Postcard 10 from Robina: Washington DC, Tuesday July 12, 2011

Jul 12, 2011

My five days at Thubten Norbu Ling in Santa Fe went like the wind, but felt like two weeks because we packed so much in (click here for Thubten Norbu Ling’s website). I arrived from New York on Thursday June 30 and left for Washington DC the morning of July 6. It’s been more than two years since I’d been there and it was clear that the center had grown hugely: Rowena Mayer and her team have done an amazing job.

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Tara altar at Thubten Norbu Ling.

I came first in 2000 when I was working for FPMT International Office, editing Mandala, and we moved to Taos, 90 minutes north and higher up than Santa Fe, which is 7,000 feet above sea level. The dry air and desert reminded me a little of the vast, empty red desert of Australia, particularly Alice Springs, where I’d lived in 1974, except that it’s less than 2000 feet high.

During afternoon tea with Ajna Seret and his wife Roberta last Tuesday, Ajna reminded me of how the group started. Aged 19 in 1999, he’d attended the November Kopan course and couldn’t believe his ears when he heard about FPMT’s move to Taos. He told Ven. Roger that he was from Santa Fe and invited Rinpoche to stay with his family at their big, rambling house outside town. Ira Seret has sold south Asian and Tibetan furnishings in Santa Fe for thirty years, when he settled here with his wife Sylvia after years in Afghanistan. Ajna works for his father still.

The following year, during one of my stays in Taos – I was on the road six months of the year, in between Mandala issues – Ajna invited me to give the first Dharma talk, in a yak tent in the back yard. Eventually we moved into one of Ira’s properties in town, where we ran a bookstore downstairs. A couple of years later the group was incorporated as Thubten Norbu Ling and moved to another property of Ira’s, where they remained till last year. Now they’ve got their own, bigger place.

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His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Rinpoche appointed Don Handrick as their resident teacher five years ago (more, perhaps). He was one of the group of graduates from the first Master’s Program at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa near Pisa in Italy. We first met in the mid-1990s at Tse Chen Ling in San Francisco. Don retired from his job as an accountant at Levis and moved to Italy (I ended up with his nice black Chevie!) to study the seven-year course. He’s a gem: kind, humble, knowledgeable, and such a good teacher. They’re blessed to have him.

Now I’ve got ten days off, in DC for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings, which started on Saturday July 8. For two nights I stayed with my friend Igor Sarmientos and his wife Sharon and their two little kids. Igor ran a group in Guatemala for Rinpoche in 2004 or so, and I visited once. He’s the son of Guatemalan composer Jorge Sarmientos and for years was director and conductor of the local symphony orchestra, having started as the orchestra’s timpanist at the age of 12. He’s also an accomplished cellist.

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Diran (Igor’s son) accompanied by Igor, performing a cello piece for Robina

In 2007 we commissioned Jorge to write a piece of music, to be played as a fundraiser at a conference we ran in San Francisco in November 2008.  Buddhafonias was the result – Sound of the Buddha – a gorgeous piece, just twelve minutes, for a full orchestra of 70+ instruments. Igor conducted the San Francisco Sinfonietta in their playing of it. Igor said at the time that “this is not my father’s usual musical language. Involved in political activism against the right-wing military in the 1960s and having spent time in prison, his music over the years has reflected his views of the world. In Buddhafonias he delves into the internal for the first time.” It took him a while to start but when he did, it came quickly.

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A page from Buddhafonias

Jorge’s a national treasure: he’s prolific, music pouring out of him for forty-plus years. Igor says his ability to write it is extraordinary, so clear. You can see the score for Buddhafonias: there’s hardly a correction.

Buddhafonias has three movements: depression/anxiety; meditation/calm abiding; illumination/liberation. On Skype last night Jorge told Igor that he has been thinking a lot about this music recently and wants to go into more deeply, extending it. Igor was surprised. “He’s written more than 200 orchestral pieces, and this is the first time he has felt he wants to do more. It seems to me he’s thinking about the meaning.”

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Robina and Igor

Jorge also wrote a short piece for the cello for His Holiness’s visit to Guatemala in 2004, which Igor played.

Now it’s Tuesday July 12 and I’ve moved into town for His Holiness, staying just around the corner from the Verizon Center. His Holiness’s teachings every morning so far, as always, have been so grounded, so practical – and much of it in English. The day before yesterday we heard how ignorance is the main source of our problems: not only the everyday mere not knowing of the facts but the added ignorance that makes up its own fantasy story, specifically the nonsense that there’s this findable truly existent me in there somewhere, which we believe runs the show. Not true, Buddha says. The discovery of the absence of that is our main job.

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Monks and nuns outside the Verizon Center metro station. Photo by Martin McDonald

Yesterday, to the delight of us all, His Holiness demonstrated the nine-round breathing practice in combination with the physical exercise from the Six Yogas of Naropa. It reminded me of the first time we learned this, from Khensur Rinpoche Jampa Tegchog, at Manjushri Institute in 1979 soon after he arrived to teach the Geshe Studies Programme.

Today is the ritual dancing and tomorrow starts the initiation itself.

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Tibetan man doing full-length prostrations around the Verizon Center, circumambulating His Holiness. Photo by Martin McDonald.

As sight for sore eyes as we departed the Verizon Center yesterday: a brave Tibetan man circumambulating the entire block whilst doing full-length prostrations. The homeless guy selling newspapers said he’d been around three times already.

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