m_harvard_thumbsmI stumbled into Chögyam Trungpa’s sitting room in the springtime of 1972 rather like a person coming out into the sun after being in a cave for too long a time… blinking and trying to get my focus.  I’d been invited to dinner by Erik (one of the cooks at Tail of the Tiger), who I’d picked up on the road a week or two prior.  It had somehow not entered our conversation that he cooked at a meditation centre.

When I arrived at what proved to be an hour prior to supper, he sauntered out to meet me and asked – “So.  Would you like an interview with Rinpoche?”

Well… actually… yes.

Out of all the people in the United States who may or may not have known who “Rinpoche” was at that particular juncture I was, in fact, looking for him (sort of).  I’d been looking for him for about two years, actually… ever since Neil Boyce had cheerfully headed north from Virginia with the dubious destination of “somewhere in Vermont”… to find an “incredible Tibetan teacher who has just arrived here from England.”  Neil was almost always cheerful.   He also sat a whole lot more than I did (which didn’t take much to accomplish at the time, as Neil sat at every possible opportunity).

I must say, standing there awkwardly in front of this equally cheerful young Tibetan man was a bit confusing.   The encounter came without warning, as it were.

“And what can we do for you?” he asked, looking for all the world that he knew exactly what he could do for me, and probably anything else about me that I or anyone else would need to know.   And then he sat there and looked at me intently… or rather, looked into me intently.

I didn’t have an answer prepared.

Much later I realised I could have been embarrassed by this, inasmuch as people travel great distances for such an interview.  But I didn’t know any better.   I was later to learn that many of us in Rinpoche’s immediate vicinity were equally clueless about quite a few essential things having to do with protocols and how precious our situation was.  It must have been a tremendously interesting and exasperating experience for him, and also sometimes painful.

After some brief thought I decided to stick with the immediate truth.  I was in the middle of a dilemma – as much of my life then (as now) was occasionally swept up into sorting out messages which came to me in dreams and occasional “seen” visions.   It is something I had learned about and possibly from my grandmother since I was a child, and was encouraged by her to pay close attention to.   And that spring in 1972 I was wrestling with “solving” an elusive dream.  That particular dream required that I do some continuous fasting – day and night outdoors for several days – and I believed that’s where the dream’s solution lay.   Unfortunately as the result of some childhood traumas I was terrified of the dark.

So I said to Trungpa Rinpoche, “Well – can you do anything about my fear of the dark?”

His answer to that question kept me there at Tail of the Tiger for a few years, and ultimately took me deeper into the core of Buddhist Vajrayana training – but I didn’t do the actual practices for another twenty years.   It was not until after his death, because I couldn’t handle ritual instruction from him or my other wonderful teachers until more than a half decade after his cremation.    My Buddhist journey… which began for me in the late sixties and was not activated until I stood in his presence… took a very long time to ripen.

And I don’t yet know if the process has yet borne fruit, or at least the fruit that Trungpa Rinpoche had in mind as he prepared me… his reluctant, never-goes-to-teachings student… for the very few limited and uncomfortable roles he asked me to attempt in the Vajradhatu community.

I don’t think it worked out particularly well.    Despite my Maitri training and extensive sitting and retreats, I did not succeed in my eventual role as a Dharma Study Group coordinator.   I got in trouble often with central command, and was possibly the first person evicted from Tail of the Tiger.    Rinpoche reassured me privately and ultimately smoothed the way for my return, but I remained frequently at odds with certain key individuals.   That friction eventually cost me contact with the organisation and hence with him, my precious root lama.   He could not communicate with me again until a few weeks before his death, when I got the message and came to see him one last time.  It was a very moving reunion… I think also for him, as he exclaimed about my presence several times.

That final reassurance of our connection got me through some tough years which lay ahead, until I finally had the very good fortune… with the help of both Tai Situ Rinpoche and Lama Norhla, as well as Khenpo Gyaltshen Rinpoche… to locate a safe and supportive path for my continued (and somewhat more diligent) study.   In the brother Kagyu lineage of the Drikung I found multiple opportunities to both appreciate how much I squandered my good opportunities to learn from Trungpa Rinpoche, and also how to remedy my negligence.   Trungpa Rinpoche did not desert me ever, and he is still my root lama.

Khenchen Gyaltshen Rinpoche, although he has cause to upbraid me from time to time, has been my strong and conscientious guide – a beautiful and dedicated teacher of the path… selfless, ethical and compassionate.  His tireless dedication to all the men, women and children in his charge is amazing and yet is matched by his unending scholarship and translation work.

I dedicate whatever benefit that might come from this blog and its ranshackle ramblings to the benefit of all beings, and to the lineages which have held me as a child in their care… through Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche the Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lineages, and through Khenchen Könchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche the Drikung Kagyu lineage.   May what I say here in no way detract from their efforts on my behalf, and spill out their wishes for all beings to be effortlessly and unconditionally happy.

I also deeply thank His Holiness the Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche and His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche for their confidence in me, and to His Holiness the Dalai Lama for his exquisite insight as a teacher.   Other teachers, too numerous to immediately mention but whose excellence will hopefully shine from these pages, have also left their compassionate mark within my heart and mind.

May all this become available and useful somehow to others as I try to still wrap my head and life around it all.

It was a superb irony that I was given the name Jigme Tonpa when I took Refuge Vows with Trungpa Rinpoche, but I’ve since learned that such ironies are often an element playfully incorporated during the choosing of dharma names.

Jigme Tonpa loosely means “unstoppable teacher” (Jigme being likened somewhat to a juggernaut – the present Dalai Lama’s huge 6’4″ former bodyguard… who can be seen trotting next to his palaquin at Lhasa in old photos and films from before 1959… was a Jigme both literally and by name).   I liked the name without really knowing what it meant, and certainly without grasping the irony.   I took my Bodhisattva Vows with Trungpa Rinpoche in the deepest sort of funk – both committed almost to the death but at the same time extraordinarily aware of every one of my own weaknesses.   I had no self-love whatever.   When Rinpoche invited me to Seminary in 1973 I ultimately refused, and again refused his invitation in 1974 and chose instead a solitary retreat.

I was anything but un-stoppable.

Many years later, when I was to take Refuge Vows with Khenpo Gyaltshen Rinpoche, he very oddly gave me the same dharma name again.  Perhaps it to chide me, or to egg me on, or simply to remind me that… no matter what…  the work for me awaits whether I feel I’m ready to do it or not.  Regardless  I am indeed honoured to know that Jigme was the most wonderful of teachers to Jamgon Kongtrul, himself the deeply-loved root lama for my root lama Trungpa Rinpoche.  So I feel Rinpoche  also conferred upon me an obligation to be mindful of both the lineage and of the character of his own dedicated teachers.

Michael Cerulli Billingsley – Ngakpa K. Jigme Tonpa

Imbolc 2009


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