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.

The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 10:17 pm

The Buddha From Brooklyn
by Martha Sherrill
© 2000 by Martha Sherrill




To my mother, Peggy Bonini Sherrill, and in memory of my friend Nina Hyde

Table of Contents:

Inside Cover
Cast of Characters
Map of Migyur Dorje Stupa
Part One: The Lama
1. The Lady Lama Appears
2. The Stupa Builds Itself
3. Repeat After Me
4. What's a Chakra?
Part Two: The Attendant
1. Ani Land
2. Alana
3. Becoming Buddhists
4. The Stupa Blessing
5. Who's Ever Heard of Ahkon Lhamo?
6. Can a Woman Be a Rinpoche?
7. Hog-Tied
Part Three: The Consorts
1. Dinner with Jetsunma
2. Correct View
3. Bally's Holiday Spa
4. Sometimes Your Heart Has to Be Broken
5. The Sangye Era
Part Four: The Nun
1. Whisperland
2. What a Lucky Child
3. The Great Blessing
4. Come into the Fire
5. Breaking Samaya
6. Approaching the Nondual
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 10:23 pm

Inside Cover

In 1985, Catharine Burroughs was a Maryland housewife with two children -- and two failed marriages behind her -- running a New Age prayer group in her basement. Out of the blue, a monastery in India for which she had raised some money contacted Burroughs and asked her to host His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, one of the highest-ranking lamas of Tibetan Buddhism, on his first visit to America. After meeting Burroughs, and observing her and her followers for a period of five days, he told her that she was a "great, great bodhisattva," and already, unbeknownst to her, practicing Buddhism. Later, In India, he officially recognized this Jewish-Italian woman from Brooklyn as the reincarnation of a sixteenth-century Tibetan saint, making her the first American woman to be named a tulku, or reborn lama.

The Buddha From Brooklyn tells the complex and fascinating story of how Catharine Burroughs, now known as Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, embarked on a journey to build the largest Tibetan Buddhist center in America. With boundless enthusiasm but precious little formal training in Buddhist practices and traditions, Jetsunma and her students bought an estate in Poolesville, Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., and founded Kunzang Palyul Choling (Fully Awakened Dharma Continent of Absolute Clear Light). Under Jetsunma's tutelage, the group memorized sacred texts and held all-night prayer vigils. They asked venerable Tibetan lamas to visit and give them "empowerments." Many took Buddhist vows and became monks and nuns. And as word of this remarkable place spread, others came to see the new lama for themselves and joined her community.

Martha Sherrill, a writer at The Washington Post, heard about Jetsunma in 1993. She visited the center and was charmed by both its charismatic lama, the only Western woman in the male-dominated hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism, and by the monks and nuns (all Americans) living there. They seemed, for the most part, like a remarkably happy group of people whose lives had been transformed by this exotic, imported faith -- and by Jetsunma. At the beginning of The Buddha From Brooklyn, as the group is breaking ground for a sacred monument called a stupa, Sherrill commences her own journey to discover for herself what makes this unlikely lama -- who enjoys clothes shopping and manicures, Motown music and Star Trek reruns -- such a magnetic spiritual leader. And as the story unfolds, so do the secrets of this seemingly idyllic sanctuary.

Compassionate and clear-eyed, Sherrill takes her readers on a breathtaking exploration inside the monastery at Poolesville, a place where idealistic but flawed human beings struggle with their devotion every day. She demystifies monastic life and Tibetan Buddhism, and amends the simplified view that most Americans have of this 2,500-year-old faith. Weaving together the stories of the believers into a narrative structure that is as moving and beautiful as the stupa they are building, Sherrill has created a brilliant work of investigative journalism that raises profound, provocative questions about religious faith and its price. The Buddha from Brooklyn is a monument to the miracles and failures that stem from the deepest human longings.


Martha Sherrill has been a staff writer at The Washington Post since 1989. She has also written for Esquire, Vanity Fair, and other magazines. She lives with her husband and son in the Washington, D.C. area.

Jacket design: Robbin Schiff
Jacket photos: Andrew Bordwin
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 10:26 pm

Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles
and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion
completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks
and giant firs standing hip to hip,

you know again that behind that wall,
under the uncut hair of the willows

something secret is going on,
so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.

-- Lisel Mueller


A stupa is a holy thing, a monument to peace and harmony. It is a place where the Buddha's mind is alive on earth. That's what I was told. anyway, when I first came to Poolesville, Maryland, and what I still believe -- in spite of everything else I know.

The moon was rising in the dark blue sky. It was a harvest moon, a warm moon, full and golden. It was the fall of 1996. The next morning a retreat would begin, a bodhicitta or compassion retreat. I arrived on the temple grounds very late, parked my car, and walked past the main building of the temple, a large white plantation-style mansion. The temple looked quiet behind its spread of green grass. Only a few dim lights were still on. Through a window I saw a flash of a burgundy robe inside the Dharma room -- a monk or nun was cleaning the altar bowls. Instead of going inside, I walked down the long driveway in the direction of the dark woods. I went to the Migyur Dorje stupa when I was confused, when my mind needed clearing, simplicity, a broad brushstroke, a big picture. When I needed to relax.

I'd been told that if you walk around a stupa, clockwise, you will receive blessings. I still believe that, too. There are all kinds of explanations of what a stupa is, of course, and how one works. There are academic tracts with detailed diagrams, discussions of the various types of stupas, and essays about the metaphysical properties of these compelling shrines. You can be as highbrow as you want about stupas -- just as Buddhism itself can be terribly highbrow -- or you can try to comprehend a stupa simply and forget the details. You can walk around one, clockwise, as the Tibetans do, and just soak up the blessings. I had purchased miniature stupas from the temple gift shop in Poolesville. I collected photographs of stupas and books about them. I became fascinated with the inner chambers of the stupas, and the secret contents. Sometimes my passion was a little hard to explain to my journalist friends. To the unromantic eye, I suppose, a stupa doesn't look like much. The Buddha's mind is just a monolith, really -- an obelisk with a pagoda roof and a spire. At the highest point, there is a crystal ball pointing to the sky.

I took the shortcut in the woods and found the narrow dirt road that led to the great stupa. When I had started coming to Poolesville regularly, just a year before, there had been plans to pave the road -- but it was still potholed and loaded with hazardous puddles and large rocks. Vines were curling out of the forest, too, dangling down from trees and growing back into the path.

A stupa is a magical thing, seductive and mysterious, but also very simple. Maybe that's what I like about them. There was no debate raging about stupas -- no controversies swirling within the rarefied world of Tibetan Buddhism about what a stupa really is, A stupa is perfection. A stupa is emptiness, and a stupa can't break your heart.

A tulku is a little harder to comprehend. Like a stupa, a tulku is also a living Buddha and supposed to be perfect. That's what I was told, at any rate, when I first arrived in Poolesville. But a tulku is a human being-a person with a childhood, with parents, with loves and losses, with regrets, with needs and dreams. Which brings me to Jetsunma. She is a tulku. And she is the one who lured me to Poolesville and to this place called Kunzang Odsal Palyul Changchub Choling, or Fully Awakened Dharma Continent of Absolute Clear Light. For a year I had been coming to Poolesville as a journalist, and this mysterious woman called Jetsunma -- an American woman and a Tibetan Buddhist lama -- was my subject.

I had met Jetsunma in 1993, when I came to interview her for a profile in a magazine. She was in her midforties at the time and wore her dark hair long and curly. I couldn't help but notice her eye makeup, and the red polish on her nails. She was earthy, worldly, a shade tacky. She cracked jokes and seemed to tell the truth, even if it was unflattering -- confessing to me at one point that she'd bought her long, flowery-print skirt on sale at The Limited. I was charmed by her good humor and wisdom. She seemed without pretensions or pious sanctimony. To me, there was something very special about her. And, clearly, I wasn't the only one. Within the hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism, she held a revered position, particularly for a Western woman. She was thought to be a reincarnated saint, an enlightened lama. Her long Tibetan name, Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo, carries the honorific Jetsunma -- one of the religion's most regal titles. And the Tibetan Buddhist center she had founded in 1986 had quickly become one of the most prominent in the United States. It was crowded with families and lay practitioners -- nearly all Westerners -- who had come to study Tibetan Buddhism with Jetsunma. She was also running the largest monastery of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in America.

I knew next to nothing about Tibetan Buddhism when I first ventured to Poolesville, apart from what I'd picked up in mainstream media and what I'd witnessed during a childhood spent in California, where the practice of various kinds of Buddhism seems more prevalent. I was naive, I suppose, and pulled toward Jetsunma by something in me not entirely rational. She seemed to have created an enchanted world and a radical place beyond the laws of physics and government. And at the same time it seemed happy in a way that the newsroom world -- where I had spent the last ten years -- did not. Bitterness is rampant in journalism, as is a vague malaise: My desk at the newspaper was surrounded on all sides by the desks of people taking antidepressants. Was there something special about Tibetan Buddhism that made people content, or was it simply the lush temple grounds? At KPC -- as it is called by the students -- there were seventy-two acres of woods and gardens to walk in, hidden shrines to peek at, prayer wheels to spin, and benches to rest your legs. Everywhere, it seemed, palecolored prayer flags were blowing softly in the breeze. Outside the main building there were shoes scattered about. Inside there was a funky gift shop selling Buddhist books, crystals, and postcards of His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet (does he ever not smile?). There was a buzz in the air, a freshness and vitality. The nuns and monks, dressed in long burgundy and saffron robes, were for the most part Americans, and they went about their duties with a playfulness and wit that surprised me. The rooms were crowded with colorful Buddhist icons and artifacts and ritual instruments, but at the same time they had a feeling of warmth and familiarity, a feeling of home.

And there were a number of exquisite spire-topped stupas to circumambulate in Poolesville, too -- all conceived by Jetsunma and executed by her students -- but nothing compared in beauty and magnitude with the great Migyur Dorje stupa. Early in the summer of 1995. His Holiness Penor Rinpoche had visited Poolesville from India and had given Jetsunma a rare collection of ancient relics, perhaps the rarest and most potent combination of Tibetan Buddhist relics in the West. And Jetsunma had set out to build a stupa worthy of them.

When I arrived in the clearing in the woods where the stupa stood, the moonlight was streaming down on the magnificent monument like liquid from the sky. I could see the roughness of the concrete -- it still hadn't been sanded or painted. And the impressive landscaping plans, for an amphitheater and waterfall, for shrubs and well-placed spotlights, were still on hold. The money had run out -- or had been spent on other things.

But even so, in the darkness and surrounded by the woods, the stupa had an unworldly loveliness. Neglect didn't mask its power but almost emphasized it, as though it were as natural and alive as the forest. I liked the way the concrete was stained and imperfect. And in the bright moonlight I could see the crystal ball glowing quietly at the top. Standing on the ground and looking up, I was moved -- the stupa moved me like no historical monument in Washington ever had.

I had seen this stupa come from nothing. I'd seen the place in the woods before the trees were cleared. I'd seen a deep hole dug in the summer heat. I'd seen an eclectic young crew of six Americans work tirelessly, selflessly -- with the sort of energy and devotion and faith that gave me a kind of hope myself. There had been aching elbows and knees and shoulders. There had been accidents and sleepless nights. They had poured buckets and buckets of concrete. They had bent rebar and made molds. And as the stupa had come to life, inch by inch, and grown taller and taller. I had seen bags and bags of rice and beans passed person by person and then lowered into its belly. I had seen a long cedar tree lying on its side in the prayer room -- its branches shorn, its body smooth -- and seen it painted red with gold Tibetan lettering. The relics were placed in little clear plastic boxes and carefully tied to the painted tree with silk string. One box contained an ancient fingerbone of Migyur Dorje; another housed the "brain pill" of another great wisdom being. And one small clear box was said to hold the crystallized breath of the Buddha himself.

In the darkness and moonlight, as I began to walk around the stupa, clockwise, a thought came into my mind. It was as though the stupa itself had whispered it to me. There are sacred things. There are sacred towers and sacred texts and sacred teachings and sacred traditions. And the truth is, absolutely everything sacred has some people behind it.
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 10:28 pm

Cast of Characters


Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo --
Alyce Zeoli/Alyce Cassara/Catharine Burroughs
Atira Zeoli
Ben Zeoli
Christopher (Rigdzin) Zeoli


Michael Burroughs
Karl Jones
Pat Mulloy
Jim Perry


Alana -- Elizabeth Elgin/Betsy Elgin
Ariana -- Judith Kreitemeyer
Atara -- Holly Heiss


Aileen -- Karen Williams -- Ani NBC
Alexandra -- Diane Johnson
Arene -- Maria Windolph
Catharine Anastasia -- Jalee
Dara -- Karen Tokarz
Dawa -- Sophie Dellamula
Dechen -- Michelle Grissom
Ella -- Vicky Win dolph
Palchen -- Jan Hoge
Rene -- Deborah Larrabee
Rinchen -- Janice Newmark
Samla -- Catherine Windolph
Samten -- Shannon Swift
Sherab Khandro -- Teri Milwee
Sophia -- Angela Windolph


Jampal Rowe
Kamil -- Roger Hill
Konchog Norbu -- Tom Fry
Richard Dykeman
Sangye Dorje --Jay Allen
Tashi -- Tom Barry
Yeshe Nyonpa -- Jon Randolph


Bob and Linda Colacurcio
Chris Finney -- Chris Cervenka
Eleanore Finney
Rick Finney
Ted and Linda Kurkowski
Ayla Meurer
Wib Middleton
Jane Perini
Eleanor Rowe
Doug Sims
Shelly Sims -- Shelly Nemerovsky
David Somerville
Sylvia Somerville -- Sylvia Rivchun


Gyaltrul Rinpoche
Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso
Kunzang Lama
Kusum Lingpa
His Holiness Penor Rinpoche --
Drubwang Pema Norbu Rinpoche
Tulku Rigdzin Pema -- the Stupa Man
Yantang Tulku
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 10:31 pm

Map of Migyur Dorje Stupa


Plans for the Migyur Dorje Stupa with all the phases complete


A. Waterfall to the stream below

B. Two-foot curved wall, defining the interior garden

C. Open, natural, amphitheater seating

D. Partially protected shelter

E. Wheelchair access ramp and walkway

F. Circular stone pathway (korwa path) around the stupa
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 10:35 pm

Part One: Lama

1. The Lady Lama Appears

-- JACK KEROUAC, The Dharma Bums

The drive to Poolesville takes forty-five minutes from downtown Washington, D.C., mostly on a winding two-lane road that runs from the northern heart of the district to the farthest reaches of Montgomery County. The road takes you quickly out of the district, away from taxicabs and pedestrian traffic, and into suburbs of Maryland, where the view out the windshield becomes a blur of fulgent green grass and white fences. Country clubs and private schools, churches and synagogues. Everybody seems to have white fences at the roadside, and as you drive on, the fences only get newer and longer and fancier. There are large horse farms in Potomac, whose owners favor split-rail fences and showy stone gates. And where farmland has been sold off, mansions have gone up cheek by jowl, each as grotesque as the next. It puzzled me, as I made the drive to Poolesville to hear Jetsunma teach, that anyone with enough money to buy a house that large wouldn't want some grounds around it, or even the shade of a few big trees, but the orange earth was upturned on either side of River Road -- to accommodate mansions crowded together and very close to the curb, and to accommodate all the people getting rich by doctoring and lobbying and lawyering and investing in the stock market. These people were retreating, searching for a better and calmer life, away from the District of Columbia and its seemingly insoluble problems. People were looking for a place that felt safer, and more like home.

Samsara. That's what I started to think, after the drive had become a commute for me. Samsara is what Tibetan Buddhists call this world we live in, the accumulating and spending, the jobs and cars and houses, the white fences and green grass. It is the world around us, always dying, always being reborn, and the reality that scientists are so busy studying and tracking and testing and proving, Samsara is suffering, sickness, and old age. And on my drive samsara was the labor and delivery ward at Sibley Hospital, the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, the quaintly appointed mortuary on the side of the road in Potomac Village. And from what I could tell from my limited exposure to Tibetan Buddhism at that point, samsara was all the things I cared about -- my family, my cats, the plants growing in my garden, my job at the newspaper, my rented house in Georgetown. Only the Tibetan Buddhists don't think of it as real. Samsara has only the illusion of reality. It is a hallucination fed by desire. "We are living in a realm of desire," Lama Yeshe says at the beginning of Introduction to Tantra: A Vision of Totality, "from the moment we wake up until the moment we fall asleep at night, and even throughout our dreams, we are driven by desire ... and behind all our desires is the wish to be happy."

Beyond the village of Potomac, the road becomes rural again. As I reached the edge of Poolesville, there were woods and pastures, and I passed vegetable stands and rusted cars, and heard crickets in the dark parts of the forest.

The sign outside the center was faded and rusting. KUNZANG ODSAL PALYUL CHANGCHUB CHOLING, it said rather exotically, with no further explanation. VISITORS WELCOME SUNDAY SERVICE. A long line of cars and four-wheel-drive trucks had parked on either side of River Road. Many of the cars advertised a Buddhist bent, with bumper stickers that read FREE TIBET or PRACTICE RANDOM KINDNESS AND SENSELESS ACTS OF BEAUTY. There were more cars than I'd seen in Poolesville on any other visit to KPC. Since 1993, when my friend Martin Wassell first told me about the center and suggested that Jetsunma might make a good story, I'd sort of circled the place with fascination. Eventually, I did interview Jetsunma for Elle, and I'd written about Penor Rinpoche -- Jetsunma's mentor and Tibetan teacher -- for The Washington Post. I'd also spent some time with one of the nuns in Poolesville, a woman named Rinchen, for an essay about happiness.

Jetsunma had decided to begin teaching again in September 1995, every other Sunday. Over the summer a television set had been wheeled into the large Dharma room and videotapes of her old teachings played; then only the diehards and the ordained tended to show up. But Jetsunma live and in person had a wholly different appeal.

The temple itself was set back from the road, at the end of a cracked asphalt driveway and a stretch of grass. Not that long ago, in the 1970s, it had been a new colonial mansion, too, belonging to a rich gay couple who had had a twelve-seater hot tub in what was now a large prayer room. The facade was a modern cliche of a southern plantation -- white columns and brick -- but there were signs that something else was going on. Atop the roof was a sculpture of deer sitting on either side of what looked like a golden wagon wheel -- a traditional Tibetan Buddhist symbol for the wheel of Dharma, the wheel of teachings and transformation. Tibetan prayer flags were up, too, blowing about poetically. The idea is that the wind will loosen the prayers from the cloth and carry them across the world.

Rinchen was standing at the front door and greeted me with her luminous, childlike smile. Her burgundy robes almost overwhelmed her small body. Her hair was glossy black, shorn to an inch, and flecked with white. During our previous talks she had described her life to me -- all the years she dreamed of being an artist. All the years she was miserable. Since becoming a nun or ani, seven years before, she had given up wearing jewelry or fragrance or makeup. She had given up having hair even long enough to curl and look soft around her head. She had forgone a sex life and vowed not to drink alcohol or take drugs, or listen to music or dance for pleasure. She had given up dreaming of being an artist, too. In Poolesville she was paid a small salary to answer the phones and to keep the temple clean. All this, and the practice of Buddhism, had brought her deep contentment.

