Friday, July 10, 2009

They might be giants: Old-school Tibetan lamas in 1970s Berkeley

Yesterday I went off to the Academy of Chinese Culture & Health Sciences teaching clinic in downtown Oakland, where they are training new acupuncturist wannabees. I was hoping that they could do something to help my poor knees. And while one of their students was poking me full of needles, we got to talking about Buddhism and soon we were both chatting away, reminiscing on all those old stories from back in the 1960s and 1970s -- back at a time when Berkeley seemed to be suddenly flooded with refugee Tibetan lamas. And not just ANY Tibetan lamas. These ones were the cream of the crop.

And how extraordinary they were!

Does anyone remember The Karmapa? He was the loveliest man in the world. And the poor man had stomach cancer and had just had a major operation and was still giving an empowerment dispite his pain -- and somehow or other I managed to drop baby Joe right onto his lap. To the great lama's credit, he never even flinched even though Joe must have undone some of his stitches at the very least. I was mortified. The Karmapa just smiled.

Then there was Gyaltrul Rinpoche, who tried to teach all us American hippies some of the more exotic practices of Tibetan Buddhism. Good luck with that one! I wanted to learn the practice of staying warm in a blizzard because I have really cold feet and wanted to heat them up -- but the lama said that I was too old to learn it. You gotta start practicing that one when you are four or five years old. "Get an electric blanket!" he advised. So I did. But it just wasn't the same.

I got all pissed off with one lama once because my boyfriend at that time had become more interested in studying Tibetan Buddhism than he had been in studying me. Humph. But we made a deal. The lama would empower me to do divinations if I stopped being so pissed off. But, in the end, it didn't matter one way or another. My boyfriend ran off with another woman anyway.

Of course everyone knows the Dalai Lama. He never made it to Berkeley during that time, but he would pick out lamas over in India who might possibly be intrepid enough to survive a year or two in Bezerkeley and send them over here.

Then there was Chagdud Tulku, a man among men. Trust me. Since the Chinese took over Tibet and destroyed most of the training schools there, they just don't make men like that any more. An unbelievably good artist, an all-around scholar, strong as an ox, a workaholic and a kind-hearted man who would help you with anything, he taught me P'howa, a practice taken from the Tibetan Book of the Dead -- and just in time too! The very next day, my father had a serious heart attack and I was able to save his life.

Chagdud Tulku also taught me Chod -- which is practiced in graveyards. But mostly Chagdud Tulku taught me that the ability to do good deeds is the main reason for living and that it surpasses all other reasons. And he showed me what an evolved human being could be like. He was my favorite. I watched him do P'howa on a dead bird once.

These lamas were mostly born in the 1930s in Tibet. And then there were the older-generation lamas, born in the 1920s and before -- the finest lamas that approximately a millennium of Tibetan lama-training traditions could produce. And we Berkeley hippies were lucky to have them.

There was Gompo Tsedan, a lama who had been through the Communist take-over (all of these lamas had been through that ordeal), had suffered through the flight into India and had ended up living in East Oakland and teaching Dsog Chen. "I'm tired of living abroad," he told us one day. "I don't care how dangerous it is. I want to go back to Tibet." And he did. And, once there, he practiced forgiveness. And even Chinese soldiers came to study with him. I will always remember Gompo Tseden.

Then there was His Holiness Dudjum Rinpoche. He was the most holiest of men. And his daughters all wore designer clothes and hung out in discos. East meets west.

Dingo Kentze? That man was solid as a rock. I'm still surprised that he didn't hold off the Chinese army all by himself -- just by staring them down. And he was a top scholar. And not a mean bone in his body.

And there were other lamas that came to Berkeley back then. One of them was pretty crazy and had his students doing all sorts of weird things. But crazy or not, this lama was powerful. He could even bend the IRS to his will. That old-time training really paid off.

Yeshe Dorje's specialty was ghost-busting. He stayed in my home. But even though Yeshe Dorje tried really hard to exorcise him, we still continued to be haunted by the ghost of Jimi Hendrix. But the ghost did stop waking us up in the middle of the night, and after that I always felt safe in my home. Yeshe Dorje was a powerful lama who harnessed the wrathful energy of human beings -- and turned it into kindness.

And then there came the new generation of lamas, just arriving from India -- and Cambridge. Remember Chogum Trungpa? He used to come over to a friend of mine's house in the evenings, sit around the kitchen table drinking tea with Allan Ginsberg and talk about poetry and I forget all what else.

And me and my friends Paul and Ray would meet every Friday at La Fiesta restaurant on Telegraph Avenue and discuss things like the latest visiting lama, which tantric empowerments were HOT, which dharma groupie was trying to get her claws into which student of tantra, how living in poverty while trying to study Buddhism sucked eggs, my latest boyfriend, who had the most "red strings" (protection cords), road trips to Oregon -- and stuff like that. We called ourselves "The La Fiesta Dharma Center". Recently La Fiesta restaurant moved around the corner to Haste Street, but they still make the best chicken enchilada verde in the world (with the possible exception of Picoso over on Shattuck in Epicurious Garden, across from the Cheese Board).

Then, as me and the acupuncture student continued to tell each other stories about these old-time old-school lamas, I started to remembered all over again how amazing these men were, how evolved. You had to have been there, in Berkeley, back then. Most of these old-school lamas are dying off now and their power and legacy is being lost. But we got to see these men at the height of their powers -- or whatever powers they had left after surviving the ordeals of fleeing Tibet, living on grass for a year as they crossed the Himalayas on foot into India and then living in the refugee camps for almost a decade.

One lama who came to Berkeley to give empowerments had been tortured in Chinese jails for years before he could escape to the West. Half of his head had been bashed in. But he was STILL an amazing man, and a more loving, forgiving and compassionate person than I ever could possibly be.

Those old-time Tibetan Buddhist lamas? They might be giants.

PS: Has hanging out with all these high lamas brought me any good karma? Not really. I still have bad knees, spend my summer vacations in places like Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, Palestine and Burma, hardly anybody buys my books any more, and I just got permanently banned from the Daily Kos!