gurus as a way to explore this subject more, I explored practices and disciplines other than Buddhism. Frauds and saints seem to arise in every religion. I looked for leaders who were controversial, who'd tried to bridge religion and popular culture -- and whose personalities and lifestyles were perhaps a bit too large.

In Palm Springs I had lunch with Tammy Faye Bakker. She wore a big, floppy straw hat; a long, white dress; and six-inch heels. Her hair had been shaved down to an inch -- the length of Sherab Khandro's -- and her eyelashes were so long and so fake and so coated in black mascara that each lash stuck straight out like a little black hand-dipped candle. I couldn't help but like Tammy Faye. She was fun and openhearted. And, despite the fact that she'd been recently diagnosed with colon cancer, she seemed to have only four modes of being: upbeat. bubbly, superbubbly, and sobbing bubbly. In their heyday she and her ex- husband, Jim Bakker, raised one million dollars every other day. They reached thirteen million viewers a week via satellite. She had a new book out, a memoir, so to speak, and I was struck by her accounts of the pace of her life building a ministry. She'd been driven, worked seven days a week, and focused entirely on acquiring new members, fundraising, and building a large, impressive compound in North Carolina called Heritage USA. There was a certain need for an extensive wardrobe, and increasing amounts of makeup. Deep down, she said, she felt lonely and unloved. The environment at Heritage USA was full of judgment, and the larger world of fundamentalist Christian ministers was a snake pit. I read with disgust her accounts of being blackmailed by other preachers, of the politics and posturing.

These spiritual people weren't like everybody else, I said to Tammy Faye. They seemed worse.

"I know," she said. "Very terrible."

Why did spiritual leaders run into such problems? I asked. She batted her heavy lashes at me. "Let me tell you something," she said. "I think the devil can use a Christian more than he can use somebody who isn't. He's always working them."


"He doesn't have to spend his time on people he already has."

When I proposed that spiritual leaders tend to set themselves apart, think of themselves as good, as devoting their lives to important work -- and therefore don't question their personal ethics enough, she started looking off into the next room, where lunch was being served.

"That could be true," she said. "But I don't know. Let's just turn off this tape recorder and eat!"

In Los Angeles I interviewed Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the radio talk- show shrink. Dr. Laura had brought a strict moral code and Orthodox Jewish teachings to the airwaves and was known for verbally abusing her callers. Her harsh edicts didn't seem to deter many people -- in fact, they seemed to attract them. The small blonde was a black belt in karate and poised to become the most popular radio host in America. After sitting in the studio with her for a couple of hours, I started to notice that, in person and up close, she had an intensity that reminded me of Jetsunma's. Her overwhelming confidence in her message gave her a tremendous air of authority, which I had a hard time questioning. It was as though a bubble surrounded her that was impossible to pierce. She was tough and tightly wrapped, and I found myself trying to please her and compliment her in order to get her to settle down.

Far more relaxed and gentle was Renee Taylor, a legendary yoga teacher in Southern California. She was in her eighties but still teaching, and still wearing colorful floor-length saris and glamorous turbans. In the 1930s she was a screenwriter who started teaching Hatha yoga from her Beverly Hills home, and in the 1940s and '50s she was a pioneering health food advocate. She made pilgrimages to the Himalayas and wrote books about the small fiefdom of the Hunza, who she felt were the true lost people of Shangri-la. In high school I had taken yoga classes from her and had never been able to forget her soft, lilting accent -- she sounded a little like Bela Lugosi -- and her accounts of her exotic travels. But Renee was determined. She had come to the United States from Belgium to flee the Nazis and created a life for herself -- mostly alone. Her work and teaching had influenced countless people, and she had created a little yoga empire, though it was now on the wane. In her eighties she was still driving herself in a huge red Cadillac convertible, despite the fact that she was nearly blind.

Renee tried to sell herself as soft -- and there was a true softness -- but she was also competitive and difficult. "I am very willful," she admitted with a laugh. When I mentioned wanting to talk to another yoga teacher, she threw out a rash of criticisms against her, and finally dismissed her technique as fraudulent. It isn't the most selfless and ego-free people who seem drawn to the role of spiritual leader. In fact, as I talked with Renee and Dr. Laura and Tammy Faye, and thought of Jetsunma, I began to suspect that it might be the most willful people who turn to spiritual measures and solutions, as a means to control and channel their own strong desires. It is a way to manage their gigantic egos. And they seem to use whatever gifts they have -- charm or threat or softness -- to set about refiguring the world their way.

On another trip to San Francisco, I met up with Dean Ornish, the famous heart specialist who has proven in several studies that meditation and yoga, along with a strict low-fat diet, can reverse heart disease. Dean had dark curly hair and a sweetly sad expression that made him immensely likable. Rather than being larger than life and alluring, Dean's charm was his self-effacement. He seemed genuinely modest, too, aside from the fact that the trunk of his car was loaded with copies of a People magazine issue that carried a flattering story about him. He and I took a hike in the Marin Headlands and later, over lunch at my father's house, we talked about his work and his story. Like Jetsunma, he had suffered a breakdown of sorts in early adulthood -- at nineteen he had been depressed and suicidal before hearing Satchidananda speak. By incorporating his spiritual lessons into his medical career, Ornish came to believe that the epidemic in America wasn't physical heart disease, it was emotional and spiritual heart disease as well. He'd taken Eastern teachings and made them American.

Soon afterward I had dinner with another medical doctor who had brought Eastern philosophy to mainstream America -- and made a fortune with it. Of all the gurus I had encountered, Deepak Chopra was by far the most charismatic and fun. He had a loud and generous spirit that filled a room and an amusing way of questioning his own theories and always coming up with new ones. He had begun his work as a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation, but eventually left the organization to write his own books and develop his own theories. Fame came to him in the early 1990s, with his book Quantum Healing. He has published many best-selling books since, raced around the globe several times over giving seminars and conferences and retreats, and, like Tammy Faye Bakker, he had an infectious kind of energy that I found irresistible. But, unlike her, he found any one religion too small to accommodate his own giant spirit.

"Religion strangulates, suffocates, confines, imprisons," he told me over dinner in La Jolla. "And yet, spirituality is all about liberation. It is about freedom." All religions are based on "authentic spiritual experience," he thought, but because they are about control and largely intolerant of other beliefs, they have caused enormous damage to the world. "It's just control and drama and a form of politics, you know. It's the biggest con job of civilization," he said.

"But what's really interesting to me is that it doesn't matter what your belief system is, or how outrageous you are, there are followers."

"It does seem that way," I said.

I couldn't help but think about Catharine and Michael Burroughs, and their basement in Kensington stuffed with students. In staid Washington, D.C., of all places, they had been able to attract a group of disciples -- people who sat glued to every utterance of Jeremiah, who talked about negative entities living in outer space, and who believed they'd all been together many, many times before in previous lifetimes.

"Why do certain people link up with a leader?" I asked him. "What is that attraction, do you suppose?"

"Well," Chopra said, "anytime you are attracted to someone, no matter who they are, it is because you find traits in them that you want in yourself. You just don't know this on a conscious level, So you feel kind of completed by being in their presence."

What did people see in Jetsunma that they wanted for themselves -- and what was being completed? And what had I seen? What had propelled me toward Poolesville?

Turning toward Buddhism again, I began a series of long conversations with Martin Wassell, the British filmmaker who had first told me about the existence of Jetsunma and her sangha in Poolesville. Martin was protective against misunderstandings of Tibetan Buddhism but also full of savvy advice -- and laughter -- as I complained about having to wait endlessly to see Jetsunma. He had been involved with many Tibetan Buddhist film projects, including producing a classic documentary called Heart of Tibet. He knew what it was like to wait weeks, months, even years. "Many Buddhist projects are like this," he said. When dealing with Tibetan lamas, he warned me, changes and broken promises are frequent but not personal. "A lama can change his or her mind about something, and that's it -- no apologies or explanations are required." It was even possible, he said, that I'd never talk to Jetsunma again.

And just as I had almost given up, Alana called one day in late June. Her voice sounded cool and certain, as usual, and as Martin had predicted, there were no apologies for the delay.

"We're in Sedona," she said." Jetsunma needed some downtime -- just to get away and relax. She says she's been thinking about you lately, and wondered how you were doing. Would you want to just talk with her on the phone?"


We spoke for an hour and eleven minutes. Jetsunma's voice sounded small and meek, and kind. She did that gentle thing that Renee Taylor had perfected. She asked many questions about my father and how he was doing. When I said that he seemed the same but in very good spirits, she said, "That's perfect, just perfect. Because really it matters a lot how the person feels at the time they pass. The general feeling of happiness or regret -- whichever -- so that helps a lot."

"How about you?" I asked.

"I'm doing pretty well," she said. It's funny, but I think I'm having an official midlife crisis."

"Well, you're probably entitled to one."

"That's what I figured," she said. "The worst part about it is that no one expects it of me. And if you took an opinion poll" -- she laughed -- "which we won't be doing, most people think I shouldn't have one. But I think it's natural and it's happening."

She was taking some time off and thinking about things, she said. She was strategizing about the future, too. Looking back, she could see that she had been trying very hard for the last eight years to find her place within Tibetan Buddhism, she said, and "trying to figure out just who I was." Early on, after the recognition, she had wanted to be more of a traditional lama -- and so she wore chuba skirts and burgundy. Then she "swung to the other side" and wore business suits. "I was always just trying to figure out where I was," she said.

"Lately I'm thinking things like, well, I was born a Westerner, and if I was supposed to be a Tibetan, I would have been. And if things were supposed to be exactly the same as it was with my predecessors, then time wouldn't have moved. The truth is, you are where you are. And you are who you are. And I'm trying to move forward from that point."

She wanted to incorporate the best of everything into her teaching -- and her plans for KPC. "I would never go against the traditions and what my gurus or teachers have given me, or anything to defame this lineage that I helped start. It's my home and it's my heart," she said. "And at the same time, I have to find a way to start from where I am, and take a step from the place I'm actually at. And I have to take into account that I'm a Western woman and I have certain personality traits that, you know, we just can't I dismiss our personality traits. And when we try to, we get locked into something that doesn't feel quite real or right."

I found myself almost hypnotized by how her thoughts flowed. They never seemed prepared and ordered as much as tossed together, and there was a sense of freedom to them, a spaciousness, I guess. Listening to her was like sitting in a canoe on a river and having no idea where you were going to wind up. I enjoyed the looseness, and how she didn't seem to bother guarding her very own ordinary thinking.

We talked about the Tibetan Buddhist books I'd been reading, and how they explained some things and left out others. I was asking a lot of questions. What made sense to me about Buddhism, and what didn't?

"It's interesting that you should say that," she said, "because this is how the foundational Buddhist teachings are taught. At first, you are supposed to think through it absolutely logically. Like you are never supposed to accept a teacher until you've logically determined whether that teacher will benefit you. The Buddha lays down these foundational teachings, and his advice is to not accept them until they are logical to you, work them out, like equations, in your mind."

I was trying out a few fundamental practices, too, I said.

"That's a good idea," she said. "And I was telling Byron Pickett this. . . . For this story, you can't stand outside and just look at it. It's like trying to report on fires and you go to a place that's been burned by a forest fire three days before and you give a report on burnt trees. It's not the same thing as putting your hand in the fire and feeling the heat. It's not the same thing."

Byron had told her he was a "documentarian," Jetsunma said, and he needed distance. He was afraid of becoming a student of hers. "And I said. 'If you don't want to make magic or touch hearts, if you don't want to tell a story inside out -- the whole story, the feel of it, the taste of it-then keep going the way you're going. But if you really want to know fire, you have to feel fire.'

"I'd say the same thing to you. You're enough of a professional. If you move in and feel the fire, don't think for a minute that you won't be able to pull your finger out if you don't like it."

She was giving two retreats in the fall, she said, a Guru Yoga retreat and a compassion retreat. "And I think," she said, "you might like to come.


It wasn't until the late summer that I heard anything about Dechen and the Monk. I was having lunch with Wib, who was talking about his new job. It got me wondering if anybody else, besides Michael Burroughs, had been in the inner circle and gotten out. And I'd started wondering whether many nuns and monks had given up ordained life and left KPC altogether.

"Not many," Wib said. "We have a pretty stable ordained sangha, compared with most Dharma centers. A very low fallout rate."

When I pressed him for specifics, he said that "years ago" a couple of monks had left. "Testosterone cases," he said. "Monks with motorcycles." I knew he was referring to Richard Dykeman -- and another young monk named Chris Olance.

"Nobody recently?"