"Did you come for the carnival, or did you just find your way out here today?" Rinchen asked. When I said I didn't know anything about a carnival, she explained that it was being run by the children of the temple to raise money for the stupa. A small auction was also being held. On the table to Rinchen's left there were necklaces, crystals, polished stones, rings, a Timex watch -- the kinds of offerings I had seen on the altars inside, next to bowls of water and bowls of rice, or outside on the steps of the stupas, next to burning incense and flickering candles. Indeed, these had been offerings, left by members and visitors, and now, after having been blessed, they were being sold.

Inside, people crowded into the small foyer. The early morning prayers and meditation class had ended, and there must have been eighty or a hundred people waiting to find their seats for Jetsunma's teaching. Polished-looking professionals, men with expensive haircuts and women in long gabardine dresses, stood near each other and talked. There were teenage girls in Indian print skirts and black nail polish, and their boyfriends in baggy jeans. The ordained, wearing long maroon and saffron robes, made their way through the press of flesh, attending to various duties they had been assigned on Sundays.

Buddhists don't worship on Sundays traditionally, but in America the Sunday "church thing" works, as Wib Middleton liked to say. Wib was the spokesman for the temple, the public relations guy. And ever since I'd first stumbled out there, he'd been my tour guide, generously helping me navigate the foreign waters of Tibetan Buddhism. He had set up my first interview with Jetsunma two years before. He had helped me find Rinchen, too, when I was looking for "happy people." He was affable and easygoing, tall and tan, and wore his thick head of prematurely gray hair like a fashion accessory. On most days Wib also wore a starched striped button-down shirt and jeans, and looked as WASPy and trust-fundy as his nickname, short for Edward Willoughby Middleton III.

I caught sight of Wib across the foyer, standing with his pretty wife, Jane, and their two daughters. I waved, but the crowd was so thick it seemed pointless to try moving closer. There were many faces I hadn't seen before, visitors who, I imagined, were coming to the temple for the first time to check things out. "Tire kickers" was Wib's expression for them. People who showed up, sniffed around, looking for a new spiritual practice, and after a certain number of weeks they moved on, presumably to try something else. But the sangha -- the community of students at the center, both lay practitioners and the ordained -- had remained fairly constant over the years, hovering around 100 or 120. I noticed Eleanor Rowe in the foyer, too; she was an elegant older woman, a former Russian literature professor at George Washington University, who had helped found KPC with the Middletons. And next to Eleanor there was a tired-looking blond woman with three little girls jumping around her -- Sylvia Somerville, the wife of David Somerville, chief of the stupa construction.

News of the stupa was everywhere, and the excitement about the project was palpable. There was a stack of palm-sized maps printed on blue paper so visitors could make the ten-minute walk to the woods and find the stupa site. There was a poster push-pinned to a bulletin board with a sketch of the stupa as it would look finished -- with a spire and a faceplate with the image of a man I assumed was one of the incarnations of the Buddha. On the sketch was also a rendering of impressive landscaping planned for the stupa area, shrubs and pathways, an amphitheater, and elegant benches. MIGYUR DORJE STUPA, the poster announced. PROJECT COST: $250,000.

The walls were dotted with photos of Jetsunma. In one she was seated on a throne and a crown was being lowered onto her head. In others she was standing next to various golden-skinned Tibetan men in robes, one of whom, a stocky man in heavy eyeglass frames like Cary Grant used to wear. I recognized as His Holiness Penor Rinpoche. It hadn't taken me many phone calls to Tibetan scholars and practitioners at other centers to learn he was a rather unassailable figure in Tibetan Buddhism, a lama so revered in India that people saved the clods of earth he walked on. Here, standing with his great American discovery -- it was Penor Rinpoche who had met Jetsunma on his first trip to the United States, declared her a tulku, and later enthroned her and consecrated the temple -- he looked sort of pleased, almost beaming. Jetsunma had a pudgy, beautiful face and warm almond-shaped brown eyes. Her hair was long and wet-curled. In the photograph with Penor Rinpoche, she was smiling hugely, exuding a blossoming unrestrained joy, as though two seconds before she'd heard the silliest joke. I detected a hint of awkwardness, too. She was a robust American woman, part Jewish, part Italian, with big hair and a big face, and as happy as she seemed to be with Penor Rinpoche, somehow she didn't belong. Or maybe that was me, too stuck on appearances. Maybe I saw only the surface and wasn't seeing something else, way below, some sign that she was Ahkon Lhamo, a reincarnation, a realized saint, and that she was ultimately not Jewish or Italian or American -- deep inside, she was a tulku, or her essence was, her energy and her spirit, and she had been born in New York City to bring the teachings of the Buddha to the United States. This seemed to be what Penor Rinpoche believed.


Most of the seats were taken by the time I wandered down the aisle and found mine. Gray metal folding chairs were set up in rows, in three sections that had, I was told, no significance. Anybody could sit anywhere. The monks and nuns were all sitting on the floor near the far wall and looked like an explosion of maroon and saffron fabric. And in the middle of this, one stout nun remained on her feet -- they called her Ani NBC because she worked as a sound technician at the NBC news bureau in Washington -- standing behind a video camera on a tripod.

In those first few visits the Dharma room was confusing to me. In a church or synagogue you are directed, usually by architectural design, to a central point of focus, like a pulpit or altar. But once inside the Dharma room, from any of the three sections of metal chairs. I had no idea where I was supposed to be looking. Everywhere my eyes fell there was an array of circus-colored stuff, golden Buddhas, wall hangings, and tubular kites, which dropped from the ceiling. There were two empty thrones -- painted wild colors. One was very large and had a picture of Penor Rinpoche on its seat. The other, smaller throne had a glass of ice water nearby. Along a different wall there was a large altar with a statue of the Buddha where candles had been placed, bowls of water and rice, and assorted offerings, including a box of Cap'n Crunch cereal. And sprinkled about the room enormous crystals were spotlighted with tiny halogen lights so they glowed, almost throbbed, as if from some kind of natural power.

Tibetan Buddhism is sometimes called the Short Path, as Wib Middleton had explained to me. None of the other forms of Buddhism advertises so swift a route to enlightenment. You can expect to "incarnate" countless times, as bugs and animals, even descend into the ghost realms and hell realms, before you achieve liberation from the endless hamster wheel of death and rebirth. But in Vajrayana Buddhism, the more formal name for the school of Buddhism practiced in Tibet, the student progresses toward enlightenment by practicing intense introspection and retraining the mind, learning to see the world differently. The student is taught, sometimes rather painfully, to abandon the notion of self (it is a delusion anyway) and to go in search of his or her own Buddha nature, If the other forms of Buddhism are like climbing a mountain by going around it many times, gaining altitude in gradual steps, Tibetan Buddhism is like going straight up one side of Mount Everest without stopping. It is a sure path to wisdom, the lamas say -- and the most treacherous. But for impatient Americans, what could be better than the fastest route?

A gong sounded, loudly and suddenly -- and we all rose to our feet in a jolt. There were seventy or eighty lay practitioners and visitors, including a group of eight children who were sitting on the floor, plus thirty-three ordained -- about twenty-five nuns and eight monks. All at once they turned to face the back door, the way people turn at a wedding when the bride is about to appear. They put their hands together in a prayer pose, their fingers not folding over together, clasped, but pointing to the sky like church steeples. They bowed their heads a bit.

Through the windows I caught sight of Jetsunma, walking on the front porch. She was wearing a red dress and looked considerably thinner than in the pictures on the wall. Her hair looked straighter too, less full. A young man was beside her, a broad-shouldered fellow with straight red hair and a handsome face. He was easily fifteen years her junior. It was Karl Jones -- her husband, or sometimes her husband. Their marriage seemed in a state of flux. One minute I was told they had separated, and the next I heard they were working things out.

"Hi," Jetsunma said to the room as she entered.

"Hello!" the audience said back.

She walked quickly down the aisle. I could see she was also wearing stockings and pumps, for upon arriving at the center of the room, just in front of the children and the ordained, Jetsunma got down on her hands and knees and put her head to the floor. Then she rose again. She prostrated herself three times this way, in the direction of either Penor Rinpoche's throne or an altar -- I couldn't tell which. Then she took her place at the smaller throne, where the glass of water had been set. I felt a sigh of relief. Finally, I knew where to be looking.

But the relief didn't last long. The people around me began kneeling -- in the aisles, in the center of the room, and along the walls -- prostrating to Jetsunma. Once, twice, three times. They moved in shifts, took turns in the aisles. The ordained on the floor seemed to do it with a particular focus and intensity. As they rose from the ground, their hands formed the steeples, and they bumped themselves on the crown of the head, then the throat, then the heart. And then they dropped to the ground again, touched their foreheads to the floor, and started over. Jetsunma didn't seem to be watching. She took a fingernail and moved her bangs out of her eyes. She picked up the glass of water and took a sip. Then she adjusted the flowers in a vase at her side.

The stupa was the subject of all temple announcements, which were made after prayers and before the teaching. Shelly Sims, who was married to the stupa crew member Doug Sims, delivered a fund-raising pitch as part of her role as public relations woman of the temple. Shelly had styled blond hair, and in her pale blue suit she reminded me a little of Hillary Clinton.

"The relics we've been given are very, very potent," Shelly said, then flashed an excited smile. "That's the buzz, anyway -- what we've heard from the people around His Holiness Penor Rinpoche. The relics bring great results. They are very powerful, and people who have circumambulated stupas and left offerings at stupas with relics this powerful say they have found better lives, and sometimes experienced miraculous healings ... "

Jetsunma broke in. "When I heard about the existence of these relics, I begged His Holiness for them," she said. "And I promised that we would revere them, respect them, and treat them very, very well. His Holiness was afraid, he said, that Americans wouldn't understand their importance. I told him, I can't speak for everybody, but I can speak for myself. I will. "

"We've raised fifty thousand dollars already," Shelly said, "but we need two hundred thousand more. And very soon. There are materials and supplies to buy before it can be finished."


It might be easy to be unimpressed with Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo if you'd never heard her speak or teach in person, if you'd simply bumped into her at White Flint Mall, where she liked to shop, or you saw her in Gaithersburg at the manicurist, where she had her nails done every week. It was easy to see her as she seemed, like a forty-five-year-old woman with a pretty face who was a little doughy around the edges and trying to keep her weight down, a woman who liked experimenting with eye shadow, who probably kept a stack of mail-order catalogs by her bed and watched TV after dinner with her three kids. And you wouldn't be wrong there either. But if she seemed ordinary, it was a magnificent ordinariness, both defensive and sweet, contrived and genuine.

"I want to talk about conventional wisdom," she said, "and the difference between conventional wisdom and something meatier, a little bit deeper." Her face grew serious, like a mother's face while she's reviewing with her young children, once again, the procedure for crossing the street. "How do we come to assume certain things about life?" Conventional wisdom is based on history, she said. It is based on the accounts of many, many lives.

"But what if all the things we knew -- about history, about the lives of all these people -- were only snapshots, and not the whole picture? What if the histories we read, and the biographies we read, didn't offer complete explanations? Because they don't, you know. They are snapshots, pieces .... It's like watching one scene of a movie and trying to guess the entire plot. This is the little amount of information that we use to base our understanding of life."

She flexed her hands; her nails were long and painted red. The audience barely moved or fidgeted. Jetsunma fixed her eyes on the nun named Sherab for a couple of beats, and Sherab responded with a smile.

"And what does conventional wisdom tell us? We live in a strongly communicative society -- we have radio, we have TV, we have the Internet, you know -- we have lots of ways in which conventional wisdom is communicated to us. We aren't living out on some prairie. In fact, we know exactly what our society expects from us. And what are the messages? For one thing, in America, they are absolute. This is the way the world is. Period .... You might travel to another country, like India or Africa, and realize that people in those places believe a completely different set of rules -- the things we value are suddenly not valued there. Many of us have had that experience, I'm sure. But even though we experience this for a brief time, while we are traveling, it is deeply ingrained in us that our way is the way. We are totally sold on our own conventional wisdom. We've been programmed. really. By the things our parents told us. The things society tells us. And conventional wisdom is really just our inner programming ....

"And what are we told? For the most part, the world we are told about is materialistic. And we are told the path to happiness is materialistic. You need a nice house. You need a nice car. If you are a woman, you need a rich man. If you are a rich man, you need a gorgeous woman. We all know how it is. We are told you will be happy if you are a success, and we are told that, to be a success, you have to have more than others. You have to be bigger than everybody else, stronger, more powerful. And we are taught that we have to fortify ourselves. You can't be too rich. That's basically it -- you can't be too rich or too thin .... And we spend the better part of our lives accumulating, or planning to accumulate -- and worrying about our weight."

The audience laughed.

"And then, suddenly, you meet up with the BuddhaDharma. And the BuddhaDharma tells us very different things. We are told, in fact, that accumulation is actually not the cause of happiness. It's a little scary because, up until this time, accumulation might be all we've known. So we are frightened of that information. That information is not welcome. And also, that information puts us back in the beginning of the class -- maybe we don't know so much after all -- and the beginning of the class is where no adult in America ever likes to be. The beginning is not a comfortable place. We spend so much of our time preparing and growing, and accumulating -- we're so proud of every stage of our growth -- that it's very hard to think: Oh, I have to relearn everything? It's very, very hard .... "

Jetsunma took a sip of water, set down the glass, then wiped the moisture from her fingers on her palm.

"And that's where the conflict comes in .... One of the things that Buddhism does is create a kind of programming -- or habitual tendency, as we call it -- that produces happiness, as opposed to the kind of programming or habitual tendency that we see demonstrated in our lives ad nauseam every day, and that makes us unhappy. And a bit confused. We are periodically happy and periodically miserable -- life in samsara just seems to go around in cycles like that. And we can become used to it.... We think we know the causes of our suffering. We think we need a better car or a different wife. We think we are suffering because of bad luck or bad timing. And some of that might be true. But we've become so arrogant! We really think we know everything -- or everything we know is all that's worth knowing!

"For instance, the BuddhaDharma tells us that in order to attain happiness, we should be generous. Now, see, that is completely contradictory to what we were told as materialists. The mantra for materialists is Gimme gimme gimme. Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme. Mine mine mine mine mine. I want I want I want. That's the mantra. And now, when we begin to practice Buddhism, we're told to let go of that. We should let go, relax, loosen. Have you noticed how tight you feel when you are overwhelmed by self-concern? When we begin to practice Buddhism, we begin working in a broader way, begin to work for the benefit of others, begin to see the equality of all that lives, and begin to act accordingly. We begin to practice generosity, to practice mindfulness, to think of our lives as being potent only if we can work toward the liberation and salvation of other sentient beings, rather than: How many chickens can I get in my Crock-Pot at once?"

The room broke into laughter. And Jetsunma laughed too. A hearty, New York City kind of laugh.

"You see? It's a whole different ball game. And we fight with ourselves. We have difficulty. This is just scratching the surface of Buddhism, really, but already it conflicts with the conventional wisdom -- with the programming we've gotten so far.... And as we go deeper, this conflict continues. As we go deeper, it can get scarier. When people really begin moving into Dharma, they start having reactions, saying, 'This is good, I like this. Oh, I don't like that. That's too difficult!' We really want a religion that's easy, no trouble, no heavy commitments, just smoothness. Make it nice. I want it nice -- nice!"

This time the ordained were chuckling; thirty-three sets of shoulders were jiggling up and down. Jetsunma squeezed her eyes closed with pleasure. "Hopefully, though, you want to go deeper. You want to move into a deeply spiritual life. And when that happens, people often look around at their lives and want to change things .... Some things have to go. Some things don't work anymore. You might want to change your job. That might be one thing. Not everybody, but some people. You might want to leave your marriage. And I've seen that happen a number of times on the path. Two people will come and one of them really deepens into Dharma -- it becomes the most important element in their lives -- but their partners are like, Not really. And then eventually, Not interested. And they don't stay together. It's no longer workable. I've seen that happen.

"I've also seen lifestyles change, appearances change, attitudes change. There are so many things that change when one really moves into practice. It makes me think of how I feel now, having reached forty-five. The things that were important to me before, the things I pursued ... I look in the mirror now and go, 'What were you thinking? What?' " She knocked a fist on the wood in front of her. "'Hell-ooo.'"

The room exploded in laughter. "Kind of like that. Those of you who have reached forty-five -- and you don't have to nod your heads, I know who you are -- may be feeling the same thing. You may sort of wake up one day and feel like you're looking at a stranger in the mirror. You just feel like you've completely changed your values -- what you want in relationships, what you want in every accord. And that happens in our relationship with the Dharma, too. There is a maturing very much like you see in midlife, when we have gathered more material about life, seen a bit more cause-and-result, when we just have more information in the hopper. And you feel a bit more spacious and relaxed, too. You've either succeeded in some degree, accomplished things -- or failed -- but you have perspective. You know you will survive after all. And it's the same thing with practice. In the beginning it's all new and scary, and you feel really kind of excited and thrilled and in love with practice. There's a big romance going on. It's just so cool to go to a temple that looks as weird as this place looks! And it's just so cool to go to a place that doesn't look like America at all! So you fall in love with all that and think, Cool. I am here. Cool! And you start acting spiritual and talking differently. Not like suddenly you have a British accent or something, but you do talk differently. And you're playacting being a spiritual person, like dressing up in your parents' clothes. You keep thinking your eyes need to be rolled skyward or something, out of devotion-which doesn't really work in Buddhism at all. There's nobody up there.

"But you move further along in Dharma practice, hopefully, and some of that starts to be shed. We're not playacting anymore, and we're really starting to deal with the meat and potatoes of our lives. We're really starting to use Dharma as a tool. And we begin to see some cause-and-effect relationships. The first big aha comes. You realize that your whole life, all you've been really thinking about is this one thing. What can I do that's really fun that's going to make me happy? What can I do that's really fun that's going to make me happy? Or that other mantra: What can I do that's really fun that's going to make me happy?

"And that's about the time your teacher gives you something to take the place of the what-can-make-me-happy mantra. It's a course of study, or a practice. And at first, you think, Oh cool, my teacher gave me something to do! So you do it. And you practice and practice, study and study. But your habit for years has been trying to look for excitement and fun, so practicing and studying is like. Naaaaaah. Boring! But you hang in there. you deepen. and deepen some more, and the next big aha comes when you realize you are actually happier when you're doing this practice and this study, this contemplation, this meditation, than when you were out there spastically -- and I do mean spastically -- looking for a good time."

She paused and looked around the room, at the hundred or more faces looking back at her -- looking cheerful, almost giddily so, I looked down at my lap and realized that I had stopped taking notes. Somehow, I had been imagining myself on "the path" as she described it, as though it were a real place, a specific place, and I imagined myself beginning to practice, then deepening in that practice -- and I even imagined I knew what "deepening" meant. She was a Buddha. I'd been told several times by her students. She was a living Buddha, they said, an enlightened being.

