Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Tale of Two Chiefs

His Holiness Karmapa teaching at

Paramount Theatre in Seattle,

May 31, 2008. Photographer:

James Gritz. Copyright 2008

by Karmapa Foundation.

"I aspire that I become a part of you, and whatever I am becomes a part of benefiting others and the world. I don't fear losing myself anymore. I want whatever is a part of me to be a part of everyone else. My body will return to India, but my mind will stay with you. My parting aspiration for you is that you will receive a part of me and know that we will never be apart."
-- Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje, the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa
June 1, 2008 Seattle, Washington

The only known photograph of Chief Seattle, taken in the 1860s.

One hundred and fifty years after Chief Seattle implored the white conquerors of his Suquamish people and homeland to honor the sacred connection between all living beings a young Tibetan dharma chief came to this emerald city to proclaim his Aspiration for the World in the 21st century.

It was altogether fitting and auspicious that the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje's first visit to the West which began a continent away amidst the skyscrapers of Manhattan concluded in the Puget Sound city that bears Chief Seattle's name.

It is a watery land infused with dralas and buddhadharma, surrounded by spectacular snow-capped volcanoes, the rugged Cascades, and the stunning Olympic mountains on the edge of the vast Pacific. An ecosystem graced by temperate rainforests of old-growth Douglas fir and cedar, orcas and salmon cavorting in the ocean and rivers, eagles and osprey soaring through the heavens. A landscape that inspires vast vision and profound reverence for the natural world. Gateway to the Pacific Northwest, and birthplace of Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks Coffee, and Jimi Hendrix.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at Nalanda West in Seattle, June 1, 2008. Photographer: James Gritz. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.

Seattle is home to the oldest Sakya center in North America and headquarters of Nalandabodhi, the international Buddhist organization directed by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Karma Kagyu heart son and principal organizer of the Karmapa's U.S. visit. In the past year Seattle has also become a respite for the ailing maha yogi Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Ponlop Rinpoche's guru and beloved teacher of thousands of Kagyu practitioners worldwide.

With their ecological consciousness and vigorous lifestyle Seattle residents were a natural audience for His Holiness' imperative of environmental preservation which he proclaimed half a world away at the 25th Kagyu Monlam prayer festival in Bodhgaya in December: "We will not give up on the Earth! May there be peace on Earth! May the Earth be sustained for many thousands of years!"

Indeed the Karmapa's words echoed Chief Seattle's warning: "The Earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons of the Earth. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family."


Ning-Su Ong and I flew up to Seattle from Oakland, California on Wednesday May 28 for a meeting that evening for everyone working security for the Karmapa's visit. Nalanda West was in a flurry of activity to prepare for His Holiness' arrival the next day.

As soon as we walked in the front door we encountered many old dharma friends and veterans of the 16th Karma's three visits to the West half a lifetime ago assuming their posts after a 28-year hiatus. Juanita Evans, Walker Blaine, Susan Drommond, Eric Salter, John Fox and many others were immersed in preparations for hospitality and service.

Upstairs the shrineroom was already set up for the tea and rice ceremony to greet His Holiness and his party the next afternoon. Snooping at the guest cards my heart leapt when I saw a seat reserved for Khenpo Rinpoche in the front row directly before the throne just in case he decided to come (which he didn't). I had visited Khenpo Rinpoche in Seattle in late January, having the good fortune of one of his last interviews before retreating back into seclusion because of his health. There was also a front row seat reserved for the action film actor Steven Seagal, allegedly an incarnate lama (another no show).

Loyal kasung, many with graying locks or receding hairlines, assembled in the shrineroom for the security meeting, dutifully signing up for overnight shifts to protect His Holiness while he slept. Jack Elias, John Harding, Jesse Miller, Alan Alioto, and Bob Salskov were conscripted into service as lieutenants under the command of Will Quan, a martial arts expert and Seattle Shambhala Center member. The only mental sign of our aging force was some muddled confusion over how best to distribute the security badges.

The younger generation of practitioners enthusiastically stepped forth into leadership posts, too: Jeannette Miller, a Bay Area transplant to Seattle, assumed the mantle of head of security for His Holiness' teachings at the Paramount Theatre with her able lieutenants Rianne Reichner and Greg LeClair.

