Postcard 60 from Robina: Santa Cruz, CA, October 6, 2015

Oct 6, 2015

It’s Wednesday, September 30 and I am in California. My last blog was written in April, so I’ve missed quite a few, which I will write, gradually: PC 55: May in Spain, Latvia, Russia, and Kopan Monastery; PC 56: June in Sydney, Indonesia, and the Blue Mountains; PC 57: July in Junee prison, Wagga Wagga, Wodonga, Hobart, Melbourne, and Bendigo; PC 58: August and early September in Adelaide, Perth, Bunbury, Broome, Brisbane, Eudlo, Sydney, and Melbourne.

I haven’t written about my Australian travels yet, June through mid-September. But I will! They’ll be Postcards 55 through 59.

I’ve done this before, missed months. It seems to indicate that I don’t have much enthusiasm for writing about my travels; but when I do it, I enjoy it. So I’ll keep going.

I left Australia, after three and a half months there, on Wednesday September 16. I flew from Sydney to Honolulu. My first visit there: an easy stop-over between Sydney and Los Angeles. My friend Vikrant Bhasin invited me. He’s there with his wife Victoria. We first met in 2004, in New York City. I was at the Guggenheim Museum with my sister Jan from Sydney, who ran an art gallery at the time. Vikrant recognized me from having seen the documentary Chasing Buddha. 

Vikrant and Victoria at home; and me enjoying my virgin piña colada at the Hilton Resort in Honolulu, with Vikrant.

We chatted for a bit but didn’t make of note of each other’s contact details, but we bumped into each other again in Boston and he ended up cooking at Kurukulla Center while I was there. 

Victoria teaches at a university in Honolulu, so they moved there a couple of years ago. She was brought up in Hawaii and her parents and sister live there still. Vikrant cooks at a hospital. 

We gave a talk at the university. A few people came. They tell me that there’s not much interest in Dharma in Hawaii. Maybe that’s true. There’s a Kagyu center in Honolulu that attracts just a few students. Vikrant is talking about starting a little group, so we’ll see if there is karma with Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Dharma there. I go back to Australia from the US next April, so I might stop over again.

Our group at the university in Honolulu, organized by Victoria Fan, second from the left, who teaches there. Photo Vikrant Bhasin.


Kate Macdonald picked me up at LAX Monday night September 21 and we drove south to her place at Huntington Beach. She moved here from Portland last year and works with her parents in their business Coral Tree In Home Care in nearby Newport Beach. 

I stayed with Kate for four days, like a holiday it was. On Wednesday an old friend from California John Flandrick came from Santa Barbara to drive me to San Diego where I gave a talk organized by another friend, from Portland, Darren Littlejohn, in a shop called Buddha for You near the university. I’d been here just once, for a brief visit, in 2006, when I was working for Liberation Prison Project, to meet an accountant. 

Enjoying noodles with John Flandrick in San Diego, who drove me from Huntington Beach; below, at Buddha for You. Photo Darren Littlejohn.

I had big plans back then. I had started my trust, The Bodhichitta Trust, whose purpose was to raise funds to support the prison project. At the time we were spending some $20,000 every month to run it: staff salaries, books for prisoners, etc., etc. It was always a struggle to find the funds, of course, and because I didn’t like the begging mentality we never asked for donations. In fact, I never wrote one begging letter during the 14 years I ran the project, from its beginning. That was in 1996 when, as editor of Mandala Magazine, I received a letter from a young Mexican American prisoner from Los Angeles, Arturo, who’d read a book by Lama Yeshe and wanted to know more about Buddhism. It grew from there. 

A kind benefactor had given the trust some dollars, which I used for making investments, including in property. The trust managed to bring in at least $3.5 million dollars over the years – but it also lost quite a few, too! I talked about this in Postcard 30.

