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!”