Postcard 36 from Robina: Florida, Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Feb 19, 2014

Well, I did get a feel for Deerfield Beach: the first of my two weeks here has gone, and I like it. Not just Deerfield Beach but Fort Lauderdale as well, the next town down. It seems they’ve all grown to the point where they’ve merged as one continuous suburban sprawl, all the 40 miles south to Miami.

Kind Geshe Konchog not only allowed me to use his apartment but also his car, so I am getting myself around. I drive to Tubten Kunga, Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s center here, every evening, a couple of miles away, in a mall. When I was here in 1998, the center was in Maggie’s house, a grand very Florida house in a gated community in more fancy Fort Lauderdale. It was the place where Amiel my nephew shot his first footage for what became Chasing Buddha – it didn’t make the cut in the end, though.

As discussed in Postcard 33 from Sydney last year, Amiel (pronounced Am-ee-el), who was 19 at the time, had emailed me months before saying that he was writing a script for a movie about my life. I said to him, half-jokingly, “Amiel, don’t just write the script, come make the movie!” And sure enough he did just that. He got some funding from Film Victoria and SBS, an Australian multi-cultural television network, and came with Vinnie his cinematographer – as he would grandly introduce him – to travel with me for several months as I went from center to center.

My nephew Amiel Courtin-Wilson, the Australian filmmaker and producer, who made Chasing Buddha when he was just 19. He emailed me months before saying that he was writing a script for a movie about my life. I said to him, half-jokingly, “Amiel, don’t just write the script, come make the movie!” Photo Penny Stevens.

And also to prison. Extraordinarily, Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville gave permission for Amiel and Vinnie to film my visit to the chapel. In those days death row and general population inmates could meet together in the chapel (things got strict since 2006 when two inmates escaped), and the most moving parts of the film are there, at Eddyville.

Amiel had some vague notion that my life would make a “road movie,” whatever that is. Over the years, he said, he’d hear stories as he was growing up about his aunt getting arrested, being attacked, participating in demonstrations, and eventually becoming a Buddhist nun, so he’d built up some vision in his mind. So he definitely wanted controversy, which I wouldn’t give him. In the end, he made a good film, which was invited to participate at Sundance in 2000 and for which Amiel was nominated for Best Documentary Director in the Australian Film Industry awards in 2000 (which he didn’t win).

And why “Chasing Buddha?” At one point, it seems, because they were forever running to catch up with me, Vinnie said with exasperation, “We should call this Chasing Buddha!”

Amiel’s mother Polly gave him “Yeshe” as his second name, after Lama Yeshe. And even though he was moved by his first hearing of the teachings, there at Thubten Norbu Ling in Santa Fe, and even cried, he said, he hasn’t connected to the Dharma since, certainly not in any obvious way.

I spent time my old friend Jacie Keeley and her daughter Felicity. Jacie was Lama Yeshe’s secretary until the year Lama passed away, 1984. We did a Dorje Khadro fire puja together at their new home; it was a practice that Lama would have us do. It feels very cathartic: you build a fire and visualize the deity and throw into the fire black sesame seeds, imagining them as your delusions, your obstacles, your problems. It’s very tasty; you really feel as if you’re purifying.

With my old friend Jacie Keeley, who served as Lama Yeshe’s secretary from 1979 to 1984, and her daughter, Felicity, at Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s center in Deerfield Beach, FL. Photo Jacie Keeley.

Lama Yeshe and Jacie Keeley in 1983. Photo Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive.

We went to Sylvester Cancer Center a couple of times together to visit Pat Haber, one of the earlier directors of Tubten Kunga Center. She had cancer and was close to death. Working (still!) on this book of Rinpoche’s about how to help people at the time of death, I’ve been learning how important it is to have a very nice environment at the time of death, one that’s conducive to dying peacefully. A hospital is not that! Although, of course, the nurses are so kind, so devoted, the environment of a small ward with other people coming and going, television on, people talking, not to mention tubes going down your throat, as they were for Pat, who had lung cancer.

We spent an hour on our first visit, reciting prayers to her while she was unconscious. Our second and last visit was very short. But we managed to get close to her ear and strongly say Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s name. In this book, Rinpoche quotes lamas many times saying that saying the guru’s name into the ear of the dying person is the most powerful, most beneficial thing to do. Jacie was at the end of the bed when I did this and she said she felt there was a vivid change in Pat, that she really responded. She died later that night.

I remember in Sydney several years ago visiting a dear friend in the ICU, who was in a deep coma. I went late at night because it was more peaceful and I’d sit by the bed and say prayers close to Judy’s ear. Often I’d also mention two lamas she was close to. I’d say, “Judy, His Holiness Sakya Trizin is praying for you!” and “Judy, Dzongzar Khyentse Rinpoche is praying for you!” Anyway, a couple of weeks later she came out of the coma and during a visit she told me that the only thing she could remember was this husky voice – she thought it was of a blue lady who came in through the window – saying loudly, “Judy, His Holiness Sakya Trizin is praying for you!” and “Judy, Dzongkar Khyenste Rinpoche is praying for you!” That’s encouraging!

With the group from Tubten Kunga Center, Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s center in Deerfield Beach, FL. Photo Felicity Keeley.

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