Consummate kusung Bob Salskov was in charge of security for the inner mandala of His Holiness' residence. After the meeting he led his volunteer conscripts up the backstairs behind the shrineroom to show us the guard posts outside the newly-built apartment for His Holiness. The pungent smell of fresh paint permeated the air. Like the paint, my memories were still fresh of riding up to the 1979 Kalapa Assembly in Big Sky, Montana with Bob and Samten Nagarajian and spending the night in Jackson Hole, Wyoming when the ball bearings on his car broke.

His Holiness Karmapa's welcoming ceremony in Seattle, May 29, 2008. Photographer: James Gritz. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.

In an alcove above the shrineroom Margaret and Jim Drescher, household managers for His Holiness' visit, were sorting through boxes like church mice in an attic. Seeing the Dreschers working together again on a new Karmapa's visit -- this time as grandparents -- stirred the storehouse of my memory again. We had served together at a reception for the 16th Karmapa at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco in November 1976 the night he arrived for his second tour of North America. Jim was head of service for His Holiness' entire visit, an auspicious beginning for his and Margaret's life together.

My most vivid memory of that evening was His Holiness' hearty laugh and broad smile when a reporter at the press conference asked him if he could make it rain and bring an end to California's drought like he did at the Hopi Reservation during his first visit in 1974.


The next afternoon Jesse Miller stationed me on the middle landing of the stairway leading up to the shrineroom as a procession of invited guests arrived for the tea and rice ceremony. I was getting vertigo watching the guests trudge up and down the stairs awaiting His Holiness' arrival. The ever present Peter Volz escorted VIPs up the stairs and to their seats, handing them plastic bags for their shoes. Outside the shrineroom several Nalanda West members fervently attended to a crucial last minute errand for Ponlop Rinpoche. As they bolted down the stairs I heard the ominous word "Starbucks."

Two monks play Tibetan instruments at the welcoming ceremony in Seattle, May 29, 2008. Photographer: James Gritz. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.

Suddenly the sound of Tibetan horns echoed up from the street, and I rushed to the window with the crowd to catch our first glimpse of the 17th Karmapa. Several Nalandabodhi leaders were overcome by emotion that His Holiness was finally arriving at their center after so many long months of organizing his visit.

Unfortunately Jesse Miller came up the stairs in time to catch me derelict in my duty. "You left your post! Don't leave your post!" he chided me, shaking his head as I slunk guiltily back down to the landing below. But when His Holiness entered the shrineroom from a back staircase Jesse waved me off my post in resignation and motioned me to stand outside the shrineroom next to Ning-Su where I could see. When I looked back Jesse was dutifully standing at my post true to his Shambhala name, Great Eastern Yak.

We recited the refuge, bodhicitta, mandala offering and other chants as a fleet of servers moved deftly down the aisles offering saffron rice with currants and Tibetan tea to the guests. Jacek, a good-humored Polish disciple of Khenpo Rinpoche who was cooking for His Holiness, stood at the shrineroom door wearing a white chef's uniform. Jim Gritz, the official visit photographer, moved deftly around the overflowing shrineroom snapping photos while documentary filmmaker Mark Elliot artfully wielded his video camera.

His Holiness Karmapa contemplates his first sip of Starbucks coffee at the welcoming ceremony in Seattle, May 29, 2008. Photographer: Gregg Rock. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.

Suddenly two young women barristas wearing green Starbucks' aprons marched down the shrineroom aisles up to the throne and presented the Karmapa with a mug of freshly-brewed Starbucks coffee,* a welcoming drink to Seattle from Ponlop Rinpoche. His Holiness gingerly took his first ever sip of coffee, screwed up his face, and pronounced it "strong."

To repay his host the Karmapa told the overflowing shrineroom of devotees and dignitaries a few tales about Ponlop Rinpoche's predecessor who he described as a very large man. One day the previous Ponlop Rinpoche lost his favorite spoon which he used for eating tsampa. After searching everywhere the missing spoon was finally discovered tucked away securely in one of his ripples of fat.

His Holiness also animatedly recounted his trip to Disneyland earlier in the week where he went on the Indiana Jones ride and caught a bad cold after being doused with water. He apologized for being under the weather and cutting short his welcoming remarks.

