How the Black Swan came to the Lake…(or, This Vajra Life :))

I’ve been asked by several newer students to explain my lineage. My path is not exactly the usual “person-curious-about-meditation-comes-into-the-shambhala-center-and-follows-the-curiculum”. Ok, it’s not even CLOSE to ‘normal’.

If I had to describe my stream, it would be Drikung Kagyu-Mindrolling/Nyingma-Shambhala-Karma Kagyu.

You were warned it would be a mouthful! πŸ™‚

To give the short version:

  1. Soto Zen practitioner – 1995-1997 (sporadically)
  2. Shambhala practitioner- 1997-present
  3. Dharma Art practitioner – 1998-present
  4. Mindrolling lineage practitioner – 1999-present
  5. Drikung Kagyu practitioner – 2000-present

…and Karma Kagyu mixed in with all the other lineages.

Ok, the long version:

1989-91

After reading a lot of the Beat’s writings (Kerouac, Ginsburg, Burroughs, Watts – the usual suspects :)) in high school, I had an interest in Buddhism. At that point, it was just reading and thinking “that makes sense”. No sitting yet.

1993-95

Skip ahead a bit. Re-reading Kerouacs’ “the Dharma Bums”. Got some interest in Zen. Took class in college last semester on Zen Buddhism. Decent class, VERY good books, but not a part of me yet.

1996

Occasionally sitting, but not in a guided, focused way. Combined methods, which watered down effectiveness. Sat from time to time with a local Zen group at someone’s house north of Baltimore. OK, but not really incorporating into ‘the core of my being’ yet.

At the time, was somewhat leading and writing songs for half-assed unfocused rock band. Writing methods included at least a third of a bottle of rum. Pretty much using the Jim Morrison “I’m a songwriter, so I have a right to be a drunken asshole” idea which quite often doesn’t lead anywhere good. (Exhibit A: Jim himself. ) Trying to live like 90’s-critic’s pick Mark Eitzel of American Music Club, but not exactly at his poetic level yet, no matter how blurry things were the next morning after a writing session.

1997

Hit long-overdue point of “This is your world. It isn’t working.” Had rug pulled out emotionally – My concept of me had been been built on someone else instead, who was no longer available to fill that role. (See my earlier “my beef with Ohio” post). What’s that line from the Jayhawk’s song “Blue“*? “Always thought I was someone, turned out I was wrong.” Realized that not eating for three weeks and not sleeping without the benefit of rum and/or pharmaceuticals in the aftermath was not healthy. Thought advice of ‘just never talk with each other again’ sucked, and was tired of dodging and chickening out of challenges, as I had always done before. Decided to try opposite approach instead of crawling back under my stone. Knew that dharma was most workable solution, and also realized I couldn’t do that on my own, either. Sought out more ‘permanent’ spiritual home.

Tried to go sit with another Zen group, found they had closed, but was refered to Baltimore Shambhala Meditation Center (BSMC) at 11 Mount Royal Avenue. Went, got meditation instruction, started sitting regularly there. After facing down a whole #@$#-load of longing, regrets, fantasies, and rage and labeled it “thinking”, found I was able to function a bit better.

1998

Still sitting regularly at BSMC. By auspicious coincidence, ran into Dave Cip, a master of hindi-style slide guitar and member of BSMC, at a Richard Thompson concert at Artscape. He told me about the Dharma Art program happening the next weekend at BSMC. I was intrigued and said I would be there. I then proceeded to get shit-faced before meeting one of my musical heroes (who, as a serious practicing Sufi, is a teetotaler).

The next weekend, did program. it spoke to me in a way NOTHING had before. Ladies and gents, here’s where I bit the hook. πŸ™‚ At one point, did an object arrangement that incorporated a picture of Khandro Rinpoche. THAT stopped my mind. A little taste of what was to come.

1999

Sitting more regularly. Did more Dharma Art programs. Doing one of these that fell on Vesak Day, we did an offering to a Buddha at the Maryland Institute College of Art. At that point, I asked the co-director (who was also my MI) “Ok, I’ve been shadowboxing with the dharma long enough. What do I need to do to get into the Khandro Rinpoche retreat and take refuge?”

Started studying for the Fall Retreat ‘Gateway’ program. (About this time, I had busted my right hand, so the band I had been in was allowed to just die off. This was a good thing, since the Khandro Rinpoche study group night was the same night as band practice had been.)

Met many people who remain good friends to the present day. Went to the Annual Retreat for five-day program. Felt like the top of my head was lobbed off, and all thought processes temporarily re-wired. This was a good thing. I am still amazed at just how not-quite-sane I was back then, whenever I reread the transcripts of that teaching and come to my bizarre lines of questioning.

