Postcard 16 from Robina: Dharamsala, Wednesday November 23, 2011

2011-11-23 11:00:00

I will have covered quite a bit of southeastern Australia during this visit. I had more of Queensland before heading to Sydney on October 1. Up to the Sunshine Coast, 100 km north of Brisbane, to the miniature town of Eudlo, then a few more km along Johnsons Road till it dead-ends at Chenrezig Institute.

In Dharamsala after seven months on the road, but this time for just a couple of weeks. My journey around the world started here in April. Now I begin another circuit: three months in the States, three months in Australia and three months in Europe. This moving, moving, moving suits my speedy nature.

I arrived on November 10, a Buddha Day, just in time for a blessing of the body, speech and mind of the Twenty-one Taras from Lama Zopa Rinpoche, as a prelude to a Tara retreat. Rinpoche is being treated by Khadro-la (see photos below), who is based in Dharamsala at His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple.

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Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Khadro-la and Ven. Thubten Khedup.

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Rinpoche giving the blessings of the Twenty-one Taras in Tushita’s main meditation hall November 10 (above); students in the gompa (below).

But it was a bit of miracle that I made it on time. On the evening of Tuesday November 8, the day before my departure from Sydney, where I was participating in Vajrayana Institute’s latest Mind & Its Potential conference (see below), the chilling realization that I’d forgotten to get myself a visa for India dawned on me. I could not believe it.

Visas become a huge drama for people wanting to live and study in India, as thousands of foreign Dharma students have discovered. The rules are very strict. Unlike Nepal, where you can get a visa at the border, you must apply in advance, and five days is usually the bare minimum it takes. For most passports, you cannot stay longer than six months, and there needs to be a two-month waiting period before you can renew for another six months. You’re trained to deal with this well in advance of travel.

I was flying out of Sydney at 4.30pm the next day, Wednesday. I had to lead a workshop for the conference until noon, which meant that I had about three hours in which to accomplish what normally takes five days. Impossible. To even think it was possible was absurd. There was not an ounce of logic in my decision to try. But there was nothing else in my mind but having that visa in my passport. I simply could not leave the retreaters in the lurch; and how could I possibly miss this rare opportunity to see Rinpoche, who’s virtually in seclusion these days because of the stroke? I would will a visa into my passport! That’s it.

At 1pm on my way to the visa agency, I think my mind wasn’t in a normal state: high energy focus on one thing only. Obstacles, difficulties, simply didn’t enter my mind. I enter the agency to find 40 people waiting their turn. I bypass the ticket machine and jump the queue without hesitation, asking for the person in charge. He’s right there. I tell him I’m flying at 4.30 and want a visa. Amazingly, he doesn’t flinch; he’s not officious and obstructive.

He starts a process that included many incredibly willing and helpful people: the consul himself who, after repeatedly saying no to my heartfelt requests, amazingly changed his mind; the visa guy who, in his frantically busy office, filled out my forms, got my photos, issued a receipt for the $350 emergency fee and sent me running through Sydney’s streets, dodging traffic, for nearly a kilometer to the consulate, my precious file in hand; the consulate staff who printed out the visa and glued it into my passport – “Be careful! it’s not dry yet”; Peter and Dana waiting with the engine running in their saffron yellow car, with an hour before flight departure, driving through dense traffic to Sydney airport; British Airways staff who, upon declaring that the flight was closed, running me over to Qantas; the Qantas man happily finding me a seat on their flight an hour later; and the Singapore airport staff who met me in a electric vehicle at the plane that sped me to the Delhi flight seconds before the door closed.

I made it to Delhi. I felt like I’d won the lottery.

But I’m not at Tushita yet. After two hours on the road in the car that picked me up at 3 in the morning, I discover that he’s not my driver after all: we’re driving to Musoorie! He picked up the wrong nun! Back to Delhi, find my real driver, who has 10 hours to make it in time, a journey that can often take 12. We stop for potato pancakes and later a cup of chai, that’s it. We make it five minutes before the statue shop closes; buy a Tara statue for Rinpoche; and up to Tushita.

I stayed alert throughout the three hours of Rinpoche’s precious blessing and at 11 o’clock hit the pillow and slept for nine hours without budging an inch.

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Participating in the Tara retreat (top); with some of the retreaters (bottom); with the Tara statue that we offered Lama Zopa Rinpoche. The Vajrasattva statue behind us was commissioned by Lama Zopa Rinpoche to be made in the aspect of Lama Yeshe.

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Tushita students during their farewell picnic lunch outside the main gompa and Lama Yeshe’s stupa.

