A Brief History of KDK
by Lama Lodu Rinpoche
KDK is now more than 33 years old. One of the reasons it has been able to grow and thrive is because its original foundation was so strong.
In 1974, Kalu Rinpoche came to San Francisco at the invitation of a small group of students who had met him in India. These young people were traveling around India, as many people did in those days, and were completely astounded when they met Kalu Rinpoche at Sonoda. They knew that they had found an exceptional and authentic teacher. They invited Kalu Rinpoche to come to San Francisco to teach and he accepted. Hosted by Tamara Wasserman Hill, one of the members of the original group, Kalu Rinpoche gave a series of teachings which attracted many new students and new devotees. Tamara is still an active and important part of KDK.
Wanting to maintain the great momentum gained during this first visit, the group asked Kalu Rinpoche if they could organize a dharma group and practice together more formally. This would also help them organize and facilitate future visits by Kalu Rinpoche. He gladly consented and gave the group the name Kagyu Droden Kunchab, which literally means “lineage of all-pervading benefit to beings.”
Kalu Rinpoche appointed a president, vice president and treasurer from among the group. Sanje Elliot, one of these original devotees, was the first president. Joe Duane (Chögyam), who had just graduated from law school, became an important advisor for the fledgling center. The group rented a small house, first on Laguna Street, then at 21st and Dolores, where they lived, worked, and practiced together.
KDK was bustling with activity when I arrived on the day before Thanksgiving in 1976, having been sent by Kalu Rinpoche to serve as resident lama. I was warmly welcomed to my new home and I think there was quite a bit of curiosity and excitement on both sides—this was a new experience for us all.
During the next year, Sanje Elliot continued to served as president of KDK and he was very kind and supportive to me. After he resigned, I asked Damchö, a longtime student and devotee of Kalu Rinpoche, to take on this role and he did so for six months, until he moved away from California. I then appointed Dan Jorgensen as the new president, and he served until Kalu Rinpoche came to San Francisco for the second time. Rinpoche asked Dan, who was a skilled carpenter, to go with him to India and help him build a monastery at Sonoda.
I then requested that Michael Conklin become president of KDK. For twelve years he carried out his responsibilities with skill, kindness, and devotion. I could see that this was meant to be—Michael was so adept, calm, and judicious in everything he did. He was very close to me and supportive in every way, always trying his best to fulfill my wishes. This twelve year period was most fruitful and KDK really took root due to the harmonious cooperation of the president and board. This was a time of great activity and growth. The center hosted many high lamas and great learned masters of Tibetan Buddhism, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has visited KDK twice.
In 1980 we moved to our present location on Fell Street. We had been looking for a new house since my arrival, but money was scarce. The Fell Street house seemed to suit our needs—it was big enough to accommodate a good number of residents and a large shrine room. Since it needed work and the neighborhood in those days was not so good, we thought maybe we could get a bargain. We figured if each member gave a thousand dollars, maybe we could really do it. The next day we had $18,000 for a down-payment. Michael and I took this to the real estate agent, who listened to everything I had to say. He claimed I bargained like a rug dealer, then smiled and said we had a deal.
During Michael's presidency, we bought 20 acres in Marcola, Oregon. There we were able to conduct a three-year retreat beginning in 1986. Nine women and ten men participated. I think this must have been one of the first traditional Tibetan three-year retreats in America.
Michael Conklin was such a devoted student that I requested that he consider going into retreat. Even though I needed him in my work, I felt it would be of greater benefit if he were to undertake this intensive practice. Michael replied without hesitation that he would go. He worked very hard on the necessary preliminary studies and practices. This was not easy since Michael was very busy with KDK work and with making a living, but he succeeded and completed the three-year-retreat in 1989.
I requested Phyllis Norris, one of my students and an accomplished CPA, that she take Michael's place as president, which she agreed to do but only for the three-year period until Michael could be re-established in that role. Like Michael, she was effective and energetic and never failed in anything she undertook on KDK's behalf. It was during that time and due, in part, to her skillful management that we were able to purchase the 160-acre Mendocino retreat land.
After the Oregon three-year retreat ended, Michael moved to Portland, where he became the lama of a flourishing dharma center. Phyllis moved to Ashland, Oregon, where she continues to practice and benefit others at Kagyu Sukha Choling.
I then appointed Deborah Janke to be president, a role she has fulfilled with excellent judgement, friendliness, and generosity, since 1989. Everyone who knows her has seen that Deborah works tirelessly and selflessly and that students at KDK rely on her wisdom and skillful action in innumerable ways. Her husband, Craig Janke, secretary of the board, also energetically supports the center and has taken a primary role in the planning of the stupa building project.
Deborah has seen KDK enter a period of maturity. With the help of her excellent management and hard work, we have hosted many high lamas and accomplished teachers, conducted two three-year retreats at the Mendocino land, and continued to make the precious dharma teachings available to several new generations of students.
In addition to those mentioned above, I would like to give special thanks to all the board of directors and sangha members who have given so generously of their time over the years. I am very grateful for your boundless energy and efforts in planting the seeds that will help all beings gain enlightenment precisely like Buddha Shakyamuni.
The most important activity in KDK's immediate future is the successful completion of the eight stupa project at the Mendocino retreat land. A stupa is a direct representation of the Buddha's mind and has enormous power to create harmony among beings and to purify and protect the environment. Whoever sees or touches a stupa connects in a profound way with liberation. Those who work to construct the eight stupas, and those who contribute to the cost of building these magnificent symbols, will gain great merit and purification. Once the project is complete, the winds that touch the stupas will go out in every direction with continual blessings. I hope that all KDK members and friends will give whatever they can—physical help, money, time, or even just positive wishes if that is all you can contribute—to make this manifestation of enlightened mind a reality.
I cannot imagine a greater or more worthwhile activity for KDK than involvement in making this piece of land a holy place for every living being.