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Rev. Danny Fisher, M.Div., D.B.S. (Cand.), is a professor and Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at University of the West. He earned his Master of Divinity from Naropa University, and is currently finishing his doctorate in Buddhist Studies at UWest. Check out his award-winning website.

One of my favorite memories from a life coming nearer to having been half-lived practicing the Dharma is from my time as a graduate student at Naropa University.  During the second of my three years there, I was delighted to have my dearly loved sister Anna visit me for a week.  Through some careful advance planning, I was able to arrange my schedule so that there would be little in the week to distract from the business at hand:  showing my baby sister a good time in the People’s Republic of Boulder.

I decided that only one major item on my to-do list—in place for some time prior—would not be rescheduled or rearranged:  an appointment during his office hours with visiting Madhyamaka professor Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.  This was done for two reasons:  1.) I wouldn’t think of delaying a meeting I was looking forward to so much.  2.) I wanted my sister to meet this remarkable man who had impressed me with his warmth and insight.

As we made our way to campus, I told Anna what I knew about Rinpoche:  that he was seventh in the line of incarnations of a significant spiritual figure; he had served as an attendant to His Holiness the 16th Karmapa; his education had been diverse and broad-based; he had lived and taught around the world; and, like us, he had been born into family made up of intellectuals, artists, and “important” folks.

What drew me to him, though, I explained, was not so much that he was A Great Man, but that he was a great man—a teacher who “walked the talk,” presenting himself in a genuine and down-to-earth way (without any affectations) while still managing to be a remarkable source of spiritual authority.  I told Anna about how he would enter our classes:  briskly and suddenly, causing us all to snap out of our socializing and to our feet.  He barely gave us time to rise for the teacher, as one should in the Tibetan Buddhist context.  Rinpoche seemed to me to do it this way to both flout traditional formalities and conventions a little bit, but also to keep our awareness sharp.  “He’s just a really cool guy,” I said by way of final preparation for the meeting.

I prepared Anna with a khata and knocked on Rinpoche’s office door.  What happened next has stayed fresh in my mind ever since:  as we entered, Rinpoche rose immediately to his feet and gave my sister the single most gentlemanly welcome I have ever witnessed.  He bowed back at her and took the khata, placing it around her neck.  I introduced them, and Rinpoche took Anna’s offered hand in a way that was so graceful it evoked for me images of classical chivalry.  He asked her name and if she was enjoying her visit, and seemed to have all the time in the world for answers.

Before he could ask more questions, though, my sister politely excused herself, saying that she didn’t want to intrude on Rinpoche’s and my time.  I suspect Anna (who is not a Buddhist) was also probably feeling a little overwhelmed and out of place.  (I myself can feel that way sometimes in the presence of my teachers, and I’m a card-carrying Buddhist!) Rinpoche said goodbye, they bowed again, and then he and I were alone.

 Rinpoche was so exceedingly courteous, gentle, and giving in those moments with my baby sister that to think on them now I get a little emotional.  But I don’t tell this story simply to share my appreciation for Rinpoche (though I do have an awful lot of appreciation for him).  I tell it because it has been important and instructive for me to remember his way of meeting others: with curiosity, cordiality, and—above all else—openness.

It seems to me that one of the biggest challenges facing Buddhists in the Western world right now is the challenge to expand our sense of community.  Too often in America, at least, we Buddhists tend to excuse ourselves from being part of the U.S. religious community in all of its diversity and pluralism.  (In the past I’ve written advocating for a Buddhist presence on things like the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the ISNA Interfaith Press Conference and Unified Statement to Protect Muslim Civil Rights and Safety.)  We Buddhists could also do a better job of talking to one another—our intrafaith dialogue is wanting.  Ecumenical Buddhist events and gatherings (like the ones hosted each year by the Buddhist Council of New York) are few and far between, and Buddhist America can often seem like a constellation of insular communities.

But I don’t know.  Maybe Buddhism has fully arrived in the U.S. and this is just what it will look like.  It would certainly be in keeping with the character of America itself—the “melting pot where nothing ever melted,” as Tony Kushner says.  So I’ll bring it back to the personal.  For my part, I aspire to encounter others in the way that I have observed Rinpoche—with a mind and heart that are so fresh, spacious, and wide-awake.

As I sat down with Rinpoche after Anna’s exit, he asked with a smile, “So…what questions do you have.”  I looked back and confessed:  “My mind’s a blank.”  Grasping my hands in his and squeezing enthusiastically, Rinpoche exclaimed, “Oh, good!  Good!”

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    Comments

  1. avatar Kaspalita says:

    Wonderful article, a very lovely portrait of that encounter. It makes me examine my own ways of meeting people, which can only be a good thing.

  2. [...] wide world (Anna Fisher Kohansky and Rinpoche) — went up last night, and you can read it right here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche Writes for The [...]

  3. avatar SvR says:

    I can’t imagine what aspect of Buddhism might lend itself to “collaborative exchange with seekers of other faiths.” What’s the point of an intra-faith discussion on the emptiness of words? Or of a social group where everyone present thinks everyone else present is, or was, their mother? And who wants to go to a church v. temple volleyball game where half the participants aren’t even sure the net really exists?

    Let’s get real. As Buddhists, we face some real challenges when it comes to building inter-faith community. To begin with, Buddhists tend to sit around silently gazing at their navel. That’s not very social. And the sound of one hand clapping just isn’t going to cut it with the Harlem gospel choir. Sorry.