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One of Dharamsala’s many donkeys (local farmers often turn out animals that can no longer work, leaving them to fend for themselves) outside Anil’s chai shop at the turn-off to Dharamkot, a couple of minutes from Tushita, where I sometimes have breakfast.

In Australia, I always make sure I spend time with my family. There are seven siblings, and most of them have their own children and, some of them, grandchildren. Jan lives in Sydney with her husband Marshall and has recently retired from running an art gallery in Paddington for 11 years. Julie and her husband Ian, a pharmacist, have also recently retired and live in Carlton, in Melbourne. Their daughter Millie is a designer and architect. Marie and her husband Nicholas, who live in Ocean Grove, 90 minutes from Melbourne on the coast, have seven children and 10+ grandchildren. Their oldest daughter Sarah is married to Mark, who just been appointed the head coach of the Melbourne Football Club, one of the main clubs in the Australian Football League, the hugely popular style of football unique to this country. Judy, a chiropractor and lawyer, has recently reconnected with her daughter Rachael, whom she had adopted out when she was a baby. Judy has met for the first time her own three grandchildren and is over the moon! Polly, an artist, is the mother of Amiel, a filmmaker, who directed Chasing Buddha, a documentary about me, 10 years ago; her daughter Hannah is a photographer. Finally, the only male in our family, Tony, is a chiropractor also and has three sons, and he lives in the bush two hours north of Melbourne, in Violet Town.

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Dinner at my sister Julie’s (above) with, clockwise around the table starting from my left: Judy, Polly, Ian, Julie; with Rachael, Judy’s daughter (below).

In Melbourne I stayed first with Julie. Sisters five and six, Judy and Polly, came over every night for dinner and plenty of laughs. Polly is excited because she has an exhibition of her work lined up for next year at a gallery in St. Kilda (pollycourtin.com). Later I moved over to Judy’s, in Brunswick. As a lawyer, she is intent on exposing the inappropriate behavior of the Australian Catholic Church in its defense of its sex-offending clergy and its lack of support for the victims. She had an article published in the main Melbourne paper, The Age, last month and, she said, she received emails in response to it from all over the country.

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Vajrayana Institute’s conferences: they’re excellent. Gatherings of some 50 speakers that attract thousands of delegates, they highlight some of the cutting-edge thinking and discoveries in the world of the mind and science, and how it impacts on the world of the arts, education, spirituality. Tony Steel, who runs Vajrayana and whose own company Terrapinn runs business conferences worldwide, started them in 2006 as a way to support Vajrayana. He does an amazing job.

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Participating at the Mind conference with ABC’s Rachel Kohn, Sydney, November 7.

Because I travel light these days I (lazily) leave my mandala set in Sydney, which weighs a few kilos. So I asked Ven. Chokyi, who took over running Liberation Prison Project from me, to make the mandala and put it as an offering on the Vajrayana Institute’s altar. A bit better than sitting unused in its bag!

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My mandala set offered on one of Vajrayana Institute’s altars, Sydney.

Also while in Melbourne I attended the 50th anniversary reunion of the 1961 class at Sacré Coeur, the Catholic convent where I received 12 years of education from the age of five. Just some of us turned up. I don’t have any contact with most of them in the intervening years, but it’s always good to catch up. The only person I do have a connection with from those days is Adèle Hulse, who was a couple of years behind me, whom I met again in 1976 at Chenrezig Institute at my first course. She too is a student of the lamas. And she is the author of Lama Yeshe’s biography, which should be coming out soon, published by Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive.

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With Sacré Coeur Melbourne’s Class of 1961 at our 50th anniversary reunion in October.

This is the first center that Lama Yeshe started outside Nepal (Kopan Monastery in the Kathmandu Valley) and India (Tushita in Dharamsala). Chenrezig was born in 1974, called after the Buddha of Compassion. Lama’s next two centers were called after the other two main aspects of an enlightened being: Manjushri Institute in the north of England (wisdom) and Vajrapani Institute in California (power). (And, of course, it’s where I met the lamas a couple of years later.)

It’s based on 80 acres (more or less) of hilly land, 30 km inland from the coast, which can be seen on a clear day. It has a community that includes 20 nuns and some monks, who mainly study the intensive program there, which has been a highlight of the place for many years.

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His Holiness greeted at Chenrezig Institute earlier this year, on June 16, with a Welcome to Country ceremony by dancers from the Gubbi Gubbi tribe, the traditional owners of the land.