Out in the foyer I offered cups of Tibetan tea to two of the thirsty State Department Security officers assigned to His Holiness during his U.S. visit. They asked if it had salt; when I answered yes they grimaced and rejected my offering, having had their fill, no doubt, after nearly two weeks of guarding the Karmapa.

When the welcoming ceremony was over and we finally cleared all the guests and dishes from the shrineroom and foyer John Harding assigned Ning-Su and I to the guard posts at the front of the shrineroom for the next event, an audience with western teachers.

His Holiness was introduced to 36 teachers, predominantly from Nalandabodhi and Nitartha Institute, lamas from Kalu Rinpoche's centers, and Khenpo Rinpoche's preeminent translators Karl Brunnholz, Elizabeth Callahan, and Ari Goldfield.

The Karmapa stressed the importance of belonging to an authentic unbroken lineage and teaching from a genuine transmission rather than an eclectic approach. He observed that western Buddhists tend to regard all dharma teachings equally, failing to recognize that some teachings are more important than others and should be given greater priority.

Nalanda West, Seattle, May 29, 2008. Photographer: James Gritz. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.

Paul and Jenny Warwick had driven down from Bellingham for the audience, and afterwards we went out to dinner at a nearby sushi restaurant. Their car was stuffed with sleeping bags and tents because the Warwick clan, including Jenny's sister from Wisconsin, was converging on Seattle for the Karmapa's teachings and planned to camp out in Jenny's cousin's backyard.

It was the first time that Ning-Su and the Warwicks had seen each other since leaving their three-year retreat at Gampo Abbey in August. They had plenty to catch up on since Ning-Su had recently returned from a pilgrimage to sacred Buddhist sites in India and China, including Bodhgaya, Tso Pema, and Wu T'ai Shan mountain.


Friday morning I arrived for my 7:30 security shift just as His Holiness and his party were preparing to depart for his eye doctor appointment followed by sightseeing in Seattle. The drivers and attendants were buzzing around outside with earphones and short-wave radio communications. Jim Gritz and Mark Elliot were poised with cameras ready to record the Karmapa's departure from Nalanda West.

Gregg Conlee, now living on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, rushed around packing provisions for the day's outing, stepping back into the familiar role of attendant and front man that he had performed in his youth for the 16th Karmapa. Once again vivid memories drifted back of Gregg and Ludwig Turzanski gleefully holding tall water glasses filled with scotch in a Boulder backyard in winter 1977 as pungent juniper smoke billowed from a Gesar of Ling lhasang the Karmapa performed for the sangha's prosperity at the end of his visit (the tsok torma was probably 90% scotch). "His Holiness gave this to us and told us to drink it," they grinned.

After His Holiness drove off in the limousine Mark expressed a filmmaker's satisfaction about getting a nice artistic shot of the 17th Karmapa through the tinted car window. Mark was shooting a documentary of His Holiness' historic first visit to the U.S., just as he had directed the celebrated "Lion's Roar" documentary about the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. Mark was also one of the chief people responsible for building the 16th Karmapa's stupa in Crestone, Colorado. Although the 17th Karmapa has been eager to see Crestone and his predecessor's stupa his two-day visit to Colorado was too brief to squeeze in a trip down to the remote San Luis Valley this year.

Mark was clearly exhausted, having flown to New York to film the Karmapa's arrival in the West from Nepal where he had just spent four months shooting a documentary about Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and his tulku who will be enthroned at Shechen monastery this fall. After weathering the frenetic New York scene Mark recruited his son to serve as his right hand man in documenting His Holiness' visit in Boulder. The young man provided the assistance and support his father badly needed. "It was a father's dream," Mark said proudly.

While His Holiness and his party visited Seattle's signature Space Needle and enjoyed a ferry ride around Puget Sound the visit staff at Nalanda West prepared for two large audiences when he returned. The audiences for Nalandabodhi members and the Tibetan community turned out to be the most devotional events during the Karmapa's Seattle visit.

Once again John Harding stationed me and Ning-Su in the front of the shrineroom for the Nalandabodhi audience. Jesse Miller came over and instructed me to look at the audience and not His Holiness, and not to recite the chants and songs (I kept an eye on Jesse during the audience to make sure he didn't see me chanting). This time I had the best post stationed right next to Ponlop Rinpoche who entertained me with his humorous gestures and funny faces.