    Then there’s the problem that this aversion to community life has a long tradition in Buddhism. Many, if not all, of the great Buddhist yogis and lamas have found it necessary to go into a cave, to go on retreat, or to withdraw from community, in order to obtain enlightenment. In light of that history, and the requirement of a retreat to become a lama, isn’t it ironic that the Buddha declared the “sangha” instead of “aloneness” as one of the three pillars of Buddhism?

    I would be thrilled if the existing sanghas would make a stronger effort to get along among themselves. I would be even more thrilled if they then began to share resources with each other and/or their local community – in the spirit of service. Times are tough, and as Buddhists, we could do a lot in the way of helping others. In the process of being nicer to each other, sharing, and helping others, we might end up creating real community – despite ourselves.

  4. avatar Karma Yeshe Gyaltsen says:

    @SvR

    I heartily agree with you that community starts at home, when we walk the talk.

    @Rev Danny

    Recently, as a long term practicioner, not belonging to NalandaBodhi, I was asked to suggest names of people who might be included in DPR’s round table discussion at one of his book tour events.

    My participating in this process revealed that there were unspoken, but very real “taboos” at work, disqualifying a whole segment of the Buddhist population, however qualified and attained, from becoming involved. I won’t be specific, except to say that the taboo was coming down from higher up in the organisational chain, and it put my friend in an embarrassing position.

    In this age of globalism, it is of course a fine, and indeed necessary, ideal to engage all beings, to expand the idea of “sangha”. But we should, all of us, put our own houses in order first.

    Regarding the various schisms that are all too obvious in Kargu, I ask myself, ” Are they based on greed hatred and delusion, or on love, compassion and wisdom? If not founded on the former, then why serve them by perpetuating them?…and finally, What am I doing about it..am I willing to take a stand and risk some discomfort for a greater good, or not?….If not why not?”

    Non Buddhists also have the capacity of discriminating wisdom, and the ability to see hypocrisy where it exists, and my take on all this is that if we expect others to liase with us, without first having cleaned up our own act, we are essentially placing ourselves above them, in some kind of ego superiority game.

    Aside from house cleaning, the other remedy for this is practice humility and to ask ” What do other traditions have to teach us?”

    best wishes to all

    KYG

  5. avatar Ceci Miller says:

    Thank you Rev. Danny, for opening the door to an interesting and provocative discussion. In regards to Buddhist community, who are we these days? Maybe we expected that the Buddhist world would be different than our regular world, more perfect and pure. But it’s essentially the same world, until we transform ourselves: disappointing, inspiring, uplifting, challenging, and sometimes a precarious place to be — if we lose our bearings. We should certainly learn to talk to each other, listen to each other, and help each other in any way we can in this short life, as Buddhists and simply fellow beings. In other words – reach out across the boundaries of any self-other label. Easy to think about, hard to do, never impossible.

    To KYG
    RE the process of selecting and inviting Buddhist teachers to participate in the panel discussions on the Rebel Buddha book tour – as members of the core team responsible for inviting the panelists , we can state with certainty that there were never any policies in place or taboos invoked (spoken or unspoken) aimed at disqualifying any segment of the Buddhist population. On the contrary, given the relatively small number of panelist seats to be filled, a great deal of effort was put into including members of different Buddhist traditions that have successfully established vibrant communities in North America: the tour includes teachers from the Vipassana, Zen, Shambhala, and Tibetan forms of the Buddha’s original teaching.

    So as we go forward on our way to becoming a truly Western Buddhism, how do we avoid schisms, or repair them when they occur (including the split within ourself)? How do we co-exist in a pluralist society and benefit from what other traditions have to teach us? As Ponlop Rinpoche says towards the end of Rebel Buddha,

    “We need to see the American face of Buddha’s teachings in contemporary society. This also means that we need to see what Buddhist wisdom shares with other wisdom traditions and with the innate wisdom that is everybody’s birthright. We all need to step out of a mind-set that sees one kind of wisdom here and another kind there….We’ve been talking about this all along, but it’s another matter to do it. If we can get over our idea that wisdom is exclusive to certain people or groups, then our world expands dramatically.” (Rebel Buddha, p.171)

    Cindy Shelton, Ceci Miller
    Editors

  6. avatar Karma Yeshe Gyaltsen says:

    Cindy and Ceci

    Where do we go from here? I am satisfied that my concern is valid and tried to state it without getting too specific and perhaps violating the posting rules.

    You say my concern is not valid, without communicating with me (through email, for example) to hear the specifics.

    Indeed, I deliberately avoided such specific detail in my original post, hoping that your taking a look at the general situation I pointed out would reveal a situation to be corrected discretely.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Ponlop Rinpche’s words, quoted in your reply. It is because I share that view that I tried to give you a heads up, that perhaps the actual putting of those words into practice was falling short of the mark.

    I invite you to contact me, and let’s see if we can live up to DPR’s words among ourselves. I propose you post my reply here, and later we can post the results of our dialogue.

    best wishes to all

    KYG

  7. avatar Ceci Miller says:

    KYG,
    We appreciate your discretion in light of our Editorial Policy, and your willingness to explain further. We’ll be in touch shortly by email.
    Cindy and Ceci

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