Came back, and decided to move out of parent’s basement. (Strangely enough, the amount I had been spending on a practice space was enough for a security deposit in the DC area). Answered ad for a group house in Takoma Park. Found a more senior student from Khandro Rinpoche’s sangha was already living there! (what are the chances?) Also, Jimmy Pittard, a senior student of another lineage, the Drikung Kagyu, was living there. THAT is what we call “auspicious coincidence.”

Sitting regularly, splitting time evenly between Baltimore and DC Shambhala. Spending evenings hitting bars and dance clubs with Baltimore Khandro Rinpoche friends. Those were good times.

Woke up Thanksgiving morning passed out on friends’ floor in Baltimore with no idea how I got there. Last blackout of this lifetime.

Spent New Years Eve with Baltimore Shambhala Sangha. Woke up next morning (after an hour’s sleep) in BSMC shrine room with several other sangha members strewn around, to be there for first sitting of the year. Found out I snored. πŸ™‚ Jann Jackson announced that the 17th Karmapa had just escaped from Tibet to India.

2000

One evening in February, came back in from running around Georgetown with some B-more VKR folks to find someone sleeping on the couch of the house on Tulip Avenue. I apologized for waking them, and asked for their name. In this great gravelly drawl, “Konchog Dorje.” Me:”that sounds like a dharma name.” Him: “Well, I-am- a monk.”

First meeting with Bikshu Konchog Dorje from Atlanta, a former attorney-turned-monastic in the Drikung Kagyu, and one of the coolest people you will ever meet. Any preconceptions I may have had about monastics being these totally pure Ziggy Stardust-like glittering beings were totally destroyed by Dorje. πŸ™‚ In his earlier life, his week could beat your year. He lived in our house for a while when he was undergoing an experimental treatment for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at NIH (which was a success). For those who know of that disease, yes, Dorje is HIV positive. Amazingly, he has (as of October 2011) been living for over 20 years with full-blown AIDS. Impossible, you say? I’ve noticed that people who practice dharma correctly can often manifest amazing states of health and grow old very gracefully. (Witness all the hot mamas and GILFs among the senior students over 50 in the Lotus Garden sangha :)).

A couple months later, I went up to the Tibetan Meditation Center in Frederick, MD, which is the North American seat of the Drikung Kagyu. I was introduced by Jimmy and Dorje to then-Khenpo (now Khenchen) Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche, who taught on the 12 nidanas. I thought he was a very good teacher, quite funny, and very different from Khandro Rinpoche.

In May, I went to my fifth college reunion. Apparently the differences in behavior were setting in already. Someone said “ok, what’s happening here, when Duder (my old college nickname – no, I don’t use it any more – and neither should you :)) is the most sober person in the room?” πŸ™‚ It was great to see folks again, but I wanted to be able to read this great mind-training text i’d borrowed from one of my housemates called “The Wheel of Sharp Weapons” when I went to bed. To keep my mental faculties sharp enough, I had 1 1/2 beers the whole night, and a bunch of water, so I felt nothing except the wonderful taste of Guinness and the need to go to the bathroom often. πŸ™‚

I went up to TMC Frederick again for a weekend in June, which was within a day of my meeting my now-wife, Meli. For some reason, Khen Rinpoche’s teaching this time wacked me upside the head as Khandro Rinpoche had done the previous fall. I don’t know why, but for the next several weeks I experienced everything in a much more direct way than ever before, like some kind of blinders had fallen off. It wore off eventually, but I had some direct experience of some kind of samadhi.

In Frederick, in addition to the Very Venerable Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche, my teachers have since included H.E. Garchen Rinpoche, Drupon Trinlay Norbu Rinpoche, and Khenpo Tsultrim Tendzin Rinpoche.

Khenpo Tsultrim did my wedding along with my Ani Jamyang/Kimi Monroe and a very, very interesting Lutheran pastor named Chad Kline.

So, this is how I came to the Dharma and stayed. I’ve noticed that in the first year after taking refuge, about 50% of people think “this is all too hard and too much work” and disappear from the dharma. Spiritual burnout from taking on too much too soon is a real possibility.

However, in that time period, I had Jimmy and, for several stretches of time, Dorje living in my house, who were right there to answer all those questions and doubts newer students have. So, I’ve gotten only deeper and deeper in ever since, and I have no intention of leaving.

So, this is where I am now. I’ll just play the game existence til the end…of the beginning…of the beginning…of the beginning…

Next time, kids, a history of all the lineages I am part of. How they have all intertwined with each other through the centuries is pretty interesting stuff.

-JTR

* This is the “one damn song that can make me break down and cry”, as David Bowie once put it.

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