I began studying Buddhism at the age of 14, at the prompt of an 8th grade English teacher. He had written in the margins of a paper I wrote “your writing rings the bell of the dharma.” My life was forever changed at the deafening bells that rung within the walls of my heart when my eyes first set sight on the word “dharma.”
Since then I have been tirelessly and lovingly focused on dharma study, starting with a love Taoism and Confucianism. This led me ultimately to Chinese Buddhism, and later, to Tibetan Buddhism, where my main spiritual orientation remains rooted today.
In 1976, after a short stint in college, I was fortunate to begin one on one studies with the great scholar and Tai Chi master Mr. T.Y. Pang on Orcas Island for several years. Mr. Pang lived near me, and took me on as his student. We spent many hours together in his home, studying the texts of Taoism and Confucianism, or the works of early landscape poets, even doing little translations of our own. Mr. Pang’s depth of knowledge enhanced my love of Chinese poetry, philosophy, art and calligraphy. I felt incredibly blessed to be in his presence during those years.
One morning in 1979 I was sharing coffee with friends in their beach front cabin on Orcas Island, and read an article stating that the Dalai Lama of Tibet was coming to Seattle. My body began to shake and tears welled up. I had no idea what was going on, but knew I needed to go to Seattle and find out.
My life changed the minute His Holiness walked onto the porch of a house in Seattle (I believe this was the early Sakya Center of Seattle) , chanting the Heart Sutra. Tears poured unexpectedly and inexplicably. I came to hours later, sitting on a curb nearby, my heart and soul touched, spun, reminded, my spiritual set-point aimed at the North Star of my heart. I had met my root guru. There was no turning back.
(I’ve taken teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama nearly every year since.)
Despite this turn in events of my spiritual study and focus, In 1980 I traveled to Taiwan with the goal of becoming fluent in Chinese. I quickly realized I did not want to join the cadre of westerners in Taiwanese universities with the goal of becoming partners in business ventures with the Chinese, and went off on a pilgrimage to study the Sutras and Scriptures of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism by visiting as many monasteries and nunneries as I could find.
Me in Taiwan in 1980, where I visited monasteries, nunneries, Taoist and Confucianist temples
The Heart Sutra
I had fallen in love with the Heart Sutra in my mid- teens and have never wavered in my complete love affair with this Sutra. While in Taiwan, I was able to talk with several monks and nuns about this sutra, and attend many prayer sessions where, like in most Buddhist monasteries, the Heart Sutra is chanted constantly. I acquired every commentary I could find on this provocative teaching, from Chinese to Japanese to Korean to Thai, but was completely mind-blown at the depth of the Tibetan commentaries.
Upon coming back to the States, I naively hoped to continue studies with Mr. Pang in Chinese Buddhism, but he was not particularly interested. Neither was my other Chinese language teacher, the artist and poet Paul Hansen from La Conner, WA.:”Buddhism-I haven’t had a good day since I heard the word…” he drawled. as we sat in one of La Conner’s cozy cafes during a rainstorm before starting our weekly study of the Teachings of Mencius.
Shortly after I returned to the island, I began a carving project of an emblem I had found in an old book called “The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism”, by L.A. Waddell . A friend came to visit me with a pamphlet announcing the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Madison, Wisconsin to perform a ritual called the Kalachakra. To my surprise, the symbol of the Kalachakra was the very same I was carving! Once again, the Dharma found me, and I knew I had to attend this event.
My savings were low and it wasn’t a good time for me to leave the island, but I knew I had to get to Madison and explore further what had happened to me year before in Seattle. I did an all-day meditation, painted a Buddha on a friend’s water tank, and walked to the Post Office later in the day to find exactly the right amount of money waiting for me, in small amounts from various sources who had owed me money for years. I went straight to the local travel agent, bought my ticket to Madison, then went to the library to find out where Madison was!
What transpired at the Kalachakra Initiation in Madison is a complete story in itself, but this event once again changed my life in ways that continue to unfold.
His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, in Madison Wisconsin in 1980 for the Kalachakra Initiation. photo by me
As stated in my bio, I have been lucky to study and co-exist with some of Tibet’s greatest scholars, including His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14 Dalai Lama of Tibet, (My Root Guru, or ‘Tsawa Lama’ as the Tibetans would say; Ven. Dhubthob Rinpoche, ‘my lama’; Geshe Lobsang Khenrab and Geshe Thupten Dawa, my spiritual grandfathers, Geshe Gendun Tsepel, Geshe Karma, Lama Tharchin, Chagdud Tulku, and many many more.
It is on my ‘bucket list’ to study in person with Robert Thurman.