He stopped for a second. Earlier in the year, he said, a nun had "given back her robes" after breaking vows with a monk.

"Broke her vows with a monk? Wow," I said. "That's pretty serious."

"Very serious," Wib said.

"What did Jetsunma do?"

"She took it very seriously."



1. Dalai Lama, The Path to Enlightenment (Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion, 1982).

2. Gyaltrul Rinpoche. Generating the Deity (Ithaca. N.Y.: Snow Lion. 1992): Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Boston: Shambhala. 1998).

3. Dalai Lama interview about ethics violations in America at the Conference of Western Buddhist Teachers, Dharamsala, March 1993.
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sun Dec 04, 2016 12:14 am

21. Breaking Samaya

Breaking Tantric samaya is more harmful than breaking other vows. It is like falling from an airplane compared to falling from a horse.
-- Tulku Thondup, in Perfect Conduct

The time passed quickly as Dechen continued the long process of earning her robes back. She did her chores, went to work. She did Vajrasattva. She moved out of her mother's house to an apartment of her own. She felt a bit cut off from Poolesville life, and out of the loop, but happily so. In the mornings the temple was quiet and peaceful, now emptied of Jetsunma and her family, her attendants, and her entourage -- who had all left for India. Little news of India found its way there in the month of March and the beginning of April, except that a movie deal had been signed with Turner Pictures. A documentary of the India trip was in the works; it would be followed by a feature film of Jetsunma's life.

Dechen passed the Monk on the temple grounds every so often. She noticed that he was smiling at her -- a huge, open smile -- but she looked away or looked down. And then one day in early June, Dechen heard that he had left Poolesville the way Sonam had left. Three months after the night at Ani Estates, the Monk slipped away in the middle of the night without telling anyone, even leaving some of his belongings in boxes at the monks' town house in Darnestown.

A week later he called her at home. "How are you?" he wanted to know.

"I'm great," she said.

"You are?" he asked. "Really?"


They talked for a long time. The next day they talked again. And the next. There was nobody like the Monk. He knew her. He loved her. He had never meant her any harm, she realized. He had always cared about her, always been her friend. He'd been devastated when she sent those Tibetan texts back, he told her. And he'd tried so many times to catch her eye, but she was always looking down. Was she really okay? The Monk told her that he was willing to do whatever he could to get her out of Poolesville. He'd give her money. He'd find her another Dharma center. Anything. But she couldn't stay in that place.

Dechen could feel the doubts rising in her mind again, almost like bubbles that had floated to the surface. But she was also afraid. She called Ani Catharine Anastasia, her mentor, to tell her that she had spoken to the Monk on the telephone, that he had gotten back in touch with her -- and she wasn't sure if that was allowed or not. "Whatever," Catharine Anastasia moaned. "I'm so sick of all this. I give up."

As Dechen kept talking to the Monk, the world began to seem larger again -- it seemed to stretch well beyond the small town of Poolesville and the sixty-five acres of Kunzang Palyul Choling. The horizon seemed longer and full of possibilities. Dechen found herself full of questions all over again. Who should she believe? Who was telling the truth? She began to see that in Poolesville there had always been a choice between this world, samsara, which was supposed to be a dismal place of suffering and delusion, and the path that Jetsunma offered. Samsara or the path: This choice had always made Dechen feel vaguely desperate. She didn't really know very much about the outside world. She had never seen the ocean. She had no friends outside the monastery. She clung to the Guru Yoga practice, and lessons in devotion, as a way to push herself beyond the choice she didn't want to make, beyond the struggle, beyond samsara, and beyond her doubts about Jetsunma.

Was there really only one path? That was what everybody in Poolesville seemed to believe. There was Jetsunma, or there was misery and rebirth in increasingly lower realms. Were the other Dharma centers really so different? Was Poolesville really such a strange place? It was all she'd ever known.


After several months of retreat and time off in Sedona, Jetsunma returned to her big red chair in the Dharma room and began a new series of lessons that she called the Quest Teachings. She told her students that she had been in a phase of questioning and renewal, of strategizing and rethinking her life. She had felt constricted by her work at the temple and by temple life. She realized that she had been trying to squeeze herself into a role that felt unnatural and too tight.

She was in transition. Her transition was toward something even less traditional than before. "Don't be shocked if I start wearing Italian-looking clothes and big hoop earrings," she said. She talked about trying to reconnect with her Italian heritage and wanting to put everything together her own way, not fit somebody else's idea of what a Tibetan Buddhist lama was supposed to be like.

Even the way she addressed the students seemed different already. The tension -- a feeling of trying too hard -- was gone. "There were profound changes in Jetsunma after India," said Aileen. "And the most visible was how much more relaxed she seemed in herself, much more relaxed in her role. Before, there was much more of a sense of her sussing out the group and teaching what she felt they needed to hear," said Aileen. "She used to talk about putting on the chicken suit and having to dance for the lamas. None of that anymore. After India, she just sat down in her chair with a purpose. There was a deep intensity to it....

"She wasn't trying anymore to be the perfect Tibetan Buddhist lama. She came back knowing what she was about-bodhicitta, compassion -- and the teachings that followed were all about that."

In Sedona she had a new friend -- a boyfriend -- and he wasn't even a Buddhist. He was a Native American shaman. It was nice not being with a student, being with someone who was more of an equal, she told the students. And while she had been a bit skeptical of some of the practices her new boyfriend wanted to show her, she had found them very effective.

The students needed to learn to look after themselves in the same way. They were all responsible for finding their own way, too -- their own path within Buddhism. Each of them had missing pieces and spiritual hungers that hadn't been met. She said that Tibetan Buddhism had everything required to fulfill those yearnings, but that the texts would never be translated into English during their lifetimes. The students needed to look elsewhere for a sense of completion and for spiritual advice. Jetsunma had begun using tarot cards again, she said, and she was relying more than ever on astrology. Whatever you needed to do to integrate your spiritual life into your culture, your daily life, your habits was a good thing. As Jetsunma had done, her students needed to nurture themselves and find ways to do this that were natural for them and their own backgrounds. She encouraged them to try new things and other traditions -- Native American rituals, divination cards, yoga, or runes. She announced that she was going to arrange for an astrology class to be taught at the temple. And she was looking into having a few Native American sweat lodges.

"Start asking yourself more questions," she told them. What worked in their lives, and what didn't? What seemed to be missing? She told them that she had been questioning everything lately, even some of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings. The fundamental teachings of Buddhism call for a period of questioning. "We need to question everything, even the Dharma," she said.


Dechen sat in the back of the Dharma room, a small figure in the corner by a speaker and electronic equipment. She kept her head down and tried not to make eye contact with Jetsunma during the teachings. Four months had passed since the night at Ani Estates, and she was still cleaning the toilets and sweeping the floors. The other ordained still weren't speaking to her. How long was her punishment or purification meant to go on, and how long was everybody planning to shun her? How long was she supposed to sit in the back of the room with her head down? She had begun to lose hope she'd ever be able to earn her robes back.

Jetsunma seemed very different at the Quest Teachings. She seemed comfortable and in her element. She talked from her gut, confidently, candidly. Dechen hadn't seen her so comfortable with herself since before the summer of her enthronement. Dechen looked around the Dharma room and could tell that many people were feeling the same way Jetsunma was. There was almost an audible sigh of relief. The pressure was off, a pressure that they'd all felt for a long time now, to be perfect Tibetan Buddhists, to struggle up the mountain, to learn the practices and all the new words. This was a return, it seemed to Dechen, to the Jeremiah days. And while the other students seemed comforted by the new attitude, Dechen found it unsettling. It was what she had feared all along: We weren't really Buddhists. We were just some stupid New Age group.

This was the first time she had seen Jetsunma since her return from India. And the months had passed without seeing or hearing from Alana until just the week before. "Jetsunma is wondering how you're doing," Alana had told her. "Now, don't get scared, you're not going to die or anything, but she's a little worried about you. She wants you to see a doctor for depression."

See a doctor? Dechen explained that she was making payments to Palchen and had moved into a studio apartment of her own in Gaithersburg. She couldn't possibly afford therapy. A day or so later Alana called again, saying that she'd arranged for Ayla to pay for her daughter's sessions. Alana gave Dechen the name of the psychotherapist she was to see -- a man she had seen several years before, who was now treating quite a few members of the sangha.

Dechen was a bit thrown off. Aside from being shunned by her friends and not being allowed to wear robes, she'd been feeling pretty good lately. She was making payments on her debts, had repaired her old Ford Tempo, and, for the first time in her life, she had a home of her own. She was thrilled to be away from the other nuns -- and cooking for herself, leaving her clothes on the floor, reading as much as she wanted. But it wasn't right to argue about this with Alana. If Jetsunma wanted her in therapy, then Dechen was going to follow her advice.

In the therapist's office she still felt puzzled. Why was she there? What was she supposed to be talking about? She was not allowed to discuss the night at Ani Estates with anyone. The main issues on her mind -- how she'd been reprimanded by Jetsunma, how the other ordained were still not talking to her, how her step-father was furious at her for totaling the family car, and how the Monk had started calling again -- were off limits. Dechen found herself telling the therapist the same old stories, mouthing all the things she'd always mouthed about herself in Poolesville. Jetsunma says I'm an approval seeker. Sherab says I'm willful. She started to think of these stories as something like "The Best of Carson " -- reruns of the dramatic highlights of her life. They didn't seem to lead to any self-discoveries. Nor did the doctor have any insights to share. He gave her a list of questions to answer, a multiple-choice test for depression that reminded Dechen of something in Glamour magazine, and he told her afterward that her score suggested that she was "moderately depressed" and might have some success with medication. At first Dechen refused. She disliked the notion of taking any medication. She didn't even use aspirin or Tylenol at home. Also, it just didn't seem very, well, Buddhist. But eventually she agreed to see another doctor, a psychiatrist who immediately put her on Zoloft.

But she hated the Zoloft even more than therapy. "I was taking the tiniest amount," she said, "but it felt like champagne had been poured into my bloodstream. I got dizzy right away, and within a few days my hands were shaking. I couldn't sleep. I had this bubbly feeling. I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't even read a whole paragraph of text without getting distracted. And I couldn't practice."

As she sat in the back row at the first Quest Teaching, listening to Jetsunma encourage the students to find their own way -- to nurture themselves, keep themselves spiritually alive, and ask questions -- Dechen's mind felt like it was clicking into gear. Questions, ask yourself questions. What did Dechen want? Where was she really heading? More than anything she wanted to be able to do more Tibetan Buddhist practice, live a traditional renunciate life, and eventually do a three-year retreat. She had to be honest with herself. Was that ever going to happen at KPC? She wasn't sure that tarot cards or astrology would really work for her. She already knew what did work: a traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice. And the rest of the students would know this as deeply as Dechen did if they ever bothered to sit down on their butts long enough and just do it. Maybe they wouldn't need therapy either -- or antidepressants. What was a nun doing on antidepressants?

Question everything, Jetsunma told the students. Even question the Dharma. A huge, spontaneous smile took over Dechen's face. Question the Dharma? In the nondual Buddhist universe, the Dharma and the lama and the sangha are one, inseparable. The same thing. And if she was allowed to question one, she could question them all. She could question the sangha. And she could question the lama. Dechen felt an immense weight lift from her shoulders, and a feeling of great spaciousness inside her, a freedom, a feeling of breath, of energy, of life. Her mind was suddenly alive with ideas and thoughts, and all kinds of questions. She couldn't wait to write some of them down.

She was still smiling as she watched Jetsunma walk out of the Dharma room at the end of the teaching. Alana noticed her smile and smiled brightly back. "We were told to go out and buy a Quest Book, like a journal to keep," Dechen said. And when she got hers, she pulled out a pen, opened to the first page, and quickly wrote her first entry: "I don't believe the Mandarava recognition."


She was on fire for the next two months and never stopped writing. Dechen's private mission, her own spiritual "quest," was finally facing her doubts about Poolesville. Was life at the KPC monastery as hopeless and worthless as the Monk suggested -- or was it salvageable? She made up lists, drew from memories. There would be no karmic consequences of having doubts, no broken samaya, no rebirth in Vajra Hell, since Jetsunma herself had instructed her to question everything. And once the door was open, it was impossible to close it. The doubts hurled themselves at her and flooded out from within her. They stampeded. They exploded. And they shouted so loudly she couldn't even think. How had she gone so long keeping them down? It had been exhausting always to be fighting something inside, always suppressing a part of herself. If anything had made her depressed before, it must have been that. Doubts were a part of her, the way blood was a part of her body and the air came and went in her lungs. And she was finally free -- set free by Jetsunma herself -- to let them flow out of her and to be herself: a person who was consumed by doubt.