These days they’re still delighting in their first-ever visit from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in June. Director Maureen Walshe says that four thousand people, including hundreds of local school children, greeted His Holiness, who gave a talk in the newly-renovated gompa and blessed the Enlightenment Garden. “It was such a magical day,” says Maureen. “Perfect weather, perfect everything.”

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Then I went to Stradbroke Island, just east of Brisbane. Straddie, as it’s called – Australians shorten just about every word in their vocabulary! – is home to Gail Bell, who visited Tushita when I was there in 2009. She has started a little group and we had a weekend course, our second.

Next was the Blue Mountains, two hours west of Sydney, where I flew into from Brisbane, for a weekend course at Kunsang Yeshe Centre in their lovely house on five acres of land. And then to Sydney, where I spent a year in 2009, raising money for the prison project and where I handed over running it to Chokyi, a nun at Vajrayana Institute. I like Sydney: a big, booming city and, because of its harbor, stunningly beautiful.

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With the group at Kunsang Yeshe in the Blue Mountains (above); and a view of Sydney (below).

I was born in Melbourne and didn’t see much of Sydney most of my life. Most of my family – six siblings and their families – live in or around Melbourne; my older sister Jan lives in Sydney.

I only really got to know Sydney by driving around it in 2009 – in an old bomb of a car lent to me by my dear friend David Heilpern, a magistrate (equivalent to a district court judge in the US). I learned the hard way about speeding – by getting hundreds of dollars of tickets. I was used to the States where you’d have to be stopped by a policeman to get fined but in Australia they rely on technology: there are cameras everywhere! You simply don’t have a choice: you just can’t afford to speed. The top speed on the freeways is never more than 110 km per hour (66 mph). Very boring.

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With Osel Rinpoche in Landox Park, across the road from Tara Institute in Melbourne, in 1987. Photo by Jane Lewis.

It was in Sydney that I first started my job of teaching. At the end of my ten-year stint with Wisdom Publications, in October 1987, at a retreat with Lama Zopa Rinopche in New Zealand – Osel Rinpoche, who was two at the time, stayed with us nuns and was around throughout the five weeks – I had no idea what I’d do next. During a meeting with Rinpoche he said, “Go to Sydney and teach.” I have in my mind the image of Michelangelo’s Hand of God Giving Life to Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – I visualize Rinpoche pointing his finger towards Sydney and directing me there. I don’t think it was like that, but it felt like it.

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Actually, I don’t think the center needed anyone at the time, but they ended up with me. It was in a rented house on the North Shore, in Cremorne, not far from the water. I remember vividly being very nervous about talking to people, mainly fearing that I’d run out of words. Then I decided that 1. I’d talk as if I was talking to one person and 2. if I couldn’t think of anything else to say I’d ask people to ask questions. From then on I relaxed and it’s worked ever since.

This time in Sydney, on October 7, I heard about the death of Steve Jobs. Like so many other people around the world, I was sad to think about a world without him. That man really touched my heart. As I said in my last postcard, I am so inspired by his qualities, his courage, his vision, his clarity.

Also in Sydney I met my friend Joyce Morgan, the arts writer at the Sydney Morning Herald and author of her first book, just out in Australia, about the Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest printed book: Journeys on the Silk Road, published by Picador. We met at our mutual friend Phillipa Drynan’s, who does communications for artists and musicians, who has lived for years at the home of Margaret Olley, one of Australia’s most well known artists, who died in July at the age of 88. Philippa said that she’d just finished the last of her works for her big new exhibition at Sotheby’s in Sydney when she passed away early the next morning.

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One of Margaret Olley’s still lifes; Philippa and Margaret; with Joyce at Margaret Olley’s in Paddington.

Even though she was 88, she, like the rest of us, probably didn’t expect to die that day. But for Steve Jobs, impermanence was in the front of his mind. In a speech he gave to students at Stanford soon after he was diagnosed with cancer, in 2005, he gave the most perfect advice to all of us: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

As Lama Zopa says, “Best to think, I will die today.”

Next was Hobart, at the southern end of Australia, in the little island state of Tasmania. My dear friend Ven. Lindy Mailhot runs Chagtong Chentong there and we had a weekend course and a couple of days together. On my last day there I visited Risdon, the only prison in the state (except for a couple of remand centers, like US county jails). The women’s section has about 25 inhabitants, the only female prisoners in Tasmania it seems. Apparently there are 170 prisoners per 100,000 adults in prison in Australia, compared with 750 or so per 100,000 adults in the USA.

After Hobart I flew across Bass Strait to Melbourne, my hometown, where I spent time with my family. More about them next week.

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