Anyway, that accountant ended up offering her services to LPP and my trust, and another project that I began years ago, but which is not really growing right now, Sherab Plaza. It’s still growing in my mind, of course: as Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, “everything exists on the tip of the wish”: the right place to start! I talked about this, too, in Postcard 34.

Two hundred people turned up for the first talk hosted by Kate Macdonald and Medicine Buddha Orange County. An auspicious start! Photos Courtney Marie Barr & Susan Brown Madorsky.

Back to Kate’s and a talk down the road at Laguna Beach. Kate’s starting an FPMT study group called Medicine Buddha Orange County, which will be under the umbrella of Land of Medicine Buddha in Soquel, near Santa Cruz. Two hundred people turned up, which is an auspicious start; Kate was delighted. We have plans for another talk in November and then a weekend retreat at Easter next year, on my way out of Los Angeles and the States, back to Australia.

Laguna Beach, where Kate Macdonald is starting an FPMT group, Medicine Buddha Orange County. Photo Suzie Abels.


John then drove me north, heading to Land of Medicine Buddha; where I’d lived for six years and had edited Mandala, in 1994, the year I arrived in the States. On the way, though, we stopped at the prison in Delano to visit Arturo again, who now calls himself AJ. He’s been in prison since he was 16, tried as an adult and sentenced to three indeterminate life sentences for attempted murder; activity in a gang fight, basically; and before that in youth prisons since he was 12.

At the beginning of last year California passed Senate Bill 260 – Justice for Juveniles with Adult Prison Sentences. A friend of AJ’s father contacted some lawyers who help such inmates and now they’re helping AJ. I’m so glad for him! The vast majority of people stuck in prison have no money, no friends, no support, so to find lawyers who offer their services is a rare and wonderful thing, opening up all the possibilities that those with money have.

AJ wasn’t due for a parole hearing until he was 41 but with this new law in place he got one this year. They turned him down but if all goes well and he continues to get education, find people willing to offer him a job, a place to stay, he could be successful in a year or so. It’s heavy to have to pay with 25 years of your life for something you did when you were 16. 

But he, like so many of my friends of prison, have seriously put into practice the view that if you can’t change the outside you can change the inside. When your back’s against the wall, when you really know there’s no choice, then we can do it. Rinpoche told AJ years ago in a reply to a letter that “your prison is nothing in comparison with the inner prison of ordinary people: the prison of attachment, the prison of depression, the prison of anger. . .” Sounds shocking when you think that he was then in a small cell for 23 hours a day, with a few books (no hardbacks because you could wack your cellie with them), a pad, and the inside of pen (you could stab your cellie with the hard part). In such a situation you either go mad – and many do – or you change your mind. It’s Buddha’s fundamental instruction, but how hard it is to do! AJ has worked so hard on himself for the past 19 years, since he first wrote to us, and I have greatly admire him.

Years ago I read the memoir of a woman in Florida who, with her husband, was wrongly accused of killing two policemen. She got out after 17 years, but her husband was executed. Can you imagine the nightmare of that! After years of trying to get people to see the truth, she said something like, “I finally realized that I couldn’t change anything, but they couldn’t take my mind from me. So I decided, I am not a prisoner, I’m a monk; I’m not in a cell, I’m in a cave.” It sounds wonderful to read it, but can you imagine the courage, the incredible intelligence, the humility, the patience that was needed to get to this? 

And this, of course, is Buddha’s fundamental point: we can change our mind. Sounds so simple, but it’s the hardest job we will ever do. But it’s key to success. The fact is, we all know this; we do it many times a day, but we don’t connect the dots. And the fact also is that Buddha didn’t invent this; he’s not a creator; he has observed this very observable fact to be true, and at the subtlest level. For him, literally, everything emanates from the mind. This is not evident to us; only when we understand his very different view of the mind – its functions, its nature – will this make sense to us.

Harvey in his garden plot around the corner from his home in San Jose, offered by the City of San Jose to its locals.