"Seed always produces fruit," she said. "What goes up, must come down. What goes around, comes around. This is a part of conventional wisdom, too. But not to the same degree. The Buddha-Dharma says that a seed produces an exact fruit. Every thought, every action, every word is a seed that will produce an exact fruit. What causes loneliness? What causes unhappiness and poverty and illness?"

Buddhas don't just see snapshots of life. I had been told. They see the whole movie. They can see the past and the present and the future all at once. They see the chain of all events in history, all the causes, all the effects ...

"And we keep getting chances to repair this. We are offered a chance to change our habits, our tendencies -- the patterns of our lives that cause unhappiness and loneliness and even poverty .... Keep being unkind, and the outcome is you will be lonely. It doesn't take a great genius to notice this." The audience laughed again. "Even in one lifetime, you'll notice that mean people and selfish people are alone, and lonely."

Money seems complicated, she said, but it isn't. Money is simple. It is just like energy, and breath. You give away things, help people, be generous, and it's like exhaling energy. "We all know what it feels like to take a deep breath, to fill up our lungs, and then not be able to take any more air in. You can't take any more in because you need to exhale, to make room for more." Money is like that, too.


Afterward I waited on the driveway for Wib, who had remained my main contact at the temple. He was giving a tour of the stupa site to newcomers and visitors -- to the tire kickers, in other words -- and I thought I'd catch him beforehand and say hello. As I waited, a group of about twenty people slowly gathered near me, several older women, a doctor visiting from India, a Taiwanese couple, an Associated Press photographer, and a young man, barely out of his teens, wearing jeans and a T-shirt and very small sunglasses. He introduced himself to me as Roman.

"How long have you been coming here?" I asked Roman.

"Eight weeks. Such a cool place."

I nodded. "Have you been out to see the stupa yet?"

''I'm on the stupa diet!"

Wib appeared, and as he came closer I could see how tired he was. There were baggy circles under his eyes and fine beads of sweat on his face. Along with his other temple obligations, he'd been raising thousands of dollars for the stupa project. "It's been pretty intense around here," he said to me, as we stood out of hearing range of the tour group. "We've been doing practice nonstop. Jane and I were here every night last week."

A few more newcomers arrived, and Wib introduced himself to them. He'd be taking them to the stupa in a few minutes, he said. Then he turned to me again. He asked how my work was going -- specifically, how my proposal to write a book about Jetsunma was being received. There were a few editors interested, I told him, at three publishing houses.

"Have you thought about getting Jetsunma's help?" Wib asked.

"What kind of help?"

"We can give her the list of names," he said. "The names of the editors, and the names of the publishing houses."

"And then what?"

"She can see a name, written on a piece of paper," he said, "and have a reaction to it. Sometimes she can see a certain result -- or obstacles -- or just tell you the name is okay."

This was a generous offer, by Poolesville standards, and I remember feeling flattered. Also, I didn't want to appear rude. Jetsunma received many letters a month from students asking for her guidance. Jobs, houses, boyfriends -- even asking which car to buy. What would I do with Jetsunma's advice? What if she were opposed to the very editor I liked the most?

Wib must have sensed that I was equivocating, because, before I could answer, he looked over to the tour group, motioned that it was time to start.

I stayed with the group as far as River Road, where my car was parked. Along the way Wib answered questions the group had -- explaining what a stupa is and how the relics had been brought from India. They would be inserted in the stupa during a special ceremony the following week, weather permitting, then sealed away forever.

"What color will the stupa be," one of the older women asked, "when it's finished?"

"Gold," Wib said. "We're looking into gold-leafing it. Jetsunma has gotten the idea into her head to do that -- so there's probably no turning back."

As we reached River Road, and I was pulling out my car keys, Wib stopped his tour for a moment to say good-bye.

"Gold? I didn't know a stupa could be gold," I said. The other stupas in Poolesville were all white.

"Neither did we," Wib said. "The Tibetans never offer much information, you know. It's a little like having a conversation with somebody from Maine. Yep. Nope. Not a lot of volunteering. We thought stupas had to be white, too ... until we asked."
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 10:39 pm

2. The Stupa Builds Itself


In India they are made of mudbrick. In France the builders tend toward stone and mortar. In America stupas are concrete -- like American sidewalks and American condos, American baseball stadiums and American swimming pools. And when the Migyur Dorje stupa was done, the students in Poolesville expected it would be the best, the largest, most perfect stupa, nearly forty feet high with a spire made of concrete -- if you can imagine tha -- tand a full moon of a crystal ball on top. Now, in October, they were halfway finished, but the stupa felt like a holy thing already. Once the cedar tree was placed inside it, with all the relics hanging from it like Christmas ornaments, it would heal people, be an avenue for the miraculous, a seat of primordial wisdom. The Buddha's mind would come alive in the woods of Poolesville, Maryland. It would be a twenty-four-hour prayer vigil all in itself. Ceaseless endless effortless goodness. There'd be a paved road in the woods by next year, too, and shuttle buses would come back and forth, bringing the sick, the sad, the suffering -- maybe from the National Institutes of Health.

There were seven other stupas in Poolesville, all much smaller and less perfect. They'd built their first one in 1988, the summer Jetsunma was enthroned. but they'd made lots of mistakes -- the relics had been accidentally run over by a bulldozer, for one thing. Now, seven years later, they were beginning to get the hang of stupa building. And they were beginning to figure out concrete.

Anybody who knows concrete will tell you this: weird stuff, impossible stuff. It's a little like karma -- exacting. unforgiving. Concrete seems mutable while you are pouring. then. suddenly. it's set into place. But not just set: fixed forever. hardened into stone and impossibly heavy. Each cubic foot of concrete weighs one hundred pounds. In the next section of the stupa, the heart-shaped bum-pa. there'd be something like twenty-five thousand pounds of concrete in the lower part alone.

The middle chamber of the stupa was now done, stuffed and sealed. Over the weekend it had taken six hours to stuff the cavernous chambers. There had been a great chain of people --like a line of ants -- passing the offerings hand to hand. There were nearly three hundred buckets of white rice and dried beans. There were thousands of mantras printed on thin paper that had been sprayed with saffron and rolled and then shrink-wrapped and covered in five-colored cloth and tied with five-colored ribbon. There were wealth bowls filled with gold and silver and jewelry. There were ceramic vases holding a specific blend of flowers and herbs and spices. People unloaded the offerings off the trucks, then handed them to the next person. and the next, down a line that continued twenty or thirty yards to the bottom of the ladder. The offerings were passed up the ladder to the scaffolding and then down again, to the hollow interior of the stupa. where Doug Sims. a forty-eight-year-old lay practitioner and accountant with strawberry blond hair and freckles. was arranging them in some semblance of order. It was a little like an Egyptian tomb. Once all the offerings were unloaded and arranged. the top of the chamber was packed with bales of cedar chips and covered with loose cedar and a final sheet of clear plastic -- so when the chamber was sealed over with concrete, everything would be protected.

Sangye, a young monk who had been a student of Jetsunma since he was a teenager, had sealed the throne and middle chambers himself. He was an American, thirty-one years old, and a fresh-faced guy with light hair and slightly sad blue eyes. He made sure that the plastic was carefully placed, mixed a thick batch of concrete, carried the white buckets of wet mortar up the ladder, and bent over the plastic, spreading the concrete, smoothing it out, and then sealing it. Sealing it for eternity.

Sangye Dorje was his Tibetan Buddhist name -- Jetsunma had given it to him before he became a monk, during the brief time that he was her consort. Sangye means "buddha" in Tibetan. Dorje means "thunderbolt" and "indestructible," but there were a few jokes at the temple about the fact it is also Tibetan slang for "penis." His birth name was pretty simple: Jay Allen. Maybe too simple. He'd grown up in California and Maryland, in a broken home and in front of the tube, like everybody else his age, but he had the presence and the voice of an uncomplicated farm boy. In Poolesville people were always talking about him, always saying his name, Song-gay this, Song-gay that. What Sangye said carried weight, and his observations about Buddhist life were often repeated.

It was late in the month -- Halloween Day, to be exact -- when Sangye was climbing the ladder and felt a slight wobble in it. He'd just finished sealing the middle chamber and was beginning to worry about how to make the bum-pa. Unlike the bottom chambers of the stupa, which were masculine, straight lines and right angles and relatively easy to pour -- as easy as concrete ever is -- the bum-pa would be curvy, heart-shaped, voluptuous.

Bum-pa means "vase" or "container of precious energy" in Tibetan. As soon as he was down the ladder, Sangye thought, he was going to start working on it.

The ladder was wobbling a bit under his weight on the way down. Sangye was broad-chested, broad-shouldered. Before he became a fully ordained monk there were always women around, just sort of staring at him hopefully. And he was always looking back, reasonably interested -- as any guy would be. But frankly, he said, when people asked, it wasn't women that he missed most about being a regular person. He had taken a vow of celibacy -- that was true -- but sometimes he thought the other vows were more difficult to keep. He couldn't sing anymore. or dance, or listen to music for pleasure. He couldn't drink alcohol. And the hardest part about being a monk, it sometimes seemed to Sangye, was not being able to sit in a dark bar and drink a beer sometimes and listen to a band play the blues.

Two other monks in the stupa crew, Tashi and Kamil, were on the ground when Sangye fell. Tashi was a pale teddy bear of a guy. He had sold weapons parts to third world countries before becoming a monk. Kamil was the only black monk at KPC. a former schoolteacher from the Virgin Islands, and he was bending down when he heard the ladder banging against the concrete. The ladder was bouncing, and Sangye's legs had lost contact with it. Kamil saw Sangye's golden T-shirt flying in the air, saw Sangye's arms stretched out like the wings of a bird.

It was a clean hit. Sangye landed fiat on his back. all parts of him hitting in one solid dull thud. And then he just lay there. perfectly still. Kamil ran into the construction trailer and called 911. Then Kamil made another call -- to Jetsunma's private line. She was the lama. The giant stupa had been her idea. And Sangye was her special monk.


Jetsunma herself had picked the stupa site and approved the stupa crew. Her clairvoyance was well known among her students and her Tibetan teachers alike. A couple of people were turned away, gently denied the opportunity to work on the stupa -- told they weren't strong enough, or reliable enough. Their karma wasn't right for it in this lifetime. Stupa work is considered auspicious. In India Buddhists might wait in line for hours, or days, just to have a chance to work on an important stupa. They might sleep next to a site, hoping to help with its construction for just a few minutes. There was even an old story about a pig who attained enlightenment: He had mud on his tail and happened to back into an old stupa, thereby mending a hole that ultimately would have caused the shrine to deteriorate. For this the pig was reborn in the next lifetime not just as a human being but as a human being who found the Dharma and became realized.

The word is meritorious. That's how you say it -- the way you describe the benefits bestowed by stupa work. It's an awkward word, but if you are an English-speaking Tibetan Buddhist, it gets easier to say after a while. And it is always meritorious and nothing but meritorious. You never say "virtuous" or "righteous" or "honorable" or "commendable." Although sometimes you might include the word activity, as in stupa work being a meritorious activity. This isn't the only Eastern concept that is too subtle to be elegantly translated. You say auspicious instead of "lucky," and you don't talk about doing good, or volunteering, or finding a good cause. You talk about being of benefit. And generally when you talk about being of benefit it is really a shorthand way to talk about respecting life and making the world a better place. The longer and more traditional way of expressing this is being of benefit to all sentient beings. Everything in Tibetan Buddhism is about sentient beings -- and ending the suffering of sentient beings. You say sentient beings instead of "human beings" because you don't want to exclude anybody, and sentient is a way of describing all life-forms that are conscious, sensate -- all people, all animals, all bugs and fish, including the invisible realms, the ghost realms and the hell realms. There are eighteen different hells in Tibetan Buddhism, and there are countless beings there, too, all hoping to be released.

The Tibetan Buddhist world is largely unseen, the way thoughts are unseen, and ideas. The way love is unseen, and energy.

When Jetsunma chose the site of the stupa, she was shown a topographical map of the property across the road from the temple, but she wasn't too great at reading maps, so she decided to walk around the woods herself. She dressed in jeans and a pair of Doc Martens and left her house on the temple grounds, where she lived with her three kids and her husband, and was guided to two possible locations by members of the stupa crew.

The first site was nice but too large, Jetsunma said. Perhaps, later on, they could use it for something else, like a new temple. The second site was perfect. It was in the deep woods. There were hundreds of trees, vines, rosebushes. There were two streams that converged. It was on a rise of land, which was good for drainage -- concrete tends to crack and leak -- and the energy there, Jetsunma said, was "very clear."

So electrical lines were laid, a crude road was created, and hundreds of trees were cut down with two chain saws. The stupa crew was joined by thirty or so volunteers, mostly members of the sangha -- the group of ordained and lay practitioners at the center. When a bug got killed, they said prayers over the dead bug's body. When squirrels and birds were found dead, there were more Om Mani Padme Hums. They prayed for the animals that were relocated, for the birds' nests that were smashed, for the worms chopped in half, for the ants underfoot, for the microbes being shifted, for the invisible beings in the invisible realms. They prayed their work would benefit the world and bring an eventual end to suffering. And then they prayed that the merit they accumulated by doing this work, and even by saying these prayers, would be offered up to bring an eventual end of suffering, too. A sign was stuck by the steering wheel in somebody's Ford Explorer: REMEMBER TO DEDICATE YOUR MERIT.

It was in the dead middle of summer, the end of July, that Jetsunma returned to the woods with a group of crew members to see the cleared land and choose the actual site of the stupa itself. Doug Sims came along, carrying a hammer and a stake, prepared to mark the spot.

As Jetsunma walked around in the clearing, everybody remained quiet. They all watched her look up to the treetops. They watched her listen for the sound of the creeks. Then she pointed, with a long red fingernail, to Doug's shoes. And everybody's head swiveled to look at Doug's shoes, too.

"Right where your foot is," she said to Doug.

So he bent over in the sunlight and pounded the stake. He looked up again, looked at everybody looking back at him, and felt something on his legs and arms: goose bumps.


And so it was on August 1, 1995, that the stupa crew began its work. There were auspicious reasons for choosing that date, although nobody can really remember now what these were, besides that the moon was in a growing phase. You plant seeds and begin new endeavors you hope will bear fruit when the moon is waxing. There are many days in the Buddhist calendar that are considered auspicious, like the Ten Thousand Days. Whatever activity occurs on these days, the good as well as the bad, is magnified ten thousand times.

Each morning the crew would meet at the temple at 7:00, do Buddhist "practice" -- sets of prayers and visualizations and prostrations -- together, and afterward eat a huge breakfast prepared for them by a rotating team of nuns. A special diet goes along with stupa work, too -- a universally acknowledged "stupa diet" followed by Tibetan Buddhists everywhere, who need to be particularly pure while toiling in sacred construction -- for the ordained as well as the lay practitioners. No meat, no alcohol, no onions, no garlic, no sex for twenty-four hours before work, and no menstruating women allowed. There could be a serious problem, it is believed, if a person's blood spilled inside the stupa's chambers.

All the nuns who volunteered to do stupa-related jobs had to adhere to the diet and restrictions. Normally, they ate meat -- unlike the Zen Buddhists -- and Tibetans themselves are famous steak lovers. But if you offered to sew the cloth cases for the rolled mantras, you had to be on the stupa diet and not menstruating. If you were pouring the grain into the five-gallon buckets, you had to be on the stupa diet and not menstruating. If you were helping to sand the cedar tree, you followed these rules, and if you were painting the relief on the faceplate, you did also. Only the volunteers who were one step removed from the process were exempt. The nuns cooking for the stupa crew, for instance, were free to eat garlic.

It didn't take long for Jetsunma's stupa crew to become a cohesive and efficient team. From the start they were working twelve-hour days -- and all being paid nine hundred dollars a month. David Somerville, a thirty-seven-year-old professional contractor with dark hair and striking blue eyes, was designated as the brains in charge, although he was not necessarily working on site every day, since he had a wife and three kids at home and other construction jobs to look after. Sangye was number two, since he had the most experience with stupas and concrete. There was Doug, the accountant from Texas. He was a relatively new student but had previous stupa-building experience and would be working on preparing the cedar tree. Kamil Hill would be cutting most of the rebar -- he was hardworking and endlessly easy to be around. Karl Jones was chosen, too. He didn't always get along with Sangye, but he was young and strong and married to Jetsunma. And there was Sherab Khandro, a nun and the only woman working on the stupa.

Sherab was loud sometimes -- also six feet tall and strong. Before taking robes she had been a personal trainer at Bally Total Fitness. Before that there were stories about drugs and jumping over Cyclone fences in the night, living near the beach in San Diego and falling in love with somebody new every four seconds. Her brown hair was shaved down now and her love life was over and she had finally gotten rid of the silver Ford Probe with the license plates 4EVRFIT, but all other attempts to subdue expressions of Sherab's spirit were pretty much useless. Working on the stupa, she arrived every morning wearing work pants and tool belt, sunglasses and a straw hat, a wet T-shirt wrapped around her neck and a Walkman plugged into her ears. For Sunday services she turned up at the temple with size eleven steel-toed construction boots under her robes.

The work was miserable, hideous, back killing -- beginning with the digging of a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot hole in the clay and shale during the peak of the hottest and muggiest summer in memory. The stupa crew had shovels and, for some of it, a backhoe. They tried not to lose their tempers or complain too much -- generating negativity could create serious obstacles -- but everybody was experiencing sleepless nights and pain. Sherab, who had suffered from back problems in the past, visited her chiropractor before she started on the stupa and was taught how to dig a ditch while squatting so she wouldn't injure herself again. "I know I look like an idiot," she'd yell out while she squatted, "but at least I'm still here."

At midday the crew drove back to the temple, took off their boots, ate lunch in the community room. Afterward Sangye would lie down in front of the big AC unit and close his eyes. Sherab would put her Walkman earphones on and listen to a tape of The Mists of Avalon, a book Jetsunma had recommended years before. "I wanted to stay away from the guys during the breaks," Sherab said later. ''All that guy stuff, the testosterone flying around, I didn't want to hang out too much with them, or else I might start thinking I was one of them -- and do something really stupid and hurt myself."

At night Doug collapsed at home, in agony from swollen hands and fingers and inflamed hip sockets. He tried aspirin and ibuprofen, hot packs and cold packs -- but he still woke up at 3:00 A.M. needing a third dose of Advil.

The heat was beyond anything. It was suffocating and unrelenting, an oven in the woods for hour upon hour, and there was no escaping it, nowhere to go but up, farther up the ladder, to pour more concrete.

Underground, in the lower chamber of the stupa, Sangye buried some guns and knives, some photographs of suffering people, wounded animals, cancer cells, and electron microscope images of the Ebola and AIDS viruses. The lower chamber contains all the things the stupa will be suppressing.