First things first. She hadn't broken her vows -- her root vows. She knew she hadn't. The Monk had called her at work and quoted to her the Vinaya teachings -- the highest Tibetan Buddhist authority on the rules and regulations for the ordained. And the Vinaya said that if no orifice was penetrated, then no root vow had been broken. [1] Wasn't it wrong for Jetsunma to take her robes away from her? If no root vow had been broken, and the robes were still hers, she was still ordained.

Her years with the group came back to her with pristine clarity, as though she were revisiting every experience and looking at it closely again. She remembered the time she was called into a meeting with leaders of the ordained community -- Alana and three others -- and told that she was being kicked out of the retreat center for not doing her chores and being late on the rent. Dechen remembered how she tried to defend herselfand offered to pay her back rent immediately. Everybody had trouble doing their chores, she said. "They all looked sickened as I said this, like it was revolting to hear a criminal defend herself," said Dechen. "I was supposed to make my mind like a bowl and hold every ounce of the blessing of being corrected. I was supposed to feel lucky: Most sentient beings wandered in samsara helplessly with no teacher at all, or with a teacher who wasn't as compassionate as Jetsunma."

Losing the path, losing the guru... it was like the terror of an astronaut losing the lifeline to the ship and drifting away into black space, the void, the deep, empty nothingness, with no way to be rescued.

Dechen suspected that she was afraid of losing the path -- and her connection to Jetsunma -- because she had no idea who she was without them. She thought of herself only in the words of others. Jetsunma says that the problem with me is that I'm an approval seeker. In Tibetan Buddhism the practices are supposed to bring you closer to your true Buddha nature. But in Poolesville the only true Buddha nature anybody talked about was Jetsunma's.

Dechen had spent years trying to adjust her thinking to be in alignment with something Jetsunma had said, or something Jetsunma had taught. Or something Alana had said that Jetsunma had said. After the sangha meeting about Karl, when Alana said he needed to be "broken like a wild mustang," Dechen had begun to feel differently about him. In the past she had always liked Karl and defended him. But after the meeting she drove him to the doctor's office one afternoon and found herself exasperated that he was taking so long. "Those meetings really worked," she said. And she realized that the group's opinion had always mattered more than her own.

And from above "there was a constant implication -- sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious -- that we were inept, helpless, shallow, and stupid," Dechen would later say. The teachings Jetsunma gave were often entertaining, but they were a rambling miasma of unrelated topics, a mishmash of Tibetan Buddhism and New Age theories, which Jetsunma called "climbing over the mountain from ten different directions." Dechen finally admitted to herself that she didn't really understand Jetsunma's teachings and didn't believe anybody else did, either. She had noticed that if students raised a logical inconsistency in a teaching, they were called "superficial" or considered "Dharma dumb-dumbs. " If they insisted on thinking for themselves, they were "self-centered" and "arrogant." The will and the ego were poisonous things in Poolesville. Dechen felt they'd all been ground down -- defeated by Jetsunma and her brand of Buddhism.

It reminded her of the game Wack-a-Mole at the carnivals and amusement parks on the Eastern Shore. People stood with big rubber mallets and waited for plastic moles to show the tops of their heads; the game was to clobber the moles as soon as they showed themselves. Very few students were allowed to show themselves. "It's a very subtle place, and you don't know how strong the current is until you go against the efforts to mold you," Dechen said. "The more you resist, the stronger the reaction becomes. And if you persist in going against the approved-of method, the reactions become stronger and stronger."

She found she was angry about the night at Ani Estates. It hadn't been a blessing. And it hadn't been just about Dechen and the Monk and their merit. It was a lesson in humiliation for all the students -- a reminder, a warning, a theatrical presentation. And it was the result of years of decay. Dechen now saw the signs of decay everywhere. What had led a kind and generous group of people who wanted to do nothing more than make the world a better place to become in her mind a hateful, angry mob, comfortable participating in a lurid display of aggression?

A flood of questions overtook her mind. She questioned the way the temple was run and all the power that Alana had been given. They'd started out with good intentions. But the practices had decayed. The teachings had decayed. The finances had decayed. People didn't seem as happy. The prayer chart for the twenty-four-hour vigil was increasingly hard to fill. She sought out certain members of the sangha and asked them questions. In particular she approached Doug Sims and asked about the finances. Poor Doug. He seemed so beleaguered and down himself, so lost. He had tried his best to run Ladyworks and keep those books. He'd tried his best to find money for Jetsunma's business, but now that, too, had decayed. The Ladyworks business was seriously in debt, and Jetsunma was never going to be self-supporting. The temple would always be going broke trying to pay her salary and all her expenses. If the center was supposed to bring the Dharma to the West but the finances were untenable, then the Dharma was, too, which meant Dechen was wasting her time in Poolesville.

She sent an E-mail to Konchog, a monk she greatly respected, hoping to open up a line of communication with him so she could eventually talk about the future of KPC and ask him about the shedra, or monastic university, that Khenpo was starting. Maybe if the shedra was happening and was financially healthy, there would be a place for Dechen in Poolesville. Her first E-mail to Konchog was an icebreaker, however; she recounted a joke she'd heard earlier in the week. But Konchog wasn't amused. He lashed out at Dechen in a series of angry replies. She was a flirt, he told her. And she had already brought one fully ordained monk to shame. He told her to stop trying to contact him. "I'm not going to walk around in guilt and shame forever," Dechen wrote to him. "My punishment is over." But Konchog wasn't sure of that. "We hadn't gotten a sign yet from Alana or Jetsunma," he explained later, "and I guess I thought I was still supposed to shun her."

So by mid-August, after two months of investigation, Dechen felt more alone than ever -- her "quest" had led only to more questions. At the heart of them sat the most colossal uncertainty of all: She doubted the wisdom and beneficence and compassion and goodness and divinity of Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.

"We all want to believe that the lamas are omniscient, she said. "But the truth is, Penor Rinpoche was duped."

She began to think of the ones who had left before her. In Poolesville they all told themselves that nobody ever left, that KPC had the lowest attrition rate of any sangha in America and was the most stable monastery. But if you started to look around for them, former members were in the back of everybody's mind. They were out there in the world -- good people who had once loved Poolesville and been happy there, people who had come with smiles on their faces and felt like they'd found their home and later woke up and felt differently. Why had they gone? Had they lost their way, lost the path? Had they all died of cancer and gone to Vajra Hell together?


Dechen found an old phone list of sangha members and saw that Rick and Chris Finney's number was still on it. She had worked with Chris on many sewing projects and temple projects, and in the gift shop. She had known Rick since he first showed up in Poolesville: he had given her early Tibetan lessons.

Rick answered the phone when Dechen called but seemed hesitant to discuss Poolesville with her. "I was guarded, and very careful what I said," he said later. "People have to reach some of these conclusions on their own." He asked Dechen why she wanted to discuss the center.

"I just have some questions," she said.

"What kinds of questions?" he asked.

"Well, I have a feeling," Dechen said, "that KPC functions like a cult."

Rick thought for a moment. "I think you better talk to Chris."

But Chris was also hesitant to discuss details and reach controversial conclusions -- she had gotten calls from other members with doubts, and they tended to pour their hearts out, only to return to Poolesville. Even as Dechen mentioned the size of Jetsunma's salary, Chris found herself explaining, "Well, Jetsunma has a lot of expenses -- her wardrobe and everything."

"Ten thousand dollars a month in clothes?"

Eventually, the Finneys invited Dechen to their house, where they could discuss things more freely. Sitting in their living room, Rick and Chris asked her how things were going for her in Poolesville. She was leaving, she told them. And she wanted to find another Dharma center where she could practice and still be a nun. But what about her robes? Rick reassured Dechen that she had not broken a root vow, and therefore she was still a nun. Then he told her something that she had long suspected from her own reading of the Tibetan texts: Technically, Jetsunma had no authority to take her robes from her. He brought out a manuscript copy of Perfect Conduct -- which he had just finished copyediting -- and opened it to page 55. There were five instances that called for losing one's robes: if they were given back voluntarily to the lama who ordained you (in Dechen's case, Penor Rinpoche), if you broke a root vow, if you developed "two sex organs spontaneously overnight," if you stopped believing in cause and effect (karma and reincarnation), or if you died.

Next, Dechen talked to Richard Dykeman on the phone. He had left Poolesville in 1989 and had eventually become fully ordained in India and spent years studying with Tibetan lamas in the United States. Richard was full of passion, reassuring Dechen that things were different at the other American centers. It was more Buddhism and less guru. He told her that he'd accomplished lots of things-many practices -- at the other centers, and felt good about his time in them. She shouldn't worry about life after Poolesville, he said. After a while a day would pass and she would not think of Poolesville, and then she'd go a week without thinking of Poolesville, and then it would be a month or two. She would never be sorry she left, he promised her.

While talking, Richard never once used the title Jetsunma. He called her Alyce.

After their conversation Dechen found her orange plastic bottle of Zoloft and threw it in the trash. She walked into her bedroom, slapped Jetsunma's picture off her altar, and stared at it on the floor. Rick Finney was right. Jetsunma had no authority to take Dechen's robes away. Richard was right about Jetsunma ... Alyce. She didn't care about Dechen. She had never cared about Dechen. She had cared only about feeling powerful, and about influencing people's lives, about making money and buying clothes and being attractive. She didn't care about the students and their spiritual lives, or even love them on a simple emotional level. She wasn't a compassionate mother to them, or even a nurturing soul. It had been an act to get everybody's devotion and win hearts. She collected them like shrunken heads. ...All the time Dechen had wasted, all those years. Jetsunma had told them all they were only years away from enlightenment -- or at least one lifetime. Now Dechen saw how far away they really were.

"It was like a dream dissipated," she said. "I was always so proud that I had managed to do something with my life, that I had started so young. ...All those years that I worried I didn't have enough Guru Devotion, all those times we were told if we didn't practice enough that the world would deteriorate into suffering, and that the Dharma wouldn't make it in the West."

She called Sonam in Oregon and told her that she was leaving Poolesville. She tried to track down several others -- Chris Olance and Don Allen, Sangye's father, who had slipped away quietly a couple of years before.

Her very last call was to Michael Burroughs. She had hesitated about calling him because deep down she still didn't trust him. For years she had blamed him for all the problems at KPC. But maybe she needed to rethink that, too. Through the grapevine of former KPC students, Dechen discovered that Michael was living in Colorado and still a Tibetan Buddhist. For years he had remained bitter about his time in Poolesville and felt his life had been largely wasted. He had done public relations for the Naropa Institute in Boulder for a couple of years, then drifted back into professional organ playing and choir directing. Dechen wanted to ask him about a Tibetan program at the Naropa Institute -- maybe Michael could help her get in.

When Michael came on the line, she heard his familiar Tennessee drawl and realized, suddenly, how much she'd missed him. "They all call me," he said. "Everybody calls. And I help everybody get out."

"I'm already out," Dechen said.

They spoke briefly about the Naropa Institute, and about KPC. He didn't seem to have much to say, and spoke mostly in sound bites. "You know, her channeling was faked," he claimed. "She wasn't happy with the recognition as Ahkon Lhamo. It wasn't flashy enough."

Michael urged Dechen to write to Penor Rinpoche and detail some of the things she had seen over the years -- particularly the night at Ani Estates. There were abuses in Tibetan Buddhism, but Michael reassured her that there were also some very good lamas around in the world that she could study with. "You can drag fame and girls and money in front of them and they won't even bite," he told her.

"I've wasted so much time," she said.

"What about me?" he said. "I was married to her. I find it all really embarrassing."

Then, he asked for a favor. Michael had a letter he'd written to Atira that he wanted Dechen to deliver. He hadn't seen or spoken to the girl for six years, but he wanted Atira to know he still loved her. Dechen said she wouldn't be able to do this herself, but she had some ideas.

At the end of the brief exchange, he said, "You know, you are still a nun."

"I know," she said.

That night she went home and saw the photograph of Jetsunma's smiling face on the floor of her bedroom, where it had landed two days before. She pulled the picture out of its frame and ripped it into tiny pieces. She flushed them down the toilet. She took her gau off her neck and pulled out the relics -- little tufts of Jetsunma's hair. At first she planned to burn them, but she decided that was "too respectful." She flushed them down the toilet instead.

Then she shaved her head. She put her robes back on. And she bought a bus ticket to New York City.

She believed what Michael and Rick and Richard and the Monk and Perfect Conduct had told her -- she was still a nun -- and now she wanted to hear it from a higher authority, Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso.