After AJ I spent the night in San Jose with Harvey, my English friend and colleague from the late 1970s when we lived and worked together at Lama Yeshe’s center in the north of England. I talked about him in Postcards 18 and 38.

About eight years ago his wife Angela put their name down to request a plot of land in the Community Garden Program run by the City of San Jose. Over 900 locals cultivate nearly 35 acres of gardens, growing their own vegetables, fruits, herbs, etc. After eight years they got their plot, a few minutes from their home. They pay a few dollars a year, less than a 100, and all tools, water, fertilizer, etc., etc., are provided. Harvey is the gardener and he loves it! They don’t buy vegetables anymore, he says. I enjoyed his delicious melon and greens.

We had a week-long retreat at Land of Medicine Buddha: Living Happily, Dying Happily, and we used Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s book How to Help Your Loved Ones Enjoy Death and Go Happily to Their Next Rebirth. It’s available free as a PDF: Wisdom will publish a modified version of it next year, called How to Enjoy Death.

I’ve been talking about this book since 2011! It started in Postcard 11 and then in a further nine postcards up till October 2014, in postcard 45, when I offered the gold-covered manuscript to Rinpoche. 

Offering the gold-covered manuscript of Rinpoche’s book about how to help our loved ones before, during and after death; October 2014. Photo Ven. Roger Kunsang.

As discussed, it’s a handbook that goes through the various things to do the months and weeks before death, the days, the hours, at the time of death, and the days after. And in the back are nearly all 87 practices that Rinpoche recommends throughout the stages. It’s so helpful.

As Rinpoche says, we all need this education, not just people who help the dying. We will all die, our friends will die – even our enemies, as he says! It’s all very fine to say, oh yes, I’m impermanent, but we need to go into it all in depth so that we can live our lives properly, and therefore know how to die properly. 

The day after we started the retreat, Monday October 28, a woman in hospice care moved into the cabin next to me here, which is used by Tara Home, an FPMT group here who work 24 hours a day with their clients until they die. Such a precious service to offer people. 

As Rinpoche says at the beginning of the book, “Helping our loved ones at the time of death is the best service we can offer them, our greatest gift.”

Most of us in the West hope we can die in our sleep because we won’t know about it. The Buddha’s view is exactly the opposite: we need to be conscious so that we can go through the process with control. Why? Because as Rinpoche says, “Death is the most important time of life: it’s at death that the next rebirth is determined.” That’s what really struck me doing this book. It’s not death we’re actually preparing for; it’s the next life. 

We finished our course a few days ago, and it was very powerful. We went through Rinpoche’s book: such clear instructions, so much advice. It’s clear we need to educate ourselves; it’s not enough to vaguely think about it. Most of us panic at the time of death, and I mean other people’s – forget our own! We end up not knowing what to do because we didn’t educate ourselves. 

Now I’m in Santa Cruz, staying with the Staffords, students of Rinpoche’s whom I first met first in Maine and then in Raleigh, NC; I talked about them in postcard 18 and 35. They moved here a year ago. Maddy, the oldest girl, who is 15, is studying several classes at Cabrillo College, and the two younger girls, Mia and Maude, to go Tara Redwood School, the FPMT school at LMB.

Mer, Mia, Troy, Maude, and Maddy with Rinpoche at his home at Aptos, not far from Santa Cruz, the day after Rinpoche arrived back from Brazil.

This morning, Tuesday October 6, I just heard that Tim Powell in Raleigh, who studied at Kadampa Center there and had worked for Liberation Prison Project, was in a terrible car accident a couple of days and died a few hours ago. And the lady who moved into Tara Home a week ago also passed away last night.

The only way it seems to me to make the reality of death hit the heart is, upon hearing such news, to think, “That’ll be me.” Of course, as Buddhists we would say prayers for them, have compassion; but until it hits home that it’s my reality, it’s always someone else who dies.

So, may I make the most of this life. No time to waste.

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