A TEACHING WITHOUT WORDS
(This is the 19th in a series of reminiscences by Lama Lodu Rinpoche)
When we moved into the new center at 1892 Fell Street in the autumn of 1981, the whole sangha poured lots of joyful energy into transforming the run-down old building into a sacred space. While we were caught up in this elation and activity, however, nobody was giving much thought to how we were going to pay the mortgage.
In the midst of all this excitement and hard work, I received the news that my precious guru, His Holiness the 16th Karmapa was gravely ill and I made immediate preparations to go see him in Chicago. I travelled with Lama Trinley Drubpa from Portland and when we arrived, we found His Holiness smiling up at us from a hospital bed, surrounded by his devoted disciples, Shamar Rinpoche, Situ Rinpoche, and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche. The Eminences attended to His Holiness around the clock, rotating every several hours through the night. When we first saw His Holiness, Lama Trinley Drubpa began to cry but I did not cry because His Holiness looked so well and happy - the only unusual thing about him was that he did not speak. I had the impression he could not possibly be as sick as I had heard and that he would surely soon recover.
At one point during our visit, His Holiness took Shamar Rinpoche's hand and the Shamarpa said, "His Holiness says please do not be discouraged or sad - he will always be with you". At that point, His Holiness, who had been completely silent, looked at me and gently laughed. Hearing these words, which seemed to come directly from him even though he had not said a word, I was suddenly filled with a great sadness but I still could not believe that he was close to death. After a few more minutes, His Holiness took Shamar Rinpoche's hand once again and the Shamarpa said, as if these words were coming through his hand, "I will be alright and I will see you soon".
At that moment, seeing my beloved teacher unable to speak, tears began to stream down my face. Situ Rinpoche then told us that His Holiness needed to rest and as I was preparing to leave, still weeping, His Holiness suddenly looked at me with a piercing, almost wrathful expression and I could feel him saying to me: "You are being foolish. What is happening to me is as natural as birth, and anyway, you should know by now that nothing is really born and nothing really dies. Do you not understand this yet? I expect more from you!" And in this one silent moment I received from my precious guru the most profound teaching he had ever given me.
Situ Rinpoche now followed us out of the room, trying to console us and telling us not to worry. We went to a house that had been rented for visiting monks and dignitaries, who were performing ritual ceremonies and pujas throughout the day and night. Practicing and talking with many of these visitors, I gradually began to accept the generally held view that there was not much hope and that His Holiness was close to death. I reluctantly returned to San Francisco with great sadness in my heart but also with His Holiness.s unspoken message alive inside me. I knew there was nothing I could do to change this course of events, that my devotion was unwavering, and that I must carry on with my work.
The day after I returned, I learned that His Holiness had passed away and there had been many unusual signs and manifestations, such as the appearance of rainbows all over the sky above Chicago. His Holiness had passed away while sitting up in meditation posture and the attending doctors found that his body and heart were still warm and life-like even 24 hours after his death.
His Holiness's body was flown to Rumtek for the traditional 49-day ceremonies and cremation. Throughout those seven weeks, representatives of all the Buddhist countries and lineages came to Sikkim to pay their respects to this great master. There were thousands of visitors and countless ceremonies were performed all around Rumtek for His Holiness's departure from this world.
Back in San Francisco, I faced a difficult time. My mind was full of thoughts about the loss of my guru, my mounting responsibilities, and how we were going to pay the mortgage on the new building. In the coming weeks I learned a lot by facing these difficulties and recalling my teacher's final message to me. I began to settle down and to see that my problems were not the end of the world.
We began to hold meetings at the Fell Street center, led by Michael Conklin, to talk about how to meet our new financial responsibilities. Michael was a smart and gifted sangha member with a lot of practical skills and knowledge. We realized that since there were plenty of rooms in the building, we could rent some of them out to sangha members and use the rent money to pay the mortgage. There were also other sangha members who didn't want to live at the center, but who were willing to contribute every month toward its upkeep - this is how membership began.
I still feel deeply indebted to those early sangha members who planted the first seeds which eventually grew into the thriving dharma center that is now able to support the daily practice of hundreds of members and to host the most prominent teachers of the Buddhist world. I owe so much to that original group of students and every day I still feel encouraged by their tireless work for the center, steadfast devotion to the dharma and enormous kindness to me those many years ago.