Khenpo was giving a series of teachings from an apartment in the Bowery that had been converted into a small Dharma center. It was the last day of teachings, and at first he seemed very happy to see Dechen -- dressed in her dark burgundy robes. When she offered him a white scarf, she said quietly, "I'd like to meet with you, if I could."

Khenpo nodded. "After the teachings."

She waited for hours to see Khenpo alone. There were many students milling around the apartment and much conversation about a new Dharma center that Khenpo was helping to organize in New York. Eventually he caught Dechen's eye and led her to a small bedroom in the apartment, which he was using.

She came right to the point. "Jetsunma took the vows away from me, and I don't believe that she can do that, but I don't know," Dechen said. "I cannot read the Dharma texts, and this is a very dangerous situation for me. If I believed her that I was no longer an ani, then I could be breaking vows and not even know or have a chance to purify."

Khenpo had a strained and sad look on his face. The creases between his brows were wider than his thin black mustache. "Even the Buddha, even Guru Rinpoche," he said, "cannot take your robes away."

Dechen nodded and tried not to show any feeling. She was relieved, though -- not just for her sake, but because, in spite or her fears about how political the world of Tibetan Buddhism could be, Khenpo had told her the truth. "But perhaps," he said, "you should not wear the robes at the temple. People might be upset."

"I don't think I'm going back to KPC," she said.

"Okay. Study and practice on your own," he said.

He invited her to join a group of students who were going out to dinner that night. A few of them -- members of a rich Taiwanese family -- were sponsors of Penor Rinpoche's monastery in India, and others were sponsors of the center in New York Khenpo was helping to start. They would be holding a committee meeting later to discuss their plans. Over dinner Dechen was asked about KPC. She was a nun there, right? Yes, she said. The committee members seemed curious about Poolesville. It was known to be such a beautiful temple, and very successful. They hoped to use it as a model.

After dinner Dechen returned to the Bowery apartment with the other students, and, since it was too late to take a bus home, she was invited to remain there overnight. As she listened to Khenpo's students discuss how to start a new Dharma center, Dechen found herself wanting to contribute some ideas. Rather than speak at the meeting, she curled up in a corner and wrote out a list of recommendations that ran for six pages. Her advice had not been directly solicited, but she felt it was important that this new center not run into some of the problems she'd seen in Poolesville. She was careful not to mention anything about KPC, but it would have been possible, based on her suggestions, to guess that her experience in Poolesville had not been entirely positive. And quietly, when the committee meeting was over, Dechen handed the notes to one of the members, an American woman.

From across the room Khenpo watched Dechen hand the notes to his student. He looked alarmed. He asked to see her alone again, but the meeting kept being delayed.

She stayed another day in the apartment, waiting to see Khenpo again. There were many people around to talk to while she waited, including a few Tibetans she'd met in Bylakuppe. Finally, Khenpo gave Dechen an opportunity to speak with him, but not alone. He sat in the teaching room along with other Tibetans and asked about her decision to leave KPC. After she reassured him that she had great devotion for Penor Rinpoche, she made open complaints about Poolesville. Knowing how family-oriented Tibetans are, she made sure to mention how she'd been discouraged from being in contact with her father. She described how, when she was only eighteen, she had been removed from her mother's care and told to live with another sangha member. She was also concerned about her brother and wondered whether his involvement with KPC had been healthy for him. She felt Jetsunma had directly harmed her family, she said bluntly. The other Tibetans in the room, who couldn't help overhearing the story, nodded their heads in sympathy and looked horrified. Khenpo looked horrified, too -- but mostly that Dechen would speak this way, so boldly and so negatively about a Palyul teacher in a public setting.

She continued. She told Khenpo about the KPC finances -- the amount that Jetsunma was paid, and how money was raised for temple projects but spent on her instead. Khenpo shook his head and seemed speechless. She was planning to launch into her theories about how KPC wasn't a Tibetan Buddhist center as much as a personality cult, but she could tell from his face that she'd already said enough. "He didn't have much to say after that," she said, "and I got the impression that he didn't want me around anymore, either."

The next morning, as she prepared to leave New York, Dechen was told that Khenpo wanted to meet with her again -- but this time he spoke angrily to her in front of many people, including several of the sponsors of the new Dharma center. "You need to purify!" he yelled. "You need to do lots of Vajrasattva, and learn more about your vows, and study the Vinaya!" To Dechen, the conversation didn't make sense -- it was advice that Khenpo had given her days before but now in a different tone. She could only surmise that this was a political move to discredit her. Dechen had become too negative, too threatening. And it was possible that Khenpo believed she'd written damning things about KPC in her six-page memo. Soon afterward he arranged for her to be taken to the bus station by three of the Taiwanese sponsors, and he joined them in their Mercedes. As she got out of the car at the bus station, and was standing in the street, Khenpo got out, too. "I have more to say to you!" he yelled in a voice so loud that all the Taiwanese could hear. "You have broken your vows, and you need to study the Vinaya, and then maybe, in the future, you can retake vows."

It was during the five-hour bus ride back to Maryland that Dechen's rage and confusion multiplied. She had hoped that Khenpo would be supportive of her -- and, at first, he had. But now she could see he would always protect the Palyul tradition and Penor Rinpoche and Poolesville. Somewhere along the way the truth had become irrelevant. There was nowhere to go to make complaints about Jetsunma. Nobody wanted to hear them.

She imagined what Khenpo would say about her in the future -- how she'd be discredited. She imagined that before long nobody would believe there'd ever been a night at Ani Estates. It would be dismissed as gossip, as the wild delusion of an irresponsible girl. Dechen decided to do three things upon returning to her apartment in Gaithersburg: She would call Alana's voice mail to say she was leaving KPC for good, she would call her mother to say she was leaving of her own accord -- and wasn't being kicked out. And then she would call the police.

That way Khenpo wouldn't be able to lie about what had happened to protect Penor Rinpoche. There was another reason, too. "I just wanted to make sure," Dechen said, "that Jetsunma never hit anybody again.


It is hard to know exactly how Jetsunma reacted when she was arrested by the Maryland State Police on charges of battery. Later on she would say, "Oh, I wasn't too frightened. The police have far worse people than me to worry about. I was more afraid for the Dharma."

Dechen only learned that Jetsunma had been arrested a day later, when her family was sent to her apartment. Alana had called Ayla Meurer and suggested that Ayla attempt some kind of "family" intervention with her daughter. Dechen needed to see the lack of wisdom behind leaving Poolesville and filing criminal charges against her root guru.

Ayla and Dechen had never really fought much -- or ever struck each other -- but the day Ayla came to the studio apartment, things became overheated quickly. Dechen pushed her mother, and then Ayla pinned Dechen against the wall. Scared by the intensity of their emotions, the two women soon sat down at the kitchen table and began to talk calmly. Ayla told her daughter that Jetsunma loved her, that Jetsunma was divine, and that the negativity Dechen was seeing was only a reflection of her own mind. Jetsunma was incapable of harming anyone, and her every action brought benefit to countless brings.

"If she was a guru at all, that would be true. But she's not."

"Of course she is! Don't say things like that."

"I've thought this over carefully," Dechen said, "and I consider KPC a cult. And Jetsunma is out of control."

Ayla seemed ruffled and embarrassed. "There are good cults and bad cults. Like anything in life. You're making a terrible mistake."

"Stay out of this. Mother. This doesn't concern you."

"Of course this concerns me," Ayla said. "This is my teacher you are talking about."

Hoping to ward off similar "interventions" -- and to make sure her fellow ordained learned of the police charges she'd filed -- Dechen began leaving messages for sangha members on the temple voice mail system. She used the word cult, well aware of the impact it would have. She called Sangye Dorje and left a long message describing her strange encounter with Khenpo -- in particular his early assurance that "nobody" could take her robes away. Her messages to Alana were hateful and angry, deliberately intended to rile her. "The idea was to light so many fires that there'd have to be a major sangha meeting where the police charges would be discussed.

Within a few days Karl Jones showed up at the apartment to try to reason with Dechen, but her landlords turned him away. Then the letters started coming. Some were hand-delivered outside her apartment door. Others were sent by certified mail. They were from sangha members who had received voice mails from Dechen. Each letter contained one particular sentence -- "Stop leaving these slanderous voice mails or I will consider this harassment and file charges" -- but the rest was often very personal. Sangye Dorje wrote her, telling Dechen that she suffered from "paranoia" and was "certainly a borderline schizophrenic." He recommended that she find a good psychiatrist. Bob Colacurcio urged Dechen to study Guru Devotion more. Alana's letter was beautifully written -- and designed to nail Dechen deftly in a vulnerable place. "You have succeeded in your quest to take revenge against your mother. Your childhood rage now controls you, and you have now, indeed, broken her heart. Not just your birth mother, but your spiritual mother as well."

Alana offered to meet with Dechen privately, saying she was opening her hand and reaching out to Dechen because she had bitten the hand of all her teachers and, "having been there myself in the past, I know that sometimes you need someone to just say, it's okay, we can stop this now." At the bottom she said, "I don't think you want to end up institutionalized or on medications. Help yourself or ask for help."

Dechen moved into the Finneys' place for a few nights to escape what she feared might be a deluge. Ayla began calling the Finneys, asking to speak to her daughter, and, when they wouldn't hand over the phone, Alana called for Chris.

"I have a message from Jetsunma for you," Alana told Chris. "She wants you to know that she's thinking about you, and she's really worried because she sees that your karma is running out and great obstacles are headed your way."

Chris felt she understood what Alana was saying: You are going to die.

"I'm not sure what you need to do," she told Chris. "Maybe you can have some tsogs [purification prayers] done for you at Frederick. We could do some for you. You could pay some money to the ordained and they could do some."

"Okay," Chris said quietly. Then she suddenly felt something very unexpected. She felt bad for Alana.

"You take care of yourself, too. Alana," Chris told her. "And thank Jetsunma for thinking of me, but I'm doing really well."

Michael Burroughs called Dechen at work to talk about the charges she'd filed. He had heard about them from Rick Finney. His voice was full of mischief and amusement. It was "hilarious" and "wonderful," he said, but he wasn't going to get involved -- he didn't want to get on Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso's "bad side." Michael told her that he had seen Khenpo recently in Colorado, in fact, and when the subject of Dechen's charges came up, Khenpo said he needed to get in touch with her. Could she take a call from him at work?

Khenpo had a deal to offer Dechen. He was worried about potential embarrassment to Penor Rinpoche if word of the police charges or some of the other activities he'd heard about in Poolesville became public. If Dechen agreed to drop the charges, Khenpo was willing to arrange a formal censure of Jetsunma, and she would be sent into retreat immediately. To discuss the details, both Michael and Khenpo called Dechen one afternoon from a speakerphone. The censure, according to Michael and Dechen, included a demand that Jetsunma no longer call herself a Tibetan Buddhist teacher or a Palyul lama, and she would be asked to stop using the title Jetsunma.

"Michael did most of the talking," said Dechen, "and then Khenpo confirmed it."

But Dechen had stopped trusting Khenpo at this point, and she agreed to drop the charges only if the letter of censure came from Penor Rinpoche, was signed by Jetsunma, and then a copy of it was delivered to Dechen. None of them seemed to realize that, because the charges were criminal and brought by the state of Maryland, it wasn't up to Dechen to drop them.

Soon after, a letter censuring Jetsunma was drafted in Bylakuppe and approved by Penor Rinpoche. Two American monks who were visiting Penor Rinpoche's monastery during the fall of 1996, K.T "Thubten " Shedrup Gyatso and Tenzin Chophak, were asked to assist in the wording of the letter and to help clean up Khenpo's English. They also had long talks with Khenpo about Poolesville, since Thubten had spent three months living in one of the monks' houses there.

"He's a very reserved guy," said Thubten of Khenpo. "But we had very relaxed conversations. and he spoke to me as openly as possible. He already knew exactly what was going on in Poolesville. Her salary was unheard of. Her monks were living in crummy conditions, and some were giving fifty percent of their salaries to her. Jon Randolph couldn't even afford a pair of new shoes."

The tone of the final one-page letter was "really harsh" and "scolding," according to Thubten, "the way a father would reprimand a naughty daughter. " There was no mention that Jetsunma should drop her title or stop calling herself a Buddhist teacher. Instead, the letter admonished her for neglecting her ordained sangha. Penor Rinpoche wrote that his first priority was always taking care of his monks and nuns -- making sure they were fed and housed and receiving teachings. Jetsunma, the letter scolded, was clearly not doing that. There was another complaint: She wore too much makeup and needed to "tone down her appearance."