By the first of October, when the crew had begun pouring the throne chamber, the Stupa Man had arrived in Poolesville. He was a Tibetan, a tulku who traveled the world as a master stupa builder. He came on special orders, after having been telephoned in the middle of the night and implored by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, the supreme head of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. It takes a while to figure the Tibetan power structure out, and the only useful analogy is unfortunately military. If there were a Navy captain of the good ship KPC, it was Jetsunma. If there were a chief of naval operations, it was Penor Rinpoche. Directly over him would be the Dalai Lama, sort of a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of all lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, of which there are four -- like the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and Marines. The Stupa Man was a Nyingma lama in the same lineage as Penor Rinpoche and well known for making the best stupas, and the most correct stupas, and, although he was a busy man, he'd offered to squeeze in the Poolesville stupa between stupas in Taiwan and France. Tulku Rigdzin Perna was his official name, but early on Jetsunma had started referring to him as the Stupa Man. and it stuck. although nobody was calling him that to his face exactly. To his face they called him Rinpoche.

Rinpoche is a term of respect, and, in the case of the Stupa Man, it was a bit of a title enhancement. There are rinpoches, jetsuns, drubwangs. but they are all tulkus, or reincarnated saints. Tulku Rigdzin Perna had been raised in a monastery and was, according to His Holiness, "a very pure monk." In order to become an expert in stupas. he had performed the Noble Light Rays practice, not just thousands of times but many hundreds of thousands of times. He wasn't a macho sort of lama -- out in the woods every day, wielding a hammer and pouring concrete -- as the stupa crew had imagined. Instead, the Stupa Man was very quiet. thin as a stick, and, upon arriving in Poolesville, he had gone immediately into his bedroom, where he remained most days. engaged in prayer.

It was his presence. though. that reminded the stupa crew all over again of the importance of their work. And the importance of the stupa. They'd take a spontaneous break from their labor and listen to the creeks, and the rustling of wind in the circle of trees at the edge of the clearing. They felt a fullness in their chests. a sense of completeness, and an exhilaration that made them light-headed.

"There's nothin' in this world I'd rather be doin'," Doug would say in his Texas drawl.

"Nope," Sangye would answer. "Nothin'."

And every so often a sangha member would wander out and watch the crew sweating away and tell them how beautiful the stupa was looking -- just a bunker of concrete at this point -- and go on and on about the benefit to sentient beings, the meritorious nature of it all. The stupa was a holy thing all right, but as the crew struggled and sweated and grunted around it, hauling and digging and pouring the stupa into being, it also seemed as though they had nothing. Really, to do with it. The stupa seemed to be getting taller on its own, growing out of the orange earth rather quietly and sweetly. Like a plant.

"It's like we're just showing up," Doug said to David, "and the stupa is building itself."

"Yeah." David said. "I know exactly what you mean."

The stupa crew was focused mostly on the exterior, pouring the concrete, getting the spire done right. They were surprised to discover that the Stupa Man hardly seemed to care how the stupa looked. He was mostly intense about the tree -- the hidden spine of the stupa, where all the relics would be placed. Doug Sims cut down a tall cedar tree in the woods, and, after the Stupa Man approved it, Doug began shaving the sides of the twenty-foot trunk -- making it perfectly round, giving the bottom four flat sides -- then belt-sanding, hand-sanding, and filling in the small holes and pocks with wood putty. After the putty dried Doug sanded the tree again, until the surface of the wood was smooth and flawless. Afterward he coated the tree with a red interior-exterior marine enamel paint that was so glossy and so thick -- so gleaming and fresh and shiny -- that the finish of the tree, when it was delivered to the Stupa Man in the prayer room on October 19, looked like an advertisement for nail polish.

The Stupa Man, who had no English to express his reaction in words, simply smiled broadly and gave the thumbs-up sign. For five or six days afterward, he prayed over the tree -- as it lay lengthwise across the floor of the prayer room. After that he began pulling out relics.

One by one he attached them to the tree. They were tiny things, fragments of fragments of relics. He put them in small, clear plastic boxes with magnified tops -- the kind of box a child uses to study dead bugs -- and tied them securely to the trunk with strands of colored silk. The Stupa Man explained that the tree was like a human body. It had chakras, or energy points. In particular parts of the tree, he'd placed certain relics -- at other points he'd placed small glass vases filled with beads and semiprecious stones.

The first box of relics contained Kasyapa, or the crystalline ashes of the Third Buddha. The second clear box contained the "brain pill" -- no bigger than a lentil -- of a Tibetan Buddhist scholar. Toward the bottom of the tree, the Stupa Man attached the three-hundred-and-fifty-year-old skull bone of Kunzang Sherab, the first throne holder of the Nyingma lineage. And last came the most important relic of all: the finger bone of Migyur Dorje, a terton or "treasure revealer" who lived in the seventeenth century. The finger bone was gray, the size and color of a pebble, and sat loose in a box with saffron and diamond chips. The words Nam Cho Migy were written in gold paint beside it. Nam Cho is Tibetan for "sky treasure" or "sky Dharma," and Migy is a Tibetan abbreviation of Migyur Dorie's name. Together these words referred to a series of profound teachings the young terton was said to have pulled from the sky.

The Tibetans believe that Padmasambhava -- who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century -- hid many of his teachings and spiritual discoveries inside rocks and caves, and the minds of individuals yet to be born. One of these special Tibetans was Migyur Dorie, who entered his mother's womb, the legend goes, as she dreamt of a golden tortoise radiating light rays in the depth of a vast ocean. [1]

And as Sakyamuni Buddha had been born without harming his mother or causing her even the slightest pain, so was Migyur Dorje -- who also had auspicious markings on his body, in particular, a blue mole on his right hand. Even as a young boy he performed secret yogic exercises, had visions, made proclamations, and by the time he was nine his teachings were so potent he was being followed around by Karma Chagmed, "the minister of treasures," who wrote down all the boy's revelations -- many of which would become fundamental to the Nyingma teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.

When Migyur Dorje died at twenty-three, his body was cremated, and afterward astonishing rainbows began appearing in the cloudless sky overhead. His heart and tongue remained intact in the fire -- and his bone relics bore the marks of the vowels and consonants of the Tibetan language. These relics were placed inside a number of golden stupas in Tibet, offered by lamas of all the lineages and traditions. And for two centuries they were known as very powerful places -- places of refuge and circumambulating, until the Chinese invasion of Tibet.

Penor Rinpoche was an important tulku and just twenty-seven years old when he fled Tibet in 1950, leading two thousand monks along with him. They fought their way out with guns and hand grenades -- and the great majority of the monks died. But when he arrived in India, he was still carrying the Migyur Dorje hand relic around his neck in a gau, or little box. Thirty-six years later he'd given a finger bone of it to Jetsunma.


A day or so before Halloween, the Stupa Man began spending more time in the prayer room, barely taking a break for meals. Outside the temple, where a circle of stones was arranged, he performed a purification ritual called a fire puja. He announced -- through a translator -- that he was seeing things in his meditations. Powerful obstacles were hurtling through time and space, coming directly at the stupa and KPC.

Usually, people liked to focus on the upside of stupa work. They slaved away and felt good about their meritorious activity, and the benefit to sentient beings. Merit -- at least the way Jetsunma had always explained it to them -- is a little like airline frequent flier miles. Certain activities award you more points than others. And there are even certain bonus times, like Ten Million Days, when your merit multiplies exponentially.

Stupa work has limitless potential for merit acquisition. From the Buddhist point of view, building one stupa is much more beneficial than, say, building a thousand houses for the homeless. When you build a house for the homeless, you are simply giving a person shelter. When you build a stupa, you don't simply create a mechanism that heals physical problems, cures cancer and AIDS -- although the stupa can do that -- you create a mechanism that changes a person's karma and, ultimately, can change the root cause of all suffering. Jetsunma liked to call stupas merit machines. Every time somebody walks around the stupa that you built, you earn a little merit, too, kind of like a royalty. And every time somebody does a Buddhist practice while walking around a stupa that you built -- even if she is saying only the simplest Tibetan Buddhist prayer, Om Mani Padme Hum -- you get some more merit. It's like one of those interest-earning bank accounts that's constantly accumulating. "Nearly limitless potential," David Somerville liked to say.

Nobody liked to talk too much about the downsides of stupa work: the problems of impure intention, merit depletion, and the quick ripening of karma. Just to have the chance of working on a stupa, a person has to spend merit -- which can cause temporary merit depletion. You spend merit in order to generate more. And when your merit is depleted, you are vulnerable to bad things, to obstacles. There is also the sticky problem of motivation or intention. There might be times when you are doing a meritorious activity for the wrong reasons, or even for the tiniest hint of the wrong reason. Like maybe you are building a stupa because you want people to see how good you are. Maybe you want people to admire you. Or you are building a stupa to get your lama's approval. Or to make up for some crummy thing you did last year. In any case, the offering of your labor isn't pure. It is tinged with self-interest. And that can cause some negative things to ripen, too.

The hardest thing of all for the Poolesville stupa crew to face was that by doing such meritorious work -- even as purely as possible -- you make your karma ripen more quickly. It was said that simply being around a stupa as potent as the Migyur Dorje stupa could ripen your karma very quickly, the way being around Jetsunma for any duration tended to ripen a student's karma. Imagine your karma as seeds inside of you that become fruit on a vine. Imagine grapes coming out all at once, and ripening. The problem is, not all the grapes are delicious. Some of them are poison.

"I think of karma coming in chunks," Sherab said. "A chunk of it ripens and can actually cause bad things to happen."


The Stupa Man was interrupted in the prayer room. He was in the middle of prayers when Shelly Sims found him. A monk had fallen from the stupa, he was told. A helicopter was waiting on the front lawn of the temple, to medevac the monk. They feared Sangye had broken his back, or possibly his neck. He was being carried through the woods on a canvas stretcher. The Tibetan closed his eyes, and he remained very quiet, as though he was visiting the place in his mind. He was a tulku, after all -- a reincarnated saint. They could often see the outcomes of things, see pieces of the future.

The Stupa Man opened his eyes again and spoke softly to his translator. "He'll be okay," the Stupa Man said. "He'll be okay."

Jetsunma stood next to the helicopter, saying prayers. She grabbed her monk's hand. There was an oxygen mask on Sangye's face and a huge brace on his neck. And then he rode in the sky, all the way to Suburban Hospital.


The impact of Sangye's fall had spread all over his body, which was a good thing. He had two compression fractures in the middle of his back, two sprained ankles, and a fracture of his left scapula. He was in the hospital for five days. Pretty much everybody in the sangha came to see him -- Jetsunma came twice. When David visited he had some specific questions for Sangye, because the brunt of the stupa work would now be his. But the monk was too doped up on painkillers to answer them. "Sangye, how were you planning to build the bum-pa?" David wanted to know. And, "Sangye, why did you have to fall?"

Everyone needed to remember a few things, Jetsunma announced. Building a stupa was like giving birth to the Buddha. It was time to pay attention, be on guard, and it was a crisis.

The Stupa Man never left the prayer room anymore -- and Jetsunma said it was time for the entire sangha to join him there, to start doing the Noble Light Rays practice around the clock. It wasn't a practice well known in the West, so it had to be translated into English by a monk and nun in Poolesville who read Tibetan- and it had to be explained in detail to the entire sangha so they'd do it correctly. Jetsunma wanted four members of the sangha to be doing Noble Light Rays in the prayer room at all times. It was up to them whether the stupa could be built or not. It was up to them ... all the healing that would come from it, all the good, all the benefit. This was the time to show their compassion. And so they came. The Somervilles, the Simses, the Middletons, the Finneys, the Colacurcios, the Rowes. Sherab and the nuns of Ani Farms. Aileen and the nuns of Ani Estates. All the ordained, and most of the lay practitioners. There were teenagers coming after school, mothers and fathers coming after work. People were sleeping on the floor of the solarium. People were arriving at the temple in the middle of the night. Everybody was tired and run down, grabbing dinner, heading back to the temple, and settling into the cushions on the floor of the prayer room again.

Jetsunma stood before a Wednesday night crowd, the private weekly meeting of her students. "The negative forces," she said, "have arrived."



1. Tsering Lama Jampal Zangpo, A Garland of Immortal Wish-Fulfilling Trees: The Palyul Tradition of Nyingmapa (Ithaca, N.Y,: Snow Lion. 1988).
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 10:44 pm

3. Repeat After Me

-- ST. AUGUSTINE, Confessions

It wasn't exactly easy getting an appointment to speak with Jetsunma privately. While her presence at the Buddhist center seemed pervasive and insistent -- perhaps the very thing, like oxygen in the air, that kept the place alive -- she was actually never around. Her days were spent mostly with her family, inside her house on temple grounds. There was an old dog. a brown Lab named Charlie, who also lived with them. There was a swimming pool, recently built. She had a Health Rider exerciser -- one of those stationary bikes with handles that pump up and down -- which she enjoyed riding. But what she did, aside from praying and eating meals and working out on her Health Rider, intrigued me, and haunted me. How does a living Buddha pass the time? I had been told she liked watching Absolutely Fabulous and Star Trek: The Next Generation on television. She liked listening to Motown oldies. I had heard she often shopped for clothes by mail order. She had two attendants and a private secretary, Alana and Atara and Ariana, all ordained nuns, who kept her life organized. They opened and answered Jetsunma's mail, made sure her house was clean. helped take care of her eight-year-old daughter. Atira, grocery-shopped, and looked after the cooking of the family's dinners.

Presumably it was through these attendants that word of Jetsunma's daily life would occasionally leak out. I'd hear, secondhand or thirdhand, that Jetsunma had enjoyed a certain movie she'd rented (usually sci-fi or adventure tales) or was interested in a certain book (a self-help classic, Radical Honesty, was a favorite for a while, and Gail Sheehy's book on menopause). Sometimes I'd hear she was excited by the appearance of a particular new student, or by someone asking to become ordained. Sometimes she'd be craving a certain kind of food, or go on a special diet. Her students would get wind of her new passions -- and suddenly there would be a slew of them trying out her diet or buying Health Riders. KPC was its own enchanted world, with its own news bulletins and trends, its own royalty. It was as if a long invisible wall traced the boundaries of the Tibetan Buddhist center, keeping its spell intact, and within that wall was another wall protecting Jetsunma herself. She seemed to live not simply yards away from the front door to her temple but worlds beyond.

When I'd first met Jetsunma a couple years before, she hadn't seemed so remote or exalted. Our interview felt relaxed -- and was in an informal temple sitting room upstairs. She was jolly, easygoing, and I liked her immediately. I felt completely comfortable around her. The only thing that puzzled me was how Wib seemed to throw himself on the floor when he entered the sitting room where Jetsunma was waiting for us, and how he prostrated three times.

She had little in common with me in terms of lifestyle or background -- except that we were both half Italian -- but there was, nonetheless, the feeling of a bond or connection between us, a kind of mutual understanding. After my article was published I remained fascinated with Poolesville -- and with Jetsunma. I had the nagging sense that there was more to know, and more to write. She came into my mind at the oddest moments -- on bumpy airplane flights and when I was writing on deadline. She had even appeared in my dreams. I had learned that my father was dying, and part of me felt vaguely comforted by the idea of her, of a woman familiar with magic and miracles, and one who seemed to know the human heart. It was as though I carried around a piece of her -- the sound of her voice, a sense of her, a spirit or presence -- that I couldn't shake.

In Poolesville, Wib was my go-between, my conduit to her in those days. Jetsunma's telephone number was unlisted and kept private, even from most of her students. "Otherwise, I'd get calls all day," she explained later, "people asking me which cereal to buy." If I had a question, or hoped to set up a meeting with the lama, I had to call Wib at home -- sometimes getting Jane or one of their young daughters on the line first. Wib was always kind and welcoming, always sounded happy to hear from me, but as time passed and my suggestions for meetings were sometimes left hanging for days, weeks, it became obvious to me that "getting to know" a Buddhist lama was a curious and perhaps absurd ambition. Even the experience of covering Hillary Clinton during her reclusive first year in the White House hadn't prepared me for the perplexing process of writing about Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo. And just as I began to fantasize about giving up, I'd get a call from Wib out of the blue. "Jetsunma thinks the name Random House sounds very good," he'd say, after I'd told him the publisher of my book about KPC. Or "Jetsunma feels very good about this project and seems very excited." One time, in passing, he asked for my new boyfriend's full name -- something Jetsunma had inquired about.

As I waited to see her in October and grew increasingly anxious, I checked on the progress of the stupa, interviewed the visiting Stupa Man, and studied the relics in the prayer room. I sat with David Somerville in his construction trailer on the stupa site. I went to see Doug Sims at his home (his Health Rider was prominently placed in the living room). I tried to get in touch with Sangye and learned that he was recuperating in a cottage on the temple grounds, being nursed by a team of nuns. I began my inquiries into Jetsunma's life story and spoke with Shelly Sims and Jon Randolph and Eleanor Rowe, three of her oldest students. And as the weeks passed and my frustration grew, I learned a valuable Buddhist lesson: If I wanted to remain calm and sane, I shouldn't count on seeing the lama at all.

Each visit to Poolesville provided new tidbits of information, though, adding to what I already knew about the temple and its beginnings. Jetsunma's story grew like a vine, too, and the longer it became -- the more it twisted and curled in on itself -- the more it drew me. Quintessentially American stories are usually material success stories -- a class nerd becomes a billionaire, an awkward girl becomes a movie star. Or they are stories of a political rise: a poor man becomes a senator or congressman or the president of the United States. The landscape is crowded with such legends. But each time I learned new things about Jetsunma's story, the more magnificent it seemed. It had a stunning arc, such a Star Is Born quality that it was strange it wasn't Hollywood that had found her, created her, lifted her out of obscurity and squalor, but a holy man from Tibet who walked with a limp, couldn't speak English, and knew very little about the West.


She was born Alyce Louise Zeoli, on October 12, 1949, a calm, bright, and imaginative girl -- a quarter Dutch, a quarter Jewish, and half Italian -- who seemed to thrive and do well in school despite the atmosphere at home. Her mother, Geraldine, was a tall woman, dark haired, with large blue eyes and a prominent nose, something of a beauty in her youth. But she was a single mother who struggled to make money, working in factories and as a grocery store cashier. As a young girl Alyce was often left with her mother's mother, Alyce Schwartz, for whom she'd been named. Her grandmother could be supportive at times and act like the sweetest friend. Other times she turned cold and bitter. "Look how much you're eating! Look how much. What's wrong with you?" She also showed signs of mental instability. She was playing cards on the floor of the living room one night when she looked up from her hand and suddenly didn't recognize her own family. Another time Geraldine came home early from work and found little Alyce sitting on the stoop in the snow. She wasn't wearing a coat or underpants, only a dress. Her grandmother had put her outside, locked the door, and forgotten about her.

Alyce's father was Harry Zeoli. Her mother claimed to have married him when she was twenty-two and had the marriage annulled soon after -- when Zeoli was arrested for stealing a car. The man who was largely responsible for raising Alyce was Vito Cassara, a truck driver and fix-it man who married Geraldine when Alyce was two. Vito always had a great deal of trouble fInding work, but he was able to move his new family into a small brick walk-up on Ninety-eighth Street in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn, just around the corner from the Bay View housing project. He and Geraldine began having children. As Jetsunma remembers it, her mother felt best when she had a baby in the house. "If she didn't have a baby, she'd start another," she said. "It was really like that." When Alyce was three her half brother Frankie came along; he would remain close to her throughout their youth and early adulthood. Three more children followed, and Alyce was left to raise herself and look after them.

