Postcard 70 from Robina: Dunedin, June 5, 2016

2016-06-05 11:00:00

I flew to Auckland on Friday, May 20. It’s less than three hours from Sydney. New Zealand! I haven’t been here for 10 years, perhaps longer. I like this place. It’s small, for a start – less than the population of Melbourne, which is 5 million or so. Some nice cities, and plenty of bush for the nature-lovers. It seems pristine.

In Auckland I spent all day Saturday, May 21 at Amitabha Hospice, run by Ecie Hursthouse, an old student of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. We did a workshop on death, using Rinpoche’s new book. It was Ecie, in fact, who started the ball rolling on Rinpoche’s book. She was at the teachings in France, in 2003, when Rinpoche gave the teaching that forms the basis of the book. She started working on putting it together but then in 2007, I think, she had a terrible car accident, which put her out of action for years. She’s back now, but not fully healed it seems.

She was around at the first teachings of the lamas in Australia and New Zealand, in 1974. She was also in New Zealand for the teachings there afterwards. Nick Ribush, who was attending the lamas, met her new son Lozang in his mother’s arms in Wellington, where the lamas also taught.

This photo of Lama Yeshe (left) and Rinpoche, taken in New Zealand, was used for the cover of the first book of their teachings, Wisdom Energy, published by the forerunner of Wisdom Publications in 1976. Photo: New Zealand Herald.
Here we are in Auckland at Amitabha Hospice; director Ecie Hursthouse is in the flowered dress, top left. And here she is below, in 1975 in Wellington, NZ, at the teachings that the lamas gave there on their first visit, introducing her son Lozang to Nick Ribush, who attended the lamas.

That evening Sarah Brooks drove me the five hours around the coast of the Coromandel peninsula to Mahamudra Centre. She left her job of spiritual program coordinator at Kadamapa Center, Rinpoche’s place in Raleigh, NC and moved here last year, taking on the same job.

A shot of Mahamudra Centre from their website. Looks like a movie set!

We had a week there and I stayed upstairs in the house. You can feel the blessings of the lamas, who’ve stayed there many times over the years. That sounds a bit trippy, but all the great yogis say that a place that’s “been blessed by the presence of the holy beings” is a perfect place for retreat. I remember interviewing Ven. Rene, a Swiss monk who’s been a professional meditator for 30-plus years, about his retreat at Osel Ling in the mountains outside Granada. His Holiness the Dalai Lama blessed the place, and named it – Place of Clear Light – in 1982. He said that it reminded him of Tibet. Anyway, Ven. Rene said that he knew he couldn’t get past “the fifth of the nine stages of concentration” there. I interviewed him about the retreat at Kopan Monastery, which is a busy place, for sure. But it’s in the Kathmandu valley, which all the lamas praise as a very special place. Ven. Rene said that when he meditated at Kopan his mind became “more subtle more easily” there than in the mountains of Osel Ling: a sign, indeed, that Kopan Monastery must be a blessed and holy place.

As I mentioned in Postcard 15, it was here, at Mahamudra Centre, that Lama Zopa Rinpoche set me in a new direction; after having worked for 10 years for Wisdom Publications, Rinpoche told me to “Go to Sydney and teach.” I was very surprised. It had never occurred to me to do such a thing. I’d done a couple of intensive years of study in Lama Yeshe’s Geshe Program, in England, and had learned a few things while editing the teachings at Wisdom, but I certainly wasn’t qualified “to teach.”

Certainly it seems that the standards for us modern people are much lower than they were – are still – in the monastic university system. But it’s wonderful to see more and more people qualifying to teach, women as well. There are the graduates of FPMT’s seven-year Master’s Program – the forerunner of which was the Geshe Program in England in the early 1980s – and the Western monks studying the intensive programs at the monasteries alongside the Tibetans, qualifying eventually as full-fledged geshes. And, of course, there is the first female geshe, Geshe Kelsang Wangmo, a German student of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s, who graduated in 2011 after 18 years at the Dialectical school in Dharamsala.

Geshe Kelsang Wangmo

We had a week’s retreat at Mahamudra Centre, some of the time using Rinpoche’s death book. As I mentioned a month ago, it’s so popular: people are hungry to hear the details about death, the process itself, and how to help others. The instructions are so clear, so detailed, so practical: all of which can’t help but alleviate the instinctive fear that is assumed to be so normal.

Some of us after our week’s retreat at Mahamudra Centre; Spiritual Program Coordinator Sarah Brooks is on the left squatting next to Christine, who manages Amitabha Hospice for Ecie in Auckland. Director Ven. Nangsel is next to me. Below: A local, Ella, filming me for a series of three little teachings for Shambhala magazine’s website, watched over, thank goodness, by Lama Yeshe. Lama and Rinpoche both have blessed that room with their presence over the years. Photo Sarah Brooks.

Then to Auckland again, for a couple of days to hang out with my old friend Christine Arlington from New York. She’s a New Zealander and spends some of her time here.

My old friend John Jackson from Vajrapani in California, one of the founders back in 1977, came for a day or so and drove back to Auckland with me and Sarah, to catch a plane back to the States. He’s a monk now – I can’t remember his ordained name! He went back to Rinpoche’s retreat center in Washington, which he had helped build, to carry on his own retreats.

Rainbows on the way from Mahamudra Centre to Auckland, with Ven. John Jackson. Photo Sarah Brooks.

On Tuesday June 1 I flew to Dunedin to visit Dharghyey Centre, started there in 1984 by Geshe Ngawang Dharghyey when he moved there from McLeod Ganj, in Dharamsala. Geshe-la was one of the lamas that many Westerners heard Dharma from for the first time, at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

With Sally Dawa in Dunedin (above, left); and with Christine Arlington in her garden in Auckland. Below: Some of the Dhargyey group saw me off at the airport. On my right is Maria Stuart, whose daddy is the Buddhist author Glenn Mullin; on my left is their spiritual program coordinator, Joe Llewelyn.

 In Dunedin with Gen-la since the beginning was Sally Dawa, who translated for many years. I had dinner with her and her husband Losang up in the hills of Dunedin. We met in Dharamsala early 1978, soon after I became a nun; we did a Tara retreat with a group at Tushita. She remembers cutting my hair in preparation for my getsul ordination.

I had a very vivid dream during my Tara retreat. Until then I’d never felt much of a connection with Lama Tzong Khapa. I knew he was our lineage lama – our patron saint, really – but I couldn’t feel much for him. During the retreat I read a little biography, which was composed, by the way, by Geshe Ngawang Dharghyey. No special feeling after that, either.

I had the dream that night. I was trying to catch up with someone to let them know that they were being chased. Whenever I got to where they were, they’d just left. I was frantic. Finally, I tracked them down to a big ocean liner. I went to their cabin, opened their luggage – and discovered to my horror that it was my luggage, that it was me being chased. All of sudden, the door to the cabin opened and this detective-type fellow wearing a 1930s hat sidled in. And right then I woke up, gripped by the most intense fear, hearing the words, “And she was killed right through by Manjushri’s sword!”

I was a fan from then on. It seems that Lama Tzong Khapa had a very special connection with Manjushri, Gentle Voice, the Buddha of Wisdom, and it took him to wake me up!

Me and Sally and the others at our Tara retreat, Feb-Mar 1978; Ven. Thubten Chodron, in the front, led the retreat. It was on March 9 that Lama Yeshe organized for me to take my getsul ordination.


On June 7 I flew back to Sydney.

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