But in the end it appears the letter was never mailed. It didn't have to be. The state of Maryland officially dropped its charges against Alyce Zeoli on November 8, 1996, and Penor Rinpoche no longer had a public scandal to worry about. The prosecutor called Dechen to tell her that the case was weak. The witnesses -- the members of the ordained community in Poolesville -- were considered "hostile." The Monk was uninterested in testifying because he felt that Dechen's case might turn people away from Tibetan Buddhism. Dechen had even suspected that her mother would have testified against her.

In many ways Dechen was relieved. "I was just tired, " she said. "And I had taken on a lot. I had very little support, with the sole exception of Rick and Chris Finney -- neither of whom thought I should have filed the charges originally."

Two days later, on November 10 -- a crisp, clear day -- Dechen packed up her Ford Tempo with all the belongings she could fit in it, within inches of the ceiling. She drove to her mother's and left a basket of flowers on the sundial in her garden. She put the basket on the point of north, as a way to tell Ayla that she was heading north, to her dad's house in Toronto.

Ayla saw Dechen out front and stepped out to approach her. "It's a terrible thing to lose a daughter," she would say later.

Dechen waved good-bye from the car and drove off. She told nobody where she was heading. She left no forwarding address, no phone numbers. She drove through Pennsylvania and New York. She stayed in motels and at old friends' houses. She ate in coffee shops and at McDonald's. Every night she called the Monk and told him where she was and described the day.

When she got to her father's place, she told him that KPC was a cult. "I know," he said. Together they drove to Detroit and spent Thanksgiving with his mother. Dechen hadn't seen her grandmother for nine years. She saw her cousins, her aunts and uncles. Her father got out his guitar and sang folk songs. Dechen sat on the floor and played with little cousins she had only just met. Her grandmother pulled her aside and asked about her brother. Was there any way of getting him out, too?

Dechen headed off again, alone. In early December she found herself driving through the Badlands, the black hills of South Dakota. Late in the afternoon, as the sun began to set, she got out of her car and stood in the vast expanse of space in the center or the United States. She felt good and free and sure of one thing -- what she was doing. She thought back on all her years with Jetsunma, all the teachings, the hard work, the practice, the stupas, the beautiful prayer room. ..The time hadn't been wasted, not entirely. Dechen could see that she'd made progress. And she'd done some remarkable things. Everybody there had. Perhaps that was the invisible reward of devotion. But in the end Poolesville wasn't what it appeared to be, or thought it was, and that was the saddest fact of all. It wasn't the Fully Awakened Dharma Continent of Absolute Clear Light any more than Disneyland was. It was a fantasy place as powerful and seductive and delusional as samsara, and just as corrupt. "It was like the end of The Truman Show," Dechen said. "Me alone in the sailboat, breaking through that illusion."



1. Ngari Panchen and Pema Wangyi Gyalpo, Perfect Conduct: Ascertaining the Three Vows (Boston: Wisdom, 1996).
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sun Dec 04, 2016 12:18 am

22. Approaching the Nondual

Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.
-- Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

I had moved out to the country by the time of the compassion retreat in late September 1996. My boyfriend and I had gotten engaged and found a house in a quaint and well cared for little village in Virginia called Waterford. For years I had been telling myself it was time to move on, to withdraw from city life, from the crowds and noise, the smell of money and politics, and the sight of lobbyists sitting around big dinner tables at expensive restaurants. I wasn't sure that I believed that my life on earth was samsara -- a place of delusion and suffering -- but existence in Washington, D.C., came pretty close.

The funny thing was, as much as I had moved farther away from D.C. -- and in what seemed to be the opposite direction from the state of Maryland -- I was now closer to Kunzang Palyul Choling. Alana had called to ask if I needed a place to stay in Poolesville over the four-day retreat and made arrangements for me to use a spare room at a sangha member's house. But after the first commute I realized that this wasn't necessary. About eight miles from my house was a small ferry that crossed the Potomac. It left from a little wharf tucked into the side of the river -- and was marked by a hand-painted sign that said, WHITE'S FERRY, with an arrow; it shuttled three cars at a time. Once on the Maryland side of the river, I found myself in the farthest reaches of Poolesville, at the end of River Road. The rest of the drive was poetic. Traveling along a narrow country lane, passing woods and fallow fields and open farmland, in just ten minutes or so I found myself at the driveway to the temple. I had returned again to the land of the Tibetan Buddhists, to the big white plantation facade, to the wind chimes, the flapping prayer flags, and all the friendly faces I had come to know. I hadn't moved far away, it seemed, but come full circle.

It had been nearly three months since I'd talked to Jetsunma or visited much with her students, except by phone. My summer had been spent settling into a new house and hand-wringing about my book. I had talked to theologians and religion professors and other Tibetan Buddhists. I had read up on everything from crystals and cults to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I had been trying to figure out the difference between a cult and a religion -- and had decided it was only two things: A matter of time and conformity.

The prophet who began the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, received revelations from a white salamander on a rock. In these visions he claimed he was told how the universe worked, how heaven was arranged -- the ideas and stories that became the foundation of a new religion. Smith and his followers seemed like strange people when The Book of Mormon was first published in 1830 in Palmyra, New York, and Smith himself was later sent to jail and then lynched. The Mormons were driven west to Salt Lake City to escape persecution and prospered there. Of course they were seen as a cult, and a group of fanatics who didn't smoke or drink coffee or liquor, hoarded food in their basements, and believed they would become gods of their own kingdoms someday. Smith's successor, Brigham Young, had twenty-seven wives. But over the last hundred years their church had matured and become an elegant cruise ship of a religion. It is the richest and most successful church in America. It owns the most land, has the most stable membership: it had built the most temples and attracted the most new followers. And it had joined the mainstream by carefully abandoning certain practices not in sync with society's norms. Polygamy, for instance, was dropped overboard along the way.

If KPC was a cult, maybe it would mature beyond that. It sure looked like a cult and smelled like a cult -- and was often managed the way cults are. But the tulku system was long established in Tibet, where the divine lamas seemed to be a law unto themselves. In the East there are ways of dealing with abuses -- gossip and quiet ostracizing, and other correctives that are too subtle and imprecise for Americans. We expect accountability, open books, and fewer secrets from our religious leaders. As the Monk had told Dechen, and would ultimately tell me, democracy is a very good thing, and Americans expect it, deserve it. Wasn't there a way for Tibetan Buddhism to comply with these ideals?

There would always be determined people like Dechen who would tell their stories. Others -- people like Kathy Coon, Bonnie Taylor, and Bob Denmark -- would be quieter victims of a bad system, would leave peacefully and try to figure out for themselves why they were ever in Poolesville. Bonnie Taylor left in 1996. She had given nearly two hundred thousand dollars to KPC in five years and found herself pressured to donate another one hundred thousand to Ladyworks.

Kathy Coon and Bob Denmark would leave in 1997, after serving on a financial committee and seeing the budget for the first time. When the committee sent a letter to Jetsunma asking her to take a reduced salary from her sangha, she refused. She claimed that great negative karma would be caused by rescinding an offering to a lama, and the temple would fall to ruin.

In 1996, Kathy transferred a hundred thousand dollars in stocks and bonds to the temple, with a specific written request that the money be restricted to helping build a monastic university in Poolesville. But it never went to the shedra. According to Konchog Norbu, the shedra administrator, it went into the giant pot that paid for everything. And Kathy received a thank-you card from Ladyworks. "From the point of view of intention, I got what I wanted, I guess," Kathy said. I gave money and wanted power -- wanted to buy power -- and I did." Ultimately, Kathy came to believe that Jetsunma was corrupt and that the monks and nuns involved with KPC's board and finances were breaking their vows by misleading people.

If KPC was a cult and not Tibetan Buddhism at all -- as some of its detractors suggest -- it would surely die with Jetsunma. But I had hope that wasn't going to happen. I had hope that eventually the books would be opened, amends would be made, a new board of directors would be elected and not appointed. Monks and nuns would stop fund-raising -- and strong-arming potential donors. The children of members would receive immunization shots, not be discouraged from attending college -- or ordained before they were mature enough to handle the vows. There wouldn't be secret sangha meetings. The manipulation tactics, and the desperation would end. Jetsunma would support her monks and nuns in the traditional way and not the other way around.

Somebody would step in, I had to think, and save these decent people from themselves, from Jetsunma, or from an imported medieval system that surely could work better. Maybe Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso would step in -- although he would tell me eventually that he had no interest in doing that. Running a Dharma center was a headache and too political. As for the problems in Poolesville, "What problems?" he said. I liked Khenpo and enjoyed talking to him. He was a traditional Tibetan monk and saw things from a traditional point of view. I could see his hands were tied. And while Buddhists are not supposed to lie, he explained to me that it was okay to lie if you were protecting your teacher. "If this comes from devotion," he said, "and pure motive, then it is okay."

Maybe Penor Rinpoche himself -- the man Khenpo protected so purely -- would step in. Maybe Penor Rinpoche would publicly apologize for the ethical violations that had occurred at a Palyul center under his guidance -- something many former students at KPC would appreciate. But in the three interviews I conducted with him, he revealed no such plans. He was an optimist. All new Dharma centers have difficulties, he explained. And this was America, where the Dharma is in its infancy and "pride is a big problem." But he spent a great deal of time with me and was encouraging about my book, which was perhaps his way of dealing with these things. Besides, he was a very busy man. Penor Rinpoche had monasteries to run, and eighteen hundred monks to feed. And, like all good Buddhists, he had a long view of beginningless time -- a few squabbles and problems didn't add up to much. He also had his hands full talking to reporters after 1997 -- kindly and delicately trying to explain his recognition of the Hollywood action-picture star Steven Seagal as the reincarnation of a Tibetan terton.

The moon was rising when I arrived at the temple the night before the retreat. I parked my car on River Road, took the shortcut into the woods, and found the narrow dirt road that led to the Migyur Dorje stupa. Over the years, I could see now, I had become the sort of person who needed to know the worst about a place -- or an individual -- before I could balance it with the best. Maybe that is what journalists do for a living. We live in the mess and ugliness, look for problems and weakness, for things that need to be improved. An experienced Tibetan Buddhist would strive to have a nonjudgmental perspective. Penor Rinpoche and Khenpo, they lived in the sunshine. What problems? When they looked at something, it was neither good nor bad. They saw goodness and perfection, the Buddha nature.

As I began to walk around the stupa, I thought about Jetsunma. "The lotus has its roots in the mud," one of the lamas had once said to me, when we were talking about KPC. You could add up all the negatives, all the worst things that could be said about Jetsunma, and, still, that wasn't the whole story either.

"I see this as a pattern of mine," she had said to me on the phone, earlier in the summer. "I am a religion builder and I tend to build structures that others can use. It's like an archetypal response I have. It's like being a natural-born teacher or a maternal type, personality-wise. And what happens to me is that a lot of times I will build a structure that really works and it's useful and people seem to move into that structure. But at some point I find that I'm carrying it on my shoulders and I'm kind of weighed down by it. ...So I'm feeling. ..a little buried under it. You know?"

She presented her central dilemma quite lightly but made no attempt to hide it: She had started a religion and now had to run it.


Each morning of the retreat began with an hour of traditional prayers. Otherwise, I had been told that the four days would be an assortment of assignments and workshops created by Jetsunma in her "nontraditional" mode. As usual when Jetsunma was teaching, there was a line of cars parked along River Road the next morning. I caught sight of Wib's mane of white hair across the temple foyer, and when he saw me he smiled and made his way through the crowd. "I hoped you'd come," he said. He was tan and rested, looked handsome in a dark denim shirt. We hugged and laughed and shared news. He asked about my new house -- and carefully inquired about the title of my book. "Oh, don't worry," I said with an embarrassed chuckle. "I took care of that.

"What's going on with you?" I asked. Wib closed his mouth and winced slightly. He and Jane were thinking of writing a letter to Jetsunma, asking her blessing to start repairing their marriage. Wib wanted to move back home. Not only had he grown tired of living by himself, away from his family, but he was already disenchanted with a corporate marketing job in Northern Virginia. "I miss being at the temple all day," he said.

"Really?' I asked. "You'd come back and fund-raise and all that?"

"The real world is overrated," he said with a shrug. "At least here I'm doing something meaningful with my time."

I took my seat inside the Dharma room. It was filled to capacity -- maybe eighty or one hundred people -- and there was a buzz of anticipation. Jetsunma had been even more than usually elusive of late. Wib confirmed my suspicion that she was beginning to pull away from Poolesville -- talking of going into a permanent "semiretreat" and spending a large part of the year at her house in Arizona. Her public teachings had become very rare.