When Jetsunma remembers Vito Cassara, she mostly remembers how the electricity and gas were always being shut off in the Brooklyn house, and how Vito taught the kids to hide from bill collectors. She remembers his big fleshy nose and red face. She remembers the hollering, and the way a handprint could swell under her skin after she'd been slapped. She remembers how a bruise was blue and spongy before it became green and yellow. She and her younger brothers never could recall what they'd done to deserve punishment. Vito drank when he was worried about money.

Vito threw an ax at Frankie once, and another time Jetsunma says she watched her stepfather beat Frankie with a saw. She watched the imprint of the saw's teeth marks rise on Frankie's legs. He was five when Vito knocked him to the floor and kicked him in the head so many times that his eyes crossed and he had to be taken to the emergency room. Geraldine said he had fallen down a flight of stairs, but the doctors pressed her, trying to get her to admit that her husband had done it. She wouldn't. "She protected him," Jetsunma would say years later. "That's the one thing I hold against her the most."

Alyce liked to comfort Frankie and reassure him. Someday things will be different, she'd say. Someday, she'd say, we'll buy a big white house in the woods, and it will be beautiful and perfect and safe.

She fantasized about her real father, too. She imagined Harry Zeoli ringing the doorbell on Ninety-eighth Street. She imagined him discovering how her life was and taking her away from Brooklyn, from the violence and ugliness, from the small house crowded with her half siblings and Vito and Geraldine and her crazy grandmother. "I used to ask my mother about my real father, and she would always paint him to be a terrible person. But I never believed it," she said. "I held out. To me, my father was a good father .... In fact, when I used to watch the show Ben Casey on TV, the star of the show was named Vince Edwards, but I learned somehow that his real name was Vincent Deoli, [1] and I had a fantasy for a while that he was my father and he'd changed that one letter of his last name, from a Z to a D, and that he was a great guy. I even imagined that he was really a doctor, too, and he'd come and save my life."

The family moved to Miami when Alyce was fourteen so that Vito could find work more easily; eventually he opened his own locksmith business. And it was there, in the sunny suburb of Hialeah, that Alyce discovered that other families weren't like hers. "I noticed that other people actually talked to each other without screaming," Jetsunma said. "And other families never beat each other. It was a huge awakening for me, and a tremendous relief. It meant there might be something else out there. Some other way of living for me."

In Hialeah she made friends easily and attracted strangers. . . . She had what the Tibetans would later call ziji, charisma, and a certain kind of energy that made people want to stare at her and spend time in her company. She did impressions, cracked hilarious jokes. Her face was pretty. Her voice was husky and kind. Her body was plump and maternal. Her goodwill was infectious. And her ability to connect was dazzling. Impatient for her new life to begin, she started pursuing boys. They tended to be druggies and dropouts -- "inappropriate guys who generally weren't up to my speed," Jetsunma said. At sixteen she started craving independence. She bought a car and got a part-time job with the phone company. She began her first serious relationship with a boy. The the law there had been changed -- you had to be eighteen to marry. Alyce and her boyfriend decided to lie to their parents and claim they'd gotten married anyway. They talked about having a baby soon, too, to ensure that they be allowed to stay together.

Alyce called her mother from a pay phone in Georgia, but she found herself unable to lie. "Something she said made me trust her," Jetsunma said, "and something in her voice had made me homesick and start crying." At her mother's urging Alyce told her where she was -- and within minutes Vito had called the Georgia State Troopers. "You better get to my daughter before I do," he told the police, "because I'm going to kill her."

Back in Hialeah and forbidden to see her boyfriend, Alyce retreated to her room, and a weird detachment crept over her. She felt removed from herself, then removed from her body -- as if she were across the bedroom and watching herself fall apart. "It must have been near the holidays, because I had this Christmas corsage," she said, "and I remember picking this corsage up and that it suddenly wasn't a corsage anymore but my doll Mickey that I had when I was a little girl. It was a doll I had before my mother and my stepfather had gotten together. So I was holding this corsage in my arms and I was singing to it, singing to Mickey, and I was holding Mickey. And then I began throwing Mickey against the door, and pieces were falling off.

"My mother must have heard the sound of the knocking in my room, because she came in. She told me later that I was talking like a little girl, baby talk, saying words I used to say when I was little. And I told her, 'Mommy, Mommy, Mickey is broken. I don't know how to fix him. I don't know how to fix Mickey.'"

Jetsunma believes she had a "kind of breakdown," but it felt planned, like a lucid decision to lose control. The whole thing felt "contrived" and "totally honest" at the same time, she said. "Both sane and insane."

Her mother, oddly, seemed to know exactly what to do. "She became very strong and clear," Jetsunma said. "She walked me around the house and started talking to me very softly and made me warm milk. She made me feel safer. And then she put me to bed, tucking me inside the sheets like I was a baby."

The next morning Geraldine called Hialeah High School and asked whether she should send her daughter to classes or not. Alyce was acting very strange. Was there a school psychologist her daughter could see? "I wasn't acting like a baby anymore, but I was definitely still out of it," Jetsunma said. "Like I was directing myself in a movie."

A school counselor evaluated Alyce and sent her to the offices of Dr. Ronald Shellow, a psychiatrist who specialized in adolescent illness and juvenile delinquency. She began therapy with him that would last nearly three years and was paid for by the state vocational rehabilitation program. "I made some slow progress," she said, "but I don't remember very much of the following year -- the year I turned eighteen. Apparently I had some rather big adventures. Later on, guys would come up to me and say, 'Hey, that was a great time we had!' and I had no idea what they were talking about."

Dr. Shellow helped Alyce make the decision to move out of her parents' house and continue school and her part-time job. She began doing her own cooking, learned how to live paycheck to paycheck. She broke up with her boyfriend but always found a new one. "I had to have a boyfriend," she said. "It gave me a sense of security, I think, and the illusion of support. Thinking back on it, I have the image of two puppies in a box. It's a comfort to them -- but are they really involved in caring for each other?"

More than any boyfriend it was Dr. Shellow who got her through those years. He believed in her, made her feel good. After a certain amount of time in individual analysis, he encouraged Alyce to join a therapy group he was running. In an interview Dr. Shellow -- who was given permission to discuss his treatment of Alyce -- remembered her as "overweight" but "an attractive girl who took care of herself." She tended to be hysterical rather than depressive. She had sexually provocative fantasies. She told the truth. She was concerned about being "a good girl." She wrote poetry that worried her high school teachers. Her boyfriend was a loser, her stepfather was a drunk, and her mother "had her own problems -- mostly with her husband."

But it was Alyce's dreams that Dr. Shellow remembered most. They were "very interesting dreams," he said. She was pregnant in most of them. And the recurring theme was that she was in the hospital, giving birth. The baby was beautiful but also "had something wrong with it." Sometimes the baby had crossed eyes or funny hair. And Alyce felt tremendous love for the baby. But in the dreams, rather than taking the baby home and keeping it for herself, she planned to give the baby to her mother -- as a way finally to make her happy. "I've never had another patient give me a dream like that," said Dr. Shellow, "this fantasy of giving birth to something wonderful and it being for somebody else."

In his therapy group Alyce talked easily and candidly about her feelings; she was never withdrawn or seemed uncomfortable. She was adept at dispensing advice and quickly became involved in helping her group mates. Eventually she became more interested in helping them than in talking about herself -- although it probably needs to be said that this stance allowed her to remain in control and be the center of focus. "She was always jumping in," said Dr. Shellow, "solving problems, making comments, interpreting everybody else's dreams ... often before I had the chance to come in and say something. Essentially, she led the group. And it was always very interesting."


With each passing year the world of Alyce's childhood -- the bleakness, the impotency and despair -- grew fainter and fainter. By the time she was an adult, the house on Ninety-eighth Street in Canarsie literally didn't exist; it had been torn down and another small brick house built on the lot. Her mother divorced Vito Cassara, and he disappeared into legend; Alyce came to believe, or hope, or dream, that he had been sent to jail. Her real father, Harry Zeoli, would never emerge as the star of Ben Casey, or turn up at her door.

She moved on and stumbled upon compensations. When she was nineteen she married Jim Perry, a boyfriend from Miami. They had a baby named Ben. Opportunities to go to college never came, but she took night courses and worked as a day-care assistant and as a nanny. She got jobs in retail stores and sold clothes. After she and Perry were divorced, she moved to Asheville, North Carolina, with another boyfriend, a radiologist named Pat Mulloy.

During these years, as her own life began taking root, Alyce's contact with her old family -- Geraldine and Frankie and the rest -- was sporadic and difficult. They barely spoke. Alyce would sometimes find herself missing them. She'd call up and arrange a reunion. Her yearning never ceased -- for a mother, for a real father, for brothers and sisters to love. She'd find herself believing again that repairs were possible, that intentions had been good, that the mistakes were forgivable, and that people could change. So periodically Alyce would find herself sitting around with her mother and half siblings, whose lives were now tortured by their own demons. During these reunions the boys would open their shirts and show the scars. Alyce would tell dark jokes, her rage funneled into disgust and vulgarity. Geraldine would smoke cigarette after cigarette, always remaining silent.

Following such an evening Alyce would feel exhausted, then overcome. She'd go to bed and cry for hours. "Tell me I'm not like them," she'd say to her husband. "Please, please, please. Tell me I'm not."


In Asheville she lived on the fringes of town. There were dilapidated shacks and trailers nearby and, sprinkled among them, a few nice houses that looked cared for. Alyce's small farmhouse was one of those. She owned a cow, grew her own vegetables, stoked the woodstove in the winter, and lived a relatively quiet life. After several years together she and Mulloy had a son, Christopher, and were married.

She was a housewife and a mother. There were meals to cook, groceries to shop for, dirty clothes to wash, an ordinary life. Yet, as the months, and indeed the years, passed, the more ordinary her life became, the more restless Alyce grew. It was "a profound restlessness that wasn't entirely conscious," she recalled. And by the time she was in her mid- to late twenties, "it was powerful, a dynamic force from way inside me." She had always been sedentary by nature, a bit lazy -- and in recent years she had become quite overweight. Suddenly, though, she felt energized. She felt propelled toward something. But what?

The force felt magical, and she turned to magic for answers. A fortune-teller told her she was psychic; an astrologer told her she was important. An old tarot card reader on Coney Island told her she was originally Tibetan. Her dreams became powerful. Once asleep she was welcomed into a strange and elegant wonderland. She walked into mystical palaces and met half-human creatures. Again and again she was told she was special, she was different, she was gifted and full of wisdom and insights. Soon she began wanting to be asleep more than she wanted to be awake.

She started to meditate -- as a way to enter a dream state without sleeping. She taught herself, made up things as she went along. She didn't learn until much later from the Tibetans that you are supposed to sit, not lie down. You are supposed to keep your eyes open, not shut them. At first it was just an hour a day. She would slow down, sink into a different state of consciousness. Her meditations were not simply exercises in relaxation, or strings of sounds, a mantra, repeated over and over. She preferred to be praying, and her meditations became little plays she would run inside her mind, visualizations -- in which she made wishes and offerings to God. She was fascinated by the mechanics of praying, and by an ambition to devise more efficient and powerful forms of prayer. It became almost a game. On her bed in the afternoons, she imagined she was offering up parts of her body to God. First she'd offer her toes and her feet to God. The next day she would offer her knees, her legs, her hips ... She spent hours contemplating the various parts of her body and appreciating them -- how well her feet worked, how they helped her stand and walk. She thought about how attached she was to her body -- how much she loved her feet, and how life would be without them. And with this in mind she would offer them, imagine cutting them off and giving them to God. Years later she'd be told this is an advanced Tibetan Buddhist practice called Chod.

She would give anything to God, she thought, anything, if her gift might help the world become settled, happier. The deeper she went -- the closer she came to the kingdom of her dreams -- the closer she felt to her true self. Sunk into a trance, she always prayed for the same thing: "Make me a channel of blessings." There were hours of this, days of this, weeks of this, months of this. "Make me a channel of blessings, make me a channel of blessings ... " The prayer became a part of her breath, a part of her consciousness. After a time she felt herself changing, as though the prayer had transformed her. Suddenly it was as if she were a faucet, and the blessings were running out of her like water, and all she had to do was turn on the tap.

She prayed for peace. She prayed for the world. She prayed for an end to suffering. She prayed for purity, for light, for clarity, for answers.

The conclusions she reached stayed with her: We have all lived before, many lifetimes -- and on other planets and lost continents. Our past actions are responsible for the lives we are having now. All souls are connected, in some silent, mysterious way, through their hearts. And there isn't a God so much as a universal spirit, a primordial feeling, an energy and wisdom that is formless. It is the true nature of all things and inseparable from us.


Going to church had never much interested Alyce. She'd been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church and had often attended Dutch Reformed services with her grandmother. And while the family considered themselves Jewish, too, the only Jewish thing they did was eat bagels. But it really wasn't the religious ambivalence of her childhood that had turned Alyce off. The truth was, church seemed fake to her -- rigid and shallow. She imagined if she talked about her heartfelt experiences with prayer, she might be ridiculed. Eventually, she and Pat Mulloy found a home at the Light Center -- a nondenominational group that met in Black Mountain, just outside Asheville. It wasn't very organized and didn't seem much like religion. It was simply a place where the divine mysteries of life were celebrated, and where serious scientific discoveries were discussed in the same breath as outrageous New Age theories. The students were instructed to pray for the planet, for world peace, for enlightenment, to end hunger, and not for themselves. Alyce was able to talk openly about her dreams and meditations, and some of the answers she'd found. She found sympathetic listeners -- people who sat down beside her, enthralled. "I was instantly a joiner," Jetsunma said of the Light Center. "And I really got mixed up with that group and was really happy to be there."

Jim Gore, who ran the center, was a lecturer and psychic who became Alyce's first spiritual mentor. He taught various meditations and practices, but the mainstay at his center was a prayer called the Light Prayer. You imagined yourself as a body of light, then visualized that light going out into the world. After attending several of his lectures, Alyce approached Gore to tell him about a dream she'd had: She was walking outside when the sky opened up over her head. A dove came down and began to circle her head. A voice said, "You are the light of the world ... this is who you are."

Gore smiled and took Alyce's arm. "I'll tell you something I know about you," he said. "You're not like other people. You're different. Did you know that about yourself?"


In her early years at the Light Center, Alyce was encouraged by Jim Gore. He felt she was a visionary, and extraordinarily psychic. On a few occasions he referred to her as a superbeing -- the greatest compliment he could offer. He often singled her out in classes and called on her to speak to the group. After a short time she was teaching meditation and giving private psychic readings -- very much at Gore's prodding. He lauded her intuition and accurate predictions, as well as her courage to cut the niceties and head straight for the core.

Late in 1980 she gave a psychic reading to Michael Burroughs, a graduate student in religious studies at the University of Virginia who was visiting friends in Black Mountain. ''I'd heard all about him before I'd met him," Jetsunma would recount later. "People were always saying, 'You gotta meet Michael Burroughs. You gotta meet him.'" He was a southerner with a slow Tennessee drawl and at twenty-five -- four years younger than Alyce -- seemed charming and wise beyond his years. Like Alyce, Michael had a quick mind, a mystical bent, and a rather dark sense of humor. But unlike Alyce he was well educated and accomplished -- he was finishing work on his second master's degree, and made a living as a church organist and a regional lecturer of Transcendental Meditation. Alyce was still working in the day-care center, and the thought of supporting herself as a spiritual teacher seemed a remote possibility.

"Do you have a girlfriend?" she asked Michael, during his first reading.

"Not really," he said.

"Well, you are about to be involved in a terrific relationship," she said. "Boy, I wish I were going to have a relationship like that -- and the woman's name is Catharine."

Michael started coming more often to Black Mountain. He encouraged Alyce, came up with ideas for how she might support herself as a teacher, suggesting she begin offering workshops and seminars. Quickly becoming close friends, they gossiped about other students they knew and about Jim Gore's recent teachings. Alyce liked the way Michael ridiculed some of the New Age practices at the Light Center -- so when Gore began encouraging her to try channeling, she wanted to know what Michael thought. Alyce had tried it privately but felt embarrassed and unsure about channeling in public. When Michael visited Asheville again, would he help her?

Over the summer Alyce confided in Michael that she was considering leaving Asheville -- and had dreams of starting her own prayer center. "We were both growing a little critical of the goings- on at Black Mountain," she said. "It was getting too psychic phenomena-oriented and flaky. It became too much about aura cleansing and trying to project your consciousness to different places. None of which does the world much good at all. Michael and I thought of ourselves as much more serious."

Jim Gore had also become a bit overbearing. Alyce had started to attract attention with her psychic readings -- people were coming to her now, wanting help with their meditation techniques -- and Gore had begun ignoring her. "He told me I was a superbeing," she says, "and eventually didn't have anything to do with me." Unlike the students who were made insecure by this kind of treatment and drawn further into Gore's influence, Alyce saw through it and quietly made plans to depart.

She and Michael talked long into the night during this time about what the ideal spiritual center would be like. Alyce had grown to believe that the New Age feel-good talk was vapid, overly upbeat, and that studying psychic phenomena -- although fun and entertaining -- was a waste of time. People should be taught to search themselves in a deeper way, to face their intentions, to deal with their demons and commit themselves to a practice of prayer that would build compassion. Alyce felt a sense of mission and a calling as a teacher, a muse, a spiritual instigator. She had already seen how she was able to attract people to begin an examination of their lives. Michael. having been raised in the Baptist Church, understood the need for structure, rules, a sense of hierarchy and order. Together they agreed that the perfect spiritual center would be nondenominational but teach the general guidelines and scriptures that all religions hold in common. And it would emphasize "active prayer" above all else. Prayer was real, and worked. It was an acknowledgment of the oneness of all things and showed devotion to that universal spirit, to the essential nature that all things share.

It came as a shock to the students at the Light Center when Alyce announced, later in 1981. that she and Pat Mulloy were separating. The perception was that Alyce and Pat were a supportive and spiritual family -- Jim Gore had called them the "First Christed family" -- and meant to be together. Since they'd become close friends Michael had known that Alyce was unhappy and wasn't surprised by the news that she wanted to leave Mulloy. But what came next did surprise him. Not long after her separation Alyce confessed to Michael that she believed the two of them were destined to be together. In a channeling session she told him that they'd been together in many previous lifetimes -- often as rulers of galaxies and unrecorded ancient civilizations on earth. Over the summer, as they grew closer, Alyce embarked on a serious diet, and by Christmastime she had dropped one hundred pounds.

Eventually Michael came to feel it was true. He and Alyce had something special together. There really wasn't anybody like Alyce ... the way she made friends instantly, how funny she was, how warm, how smart. Her spiritual capabilities seemed endless to him, and her talent for teaching -- once she'd made up her mind that she wanted to have students of her own -- was incomparable. Michael even believed some of the past-life stories Alyce had told him. Why not? Who's to say those things couldn't have happened? Above all, Michael felt very strongly that her intentions were pure. She wasn't one of these self-involved flakes who populated the landscape. She believed deeply that her mission was to help people and make the world a better place. Over time he found himself unable to imagine life without her.

