Four moments of truth
by Natalie Dawson
Natalie Dawson first heard the Vidyadhara speak in Berkeley, California in 1976 and received meditation instruction at the Dharmadhatu that fall. Besides Berkeley, she was a sangha member in New York, New Haven, and Boston before moving to Halifax in 1987. She also lived at Karmê Chöling as co-head of Practice and Study in 1991-92. Practice has always been her primary emphasis, though she has also served as dekyong, including being the first Head Dekyong in Boston for one year and co-chair of the Dekyong Council in Halifax for two years. She continues to live and work in Halifax.
Another Parinirvana Day has come and gone, and after reading one sangha member's recounting of her experience, I'm inspired to write mine I'm sure each of us has an equally vivid one.
I was living in Boston at the time of the Vidyadhara's 1986-87 illness, and we in the sangha there had been doing intense practice because of this on and off for months. I recall that during that first week in April 1987 we were getting various messages from Halifax and it was unclear what his condition was. That Saturday, April 4, it was pouring rain outside, grey and chilling, and the shrine room was full as we continued our practice, still hoping that he would once more confound the doctors and bounce back.
There was a short break for dinner and I went home. As I was listening to a song from Peter Gabriel's album "So" called "Don't Give Up" I was inspired to write this poem:
I practice all day, all week,
trying to be with you in your illness, my pain,
and clarity dawns. But still
I want a break, I go home to brandy and music.
"Don't give up" they sing; "Rest your head
you worry too much" and the haunting
drum melody echoes with the mantras
I've been chanting and the chilled April rain.
I know your teaching will continue
when you leave, I know I owe my life to you
and will continue to do so.
How can I beg you to stay?
After the break, I returned once more to the Dharmadhatu, and as soon as I walked in the door was given the news: The Vidyadhara had died. It was a shock and not a shock, and as I was one of the first ones back, I was given the job of telephoning a portion of the sangha to tell them the news. Having this official duty helped me to retain my composure.
When the telephoning was finished, I joined the steady stream of people that once more began to fill the shrine room. I was totally unprepared for the brilliance of the environment; the very air seemed to be shimmering with barely contained energy. We had been burning many candles all day during the practice, and more were lit now, all around the shrine, but I know it wasn't just the candles providing the vivid, alive light.
I could hardly move or hold a thought during the practice that evening, and this feeling continued all day Sunday in the shrine room as well. I had heard that when a great teacher dies this can affect the total environment, but I had no idea the sense of his presence would be so palpable, so full, more so for me than it had ever been when he had actually been present in the flesh.
We soon heard that all the Vidyadhara's students were invited to Halifax to be present with him during his samadhi. I didn't really know what this meant, and at first I didn't plan to go, didn't know if I could take the time off work. But then one of my housemates, Roger Tucker, spoke passionately of what an opportunity, what a necessity this was, that we would regret it for the rest of our lives if we didn't go. So a couple of days later, along with other Boston sangha members, I was on a plane to Halifax.
We arrived in the afternoon and only stayed until early the next morning, and most of that short trip to Halifax is now a blur. I remember going to Karma Dzong and standing in some kind of a line, later arriving at the Court and sitting quietly with many others, awaiting our turn to be in the room with the Vidyadhara. I didn't know what to expect. Finally we were ushered in and squeezed together to face the shrine-like compartment where he sat, many of his garments and accessories arranged around, a kusung on duty, an umdze leading us in some chanting, a practice that I can't now recall.
We were only there for about 15 minutes, but it was long enough for me to know that I would never again be without the reality of his presence. As I stared at his very real but unreal body that seemed to be shifting slightly moment by moment, I felt his essence being etched onto my mind. During his life, I had never spent much time around him, but now I felt I was permanently and physically branded with him.
The only other thing I remember clearly from that trip to Halifax was waiting to go to the airport early the next morning, standing outside in the soft blanket of fog, the spring dampness enveloping me, and wishing I could remain and be living in Halifax, despite the Vidyadhara's no longer being alive here. I had applied for landed immigrant status a few months earlier but had so far had no response.
I had first visited Halifax the previous summer and immediately felt at home, and so I began my immigration process as soon as I returned to Boston. I had begun to lose hope that I'd be accepted and so in January had visited Toronto, with the idea that perhaps I could find a job and get a work permit there, and then eventually be able to make my way to Halifax, where I really longed to be.
When I returned to Boston after the Parinirvana, there was a letter from immigration informing me that I had an interview. In those days, this was the same as saying that you were accepted as a landed immigrant - the interview was just a formality. Even though I knew that letter had probably been mailed several days earlier, it felt like a magical gift from my guru.
I've now been living in Halifax almost 16 years, and there are still many days when I feel that living here is the same as living in the Vidyadhara's body, in his physical essence. Especially early in the morning on those foggy spring days that remind me of his samadhi, I feel wrapped in his warm and comforting presence. How fortunate I am, thanks to his invitation and request, to be living in this province of No Big Deal.
Here is a poem that I wrote following a retreat in December 1997, as I was recalling the times the Vidyadhara had the greatest impact on me: Seminary vajrayana transmission, Vajrayogini abhisheka, my one private interview with him, and experiencing his samadhi.
Four Moments of Truth
First you waved your fan and I gawked as time stood still.
Then I entered your world stunned by clouds of incense and blessings.
Finally I faced you and you kissed me, answering all my unasked questions.
And when you died I faced you again, receiving the full penetration of your mind.
© 2003 by Natalie Dawson.