She entered wearing a head-to-toe burgundy outfit, but not official robes. The room of students all rose and began finding places on the floor to prostrate to her, three times. I stayed in my chair.

She looked different -- altered in some way. She was thinner than ever before and seemed very toned. Since India, according to Wib, she had started working out ninety minutes a day. There were signs of muscles under her tight velvet knit top, and her burgundy wraparound skirt was fitted against a flat stomach. The rigorous exercising had even changed the planes of her face. She had visible cheekbones and a slightly sunken look underneath them. Her eyes looked different, too -- very different. But from the back of the room it was hard to say why. For one thing she appeared to be wearing hardly any makeup.

The weekend was about bodhicitta, she said, after the Seven Line Prayer was finished. It was about compassion. And this meant that mostly the weekend was about suffering and the exploration of suffering and our reactions to suffering. She didn't want people to sit passively for four days. "You aren't here to just watch movies and listen to teachings and be entertained." This was a weekend for work, for digging and questing and brutal self-honesty, she said. She also wanted students to "resist the temptation to think of this as some kind of quick fix, a patch-up job on your spiritual life. And resist thinking you are going to come away from this weekend feeling good, on some kind of high.

"The way to understand other people's suffering," she said, "is to first recognize your own." We tend not to want to think about these things. We make an enemy of suffering. But the point of Tibetan Buddhism is to learn how to take the negatives of samsara and the failings inside us and transform them. You can use your suffering as a way to ascend -- to build character and depth, so that the suffering becomes your mentor and your blessing. Or you can see it ''as a way to become angry and bitter and jealous and a victim -- as though suffering was uniquely yours alone -- and no one else experiences it.

"People say that Buddhism is a downer religion," she said, "but I just think it's realistic. It teaches the full equation. It teaches that cause and effect are interdependent, one giving rise to the other. We have funny superstitious notions that if we do something nonvirtuous that we'll be punished immediately. ..this lifetime. And in fact, there is no delay. The cause and the effect arise together, interdependently, but because of the way we see time, we think there's a delay."

She drew a diagram on the board, a "time and space grid," she called it -- and explained how karma ripens. "If you are handicapped in this life, you had a nonvirtue of the body in the past. Mental illness and mental trouble, or neurosis and instability and depression, is from nonvirtuous mental activity of the past," she said. "There's no magic about this."

I thought about how unfashionable all this was, this talk of suffering and punishment, the tough explanation for the handicapped: They deserve it. And the psychotic: They deserve it. And the poor: They deserve it, too. I had grown used to it after a year of coming to Poolesville, but it had nothing to do with the notion most Americans had of Tibetan Buddhism. We only knew what we knew by looking at the cheerful face of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. And when he said, "My religion is kindness," we had gotten it into our heads that Tibetan Buddhism was just niceness. If we did a little meditation and held some brown beads like Richard Gere wore on the cover of Esquire, maybe we could smile like the Dalai Lama, too. But the truth is, the Vajrayana path is brutal and the struggle to surrender one's ego can seem endless. If the Tibetan lamas seemed cheerful and giggly all the time, it wasn't because they held a view that life is fun. They laughed because there was almost no choice.

"Christopher Reeve, it turns out, really is Superman," Jetsunma was saying. "He has turned this experience of suffering into a way to help others and a vehicle for his life to become truly meaningful. How meaningful is being a movie star and an equestrian? Suffering alone is not important. How you react to suffering is. Making the choice is the important thing -- whether you suffer from a big splashy accident or tragedy or just from moment-by-moment sorrows -- you must realize you have a choice. And the choice begins by experiencing suffering and allowing yourself to feel it."

Afterward I dropped in on a lesson that Ani Rene was giving in the prayer room -- a sort of introduction to Tibetan Buddhism for newcomers, about Ngondro and the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind. I wanted to listen to Rene describe these concepts, and, frankly, I just liked hearing the sound of her voice and being in the same room with her. She was an accomplished practitioner -- revered by all in Poolesville and by those who weren't anymore. She exuded intelligence and precision. She had a wonderful air of warmth mixed with detachment. If anyone had achieved a feeling of egolessness -- without losing a sense of self, strength, and inner direction -- it was Rene.

She stood in her dark burgundy robes with her back to the altar and, in a soft and gentle voice, described the purpose of prostrations and led the small group in a test run. Rene was in her midforties, I guessed, and her face was round and held very wide cheekbones. Her eyes were green and gray and brilliantly clear. As I watched her demonstrate a prostration -- lifting her strong, bare arms to the crown of her head, to her throat, to her heart, then down to the ground -- I realized that I had never once tried to do a prostration. What a funny oversight on my part, I thought. How unprofessional and weird, after one year of coming to the temple. These people have done hundreds of thousands of them, and I couldn't be troubled to do only one. And I found, as I wobbled through a few, that they are physically hard to do -- something like a multi-stepped yoga pose called the Sun Salutation. You were up, and you were down, you were stretching, and you were bending. And after just a few, it was odd, but I felt loosened up, kind of flowing.


Jetsunma talked about her childhood in the evening teaching, and she pondered the question I had been asking myself for a year now. What had a greater impact on her life and behavior now: her lousy, abusive childhood -- the cigarette burns on her body, being beaten with a radiator brush -- or all the past lives she had spent praying in a cave?

"My pedigree is long and impressive -- but that's not what gave me my strength," she said. "My empowerment came from seeing the suffering of others. .. and when people say that tulkus know how to choose their next reincarnation, I think, What fresh hell I picked. But I wouldn't trade it. It was empowering, a training ... and I know suffering so well now that I can see your own suffering even when you can't see it. And I can see you try to rise above it. I can see you go into the zone, hanging on to some idea of happiness that you think you could have.

"I can walk into a situation, a room, and get it just like that," she said, snapping her fingers. "My teachers tell me that's because of my lifetimes of practice, but I don't know that's true. My days as a child were unbelievably long, maybe never-ending."

The effects were still with her, the results of years of being hungry and being beaten, of being told she was ugly and worthless. And, apparently, even the lama hadn't found a way to heal herself. Nor had the big white house in the woods that she'd dreamed about as a child -- the house that was perfect and beautiful and safe, where she promised to take her little brothers someday -- been an answer to her problems. "I'm still scared," she said. "I'm afraid all the time."

And she often felt fragile and worthless. "It wasn't until the last few months that I decided that I wasn't half bad looking," she said. "Before, I thought I was a troll or a dwarf or something. ... It's taken me this long to feel I'm worthy, that I'm okay-looking, that I can be confident in rooms full of people and feel capable."

She didn't like her job as lama, she admitted. "I don't like being the authority, being in front of you, being in charge. I don't like this chair and the clothes that go with it. ...But I have a need to be of benefit to sentient beings. And if you'd been empowered as I have, there's nothing you would rather do at any moment of the day than care for the suffering of sentient beings ... and every night and every day you have to remember that there are people who have hopes of you, who are waiting for you."


The next morning there was a sign taped to the glass window in the temple door. It was a warning of obstacles arising, a lesson in non attachment and impermanence, and a reminder that at KPC the unexpected regularly happens:

Jetsunma is experiencing muscle spasms in her back and is receiving treatment. .. sked has been changed.

While I tried to decide how to spend the next couple of hours -- either watching Dead Man Walking in the Dharma room or "self-questing," I browsed in the temple gift shop and loitered in the foyer. I noticed for the first time that there were baskets everywhere I looked, with little signs asking for money for one worthy cause or another. One basket said, BROWNIES FOR THE TEENS. Another said, ALYCE'S RESTAURANT. Another sign said, HELP BUILD A STUPA, another basket was for "KPC," and, finally, there was a basket on a pedestal by the door to the Dharma room with an index card that read: WE SENT JETSUNMA TO THE BEACH THIS SUMMER. NOW HELPUS PAY FOR IT.

It was a sad assortment of pleas. And it made me feel sort of sorry that Alana had arranged for me to attend the retreat on an "editorial waiver" and skip paying the $140. As I hovered around the baskets, I realized that I had always felt vaguely bad about not giving the Tibetan Buddhists much of anything for their time and generosity and kindness to me -- the hours of interviews they'd endured, the transcriptions of teachings they'd E-mailed me, the books and ideas they'd shared. They'd been generous with me -- and answered all my questions with unfailing honesty. I'd bought them dinner and lunch when I could. I had shown up at their houses with flowers and cookies -- and at Christmastime sent Jetsunma a few novels, which I was never sure she'd actually gotten. (One monk confessed to me that he found his ordination day offering to Jetsunma -- one year after he'd given it -- still wrapped and stuck in an upstairs temple closet.) Looking, around at the baskets, I pulled out my wallet, wrote a check for two hundred dollars, and dropped it in the beach-fund basket.

As I watched Dead Man Walking, it was touching to hear the nuns giggling and laughing at all the nun jokes -- and even more so to hear them sobbing at the end. Afterward I ran into Alana on the front porch.

She didn't seem to be at the workshops or movies that weekend -- or doing much self-questing at the stupa. She was busy attending to Jetsunma, who, I would discover later on, had been arrested only days before on battery charges for hitting a nun who had broken her vows. When I caught Alana she was wearing a pair of burgundy jeans and a burgundy T-shirt and clearly between errands of some kind. She had just returned from taking Jetsunma to the acupuncturist and now carried a few envelopes and papers in her freckled hands. Realizing that we might not find a chance to visit again over the weekend, we decided to sit for a few minutes inside, where it was warmer.

The solarium was a large, glassy room that led to the kitchen and community room. Bulletin boards were covered with announcements and pictures of new ordained. Four round tables were set up with chairs, for lounging and eating meals -- for people who'd been crowded out of the dining room. A few cardboard boxes filled with old newspapers and magazines had been dropped on the tables. The boxes contained library books, too -- mostly oversized coffee table books, travel books, picture books.

"What's all this?" I asked Alana.

"An idea of Jetsunma's," she said, "part of tonight's teaching."

Alana looked tired but relaxed. Her blue eyes still twinkled with some kind of energy and readiness. I realized that she always had this look -- vaguely tired, vaguely pleased, like the way the mother of the bride looks the day after the wedding. I wondered how much work the retreat had been for her.

"You have a hard job." I said.

"I guess I do," she replied.

We caught up on some things, and then I asked her a few questions about Michael Burroughs. I was going to be calling him, I said. There were things that needed to be cleared up, accounts to confirm -- his side of the story needed to be heard. She sipped on a Diet Pepsi and took a deep breath. "I suppose you have to," she said. "Just be careful about what you're hearing."

I said I would.

"I think about Michael a lot," she said, then sighed. "And he's a good teaching for me. I used to be more like him. I know for sure that five years ago I was more like Michael."

"Hard on students?"

She nodded. "Gyaltrul Rinpoche said to me recently, 'Take care of yourself. You're the pricker point.' 'What's that?' I asked. 'People don't get mad at her,' he said. 'They get mad at you. And you have to be careful not to get angry in return -- because the negativity will shorten your life.'"

There were things that Jetsunma's students weren't supposed to resent Jetsunma for -- the mothering vibe, the control they'd granted her over their lives, the money they'd given over the years, the failure of Ladyworks and the other temple businesses. Deep down, people must have been ambivalent about her. Many times I had heard students suggest that the inner circle was responsible for the problems at the temple. Sometimes it was Wib and Jane who were blamed, or Tashi. But most often it was Alana.

"When Michael left," she said, "nobody was sorry. Not one person. That's sad. I can't imagine leaving here and having nobody miss me."

She had thought about leaving. This seemed inconceivable to me. "We joke about my being a Virgo with Scorpio rising," Alana said, "a perfectionist with a sting. But, actually, I've had people say how much I've improved these days. They used to refer to me as Ice Maiden. But Jetsunma has softened me, really has softened me. I am a little bit more compassionate than I used to be," She laughed. "But mostly, you know, I just can't stand people. But I'll do anything for them. It's a strange kind of personality that I have.

Her personality didn't seem as strange as her relationship with Jetsunma. She seemed capable of unfathomable devotion. She had once been Jetsunma's closest friend and lover and was now her servant. She wasn't just the go-between and gatekeeper, she was Jetsunma's private secretary, housekeeper, and cook. Along with Atara and Ariana, she made all the appointments that Jetsunma would eventually cancel, made airplane reservations that Jetsunma would cancel, and then, when she rescheduled the appointments and airplane tickets, Jetsunma would cancel again. "On all levels everything is stirred up when you're around her," Alana said. She did Jetsunma's laundry, her Christmas shopping, her mail-ordering, her grocery shopping, and she sent out all the flower arrangements to students on their birthdays or when their parents died or their children were born, with a card that said, "Love from Jetsunma."