By the following winter they were a couple. Michael moved to Washington, D.C., to study comparative religion at American University -- for his third master's degree -- and Alyce drove up on weekends. To help make ends meet, and in hopes of attracting some students, Michael made arrangements for Alyce to speak informally at spiritual centers and to New Age groups. Through these events they were quickly able to find kindred spirits, even in a place as buttoned up as Washington. "They came to dinner at a group house I was living in," remembered Wib Middleton, "and she channeled afterward, which really blew us all away. And I remember when we were alone, she looked at me and said, 'I've been meeting lots of old friends lately.' And I felt I knew what she meant. We had a strong connection."

To mark her new life, she decided that she didn't want to be called Alyce anymore. She didn't feel like Alyce. She didn't even look like Alyce. She decided to start calling herself Catharine.


She got a job at Paul Harris in Mazza Galerie for a time, selling men's clothes, and Michael was playing the organ at various churches. They quickly made new friends, mostly through a network of former Light Center students living in the Washington area. Through a friend of a friend they met Eleanor Rowe, a refined intellectual -- a former Russian literature professor at George Washington University -- who had a fascination for metaphysics. Eleanor became a patron of sorts, a sponsor and supporter of Catharine. She hired Catharine to work as her nanny, to house-sit while she traveled over the summer. And later, convinced of Catharine's abilities as a channeler and psychic, she consulted her about a string of physical ailments that had been plaguing her. "She was a tremendously gifted healer," Eleanor said. "And I'd tried everything -- acupuncturists, priests, a shaman, various yogis. I knew all kinds of big-name gurus, including Swami Muktananda. But only Catharine was able to diagnose the problem, and then fix it."

Michael played the organ at the Church of Two Worlds in Georgetown, a spiritualist congregation. He and Catharine were married there in 1983 by Rev. Reed Brown -- who later ordained them at the Arlington Metaphysical Chapel as "metaphysical ministers" in his spiritual church. But Catharine worked better on her own, so Eleanor offered her house as a place where groups could gather informally for her teachings. Eleanor also began recommending Catharine's psychic consultations to friends and acquaintances. Sylvia Rivchun came for a session. Jane Perini and Shelly Nemerovsky came, too. These were something like conventional psychic readings except that it was difficult to keep Catharine interested in the mundane -- and questions about jobs and houses and marriages sometimes went unanswered. She was mostly interested in a person's spiritual path, and the extent to which a person was living consciously, being ruthlessly honest, and practicing compassion. Often she would recommend meditation to a client and suggest a few techniques of her own.

You have lived many lifetimes, Catharine told people, many, many lifetimes. Look into the night sky, look up at all the stars, the millions of stars. We have all lived as many lifetimes, and we've come from places as far away.

Catharine and Michael moved into an apartment in Silver Spring -- a place large enough to hold her classes in the living room. Twenty or thirty regulars sat on the floor and listened to Catharine's teachings every week. They called themselves the Center for Discovery and New Life, and within a year membership had doubled and then tripled. To accommodate the expansion Catharine and Michael moved into a one-story brick rambler in Kensington. It was a nice neighborhood of Maryland, close to Rock Creek Park, but the main feature of the Kensington house was the big basement, with its knotty pine paneling. It was an ideal place for the group to hold weekly meetings -- and for Catharine to give her psychic readings more privately than in the family living room. There was a small bedroom next to the paneled basement, too, which Michael used as an office.

It was Michael's ambitions for the center, and his public relations skills, that often drew newcomers to the classes. He had even begun to arrange out-of-town speaking engagements for himself and Catharine -- and they'd attracted a group of students in Lansing, Michigan. But it was Catharine's talent for teaching and connecting to students on an emotional and nonintellectual level that kept them there. At a distance they seemed like an odd couple, Catharine and Michael. They had been married less than a year. He was of medium height and slight build -- weighing no more than one hundred and forty pounds. She was large framed, fairly tall, and had thirty or forty pounds on him. While she had a bawdy sense of humor and a deadpan delivery, by nature Catharine was a homebody and not entirely comfortable meeting people. Michael was more reserved on the surface. He was erudite, an academic -- a person, it seemed to some, who was all brain and little heart. But he was also a natural at administration, at filling out the proper forms for tax exemption and coming up with ways the group could expand its reach.

The early students would later be regarded as very special and referred to as the First Wave. In their most heady moments they thought of themselves as something like the twelve apostles. "We were kind of a ragtag group," said Wib, "but we felt like an intimate family and like what we were doing was important." They were Wib Middleton, Eleanor Rowe, Shelly Nemerovsky, Sylvia Rivchun, and Jane Perini. There was a software engineer named David Somerville. There was Don Allen, an administrator at the U.S. Postal Service, who fIrst came to the Kensington house in 1982 and introduced his son, Jay, to the-center by giving him a private consultation with Catharine for his nineteenth birthday. Jay dropped out of James Madison University after his freshman year because he didn't want to miss Catharine's weekly teachings. "I had found the thing I was looking for and the thing that was making my life meaningful," he would recount later. "I had to pursue it."

Janice Newmark came to Catharine for a private consultation, admitted she was suicidal, and began attending classes -- reinvigorated about her life. Tom Barry was a Washington-area businessman with Pentagon contacts when he first came to a class in 1983 and had a four-hour consultation with Catharine, asking her if it was possible to attain enlightenment and be an arms dealer at the same time. "The divine can do anything," Catharine told him, "but why push it?"

Karen Williams began coming regularly -- she was a sound technician at NBC, a cheerful and wry-humored ex-flower child from Berkeley -- and sometimes brought her NBC colleagues. Christine Cervenka was a beautiful twenty-four-year-old blonde from New Jersey who had given up on the Catholic Church -- and Catharine told her she'd had a dream that she was coming. Ted and Linda Kurkowski -- he was a solar energy expert, she was a management consultant -- had come for private consultations with Catharine and stayed. Elizabeth Elgin was an insurance secretary when she first met Catharine, and also never looked back. The students in Michigan had become organized and devout, too -- Catharine flew in once a month to teach there. Another far-flung student, a recently divorced businessman from Florida who had met Catharine in Asheville, moved to the Washington area when he learned she'd started her own center. His name was Jon Randolph. Catharine told him he'd been her student before -- in ancient Egypt.

She and Michael described their center as nondenominational, but many of the members -- like Wib Middleton and Jay Allen -- considered themselves "metaphysical" Christians who were being taken by Catharine to a new level of spiritual understanding. Others simply felt they were studying a kind of Western mysticism. Still others just came for the wild talk of past lives and UFO's. "The man at NBC who originally introduced me to Catharine," said Karen Williams, "stopped coming to classes after the first year or so, when he figured out it was more about prayer than intergalactic travel. That's all he ever wanted, really -- to be taken up in a spaceship-and somehow he thought Catharine could make that happen."

"She talked about the absolute nature of all things, and the focus was always the power of prayer and benefiting others," said Wib. "Her voice, and the way she said things, made sense to me. We were all looking for something to sink our teeth into -- and she was talking about compassion and not self. At that time what was out there, in the spiritual marketplace, was very self-absorbed, about healing the self.... I'd done est weekends, among other things, but what really struck me -- and many of us -- was here was somebody who wasn't talking about self-improvement or psychic development."

Quite naturally, and also at Catharine's encouragement, students began to hook up romantically. Wib Middleton began dating Jane Perini in late 1983, Don Allen hooked up with Shelly Nemerovsky, and David Somerville fell in love with Sylvia Rivchun. "When the group would meditate together," David remembered, "I would close my eyes and become sure that Sylvia was staring at me. I could feel her, staring at me. And then I'd look up, and she'd just be sitting there, meditating. And her eyes were shut."

Catharine delivered her teachings in a trance state. She sat in a green velour chair, closed her eyes, and spoke in the voice of a man who called himself Jeremiah. The voice taught about the indivisible union of all things, about the emptiness of the physical world, about stewardship and caretaking of the earth and all the creatures on it. The voice was against abortion. It loved Jesus Christ. The voice was always encouraging the audience to act ethically and consciously and compassionately in the world.

Sometime in 1984 the teachings became increasingly Eastern and esoteric. Michael himself had gotten interested in Buddhism and had purchased some books on the subject. Catharine disliked taking a scholarly approach to spirituality, but she was drawn to what Michael told her about Buddhism. "He'd read something to me," she'd say later, "and I'd feel I knew what was being talked about." She quickly put the concepts into her own words. She wrote a vow that she asked her students to take, not unlike the Bodhisattva vow, which Tibetan Buddhists take, dedicating themselves to helping the world. She talked about "voidness" and "oneness" and the indivisibility of all things -- and gave a teaching called "no-thingness" -- which made the Buddhist concepts of emptiness and nonduality easily accessible to her students. That year, when she and Michael bought a new car, a blue Renault Alliance, they ordered a vanity license plate: OM AH HUM," the words for "body, speech, mind," and a Buddhist prayer.

Catharine talked about karma, too. She told her students that the United States had a "karmic pattern of compassion" that began with the founding fathers -- and that Thomas Jefferson was a "wisdom being." If one was born in the United States, that compassion was one's legacy. There were prayer vigils at the Jefferson Memorial on several occasions after Catharine predicted that a tragedy was about to take place -- a political figure was about to be assassinated or a negative entity in outer space was heading toward the earth in a spaceship. The group often prayed all night -- and they were thrilled by their success at keeping negativity at bay. "Catharine would always proclaim afterward," said Karen Williams, "that we'd accomplished some miraculous thing."

Catharine had taught them a form of meditation called the Light Expansion Prayer, a variation of Jim Gore's prayer in Asheville. Eventually the group began a round-the-clock prayer vigil in the basement of the Kensington house -- a prayer for peace, for harmony. The students came and went at all hours, praying for peace in two- to four-hour shifts.


In the fall of 1984, Catharine's prayer group was introduced to a man named Kunzang Lama, who represented a large monastery in south India. He was raising money for Tibetan refugees. Did the Center for Discovery and New Life wish to sponsor young monks in need of books and clothing and proper food? Kunzang Lama arrived at the Kensington house one rainy night with a carload of Tibetan rugs to sell and photographs of beautiful Tibetan boys in robes. Catharine's students were soon sponsoring twenty little monks, then fifty, then seventy. The rugs sold quickly.

Several months later Kunzang Lama contacted them again. The head of his monastery, Penor Rinpoche, was making his first trip to the United States. Kunsang Lama asked if their group could find a place for the rinpoche to stay. Catharine and Michael offered their house--and they organized a dinner for the lama and arranged two speaking engagements for him in suburban Maryland. Despite a burgeoning interest in Eastern religion, Michael seemed to think that Rinpoche was his last name. "I didn't really know what a Buddhist was, much less a lama," Catharine would say a few years later, when the reporters came, and the magazine writers, and the TV crews. "And when I imagined Tibet, my first thought was of old men and smelly rugs."

Their first inkling of Penor Rinpoche's status came when Michael and Catharine arrived at the airport to meet his plane, thinking they would be the only ones there. Instead, they found a hundred or so well-dressed Chinese swarming Penor Rinpoche's gate, holding white scarves and bouquets of flowers. Michael and Catharine looked at each other. Who could have known? They couldn't really see the lama as he emerged from the Jetway, but a sea of dark heads in front of them began bowing, then prostrating. Hands were reaching out to him, with offerings and scarves for the rinpoche to bless and return.

Catharine would later describe the moment she first laid eyes on His Holiness Drubwang Pema Norbu (Penor) Rinpoche, the eleventh throne holder of the Palyul tradition in the Nyingma lineage, as a miraculous and stunning awakening. She would tell the story many times, and on each occasion the description seemed to become more wondrous and fateful. "It was like a shampoo commercial," she liked to say. "I looked over the crowds of people and suddenly caught sight of His Holiness." He was a short and stout figure, wearing burgundy robes and heavy eyeglasses, and limping faintly as he passed the hoards of welcomers. As his face looked up into hers, Catharine says she broke down sobbing. "I felt," she says, "like I was meeting my mind."

A few hours later, after a lunch in downtown D.C. and a couple of prearranged stops and appointments, Penor Rinpoche arrived at Catharine and Michael's brick rambler in Kensington to stay for four or five days. The basement was crowded with Catharine's students, waiting to meet him. Trunk after trunk was unloaded from the car. Two mattresses were separated and put on the floor of the guest room. And after a brief speech about Buddhism, the lama retreated to his bedroom, where he kept to himself most of the following day. Catharine and Michael heard chanting, and clanking bells, coming from the room. They smelled burning cedar. One of the lama's trunks, Michael learned later, was full of books. Another held ceremonial objects. He remained closeted for hours as he practiced.

The next night, Michael and Catharine had a vegetarian meal with tofu and chamomile tea delivered to Penor Rinpoche's bedroom--assuming that Buddhists do not eat meat. After a few minutes his attendant came out.

"His Holiness wants to know what else you have to eat."

"What .... else?"

"His Holiness says this tea tastes like hay."

"What does he like?" Catharine asked.


It was on the second or third day in Kensington that Penor Rinpoche became a bit more sociable and ready for sightseeing. Michael and Catharine took him to the National Zoo -- they were told he loved animals -- as well as the Smithsonian, the Capitol, and several of their favorite memorials. Over lunch at Thai Taste on Connecticut Avenue, the lama began asking Catharine questions about her classes. "What do you teach?" he asked through an interpreter. Catharine explained about the Light Expansion Prayer, the meditations she'd invented over the years, and her lectures on "oneness" and "voidness" and "no-thingness." Penor Rinpoche seemed particularly interested in how she'd been able to attract students. He would be happy to meet with the students individually, if they'd be interested.

"We had no idea how important he was," Jetsunma recounted years later, "or how to treat a lama. We walked in front of him. We stood over him, and sat down next to him. All of these things I would never do now -- nobody would -- and on the last day, we threw a barbecue in my backyard in his honor, and served him potato chips and hot dogs."

It was on the last day that Penor Rinpoche gathered Catharine and her students in the Kensington living room and made a dramatic announcement -- through Kunzang Lama, acting as interpreter. Catharine had been teaching Mahayana Buddhism without any formal instruction. Penor Rinpoche attributed this miraculous ability to many lifetimes of Buddhist practice, performed at such a high level that it would always be in her mind. Michael turned to look at Catharine. Her eyes never strayed from Penor Rinpoche.

"You are all Buddhists," the venerable lama told the group. "And you are already practicing Buddhism."

He asked them to echo him as he uttered a string of words in Tibetan--words that went untranslated. "It was really like, Repeat after me," Wib remembered, "and we all did it."

Years later, after they had founded KPC -- and many of Catharine's students had become ordained monks and nuns--they were still discovering what the words meant, and how their lives had been changed by them.

I dedicate myself to the liberation and salvation of all sentient beings. I offer my body, speech, and mind in order to accomplish the purpose of all sentient beings.

I will return in whatever form necessary, under extraordinary circumstances, to end suffering. Let me be born in times unpredictable, in places unknown, until all sentient beings are liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Taking no thought for my comfort or safety, precious Buddha, make of me a pure and perfect instrument by which the end of suffering and death in all forms might be realized. Let me achieve perfect enlightenment for the sake of all beings. And then, by my hand and heart alone, may all beings achieve full enlightenment and perfect liberation.

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



1. According to Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia, 2d ed. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994), the actor who played Ben Casey was named Vincent Zoimo, not Deoli.
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 10:50 pm

4. What's a Chakra?


A couple weeks after Sangye's accident in November. Wib called to give me an update on the stupa building -- and to announce that Jetsunma was now ready to talk to me. "She's had a lot going on," he said, his polite way of acknowledging that nearly a month had passed since I'd last bothered him about seeing her. "Building the stupa has created all kinds of obstacles." Jetsunma's back had been in spasm -- and there had been many trips to the chiropractor. Her schedule had been in flux, too. Wib sounded a bit harried.

"How does lunch sound?" he asked. "Jetsunma says she needs to get out more."


She arrived at Hunter's Run, a dark palm-filled place in the center of Potomac, walking a little slowly in a tight-fitting gray suit. She looked as though she were holding her breath, or afraid to move her ribs. Apparently the chiropractor hadn't done much good. Her face looked relaxed, but puffy -- like she'd just woken up.

Wib and I stood up to greet her. She smiled as she approached our table. It was a warm smile, a knowing smile. the kind of open-hearted look you'd give to an old friend after a long absence. You couldn't help but like somebody who looked at you that way. As she came closer, I noticed that her dark red lipstick matched her fingernails perfectly. Her suit was not gray, as it had appeared at a distance, but a bold houndstooth, an interlocking pattern of black-and-white checks. It was the sort of snug suit, with 1940s shoulder pads and a short jacket, that called to mind a woman in a Raymond Chandler novel. Jetsunma had an air of beauty salon around her, too, of perfume and perfection. She looked like a Beverly Hills real estate agent, to tell the truth. I remember feeling a bit plain as she sat down, unadorned and uninteresting. And the table felt very small suddenly, too small.

She smiled again, and chuckled. Her front teeth both looked like they were capped. ''I'm in my civvies," she said, gesturing at her suit.


Western writers used to travel to Tibet and describe the amazing feats they'd seen Buddhist lamas perform. Tibet itself was the "mystic land of the Grand lama. joint God and King of many millions," according to L. Austine Waddell, who'd made a visit to the remote mountainous country at the end of the last century. [1] The "lama-priests" were magicians and wizards, supernatural beings who had spent many lifetimes studying the nature of the mind. [2] They were psychic and telepathic -- "one cannot have close contact with Tibetan lamas without discovering so many instances of it that it ceases to astonish," John Blofeld wrote in the 1960s. [3] They could predict the day and place of their death, and make those predictions for others. They could read minds and, more important, hearts.

The Tibetans had developed mental exercises over the centuries that had given them great powers. according to the legends. The lamas walked on water and walked through walls and fire. They could take other forms-temporarily becoming a bug, a bird sitting on a fence -- and could appear in many places at the same time. Practicing tum-mo, they would climb into the mountains. meditating naked in subarctic temperatures, and melt thick blocks of ice. In the old books about Tibet, one reads about lamas shrinking themselves to the size of a dust speck, making objects disappear, or producing jewels in the palms of their hands. They could levitate and become invisible. They could even fly. While doing the spiritual practice of lung-gom. they could enter a trance state and begin "speed-walking" or "flying" for days. The lamas were said to visit each other at faraway monasteries this way, hovering over the ground and traveling at amazing speed. [4]

One of the Tibetan terms for these advanced beings is tulku. Before coming to Poolesville. I'd never heard the word. When I was growing up in California in the 1970s, the spiritual landscape seemed crowded with Eastern-style lamas and gurus and yogis and swamis -- terms that were. for the most part. interchangeable. Tulku, I discovered after meeting Jetsunma. is a concept unique to Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet. Mongolia, and Bhutan -- and unheard of in Zen and the other forms of Buddhism. A tulku is an individual who has achieved a state of infinite wisdom or "realization," whose spiritual accomplishment is so great that he or she is able to transcend death and rebirth in samsara. But rather than avoid samsara and the human realm of suffering, a tulku returns again and again to help sentient beings on earth. As the renowned scholar Robert Thurman puts it, "Tulkus ... are the Tibetan equivalent of our astronauts; heroes or heroines who have ventured to the limits of 'inner space' beyond death and through the dreamlike realms of the states in between." [5]

These are the little boys. or "little buddhas," that one reads about -- and that the Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci made a movie about -- sometimes found in far-off places in the East or West, about the age of five, who are suspected of being the reincarnations of important lamas who have died. It turns out to be a delicate process, identifying a reincarnated tulku. A group of older lamas meditate, use their best intuitive powers and divinations, and still it isn't uncommon for several young candidates to materialize, each of them eligible to fill a vacant tulku seat, some of which come with throne-holding titles and well-off monasteries to run.

The Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama -- two of the highest-ranking tulkus and the spiritual leaders of Tibetan Buddhism -- are the most famous examples of the enduring strength of this system. For centuries they've been coming back, over and over. sharing the responsibility of running Tibet. Since the fifteenth century. when the tulku system officially began, the Panchen and Dalai Lamas have had a father-son relationship and succeeded each other: one reigning lama nearing old age as the other reaches maturity. It's an efficient and self-perpetuating method, ensuring a reliable and known successor. Until recently. anyway -- when the Communist Chinese, who have occupied Tibet since 1950, overruled the Dalai Lama's selection for Panchen Lama and came up with their own candidate, who, when the current Dalai Lama dies, will take overas Tibet's leader -- and, presumably, be in control of his successor as well.

There are some seven hundred tulku positions in the Nyingma lineage alone. ranging from preeminent tulkus, like Penor Rinpoche. to the obscure. All these positions aren't filled at any given time. For one thing. it takes time and energy to officially recognize a reincarnated lama. as the process is called. But also. not all lamas die and return as people. A tulku could also wait many years. or even centuries. to return to samsara for another go at benefiting sentient beings. A tulku could wait for a particular time to return -- and for a specific purpose. Some. it is said, come back as inanimate objects. A tulku could become a house or a work of art, a hospital or a new road or a bridge.

The Tibetans also believe that female tulkus are especially elusive and unlikely to reincarnate and become recognized. I had come to suspect this was an imaginative attempt to explain why there are so few women in tulku hierarchy. Consider the seventeenth-century saint Ahkon Lhamo. for instance. She spent most of her life alone in a cave meditating before founding the Palyul tradition of Tibetan Buddhism with her brother Kunzang Sherab. While Kunzang Sherab has been reborn over and over. his sister. Ahkon Lhamo, has made only one known and recorded reappearance since her cave days: His Holiness Penor Rinpoche had recognized the woman eating lunch with me as her reincarnation in 1986.

According to accounts of the first Ahkon Lhamo. she never bathed. had terrific body odor, and rarely spoke. Yet this time around here she was, sitting in a dark restaurant in Potomac. Maryland -- wearing a citrus scent, coiffed hair, and a houndstooth suit, and ordering a sirloin steak salad for lunch.

"Red meat." Jetsunma said. setting her menu down and tapping on it with a perfectly enameled fingernail. "I just can't get enough."


It was a strange time to be telling her story, she said at the beginning of lunch. But it was also a perfect time. She had reached midlife and was spending a fair amount of time looking back. It wasn't true that lamas know everything, she said. And it wasn't true that their lives are simple. People thought being a lama meant you had a smooth go of things. effortless ...

"But my life has not been easy," she said, looking at me rather seriously. "And I've asked my teachers to explain that to me. Why have I had such a hard life? This sounds like bragging. but I can match anybody's crummy childhood story. I've had students come to me and start telling me their sad tales. And I always say. I'm sorry, but I can match that. If you want to play that game. I can win."

She laughed a great deal throughout lunch -- seemed ready to laugh -- but not too far beneath her amiability and good cheer there was something very serious about her. And something deeply sad. As powerful and commanding as she was, Jetsunma seemed vulnerable and had a way of making you want to help her. Even sitting there next to her old student Wib, she seemed alone.

She had had weird dreams she wanted to discuss with me. she said. and unusual experiences throughout her life. There had also been much sadness, many disappointments. In Tibetan Buddhism you realize everything that happens is a result of your personal karma and past actions, "so you can't sit around and blame anybody else." Buddhism requires, more than anything else, a grueling amount of self-honesty -- and she'd been having a lot of that.

"For instance, lately I've been wondering why none of my marriages has lasted," she said. "This has been the greatest disappointment of my life."

"It's over with Karl?" I asked, a little surprised. The previous Sunday he'd escorted her into the temple as usual.

Wib nodded.

"He's moved out of the house." Jetsunma said.

"He was your third husband?" I asked.

"Fourth," she said, looking over at Wib as if to double-check the number. "And the truth is, none of them. looking back, have been worth much -- except for the children they've given me. I've always given out more than I got back."

"The relationship has always been so unequal," said Wib.

"None of them were really like husbands," Jetsunma said. "They were more like consorts.

"When I first meet up with a person, I see their potential and these incredible abilities. And I get so excited! I go overboard and my heart just leaps!" Jetsunma explained. "But potential is just potential -- and it doesn't always come to be in this lifetime. My experience is that students in this society aren't really prepared for the role of consort. ... Because of our culture, the norms and taboos. it forces an ordinary person and puts them in extraordinary circumstances. It puts them in the middle of their inner poisons and their spiritual potential -- and that's a lot to expect of somebody.

"It's really hard to be with your teacher. A person has to work hard every day to be pure and honest. and particularly men, they have much less skill at looking inside themselves and seeing what's going on."

As our food arrived Jetsunma and Wib bowed their heads and prayed quietly over the plates. Then the three of us huddled and made plans, eating slowly. We discussed how the interviews for the book might go, how many I might need. Jetsunma suggested a few people outside of KPC who might be good to talk to-and offered the name of her former therapist in Miami. Wib suggested that I get an official phone list for the sangha, or group of practitioners at KPC, and that I should feel free to call anybody.

"That's one thing I don't have trouble with," Jetsunma said with a shrug. "Attracting students. In fact, it quite amazes my teachers -- the dedication of my students and the depth of their practice." Penor Rinpoche had predicted that many more students would turn up. "They've told me to plan on building a temple to seat fifteen hundred," she said, "which is partly why we acquired the sixty-five acres of woods across the street. We need the space."

By "teachers," Jetsunma was referring mainly to Penor Rinpoche but also to Gyaltrul Rinpoche, an older, respected lama who was enjoying a comfortable life as a retired guru in Half Moon Bay, California. He was famous for his astute wisecracks and blunt delivery. He was also known for his profound teachings and respected books, as well as a Tibetan Buddhist center he had established in Ashland, Oregon. Gyaltrul Rinpoche had been advising Jetsunma -- and since Gyaltrul was considered the reincarnation of Kunzang Sherab. her past-life brother, it was hard not to notice some similarities between them, a certain irreverence. The previous summer, while covering Penor Rinpoche's visit to Poolesville for The Washington Post, I'd had the opportunity to meet Gyaltrul Rinpoche. And when our news photographer tried to take his picture, Gyaltrul produced his own black plastic camera, which turned out to be a squirt gun, and shot water out into the crowd.

"I hope your book might be funny and compelling," Jetsunma said, "and not just another drippy spiritual book." As for her own story -- the extraordinary trajectory of her life -- she thought the one unsolved piece remained her abusive childhood. "I should be in the loony bin or I should be on welfare," she said. And if abusive childhoods make abusive adults, or turn people to crime, how come she wasn't a criminal? "My story is really miraculous, if you think about it," she said. "All that I've survived in this lifetime."

Jetsunma had something else to bring up. and the concern showed on her face. ''I'm really hoping you can write this book without calling my mother," she said, "or my ex-husbands." She wasn't in touch with any of them, she said, nor did she feel their accounts would be reliable.

This might be hard, I said. There would be facts to check.

Jetsunma's face became completely still, and for the first time since we'd sat down her eyes were not twinkling. Her request disturbed me -- and seemed impossible to honor.

I would work to be fair. I said, and not to pry, and let her tell her own story. But sometimes mothers and ex-husbands are invaluable sources -- for their memories of all the details that make up a life. In the end. though, I said, I wanted to hear her account -- in her words -- of how she'd gone from being Alyce Zeoli, the battered girl, to Catharine Burroughs, suburban mother of two, to Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, the founder of the largest monastery of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in America.

"It's been a little messy," she said, then chuckled.

"I'm sure it has," I said.

"And it hasn't been easy."

"It couldn't have been," I said.

"My job didn't come with a manual, you know," Jetsunma continued. "And my teachers contribute when they come here, but then they are gone -- and it's up to me to do this thing that I literally don't have a clue how to do -- except out of my own wisdom, if I have any. There are days when I wonder."


We talked on, mostly about the stupa and the relics, and how the potency of the monument was causing obstacles in Poolesville. "My back spasms are part of that," Jetsunma said. "But once the stupa is blessed -- in a couple weeks or so -- the worst part should be over."

I had many questions about how stupas are thought to work. How does a relic produce a miracle? Is a stupa thought to be a living, enlightened mind -- or simply a monument that calls forth the worshiper's own enlightened mind? Do relics themselves have power over events -- or only power to incite greater faith? Jetsunma began to answer these questions with elaborate explanations, then stopped in the middle of a sentence. "You realize that you've been a Buddhist before, don't you?"

I shook my head.

"Literally," she said, "you could not be asking me these kinds of questions if you hadn't practiced a great deal. It wouldn't be possible."

"I was a classical art and archaeology major in college." I said. "Temples and sacred sculptures are pretty familiar to me."

"Sorry" -- Jetsunma laughed, then shared a look with Wib. "That's not what I'm talking about."


The restaurant began emptying of customers. A bartender arrived to work the cocktail hour and was wiping glasses and stacking them on shelves. Before we stood to leave, Jetsunma had something else to say. It was about her attendant Alana, and how they met.

"Some students come to Dharma and it's like letting a fish go in water. Psheeew, they take off. They vibe with everything. Their eyes just fill up. all their senses just fill up, and there's a certainty about them." And then, other times, Jetsunma explained, a student arrives and isn't particularly drawn to the teachings, the exotic statues of Buddhas, the maroon robes of the ordained. But that student might feel strangely drawn to Jetsunma. This was an indication of some kind of past-life connection. Jetsunma explained.

"They'll take one look at me and go. Whoa ... Teacher! And they can't leave -- they just can't leave me and they never will. Their connection isn't with Dharma, it's with me.... These are people who would never make it in a traditional Dharma center -- and quite a number of my students are like that. Quite a number."

Particularly her early students, she said. "I call them the First Wave. Something magical happened when I met them. It was like their destiny to build this center with me.... They've seen it all," she said. "If they don't love me by now, they're never going to love me."

She and Wib looked at each other and laughed.

"This is a monumental, an extraordinary life that they've entered into. And it's not easy. You can come to a Dharma center -- and that in itself takes a certain amount of karma -- but to stay and make it work ... it's an exceptional life. And it's a different life. It's a high life as opposed to an ordinary life."

She stopped for a second. "Have you met Alana?"

I shook my head.

"She reminded me recently of her first consultation with me. She walked in with her little high-heeled shoes and her little camel suit. She had no idea why she'd come to see me. She was just drawn. But when we saw each other, the connection was like -- like you could hear it in the room. I really talked turkey with her, too. I told her that she was living a very ordinary life now, and if her whole life was a cloud -- that's how I was visualizing it -- it was a very high cloud but had roots in a lower atmosphere, and in the middle it was pinched. That pinching was a bridge. And I felt that she was coming to a closing of a certain element of her life, like the pinching of a cloud, but above her was something almost unrecognizable and almost scary.

"I told her that the day would come when she would be deeply involved in a spiritual practice. But not only that, that someday that practice would be her whole life and even her vocation and even her living .... Everything would come from her involvement with spirituality.

"I remember how she looked at me, and how she was thinking, No way! I mean, here was this lady with flaming red hair, a really big do, lots of hair and stylish and gorgeous."

She turned to Wib. "Remember how gorgeous she was?"

He nodded.

"She was a hot lady, really. A figure to die for. And our connection was like, well, it was like in the atmosphere. I remember looking at her and thinking, There you are! I know you! You're mine! ... But there she is in her camel suit, very prim and proper. Nylon hose. She's Ms. Insurance Secretary ... and she's got all the right things in America. A husband who's very good-looking, very nice body. He's got a nice car. She's got a nice car. She's got her nice job, and he has his nice job. They have two children -- that kind of thing. It's very white fence. And here I am telling her that her life is about to change, that everything she knows as life is going to end and she's going to be transformed into this ultimately spiritual being.

"And she looked at me and said. 'I believe everything you say and I don't know why because it doesn't make any sense.'"

Then Jetsunma described how, at the end of the consultation, she was telling Alana about a blockage she was seeing in her chakras. "I can, if I meditate, I can sometimes see things on other levels -- it's not a big deal -- and I don't know how else to explain it to you, but anyway, I was telling her I had noticed something about her chakras, her energy centers. I was seeing this, and seeing that. And meanwhile I'm looking at her face, and she's listening really hard and her eyebrows are knitted together, and I'm going on and on, and finally I can't help wondering why her brows are knitted like that and her tongue is starting to come out of her mouth, and finally, I say, 'Do you have any questions?'

"'Yeah,' she says. 'What's a chakra?'

"We play that part of the tape sometimes, just for the joke value."

We all laughed for a few moments, then Jetsunma sat up stiffly and hunched her shoulders. "Guys, I'm on the edge," she said. "And my back is definitely in spasm."


Five or ten minutes after we'd said good-bye, I was pulling my car around the block when I passed Jetsunma and Wib standing together on the street behind the restaurant. They were next to Wib's car -- and the car door was open. But rather than getting inside, Jetsunma was motioning with her arms, gesturing passionately and looking upset. If I hadn't known them, I might have suspected they were a married couple having a row. But Wib did not look like he was saying anything. He just looked stunned.

Whatever could they be talking about? I remember thinking as I drove away. Whatever could she be saying to him? What had he done?



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

2. Alexandra David-Neel. Magic and Mystery in Tibet (New York: Dover. 1971).

3. John Blofeld. The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet: A Practical Guide to the Theory, Purpose, and Techniques of Tantric Meditation (London: Penguin Arkana. 1970).

4. W. Y. Evans-Wentz. ed., Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press. 1983).

5. Robert A. E Thurman, Inside Tibetan Buddhism: Rituals and Symbols Revealed (San Francisco: Collins Publishers. 1995).
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Re: The Buddha From Brooklyn, by Martha Sherrill

Postby admin » Sat Dec 03, 2016 10:56 pm

Part Two: Attendant

5. Ani Land


There was no monastery, exactly, at Kunzang Palyul Choling. The ordained were sprinkled about Poolesville in group houses. Six nuns lived at Ani Farms, a simple white two-story farmhouse on an expanse of green pasture land. Another five or six nuns lived at Ani Estates, a large, beige stucco tract house in a treeless new development of homes. Most of the monks lived together, too. in a town house in nearby Darnestown. A true monastic residence was talked about -- and certainly in the future plans -- but money was scarce and there were other priorities. It didn't seem to make much difference. Every year, usually during a visit by an esteemed lama, or even His Holiness Penor Rinpoche himself, a few more men and women were ordained, monastery or no monastery.

A few days after my lunch with Jetsunma, I headed out to Ani Farms. For the last few days the nuns had been working into the night. trying to finish the decorative relief for the stupa -- before the Stupa Man left town in eight days. Nearly all the nuns had worked on the stupa in some way or another, but I'd been told that Alana had been out to Ani Farms a great deal lately, and I was hoping finally to bump into her.

The crickets got louder as I drove down River Road and farther into the cold night. It was just a few days before Thanksgiving. The farmhouse of Ani Farms was dark and looked deserted. Nearby, a big white barn was ablaze with lights, and a nest of trucks and small import cars with the telltale FREE TIBET and KARMA HAPPENS bumper stickers were parked in an otherwise lonely pasture. As I walked closer to the lights, sliding a bit on the frozen mud, I heard the voice of Sherab Khandro rising above all other sounds. Before I could knock she opened the barn door.

"You made it!" Sherab hollered. But rather than wearing the maroon robes that I'd expected, the gigantic figure standing before me wore a faded baseball cap, maroon sweatpants, and a golden hooded sweatshirt jacket that was splashed in places with wet plaster and coffee.



She roared with laughter, and threw her head back. "Didn't recognize me, did you? Me and the robes have parted company for the night. I'm working."

With a theatrical hand gesture and raised eyebrow, she motioned me inside the barn and led the way, her big work boots clobbering the old wooden floorboards. "Look who's here!" she called out as we entered a room awash in various shades of red and gold. Eight or nine nuns, most of whom I hadn't met before, were in a cozy but well-equipped workshop, bending over various stupa projects. Some were sculpting, others were polishing molds or cleaning up. Ordinarily the barn was the headquarters of Tara Studios -- sometimes known as Tara Enterprises Ltd. -- Sherab's cottage business that produced plaster Buddhas and other sacred objects that were sold to New Age boutiques and Dharma centers around the country. "We bake those little Buddhas," Sherab had explained to me, "and pop them out of the molds like biscuits."

Lately orders had gone unfilled and Tara Studios had fallen behind. Sherab and her crew were consumed with stupa work. A firm called Architectural Stone, in nearby Annapolis Junction, had been commissioned to make the cement spire of the stupa -- twelve rings, each smaller than the one beneath, rising skyward with a crystal ball on the top. In her studio Sherab had designed the stupa's faceplate, a three-by-three-foot low-relief of the young "treasure revealer" Migyur Dorje. With the help of some others Sherab had also sculpted vines for a garland of leaves that would form an arch around the seated Buddha.

There were younger nuns, middle-aged nuns, fat nuns and thin ones. They wore baseball caps over their short hair, cotton sweats in maroon or gold, and knit turtlenecks like Sherab's -- ordered from the J. Crew catalog. They looked a bit like a weekend soccer league, or an aerobics class.

And rather than the modest traditional sort of ani, who, in India, is not allowed to attend monastic university or permitted to sit in the same prayer room with monks while teachings and empowerments are being given, the nuns of KPC were mostly Americans in their thirties and forties. They were worldly and educated, and not only were welcome to join their male counterparts during all teachings but generally seemed to overpower them, if only because of sheer numbers. In Poolesville there were four nuns to every monk -- a phenomenon unheard of in the West or East. I had assumed that Jetsunma's girls'-girl personality -- along with her wisecracks about the male-centered traditions of Tibet -- had drawn all the women to KPC, but there turned out to be a more mystical and interesting explanation: The first Ahkon Lhamo was said to have had so many nuns worshiping at her cave site that the Tibetans called the mountain where she meditated Red Rocks because of the way the robes of the anis colored the hillside.