The shrineroom was overflowing as Nalandabodhi members and other devoted Kagyu students from all over North America gave His Holiness a rousing Karma Kagyu welcome to Seattle singing Milarepa's Song of Meaningful Connections. It was truly a family affair as Nalandabodhi translator Tyler Dewar joyfully carried his two-year-old daughter into the shrineroom.

Many of these people had devoted months of their lives to organizing the visit. Now the Karmapa was actually sitting on the throne right before them in their own shrineroom, the culmination of all their hard work. Sitting next to Ponlop Rinpoche I was overcome with gratitude and appreciation for his compassion and skillful means that had broken through the Indian bureaucracy's recalcitrance to finally grant His Holiness permission to visit the West.

His Holiness expressed his gratitude for Nalandabodhi's hospitality and remarked that they had built him a nicer apartment for his short visit to Seattle than his residence at Gyuto monastery in Dharamsala, India.

The Karmapa spoke of genuine devotion and noted that while Ponlop Rinpoche may not look like Vajradhara -- lacking blue skin and the marks of a Buddha, and barefoot to boot -- he nonetheless is an authentic guru. At this remark Ponlop Rinpoche impishly wiggled his feet as the shrineroom erupted in laughter.

Addressing a gnawing concern on everyone's mind the Karmapa said he's convinced that Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche is in complete control of his body and can get well and be restored to good health if he is supplicated to do so. His Holiness said he is supplicating Khenpo Rinpoche to get well and urged all of us to do the same.

He said he couldn't speak for the West but patriarchy continues to be a problem in the East and must be abolished.

Tackling another hot topic the Karmapa spoke of how Asian countries have misinterpreted the Buddha's teachings to sanction patriarchy and oppression of women. He said he couldn't speak for the West but patriarchy continues to be a problem in the East and must be abolished. This was a truly remarkable breakthrough that left many of the audience stunned by His Holiness' frankness in denouncing a controversial subject which other Buddhist teachers have skirted for years.

His Holiness Karmapa teaching at Paramount Theatre in Seattle, May 31, 2008. Photographer: James Gritz. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.

His Holiness' overt feminism marked a clear demarcation from his predecessor's generation and signaled an egalitarian vision bringing ancient Buddhist wisdom in line with contemporary social values. When the 16th Karmapa visited the West women were prohibited from serving him or even wearing pants in his presence. The sight of the two young barristas serving His Holiness a mug of Starbucks coffee during the welcoming ceremony in Seattle underscored this generational shift.

Nalandabodhi officers presented carefully selected gifts to the Karmapa: an Air Mac laptop computer, music software in honor of Seattle's music culture, a bronze and copper eagle symbolizing the U.S., and the keys to his Nalandabodhi apartment as an open invitation to return.

The audience concluded with Tyler and several other musicians leading the assembly in singing their musical composition of Karmapa's exquisite Aspiration for the World.
When the song was over there probably wasn't a dry eye in the shrineroom.

Afterwards during our de-briefing I noticed a Seattle policewoman talking with Jesse Miller in the foyer. When we went outside I saw why she was there. Some 500 Tibetans of all ages were lined up the length of an entire city block on the street in front of Nalanda West waiting patiently for their audience with His Holiness. Seattle police officers confined the large but peaceful crowd to the sidewalk, and patrol cars blocked off the entrance to the street.

It was truly an inspiring sight to behold. So many Tibetans had arrived to receive His Holiness' blessings that he had to give two separate audiences to accommodate the crowd.

My heart and mind broke wide open as His Holiness' wisdom and compassion perforated through my thick skull and self-clinging. It seemed the Buddha himself had returned to our world realm.

*On its website, Seattle-based Starbucks Coffee Company boasts of being "the leading retailer, roaster and brand of specialty coffee in the world."


Blogger dharmagaian said...

Thank you, Walter and Joanne, for posting this blog with these photos. It looks beautiful. Thank you, Chris, for writing this account of HHK's arrival and first days in Seattle. I appreciate your framing the Karmapa's environmental message in relation to Chief Seattle's message. Chief Seattle warned the white man about the consequences of commodifying the land, water, and other creatures. Of course, the white man didn't heed the warning, and now we have a major crisis in the biosphere. Now the 17th Karmapa comes to America to tell us we must heal our relationship with the Earth and elements. This is true dharma! May we so aspire and may it be so.