"Being a nun wasn't a natural fit for me," she said. "Not like it's been with some of the others. ... I look at my daughters' lives, their little town houses and their husbands, and sometimes I still long for that. ... I have days, lots of days, when I just want to get a town house and play with my grandkids and forget all this ...

"And it's hard sometimes. .. well, you know it'd be nice to just have someone to hold. I have that want, that skin hunger, or even the intimacy of being really good friends with somebody. I've been instructed not to weigh Jetsunma down with emotional problems. That's not what the guru is there for -- mundane living. She is supposed to lead us on a spiritual path. ... But as a sentient being, I have ups and downs. But I don't want to burden her, or distract her. So I'm not as open."

When I asked Alana how she thought she'd spend the rest of her life, she smiled sort of wistfully.

"Think you'll stay with Jetsunma?" I asked.

"Forever, I hope," she said.


In the evening Jetsunma's face looked swollen and waxy -- like a flesh-colored mask she'd put on. She began talking about how people lose compassion, how they stop having an open heart. The teacher's role in Tibetan Buddhism is "to help the student understand the enlightened mind," she said. Her way of helping her students was sometimes to share her experiences.

When she was younger and living in North Carolina, she said, she began praying for the continent of Africa. She became obsessed with Africa for a year or so, and started buying African clothes and African music and put pictures of sad-faced African kids on her refrigerator to remind her about the suffering there. Eventually her life changed because of this practice. She realized that if you pray for something that intensely, with your whole heart, you can begin to feel different inside. It was as though you were becoming the thing you were praying for. You could feel it in your bones. And it stayed with you, with every breath, every thought, everything in your day became that thing you were praying for. And it took you beyond ego and self to a place where you became unseparated from the rest of the world. It was a way to approach experiencing things as nondual.

"Emotion is just ego and conceptualization," Jetsunma said. "Compassion is way more fundamental, and unconnected to ego and negativity."

Each of us had to find a place to pray for, she said. This was our assignment. The boxes in the solarium were there to help us with ideas. We were to pick a subject that was dear to us -- -not necessarily something big or important or really current like Bosnia. It didn't have to be a place, either. It could be an issue or a cause, like rain forests or toxic waste or abortion. "Find something that moves you deeply," she said. "Something that will motivate you -- because you will need that kind of emotion and energy to keep focused."

Afterward Ani Rene described a meditation and visualization -- a "practice" -- that was meant to accompany our praying. We began by doing three prostrations, and by reading the Bodhisattva and Refuge vows three times. Then we closed our eyes and imagined ourselves with the subject of our prayers. We visualized a lotus blossom in the middle of a lake before us, and a bodhisattva on the blossom, and then a sky of buddhas and bodhisattvas with their dakini consorts before us. We imagined that we were gathering all the earth's treasures, and all the treasures of all the universes, piles of jewels and riches, and, along with our subject, we made an offering of all this wealth to the bodhisattvas and dakinis.

"Stay deeply focused," Rene said, "and feel utterly and completely responsible for this place you are praying about -- as though you would exchange your life for theirs, gladly."

We were to say om while we visualized inhaling all the suffering and misery and discontent of our subject and ah while we meditated on the absolute Buddha nature, pure wisdom and emptiness, then hum as we made an exhalation of bliss. We had inhaled the suffering of our subject and purified it. "Your exhalation should pour out like nectar," Rene said softly. "Bliss going out into the world."


We took our new practice out to the stupa the next morning after an hour of prayer in the prayer room. Jetsunma arrived in casual clothes -- black jeans, cropped beige sweater, and boots -- and led the group across River Road to the woods. We each brought pieces of fruit to make offerings at the stupa, and I fumbled with an apple and orange and tried to be solemn, beginning to realize how uncomfortable I felt with the enormity of Jetsunma's ambitions for saving the world. Others in the group approached the stupa with great confidence and intimacy, reverently bumping the tops of their heads up against the concrete and clutching their prayer beads. I bent over to begin a prostration in front of the stupa but found, in the open air and in the company of Jetsunma, I was unable to. I was worried about falling over, or doing it awkwardly. And I was too proud.

Afterward we watched a documentary of animals being tested in labs, kittens being injected with flea spray, monkeys struggling against restraints while medical researchers smashed their skulls with a giant cow puncher as a way to study head trauma. After that there was a movie about lambs being slaughtered.

At the night's teaching Jetsunma arrived and quickly began, as though she had so much to discuss she might run out of time -- or lose track of all the things she was keeping in her head. The teaching was long and meandering. When she was done, going way over the scheduled amount of time, she got up from her throne, and I saw that she had a stripe of dark sweat bleeding through the back of her burgundy dress.

She spoke of the "practice of bodhicitta" as it is viewed in traditional Tibetan Buddhism. There are several levels to the practices, each one bringing a deeper and subtler understanding of the Buddha nature. It is a recurring theme in Tibetan Buddhism -- this need to separate students on the path by their ability with the material, by the level of their understanding. There is a hierarchy in place at all times, which says that some are better, more evolved, more enlightened, and presumably closer to realization and Buddhahood. But, essentially, everybody is a zero on the rungs of this well-defined ladder compared with a fully realized master.

"When I went to India this last time, Penor Rinpoche said to me that he normally doesn't establish and enthrone tulkus who have not been trained," she said, "but he said in my case he was willing to do that because, from the first moment that he met me, he knew that in the past I had been a very great bodhisattva and that I have truly mastered bodhicitta so that I had truly expressed bodhicitta in every way. He said that ... it would be an impossibility that I would appear in the world unarmed and unable to be of benefit to sentient beings, that I would always be able to teach sentient beings and lead them on the path of the bodhisattva into enlightenment. He said that he's always had that confidence in me, and so even though I was not trained, he did the unheard of. He enthroned me and recognized me and made me, in fact, not only enthroned but very public because he had full confidence in the bodhicitta that I would express."

She talked about Mandarava's Cave near the lake at Tso Pema, and how she had encountered a lama there who was "greatly moved" by a meeting with her. He had "tears in his eyes and could hardly speak," she said. "He couldn't believe that the day had come when he had met Mandarava's reincarnation."

Once she was alone in the cave, Jetsunma's mindstream and the mindstream of Mandarava met and "became like one river," she said. "I felt her, her mindstream, what she was. I felt that everything that was said about her was true. ... She really was like a living Buddha. She had all the major and minor marks. She really was like that. And I felt her relationship to me. I understood it very well, in a way that I never understood my relationship with any of the other predecessors that I have been recognized as ..."

She came to understand that "Mandarava's blessing was everywhere" -- every time a child was nurtured, every time someone who was sick was healed, every time some mental disturbance had been pacified."

Finally she brought the lesson around to its point. The story of Mandarava was the story of just one great bodhisattva with great compassion, she said. There were many others.

"What will your story be?" she asked the students. "How will your compassion express itself? ... In some future life, I hope and pray that I will have the opportunity to read stories of the modern Ahkon Lhamo and her disciples. And to hear these great stories about the enormous deeds of her disciples and even further down in the future to realize that her disciples have been reborn great bodhisattvas that single-handedly, armed with courage and love, brought about the end of suffering. ...

"I think it's time to start writing your story, and it's time to stop being little children who are looking to me to supply your happiness and to supply your motivation and to supply some way of making your path easy. Now it's time for you to look within your heart and fan the fire of love until it is greater than anything you have ever known, even greater than your own self-absorption."

I closed my eyes. I couldn't look at her anymore -- or listen anymore. And I found myself instead drifting off into the meditation that Ani Rene had taught the night before. I thought about my subject -- the place dear to my heart, the place I would be praying for night and day.

I began to imagine myself at the entrance of a long driveway. It led to a large plantation house with white columns. I walked through the doors at Kunzang Palyul Choling and sat down in the Dharma room. I was surrounded by monks and nuns, by the First Wavers and the new faces. I was with the ones who'd been brave enough to stay and with the ones who'd been brave enough to leave. Jetsunma was standing with us, too. And in my meditation we made our offering of great riches to the buddhas and bodhisattvas and dakinis. ... Om. I inhaled the suffering and misunderstanding and sadness of Poolesville. Ah. I meditated on the feeling of emptiness and wisdom and open space. Hum. I made an exhalation of pure bliss. As Rene had instructed, I imagined myself responsible for the plight of my subject. And I felt as though I would gladly exchange my life for theirs. Somebody had to be looking after these people who spent so much time worrying about everybody else.


On the last day of the retreat, coming over on White's Ferry, I put the windows down in my car and stared at the river water rushing on either side of me. The water was dark and gray and muddy, and I realized that I would never know the truth about Jetsunma, whether she was a good leader or a very bad one. And I realized I was sad. Someday, maybe not tomorrow or next month, or even next year, but someday, I would have to stop going out to Poolesville. Someday it would be over, and that already made me sad. And as the water swirled and the shore of Maryland grew closer, I thought about devotion and what it means. There is nobility in sacrifice -- any sacrifice. And as much as I didn't want to admit this, there is in fact a sort of ladder that people seem to ascend in order to be liberated from self-concern and experience themselves as part of something larger. And sometimes people do ridiculous things to get there.

Inside the warm temple foyer I ran into Sherab, and we visited a bit. It was funny how the retreat was nearly over and we'd not seen much of each other. "I haven't been out and about, exactly," she said, and laughed. I noticed that her eyes looked swollen and red. She admitted that she had been crying all weekend. "This has been a rough one," she said. "I'm kind of a wreck. Call me Ani Basketcase." Later, after a showing of Leaving Las Vegas, I saw her sobbing in the hallway.

On my way into lunch I saw Doug Sims and stopped to say hello. His strawberry blond hair was cut short, he was thinner, and his freckled face looked drawn. When I asked him what he was up to, he said, "I got a job in the real world. I needed it for my self-esteem." I remembered how he'd looked just a year before, a giant sunbeam of a man who was painting the tree of relics behind the prayer room during the golden days of the stupa. "Why hasn't the stupa been painted yet?" I asked. "Don't ask me," the accountant said a bit sourly. "They ran out of money."

I stood in the lunch line with Bob Colacurcio, and he asked how things were going. He was a big friendly bear, a former Jesuit who had moved his family from Michigan to be closer to Jetsunma. Anytime I wanted to call him or come see him, he said, he'd be happy to help explain things. Help me see how it was. "You know, the mind wants to understand things simply. And the conventional mind wants to understand things even more simply," he said. "And it's not easy to get out of a comfort zone. But on the Vajrayana path, it is my understanding that the teacher is supposed to do whatever he or she can to get the student from the comfort zone. And the teacher would use any means to get this to happen -- for the student's own benefit."

At the end of the lunch line, I found Eleanor Rowe collecting money for lunch. And I found Kamil, the monk from the Virgin Islands, serving. I looked around the room and saw Sangye eating with Jon Randolph and David and Sylvia Somerville. I saw a cluster of nuns, and the great yardage of burgundy fabric hanging on them. I overheard Rene saying, "It's funny, but I didn't identify with her as much as the Sean Penn character. Watching the movie, I really felt the angry little man inside me."

I found a table and sat next to Wib's wife, Jane Perini. We talked about "flow," -- how sometimes things just seem meant to be and go smoothly, almost as though you've tapped into some current you were meant to ride. I told Jane I was sorry about her and Wib, and her eyes filled with tears. When we said good-bye she gave me a hug. Afterward Jon Randolph and I bumped into each other on the front porch. The tall thin monk had always seemed puzzled by my job of writing about KPC. "You could make Jetsunma look pretty bad, if you wanted," he said.

"I know."

"Because people don't understand."

"I know."

We agreed to talk later on, and have lunch. And then he said, "You're a part of this, Martha. Can't you feel that?"

It seemed an unimaginable crime, if Jetsunma wasn't going to lead these people to liberation -- if she wasn't able to meet up with her students in the bardo like she promised. Jon Randolph looked into my eyes, and I looked into his. It was the kind of prolonged soul-searching exchange that I usually avoided, and was embarrassed by. But something inside me felt different, sort of open and unscared, and as though the monk were taking me somewhere I was suddenly ready to go.


Jetsunma took the throne for her last teaching of the retreat. I stood up and found a free spot on the floor where I could try out a few prostrations in public. It wasn't that hard or embarrassing, really. In fact, it was kind of a thrill.

