Karmapa 16th story
Service Visions of Karmapa -- the 16th
May 16, 2008
by Carol Johnstone
Just woke up from a dream about monks ? monks travelling ? and admonitions ? "Don't wear sleeveless blouses," Don't look the Karmapa in the eyes," "Do the 'Kagyu slump" (hunched over, hands in anjali ? palm-to-palm at heart height). With the visit of His Holiness, the Gyalwa Karmapa 17th, I can't help but remember serving his predecessor, the 16th. I am however, not entirely sure about the dates. I'm kind of old now and I may have mixed timings up, but the events themselves are accurate. This is my best guess.
1974: His Holiness made his first visit to the United States. I had been a buddhist for only a few years ? I count it from 1972, when I first heard Trungpa Rinpoche give a talk at the Newman Centre in Berkeley, on how he'd made the Western world his guru. Before that I was a Hindu with Ananda Marga for three years. I very much appreciated the buddhist view on the truth of suffering. It felt like straight talk at last.
Blue and grey standing and sitting hours in halls outside the suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco ? a pit stop for the Karmapa on his way from Tibet, via China, to Boulder. My first shifts as a Dorje Kasung, when they let the women join, because there weren't enough bodies on the ground to cover the visit like we wanted to.
But, I missed what I call the "mysto zappo" of Hinduism. One of my fears when I became a Buddhist was that I would fall into Samadhi (an ecstatic kind of trance state) and fall over in the middle of doing Shamatha (regular mindfulness awareness meditation) and embarrass myself. The Regent (who had been a Hindu himself before he was a Buddhist) in a later interview told me that if I did, so what? Just label it thinking and continue with the out-breath. Good advice.
I saw the Black Crown ceremony for the first time in 1976, wherein the Karmapa manifests as The Buddha of Compassion, Chenrezig. I was very curious about this Black Crown Ceremony. It was held in a large warehouse in the wharf district of San Francisco. When His Holiness put on the Black Crown, it was like, but more powerful than, a mudra kind of ceremony that Ananda Murti (head of Ananda Marga) did. I think a major difference is that Ananda Marga did not have a lineage per se, especially compared to the 2,500 year old tradition of the Buddha dharma. His Holiness embodied compassion and a hair-raising kind of emptiness that's hard to describe. After that, I felt like I'd come home. Not only did Shambhala Buddhism have the Four Noble Truths, but it also had the mysto-zappo aspects that made it complete for me.
Later. Milarepa time. Bay Area. His Holiness, Trungpa Rinpoche, and the Vajra Regent are all coming to town. His Holiness stayed at a Ms. Hitchcock's four-story (including basement) mansion in Pacific Heights. Ms. Hitchcock (it's rumoured that her claim to fame was that she'd once slept with JFK) made a condition that we couldn't remove anything form her home and that she wanted everything put back in the same condition and place she left it in. That meant we inventoried and videotaped her whole house, labelling and numbering things down to the perfume bottles on her dresser. It meant building a false wall and moving her living room furniture behind it, so we could create an audience room (with throne of course). She also wanted the two fake flies copulating on the ceiling to remain there. Don't know what we did with that. It meant double-sticky taping yellow satin over the naked-dancing-nymph wall-paper in what would be His Holiness' bathroom on the third floor. It meant an awful lot of sewing of yellow satin, far as that goes. I went up to the third floor once during the visit on some errand and one of the monks offered me a chose-up viewing of the black crown. It's quite magnificent.
From Wikipedia: "When the 5th Karmapa, Dezhin Shegpa, met the Chinese Emperor Yung Lo, the Emperor, through his devotion and spiritual realization, was able to perceive Karmapa in the Sambhogakaya form of Vajradhara (Tib. Dorje Chang), wearing a black crown on his head. The Karmapa explained to the Emperor that he could see the 'Vajra Crown', the power-field of wisdom-energy that always stays above the Karmapa's head. The emperor offered to have a physical replica made so that others could receive its blessing. A crown encrusted with precious stones and topped by a huge ruby was commissioned, and using this, the 5th Karmapa started the tradition of the Black Crown Ceremony which was performed by successive Karmapa incarnations up to the time of the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje."