June 9, 2008 7:48 AM  
Blogger Will said...

Will Quan here. Just a couple of corrections - I'm actually technically a member of Shambhala and am a Dorje Kasung. I'm a great friend of Nalandabodhi.
The Security Staff in Seattle were mainly Dorje Kasung. Rianne Reichner was my very brilliant Second in Command. Jeanette Miller's Lieutenants were Tara Slone and Greg Leclair.
Will Quan

June 18, 2008 2:14 PM  
Blogger Molly DeShong said...

Chris, what a splendid piece of blogging, of event reporting, and of dharma teaching. Thank you for this!
Molly DeShong

June 27, 2008 9:06 AM  
Blogger woodenclouds said...



I met and served HH Karmapa the 16th in the 70s. I have written to His Holiness the 17th over the years since he came to the west. I was not able to go to see Him on this tour of the US because of lack of funds.

I am glad to say that this blog has helped me to connect with him in an intimate way. I can hardly read his words here without leaking all over my laptop. Thank you so much.


Bob Brown

Shambhala Meditation Group
of Bellevue/Battle Creek, MI
SokukoJi Buddhist Community
Battle Creek, MI


June 27, 2008 2:10 PM  
Blogger Eti said...

Unluckily, the day of the arrival of the karmapa, with all this security business, - a word which keeps coming repeatedly in this blog- in spite of having traveled from France (11000 km) we spend 3 hours outside in the sun on the footstept without being admitted. We were not offered even a glass of water. At least we had the pleasurre to see people passing in front of us with loaded trays of ice drinks.
During the time all the VIP were celebrating, we were allowed to contemplate benches but not to sit on them. Otherwise it would have represented the incredibly dangerous task of moving the 80 cms inside the front yard which was completely empty of course)

I came back in the hotel with a sunburst on my head, exhausted by the 9 hrs jetlag plus standing up 3 hours in the sun and a relatively pissed off spouse.

The only nice thing is Ponlop rimpoche went to shake hands with me. He came to my place in France and I think you could say we appreciate each other in spite of having no security system whatsoever when we met . Not only that, I have no training in military stuff but I am pretty sure the whole thing was purely useless. Just bring a grenade, throw it away to the right time when the karmapa leaves the car and that was it.

Otherwise everything went well and we had a great time in Seatlle, a beautiful city ; I was so pleased to see His Holiness again and my wife too !

I just wanted to let you know my european feeling that some people should cool down with this security business.It's good you invited His Holiness but spirituality doesn't have to be owned only by a few happy ones. To be copyrighted so to speak.

July 14, 2008 6:40 AM  
Blogger Chris Keyser said...

I would like to respond to Eti's comment about the security overkill for the Karmapa's U.S. teachings. First of all, I was a mere sangha volunteer and had nothing to do with arranging the security for the Karmapa's visit to the U.S. which was overseen by the Dalai Lama's security chief and the U.S. State Department's diplomatic security office. You should know, however, that the security was in response to some various serious threats on the Karmapa's life. I think you would agree that his safety and security are of paramount importance. The world desperately needs the wisdom and compassion of this brilliant young Tibetan teacher to guide us for many, many years to come.

July 14, 2008 6:44 PM  
Blogger Eti said...

OK Chris, I was a bit excessive ! After all, we had not been invited !
But when you say "The world desperately needs the wisdom and compassion of this brillant young Tibetan teacher to guide us for many, many years to come.", I agree totally with that but I cannot prevent thinking people can already start to practice a little compassion themselves like offering a glass of water to a tired traveler when it entails absolutely no risk for whomsoever.
Oh anyway, all this is already finished...Jean Renoir, the french moviemaker used to say : " Problem is everyone has his good reasons".
That 's life.
Take good care.

July 15, 2008 10:14 AM  
Blogger Hibeamer said...

This post has been removed by the author.

January 21, 2009 5:55 PM  
Blogger Hibeamer said...

Kindly ask Ning Su Ong to contact me. I have lost her contact information. She may reach me by email: hcullimo@library.berkeley.edu or my work phone: 510-643-1477.
Thank you and delete if possible after read, Holliday Cullimore

January 21, 2009 5:58 PM  

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