Sherab walked me from work station to work station, from nun to nun. making introductions and pointing out the stages of the work being done while her small brown dog, Corgie, trailed behind us. Ani Catharine Anastasia. a woman in her forties with a ruddy face and watery blue-green eyes, was polishing a piece of clay and seemed very much in her own world. Later on I was told she had once been a heroin addict. Next there was Ani Dawa, a trim athletic woman in her thirties with olive skin and a crisp Austrian accent. She had a power drill in her hands and a bit of a proprietary air. Ani Sophia, a blond and delicate waif who couldn't have been out of her twenties, wore a mysterious Mona Lisa smile as she waxed a clay piece of lotus vine. She was a member of a notable Poolesville family, and her mother and three sisters were also nuns at KPC; her father and one brother lived nearby on a large farm.

Each nun greeted me warmly -- and with a sense of familiarity that was, at first, unsettling. "You're Jetsunma's biographer," Ani Sophia said.

"Smart move," said Dawa.

"She's writing her first book about Jetsunma," said Sherab, "and she says she's not a Buddhist!"

The room exploded in raucous laughter.

"It's true," I said. ''I'm just a Buddhist sympathizer."

"You better be careful." said Dawa. "That's how it starts."

"Yeah," said Sherab, "that's what I used to say."


Not only was Sherab the tallest nun, and the loudest, but she was trying -- with great self-deprecating displays of humility -- to be in charge. She had the air of somebody who wasn't entirely comfortable being a leader but was a leader anyway, quite naturally. Part of it was her height and bearing, another part was her super-enthusiastic spirit. I'd heard a story about how she'd been working on the stupa one sweltering summer day when Jetsunma visited the woods to see the progress. "Gosh, there's nothing like working in the outdoors, under that big open sky!" Sherab had said to the lama.

"Sherab, what aren't you into?" Jetsunma asked her. "Taxes?"

"Not if I was getting money back!"

The children at the temple school had taken to calling her Ani Ace because Sherab often obliged them with a wicked Ace Ventura impression. But the nickname sprang from more than that. Shaving their heads had made most of the older nuns look hip and elegantly ageless -- like downtown punk rockers who were still going to Laurie Anderson concerts -- and made the younger ones look like they were recovering from cancer treatment. But Sherab, at six feet, with her broad shoulders, large expressive brown eyes, and small nose, looked stunningly like Jim Carrey.

She'd started Tara Studios sort of flukishly, or spontaneously, as a Buddhist might say -- a word that suggests a certain magic and intuitive wisdom was in effect. She was still working at Bally Fitness Clubs, selling memberships, when she became a nun in 1990. She had planned to keep working there and drawing her sixty-thousand-dollar-a-year salary. Poverty isn't part of a vow Tibetan Buddhist nuns and monks at KPC make -- a number of the ordained held well-paying jobs in D.C.. owned cars, traveled often to visit their families. While monks and nuns in India and elsewhere are not allowed even to handle coins or bills, Jetsunma was happy to make allowances for her monks and nuns who held real-world jobs.

Jetsunma also felt that some of the other Dharma centers in America had a tendency to attract people who weren't serious about their spiritual commitments and were just looking for a free ride. "Frankly, there are lots of deadbeats in the Dharma scene," she had said to me. She wanted to make sure that didn't happen in Poolesville. So aside from being out of debt at the time they took vows, the ordained at KPC were expected to provide for themselves financially -- as well as contribute to the temple. At Jetsunma's center the ordained bought their own food, paid rent at the group houses, and gave a tithing to KPC; many of them also made a monthly offering directly to their lama.

Sherab was able to keep her hair a bit longer than the other nuns, too, and wear modest toned-down versions of her old work clothes -- not her maroon robes -- but ultimately she found it too difficult going back and forth between worlds. The temptations were too great. She'd smell the smoke from a cigarette and want one herself. She'd see a new sports car on the road and feel desire rise in her chest. With Jetsunma's approval she quit her job at Bally, sold her condo in Gaithersburg, and moved into a monastic dorm that existed briefly on the temple grounds. It was Jetsunma who originally suggested that Sherab look into making satsas, little Buddha reliefs, from molds and selling them. She told Sherab about a Hare Krishna center in West Virginia where similar molds were made -- and suggested she call and inquire about the techniques.

The Hare Krishnas were most helpful, and after a few days of apprenticing with them, Sherab began experimenting with little nine-inch plaster stupas and small Buddhas. Late at night she worked in the bathroom of the dorm, setting up her plaster molds over the bathtub. "A giant mess," she said, "and I don't think I was very popular with the other ordained." Eventually, at Jetsunma's recommendation, Sherab began selling her stupas and Buddhas in the temple gift shop and was able to keep a portion of the money she made. And it was money she needed to live.

Some nuns had bona fide temple jobs. Dara, a young, soft-spoken nun with dark hair and a beautiful face, was the primary teacher of the elementary school the temple ran. Rinchen kept the temple running and clean. Alana and Atara were paid salaries as Jetsunma's attendants. But many nuns held jobs in the real world. Dechen -- the smallest and youngest and brainiest nun -- worked at a publishing house. Samten was a nurse at the National Cancer Institute, Ani Catharine Anastasia worked as a waitress in Potomac, and Alexandra was a personal assistant to a rich sangha member who lived in Georgetown. But few nuns had as good a job -- or were as flush with income -- as Ani Aileen. Aileen had been a sound technician for NBC for more than twenty years, a union job with regular raises. Over the years, by frugal renunciate living and saving her salary, she had contributed twelve hundred dollars a month to the temple mortgage payment, made a large monthly donation to the Lama Support Fund, and purchased a retreat house for Jetsunma in Sedona, Arizona.

There was optimism that Tara Studios would become a successful temple-run industry. After moving into Ani Farms in 1992, Sherab continued making her Buddhas in the basement, and then, as the business grew, she rented space in the barn next to the farmhouse. After Dawa, the young Austrian nun, became a partner in the business -- investing the eighty thousand dollars remaining in her trust fund -- she and Sherab were able to offer a complete line of products made from molds. There were nine-inch stupas -- painted white and filled with tiny rolled prayers. And there were Buddhas of every kind: Sakyamunis and Chenrezigs and Guru Rinpoches. There were statues of Tara, the goddess of mercy and great miracles for which Tara Studios had been named. Dawa and Sherab put together a brochure, a wholesale mail-order business was set up, and they soon began selling the plaster and resin statues, along with bumper stickers and cards, to boutiques around the country.

But like other ventures at KPC,Tara Studios had trouble making a profit, even in its peak years, when it was selling figurines and sacred objects of worship to nearly eighty boutiques. Different managers were plucked from the sangha to help Sherab with the business side of things -- others were told directly by Jetsunma to volunteer -- but it was difficult running an office and studio with unpaid labor. Schedules were hard to coordinate. Many of the monks and nuns were already overcommitted and had little time left for their practices. Sherab and Dawa often found themselves doing everything. There was also a problem getting spiritual people to focus on the mundane. "We're all so right-brained," Sherab said, "and maybe that was the problem."

More fundamentally, the idea behind Tara Studios wasn't all that smart. Buddha images and little stupas can be imported from China and India for a good deal less money than they could be made for in Poolesville by Sherab and Dawa. And it was this kind of overall lack of business sense that made failure a pervasive problem at KPC. Aside from the temple gift shop, which provided an average of one thousand dollars a month to the center's operating budget, all other ventures had been financial disasters. There was a typesetting business called Ani's Ink -- much vaunted by Jetsunma as a "sure thing," partly because of the auspicious year of its inception -- which left behind only debts and a cumbersome and obsolete typesetting machine that Rinchen was still paying off. There had been a failed attempt to start a New Age rock group called SkyDancer, which featured Jetsunma as the lead singer. "Be sure to get a good recording of SkyDancer," Sherab warned me. "On the tape I have, the music sounds awful and so does Jetsunma." The temple had produced an expensive CD of Jetsunma singing a Buddhist invocation; it also hadn't sold well.

Tom Barry, who had been a successful dealer of military weapons parts before becoming a monk and changing his name to Tashi in 1988, was the first supervisor of Tara Studios -- and he was able to raise more capital for the business within the sangha. The job then passed to Don Allen, a U.S. Postal Service administrator. Don became frustrated with managing the operations and passed the torch on to another sangha member, Paul Wasserman. When Paul didn't work out, Alana was asked to oversee things. According to Sherab, it was Alana who worked the hardest to get Tara Studios in shape financially and ready to realize a profit. Alana was shrewd, organized, and, as the right arm of Jetsunma, powerful enough to get sangha members to fulfill their obligations at the barn. She wasn't just powerful, though, she was famously chilly, sometimes harsh, and fanatically devoted to Jetsunma -- something of a Mrs. Danvers character -- and sangha members regarded her with great trepidation.

But in the last couple of months Alana had been called away from Tara Studios. She was needed more urgently elsewhere: Jetsunma had invented a hair care device that she wanted manufactured and sold. It was a cap with built-in gel packs that could be heated in a microwave and worn inside a terry-cloth turban. Jetsunma had big plans for the invention -- she'd had a dream that she would sell millions of the caps for $14.95 each -- and after Doug Sims and Tashi had raised start-up costs within the sangha, the lama hoped the business would support her so she'd no longer have to rely on receiving a temple salary. "I don't want to be paid," Jetsunma had told me, "for teaching Dharma anymore." She named her new company Ladyworks.

Sherab was in the middle of the Migyur Dorje stupa project when Tara Enterprises Ltd. fell in her lap again. The company was behind in filling orders. And it was still operating in the red. But Sherab continued to hope that things would turn around, that the right manager would show up -- and that good moneymaking karma would ripen. But, just in case, once the stupa was finished, she planned to find a temp job.

"I don't need much," she said, "just enough to pay rent, pay for teachings, and afford good coffee. I'm hooked on Starbucks."


I wandered around the barn, looking at the nuns at work. I talked a bit with Dawa, then sat on the ground and played with the dog. Sherab was in a corner, painting an edge of the Migyur Dorje faceplate. And as I began to wander off again, she yelled out. "You're on the stupa diet, right?"

"I am."

"Well, then, as long as you're here, you might as well be accruing some merit!"

She set me up next to Ani Sophia, who showed me how to coat wax on a piece of vine decoration -- so a mold could be made and eventually dozens of resin copies could be produced. I fumbled around at first but slowly settled down and got the hang of it. The work required patience, and the more I paid attention to doing a good job, the less I noticed my surroundings. The room seemed to grow very quiet. I liked working on the stupa -- even a tiny part of it. I liked being there, in the barn with the nuns. I liked how strong they seemed, how focused, and how soft. I liked the way they teased me, and the way Sherab ordered me around.

Had I known these people before? Had Sherab and I been friends before -- or was I, as Jetsunma had once suggested, a Buddhist practitioner over many lifetimes? I doubted all that -- laughed at the notion -- but it was strange how comfortable I felt in this absolutely foreign place, how quickly Poolesville felt like home. A few days before, Wib had said, "From our perspective, for someone even to hear the word Buddha indicates that they must have prior experience as a being who helped others. And for a person to drive up our temple driveway -- and to be exposed to Tibetan Buddhism and actually engage in that -- would indicate that this person has had many, many lifetimes of practicing compassion .... That's what we've been taught, anyway.

"And so for someone to be writing a book about Jetsunma -- that person must have a strong previous connection with her, and a strong previous wish to do something like this, to write a book about her. Maybe you've even done something like this in the past. If this weren't the case, you wouldn't be writing a book at all. In my world all this goes without saying."

When I'd asked Wib if this meant that he and I had had a previous connection, he explained that he felt that over many lifetimes he had had all kinds of relationships with Jetsunma, with Alana, with Jane -- and even with me. "The way a Buddhist looks at this," he said, "every person you encounter, every living thing, has been your mother and father. If you are mindful of this, it becomes hard to think of being cruel, or killing. It becomes hard even to squash a bug. If you and I were Buddhas, we would understand all this exactly. But we all know what it feels like to have an immediate connection with somebody .... Sometimes people walk through the door of the temple and they feel like old friends. And Jetsunma will say sometimes, 'Hello, old friend!' She can know and sense these things -- but the knowing is not a describable knowing."

I knew what Wib meant, about the not-describable knowing, at least. Most of us have experienced that feeling, the sense that we belong with certain people, and belong in certain places. Even new places can feel like home. I thought about my favorite book as a teenager, Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. One character, a prophet named Bokonon, says that people are lumped into a karass -- a circle of souls whose lives will all intersect. There was even a little ditty to sing:

Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen --
All fit together
In the same machine.

I'd had this feeling before, too, when I first walked into The Washington Post newsroom ten years earlier, after taking a job as a news aide to Nina Hyde, the fashion editor. I didn't have much interest in fashion, really, or journalism. And I had no previous writing experience. The job paid slightly more than did the museum where I'd been working. I was just killing a year or two, I figured, before going back to study art history in graduate school. But very quickly after starting at the Post I felt I belonged there -- felt a connection to the place and the people, and a sense of loyalty. I felt at home there, more than any other place I'd been. Before long I'd completely abandoned my career plans in art history. I loved newspaper writing, loved the excitement, the power. I loved the deadlines and seeing my byline. It wasn't until many years later that I began to realize the parts of myself that I'd buried or abandoned in order to fit into the newsroom culture -- and succeed in it. Sometimes I missed the hours I used to spend in museums. I missed the quiet. I missed looking carefully at things. I missed soaking up the magnificent vagueness and subtleties of great art. Journalism had made me more outgoing, more practical, and more organized. But I was also more egotistical and less patient. Being with the Buddhists made me see how impatient I had become, and how egotistical.

What had Sherab given up? I looked at her working on the Migyur Dorje faceplate. She was scratching her nearly bald head. There was a long laundry list of vows the nuns had to take upon ordination -- no killing, no lying, no stealing, no sex, no drinking, no dancing, no listening to music for pleasure .... Did they ever miss their old lives, or miss the lives they didn't have? The children they didn't bear, the lovers they didn't embrace? Did they ever crave a glass of wine? They were all reasonably young and seemed talented and full of life. What did a renunciate life give them to compensate for all the things sacrificed?

There were lots of reasons, I guessed, to raise a white flag and surrender interest in the material world. Aside from the well-trod pleasures of the quotidian -- holidays at the beach, dance parties -- you could still feel a greater need for something else entirely. You could feel a hunger and emptiness. You could be tormented by unanswered questions. Modern life leaves many people feeling insignificant and a bit lost. If you were living a spiritual life -- and believed you were helping to end suffering -- that could make you feel quite potent, I suppose. And while secular life has a tendency to lose its shimmer -- how many dance parties, or holidays at the beach? -- spiritual life is infused with supernatural events. From a spiritual perspective, the world can always seem new and wondrous, the way it felt to us as children.

As the time passed and I got better at waxing the vines, I became aware of the sounds in the room again. I heard a small tool dropping, the floorboards creaking. Conversation between the nuns started up, stopped, then started again.

One of the nuns mentioned she was cooking for Jetsunma over the weekend. "No green peppers and no oil," she said.

"It's a great honor, you know," Sherab said, walking over to me, "getting to cook for your teacher."

"Or driving her," another nun said.

"Or cleaning her house."

"Alana says things are really changing drastically for her," Sherab added, "since she's been attending Jetsunma again."

"Things really happen around your teacher," a nun said.

"Oh boy," said Dawa.

"Do they ever."

Someone asked if there was any news of David Rust, a sangha member who was dying of AIDS.

"I heard Jetsunma might be seeing him today," one nun said.

"She went."

"How did it go?"

The room fell silent.

"Alana will know," Sherab said, and turned to me. "Have you met Alana?"

"Not yet," I said.

"Ohhhh," a chorus of three nuns said behind me.

"You're in for a real treat!" said Dawa. And I couldn't tell, exactly, if she was being serious. A few of the other nuns were chuckling.

I thought about Jetsunma's description of Alana at lunch: incredible figure, stunning redhead, didn't know what a chakra was.

"She should be here any minute," Sherab said. "She's painting the Migyur Dorje faceplate. She's much more accomplished at fine work than I am."

I turned around to look at the faceplate of the young Migyur Dorje propped up in the corner of the barn. His unfinished face was pale, the color of gypsum and resin and whatever else the faceplate was made of. He was holding up a finger -- as though he were about to say something.

"You know," Sherab said in a reverential whisper, "Alana is Jetsunma's best friend."


Alana arrived quietly. I heard only the barn door open, the creak of a floorboard, and a faint rustling of fabric. Her face was plain, Anglo-Saxon-looking, and reminded me of portraits of colonial Americans. It was plain the way a Quaker's face would be plain, or a Puritan's. Her eyes seemed small. Her skin was very pale with light freckles. When she took off her thick wool cap, her hair was an inch long, a strawberry blond so light, and necked with white bristles, that it looked almost pink. She took off her heavy down parka, and I was surprised by the stout body underneath, made heavier by a thick sweatshirt. The elastic in her old turtleneck was tired and her collar fell loosely around her neck. As she entered the workshop, the nuns looked up and said hello, smiled, but there was no special greeting or burst of enthusiasm.

"How is David Rust?" one of them asked quietly.

Alana smiled brightly for the first time. A network of crinkles took over her eyes, which seemed now intensely blue and sharp. As she spoke, though, there was a matter-of-factness that startled me. She didn't talk about a dying man the way you'd expect.

"Jetsunma sat on his bed and sang him the Seven Line Prayer," she said. "And she told him what a noble life he'd had."

The room became quiet. Nobody asked how long he might live -- or anything else about his condition. There were no words like "what a shame" or "his poor family" or even "how sad" -- the kinds of things we tend to say in moments of sympathy. Apparently what Alana had conveyed was all they needed to know.

"That's incredible," Sherab finally said.

"What a lucky man."

I continued buffing wax on the clay vines. Alana walked silently over to the Migyur Dorje faceplate. picking up a paintbrush. Something had changed since she'd entered the room. A shift, a sense of heightened energy. She'd brought news of Jetsunma, and described a deathbed scene of David Rust. Looking around the room once again, I couldn't help but feel a little moved by the nuns, by their lightness and seriousness, clarity, purpose, warmth. I felt their sense of belonging to each other, to the center, to Jetsunma. Maybe I romanticized their lives. Maybe they didn't always get along this way. But I couldn't help but compare the sense of community that I felt in Poolesville with the only real sense of community I'd known for a decade: the newsroom with its endemic unhappiness. It was a place where I had belonged once, but now somehow I felt I never had.

Sherab rubbed her neck, and I could see the stiff outline of her metal back brace under her sweatshirt. I thought about how hard she had worked on the stupa, the digging, the pouring of concrete all these months. All the nuns had had a role -- sewing bags of beans and rice, rolling nearly a million mantras, doing prayer shifts, cooking and cleaning for the stupa crew. In eight days the stupa would be sealed forever and blessed by the Stupa Man -- and even though it wouldn't be painted until the spring, it would be officially alive.

"What's going to happen when the stupa is finished?" I asked.

"What do you mean?" said Dawa.

"Like, won't things get a little dull around here?"

Sherab laughed. "Anticlimax? Stupa withdrawal?"

I nodded.

"Definitely," she said, laughing.

Thirty seconds or more passed, then Alana spoke up. "You know what I think's going to happen when the stupa is finished?"

"What?" I asked.

"The world will change."
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