Serving. We'd had lessons in Tibetan serving styles. We would take turns being served and serving great dinners. You will probably be familiar with the classic western style ? linen table cloth, napkin folded on the left. Salad fork, dinner fork on left, coffee spoon, soup spoon on the right with a water glass to the upper right of the dinner plate, perhaps a butter knife laid horizontally above the plate. Serve from the left, remove from the right. We learned how to use a large spoon and fork chopstick style, held in the right hand to serve from a platter or bowl held in the left or from a tray held by a fellow server. Tibetan style was a bit different and in our ecologically correct era will seem rather excessive. The rule was that the plate or bowl was never to be left empty of food. Having been raised with the spectre of starving Armenians (might be Darfurians now) haunting the dinner table, I had learned to eat everything placed before me. Eating this Tibetan way was almost liberating, i.e., only eating as much as I was hungry for.
Werner Erhardt, the erstwhile EST guru, also hosted His Holiness during this time. We'd heard that he put HH up in a house and said something like, "are you hungry? Help yourself to anything in the fridge." And served him Coke in a can. Quite a contrast to what has become known as the Golden Cage" style of service done by us. However, His Holiness didn't appear to care one way or the other for himself. Rinpoche gave a talk about EST I recall at which I think Mr. Erhardt was present. Rinpoche began the talk with "I'm sorry to tell you, but there's no 'It,'" which was a goal of EST training to "get It."
Trungpa had really worked hard himself to set the serving standard we used, showing the way by example, overseeing construction, checking all the details. In the end Rinpoche offered us, his students, to His Holiness. For us, it was a gesture of the trust he had in us to represent him even if he weren't there.
The Regent stayed in another, smaller mansion a few blocks away in Pacific Heights. It only had two stories. I remember doing a 12-hour shift in the entry hall (that turned into 13 hours) managing to almost memorize the Japanese warrior sculpture that hung on the wall opposite my seat (outside the guest bathroom). Coming on shift early in the morning, we could get an "OT special" (OT = Osel Tendzin, the Vajra Regent's buddhist name). An OT special consisted of two eggs, bacon, an English muffin, orange juice, and coffee. Yum. I did do a serving shift with him, bringing in a fully loaded soup bowl and having him draw me down for a kiss (don't ask me why) and gently tipping the soup onto the table and his cigarette case. Stuck with kasungship after that.
Trungpa Rinpoche was staying in a very small two-room suite at the Miyako Hotel in Japan town ?evidently his favourite. I did many a shift outside his door in the hall ? popping up every time the elevator door opened, until the Hotel "dick" came up and asked me what I was doing outside this door. I said I was guarding this Tibetan teacher. He said "That's my job." I said stubbornly, "Well, I have to do it anyway." He left me alone after that.
When Rinpoche left his room, I would wait until he descended in the elevator, then go in and empty the ashtrays and tidy up a bit, then run over to His Holiness' mansion and go on shift there, sometimes beating Rinpoche to the house. He'd give me a bit of a double take sometimes. I think we only had about 10 or 15 kasung for three households, plus events.
1980. The last visit of His Holiness to the Bay Area. He stayed in a "castle" type dwelling in the Berkeley Hills. It actually was made of stone and had internal stairways up the side of the wall with no railings. I went into his bedroom one time to clean. It was full of birds flying loose that he'd rescued or bought on his journey. He was renowned for his ability to speak with birds. He would also buy up all the live food at pet stores, like small fish, or crickets, and drive out to the country and set them free. I remember someone asked him if animals had "souls." The response, I think was ambiguous in good Buddhist form.
That's about it. I haven't been able to travel to see His Holiness the 17th, but hope to whenever he may come to the capital, here in Halifax. I heard the Black Crown is being held hostage at Hi Holiness' traditional monestary at Rumtek in Sikkim, until the issue of who the "real" Karmapa is resolved. This is a big sadness. It's an important part of the Kagyu tradition.