This article was my contribution to a book called Dhardo Rimpoche – A Celebration, published by Windhorse Publications.
SEARCHING FOR THE HERMIT IN VAIN?
I asked the boy beneath the pines.
He said, ‘The master’s gone alone
Herb-picking somewhere on the mount
Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown
[‘Searching For The Hermit In Vain’ by Chia Tao (777-841) Trans. Lin Yutang.]
If one day I am taken seriously ill, in the ambulance I shall probably reach in my trouser pocket for something which is a kind of talisman for me – a symbol of my spiritual life. It is a mala (a Buddhist ‘rosary’ used for counting mantras and other practices), which goes with me everywhere. I possess several malas. Some have beautiful beads, with colourful tassels, or are made of scented wood. However the one which lives in my pocket has beads of cheap orange plastic, with a crude tassel of thick red cord. It was given to me by Dhardo Rinpoche. I began corresponding with Rinpoche in the late ‘80s, at Sangharakshita’s suggestion. The reply I received to my initial letter introducing myself was very warm and welcoming. Rinpoche particularly picked up on something that I had mentioned in my letter – that I was meditating on White Tara for the benefit of Sangharakshita’s long life. Rinpoche very strongly encouraged me in this. We agreed that I should come to Kalimpong so that he could instruct me in a new meditation practice that I wanted to take up. Unfortunately my father became ill with cancer, and it took two years before his condition seemed stable enough for me to go to India. Finally in 1990 I travelled out with the late Arthadarshin (a very easy companion), and after a few weeks we found ourselves in Darjeeling, contemplating the ethereal bulk of Kanchenjunga.In a state of nervous anticipation I travelled on alone to Kalimpong, and made my way to the ITBCI school. I was met by one of the family of Jampel Kaldhen who told me at once that Rinpoche had been taken ill, and that he had been diagnosed as having a stroke. In a state of numb disappointment I was taken into Rinpoche’s empty room where I sat surrounded by his tankas, and was given tea. Then the family invited me to come and ‘meet’ Rinpoche.
This was a strange ‘meeting’, and not at all the joyous occasion I had been picturing for the past two years. Rinpoche was lying on a bed in the next room, wrapped in his maroon robe. He did not turn his head or open his eyes, and occasionally a groan of pain escaped his lips. I sat by his bedside, exchanging remarks with the family about Rinpoche’s condition. After a while there was nothing more to say, and I devoted myself to the silent repetition of the White Tara mantra. Rinpoche had been delighted I was reciting it for Sangharakshita; now I was reciting it for him.
Over the next couple of days I spent much time around the school, trying not to impose on the family in their time of trouble. They however did not seem to see things in this way, and were very welcoming. I also spent time with Ventul Rinpoche, a Gelugpa lama who was a good friend of Rinpoche’s. Before I left, Jampel Kaldhen presented me with a photograph of one of Rinpoche’s tankas – of White Tara – and with that plastic mala, which was one of several which Rinpoche had used during his recent pilgrimage to Nepal.
I hoped that I might be able to return to Kalimpong if Rinpoche recovered, but unfortunately about a week later I heard that my father had died. I had to return to England at once. Four days after his funeral I received the news, like a second hammer blow, that Rinpoche was dead.
>So what was I left with from my communication and meeting with Rinpoche? I half-expected to feel that the whole trip had been a disaster, in which after two years I finally turned up in Kalimpong, was unable to talk with Rinpoche, watched him suffering with a terrible headache, and emerged clasping some cheap plastic beads. Yet I have never had a sense that my journey was wasted, although I cannot fully articulate why. I gained a great deal from my contact with Ventul Rinpoche and the Kaldhens. Not only were they very kind and hospitable to me at a time of great trouble, but their love and tremendous respect for Rinpoche made a strong impression on me, and indirectly increased my own feelings for Rinpoche.
More than that, I had travelled several thousand miles in hopes of a meeting with a smiling lama, and of being instructed in a new meditation practice. None of this had happened. Instead I had been presented with an opportunity to give, by chanting mantras at his bedside, and to receive nothing in return, apart from some very clear teachings on impermanence.
Nothing special happened while I was seated by that plain bed, next to that old man in his simple maroon robe. Yet somehow, in an indefinable way, I came away from Kalimpong with a sense that I had met Rinpoche, as the Kaldhen family had invited me to do. I also realised that my trip to Kalimpong had been a kind of pilgrimage, and that the point of pilgrimage is to travel the road with a faithful heart. If you do that then you receive the benefits, even if the goal of your journey turns out to be ‘cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown’.