The weekend was shaping up to be important, Jetsunma said after we were all done. She had seen some very auspicious signs in the sky. "Did you see that little rainbow around the moon last night?" she asked. There are nagas or nature spirits who exist on earth and communicate with us through rainbows, through certain-shaped clouds and lightning. "Virtue does manifest itself in the world," she said. "And our compassion and caring has been noticed by these natural spirits."

As she was talking I remembered an old Tibetan Buddhist story called "Miraculous Tooth." [1] There was an old woman whose son was a trader. He often joined caravans and traveled on business to far spots in India. When his mother learned that her son was going to be near Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha became enlightened, she asked him to bring her a relic from there -- something she could use as a focus for her devotion. Her son went to the holy place, and when he returned to his mother, he realized that he had forgotten her request. Seeing a dead dog on the street, he tore a tooth from its mouth and wrapped it in silk.

When he presented the tooth to his mother, he told her it was one of Buddha's canine teeth. It was a true holy relic. The old woman put the tooth on her altar and began praying and prostrating before it. Soon the tooth began to emanate countless tiny pearls, and rainbows bounced about the room. The old woman, for the first time in her life, found the unshakable peace of mind that she had always sought. And when she died soon after, an aura of rainbow light surrounded her, a sign that she'd attained enlightenment.

Jetsunma was making an announcement. Something about the people in the audience who were going to be taking Refuge and Bodhisattva vows -- the initial pledge to become a Tibetan Buddhist. They needed white scarves, she said. I walked out of the Dharma room and pulled Rene aside. What did the Refuge and Bodhisattva vows really entail? What was one committing to?

"Have you read the vows?"

I nodded. "But is this a promise to start practicing?"

"I hate to tell you," she whispered, "but you already are."

I returned to my seat at the back of the room and felt a rush of heat into my face. I had a feeling that was on top of another feeling that felt more important than a feeling. It was an urge or drive -- something like an instinct. It wasn't rational -- it didn't have anything to do with actual thinking. It wasn't a choice as much as something that simply happened. And it didn't come from a place where doubt exists or where one spends an enormous amount of time wondering what the lama is being paid or whether she buys too many clothes. It is a generous place. An unselfish and forgiving and unconditional place. It is not the place where I am a journalist. And, I hate to admit it, but it's a nicer place to be.

The vows are simple. Anybody could have said them, and we did, in fact, all say them together. A commitment to living things and life, to kindness and selfless efforts to end suffering. These are things that all people would hope for themselves in their better moments. We walked in a line toward Jetsunma's throne. And we filed past a large clear bowl of water with a flower floating in it.

I handed Jetsunma the white scarf that Wib had lent me. She took it in her hands and held it up to her forehead. And then returned it to me. Up close she looked really pale, sort of nude, without all her makeup. And something else was different about her -- something about her eyes. They weren't brown anymore. They were bright blue. She was wearing colored contact lenses.

She handed me a folded white piece of paper. I smiled and turned toward Rene, who was standing next to me. Rene reached up and began tying a blessing cord around my neck. It was a string of red thread, tied with a blessed knot in the middle.

Rene's head bent close to mine, and I looked down on her hair, cut short but thick and clean and rich, speckled with gray. She finished tying the cord and looked at me.

"So you did it," Rene said.

"I did...

Her eyes were so green, so naturally green and so gray. Her face was so open and gentle and kind, so beautifully plain. It would break your heart, the kindness in that face. And it was everything to me in that moment, and made me feel the way I always felt about the stupa, kind of humbled and encouraged and uplifted at the same time. Rene's face gave me hope. And many times since I have thought, maybe Jetsunma isn't the real Buddha. Maybe it's Wib or Jane. Maybe it's Sherab or Sangye or Alana. But more often than not, think, Maybe the Buddha is Rene. Jetsunma is the dog's tooth, the decoy. The one who draws the fire. The one who throws her weight around. The one who can be loud and demanding and get attention. The one who has the nerve to ask for money.

I opened the piece of paper that Jetsunma had given me. It was my new name, Karma Drolkar. For a long time I kept it in my desk, half forgotten, and then late one night when I was on the phone with Dechen -- we were sort of laughing and talking together about Poolesville -- I asked her what the name meant.

"Literally, it means, 'action of White Tara,'" she said. "But that's not a very poetic translation. Really, it's something like 'the wisdom of the emptiness of all phenomena.'"

The wisdom of emptiness. Despite all I knew, I liked that.



1. Surya Das, The Snow Lion's Turquoise Mane: Wisdom Tales from Tibet (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992).
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sun Dec 04, 2016 12:20 am


In the winter of 1996, Dechen moved to the West Coast, where she still lives in a city that she does not wish to disclose. She calls her mother once a year, around Christmas, and works as a secretary.


The Monk continues to teach and travel, and study with Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso.


In the spring of 1997, Jetsunma announced to her students that she was moving permanently to Sedona,Arizona. Certain students--including Rene Larrabee, Sangye Dorje, Sherab Khandro, Alana Eigin, Atara Heiss, Alexandra Johnson, Ariana Kreitsmeyer, Sophia Windolph, David Somerville and his family--were asked to move there, too. They found houses and work in Sedona. The ordained among them were told by Jetsunma that they no longer needed to wear their robes except during Buddhist prayers and ceremonies. I visited them there in 1998.

In October 1998. Jetsunma came to believe that certain Hopi prophesies, which predict that floods and famine and great earthquakes would nearly destroy the United States in April 1999 and again in November 1999, were true. She told her students that Washington, D,C,. would likely be under water at that time. After much preparation for self-sufficiency and survival, many of Jetsunma's remaining students in Poolesville joined her in Sedona--where they would be on high ground and survive catastrophes. A 150-acre farm was purchased outside Payson, Arizona, where her followers could live together, self-sufficiently if need be. She also announced plans to build a stupa and a new temple in West Sedona. In October 1999, Jetsunma turned fifty. In the year 2000 she plans to make a world tour and give a series of teachings.

The temple in Poolesville still has an active and growing sangha. In 1998 the Jetsunma-appointed board of directors resigned following the publication of a critical article about KPC in Mirabella magazine by Will Blythe, and a new board of elected members replaced them. It was announced that the temple had been paid off.


Karl Jones moved to Ireland after his separation from Jetsunma in 1996. He was reunited with her in the fall of 1997, then separated again from her in spring 1998, and reunited with her again later that year, only to be again separated in 1999.


Sangye Dorje gave back his monk's robes in the summer of 1997, during a visit to Poolesville by Penor Rinpoche. He had never been a good monk, he told me, even though everybody thought he was. "You become ordained and hope to become a perfect monk someday, to grow into the robes. I could tell that wasn't happening to me." He wanted to get married someday, he told me, and have a family.


Wib Middleton and Jane Perini were reunited in December 1996 with Jetsunma's blessing. They moved to Sedona, Arizona, in March 1999.


Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso continues to travel, teach, and open new Palyul centers. Twice a year he comes to Poolesville and gives instruction to shedra students there.


His Holiness Penor Rinpoche remains the throneholder of the Nyingma School and oversees and supports a monastery of eighteen hundred monks in southern India. He recognized the actor Steven Seagal as the reincarnation of a terton or treasure revealer named Chungdrag Dorje in 1997 and was met with a storm of complaints by Tibetan Buddhists around the world. In an interview with me in the summer of 1997, Rinpoche said that he would not be recognizing any more Americans as tulkus because of their "problem with pride." He also made a point of telling me that, in India, the Tibetan teachers feed and clothe and house their monks, not the other way around. He has established his own Palyul Retreat Center in the Catskills. He has hopes that this book will help Dharma in the West and be of benefit to all sentient beings.


Gyaltrul Rinpoche remains in retreat in Half Moon Bay and was not available to verify the accounts of his conversations with Alana Elgin, Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, Michael Burroughs, Richard Dykeman, or Aileen Williams.


Andrea King's comedic screenplay based on the life of Jetsunma was written but never made into a film.


Ladyworks Inc. stopped all operations and was $650,000 in debt the summer of 1997, according to Alana Elgin. The second infomercial was never aired.


At the time of this writing, Byron Pickett was still at work on his documentary about Jetsunma's India pilgrimage.


Kathy Coon continues to be a practicing Buddhist. Bonnie Taylor and Bob Denmark do not.


Rick and Chris Finney became the proud parents of a third daughter in 1998 and named her themselves. Only Rick remains a practicing Tibetan Buddhist.


Richard Dykeman, after ten years as a monk living in India, Oregon, and Northern California, gave back his robes in 1998 and is doing construction work in the Baltimore area.


Sonam, the nun who left Ani Farms in the middle of the night, died of cancer in 1998. She was thirty-six.


Catharine Anastasia moved to Sedona in October 1999.


Rinchen remained in Poolesville and is making plans to do a three-year retreat at Penor Rinpoche's center in New York.


Aileen remains in Poolesville and works at NBC.


Michael Burroughs moved to Nepal in 1998 to be tutored privately by several tulkus. He has been identified as a lama in the lineage of Northern Treasures and a branch terton in several lifetimes. He agreed to be interviewed for this book in the hope of getting back in contact with Atira.


The Migyur Dorje stupa was painted gold in February 1998 by Sherab Khandro, who is otherwise living in Sedona, Arizona, and supports herself as a painter. She remains a nun.
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sun Dec 04, 2016 12:21 am


It is a courageous thing to sit down with a writer and allow her to tell your story for you. It becomes more courageous when you realize, midway, that your story is not going to be all that flattering in places. For their stoutheartedness and lack of vanity I would like to thank Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo and the monks and nuns and lay practitioners of Kunzang Palyul Choling -- both past and present. They were never anything but kind and generous to me, despite all my arrogance and egotism and fear. I hope they will understand why this book became what it did.

I would also like to thank His Holiness Penor Rinpoche for spending time with me and for giving me advice and guidance when I asked for it. And for finally saying, "You need to stop talking to people and just write."

Who should I thank next -- the people who loved me, the ones who inspired me, those who fed me, or the people who actually paid me money to write this book? In the order of hours spent resuscitating my tired spirit, I would like to thank my indulgent and understanding husband, Bill Powers; my irrepressible cousin, Leslee Peyton Sherrill; my wonderful literary agent, Flip Brophy: and my most enthusiastic fan and father, Peter Sherrill, who clapped so hard and so often for me while he was alive that I can still hear him. I would also like to express unending thanks to Joel Achenbach, Bob Barkin, Tess Batac, Ron Bernstein, Geraldine Brooks, Richard Ben Cramer, Susan Davis, Marydale DeBor, David Del Tredici, Amy Dickinson, J. D. Dolan, Barbara Feinman, Marc Feldman, Rose Jean Goddard, Larry Hass, Tony Horwitz, Tammy Jones, Laura Marmor, Billy McClain, Jeanne McManus, Danielle Mirabella, Lou-Ann Nixon, Mary Powers, Bob Rosenblatt, Sally Quinn, Jack Sharer, Anina Sherrill, Marilyn Sherrill, Nathaniel Sherrill, Steve Sherrill, Sally Bedell Smith, Lyn Sommer, Milt Spears, Lincoln Spoor, David Stang, Mary Stapp, Lauve Steenhulsen, Elsa Walsh, Mark Warren, and Carolyn White. They gave me good ideas and encouragement -- and sometimes a glass of wine -- when I most needed it.

Writing this book would not have been possible without the magnanimous support of The Washington Post. I have been influenced and inspired by its publishers, Katharine Grahram and Don Graham, and encouraged and rescued by its many talented editors, especially Ben Bradlee, Steve Coll, David De Nicolo, Len Downie, Janet Duckworth, Ellen Edwards, Mary Hadar, Brian Kelly, David Von Drehle, Gene Weingarten, and Bob Woodward. In this book, my descriptions of life in the newsroom should not be read as criticism of the Post in particular. The truth is, a newsroom is a newsroom and people are people, wherever you go.

The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts is a magical place where I was able to work on this book -- during stays in 1997 and 1999 -- and also find great camaraderie. I would like to thank the board of directors and benefactors of VCCA for making that possible. Also, I would like to thank John Gregory Brown for bringing me to Sweet Briar College to teach and the winter term class of 1997 for their energy and honesty; I will never forget their stories.

I owe a special debt to Martin Wassell, who first told me about Jetsunma and KPC and stuck with me, inspiring me to be fair. It would be hard to find a nobler or more loyal guide into the heart of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

And then there's David Rosenthal, who originally saw a book in my stories about KPC and then promptly, thanks to his good fortune, vanished from sight. Ann Godoff bravely stepped in and gently shepherded me and my enormous herd of characters to the finish. She made this book as fine as it could be, and for this I am forever grateful.

-- Martha Sherrill
October 1999
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