A Vivid Presence

I just got word that my friend, Thrinley diMarco passed away, on Sunday, April 12, on San Juan Island. She was 83. I’m very sad. When i read this, for one instant i thought i should call her up and say, Hey, Thrinley, did you hear about your dying?! The news was so absurd and you would just want to tell her something of such import. She was just so present, a vivid soul. She was also a supporter of my work, in the sense of moral support, for decades would often send a little email reply to say, Wonderful! or something like that, when she got one of my email newsletters. And once in awhile we had very deep talks.

Thrinley, San Juan Island

We had some things in common–she was a real communicator, and as the caretaker/manager of the temple on the island (Sakya Kachod Choling), was the glue and engine for that Buddhist community for many, many years. I know that it wasn’t just me for whom she was supportive, but can imagine that everyone up there was the recipient of her warmth, confidence-instilling, cheerleading…which came from deep within her, somewhere around her solar plexus–you could just feel that viscerally, like she was implanting this same engine within you.

At the same time, she was an equal friend. She was capable of sharing her own deep feelings and stories from her life that illustrated lessons that she learned along the way, including mistakes that she had made. But with her perspective you could see how wonderful it is to be human, to be capable of also making mistakes, and yet to see it as part of joining the human race, with all our foibles…and with all the beauty.

What a wonderful artist, too. Pottery, collage, etc. The tiny house she built for her retirement, while in her later 70s was gorgeous. Not long ago, just last fall, she had it moved from that steep hillside next to the temple, down near town onto her son’s property. I was so glad, kind of relieved, as i can imagine were all her friends and family… And she had six children! She was of Italian descent, and part of that dynamism seemed to spring from that, too.

The last time i saw her was probably last summer, in the post office in Friday Harbor. She was with her sister who was visiting from out of town. We were SO happy to run into each other, and so we sat for awhile on a bench and talked. She had grown incredibly frail, incredibly fast, which had that jarring effect, of waking up (once again) to the impermanence of life. Even Thrinley…

Oh gosh, this has been a year for me of losing people who feel like personal supporters–in a variety of ways. Last summer five old friends, all extraordinary men, died, who i had been close to, one of them like a brother, all of them respected my work and capabilities. My mother-in-law, Margi gone, too, though it felt different because she had already been on her way for quite some time. I guess this is what it’s like to edge up to our own cliff of life and death. One begins losing people, and then we’re out here on our own, in a way, hopefully capable of standing strong in our own core of confidence, cheering others on…

om mani peme hung

Champion of Humankind

Thirty years ago on a June day my friend Susan invited me to tea and to meet her husband, Rick. She had been telling me bits and pieces about the Tibetan Buddhism that they practiced, but said that Rick would be the one to convey it to me more completely. I carved out time on my birthday, as a gift to myself, and anticipated the day with great eagerness.

They lived high up in a small apartment at the local Episcopal church, coincidentally in the Seattle neighborhood where I’d grown up. Rick worked as caretaker of the church. He’d been a semi-pro tennis player, tall and fit. He had been working on an avante-garde film with his friend, Torbin, a famous Danish Buddhist and tennis star.

Susan and Rick, warm and welcoming, gave me tea and invited me to sit on their floor with them, the only seating in their living room. Rick spoke long about Buddhism, then lent me three books. I admired their altar with so many objects that I did not yet comprehend, including photos of their teachers. I was spellbound. When I finally left with a full heart, clutching the books, I had a sense that I’d found the spiritual home i’d been searching for – for years, or perhaps my whole life.

In the following months I returned to discuss the books, or further thoughts. They invited me to attend a weekend retreat with their teacher, who became my teacher. I was entering a world at once familiar and exotic. The teacher had spoken about duality and non-duality. I had no idea what this meant, along with so many other concepts. I turned to Rick’s depth of philosophy and understanding for answers.

Susan, with her southern accent, was very down-to-earth, someone I related to easily, an instant sister. And in fact, this quality of hers convinced me that Tibetan Buddhism would not be so esoteric that I couldn’t reach for it. But it took Rick’s facile and patient explanations to lead me, and his openness to one’s own inner process to give me confidence. Their teacher was Tibetan, rarely visiting Seattle, and anyway, remote, traveling the world to his many hundreds of students. It was left to someone like Rick to introduce beginners like me to this form of Buddhism.

In those early days I joined their group which met weekly in their small apartment where we chanted and sang a collection of Tibetan prayers. I dove straight in and loved it from the start. Through the years we attended retreats together, practices, and got together for discussions. Then, my life took adventurous turns, going to Asia, meeting a Tibetan teacher whom I brought back to Seattle, too much to tell. By that time, Rick and Sue’s involvement with their sangha had cooled, and they went into a long period of reflection, while my life was taken up more than ever with my teacher and his Buddhist teachings.

But Rick’s inordinate calling to philosophy, to inquiry of the mind, and to community, wasn’t going to stop there. I saw this when, after many years, I reconnected with them both. I learned about their long involvement with dialogue groups, with contemporary western philosophers sometimes mixing with Buddhism, and a particular avenue of communication. It was intriguing, but what I was most caught by was the continuation of this beautiful aspiration of both Rick and Sue to help others to see, to find their way—not only others, but themselves, and within their relationship, each other. …And this was fueled by a deep confidence in the inner process, and a great, great humanity.

Rick New’s life ended yesterday, July 9, 2019, and humankind has lost one of its champions.

Happy 20th

Wishing the Kilung Foundation a Happy 20th Anniversary!
It was created officially in November of 1998, and here we are at 20 years! Not only maintaining, but expanding, with beautiful accomplishments all along. Kilung Rinpoche is still leading and teaching, an actual temple on Whidbey Island is about to welcome practitioners, and countless benefits have been extended to the people of Dzachuka, Tibet. 

Thank you to everyone who has participated, by volunteering and donating, and by practicing and supporting the Buddhadharma. And deep gratitude to Rinpoche for coming to the West in the first place, then deciding to stay, with his remarkable and enduring wisdom to lead the way.


PS: I accompanied Kilung Rinpoche to Monroe Penitentiary this week where he gave refuge vows to nine inmates in the medium security prison where i’ve been teaching over the past year. It was tremendously moving as you can imagine. This was his second visit; his first was one year ago.

Gonpo, the Lion Hearted

My great friend and Tibetan nephew, Gonpo, died today, at age 41. There’s no big message here, just sadness. Of course we could discuss the three diseases he died of, and the state of health facilities on the Tibetan plateau. But today, only sadness.

I met Gonpo in 2002, when i first traveled to Tibet with Kilung Rinpoche, Gonpo’s uncle. He was one of many monks who were so curious to meet me, curious and warm-hearted. Gonpo stood out as incredibly open, forthcoming, energetic, and wonderfully hilarious.


Photo by Li Ming Yang

He had a strong baritone voice that emanated from deep inside, like a lion. Later on that trip, some of us traveled from Dzachuka in the east, to Lhasa in the center of Tibet. And there Gonpo revealed himself as a protector, willing to do whatever it takes for someone in need. In this case, me.

Our small group had been planning to circumambulate Mt Kailash. But something had come up for me, an interpersonal thing with one of the westerners going on the trip, and i felt i could no longer go. I was in tears explaining it all to Rinpoche, with Gonpo sitting there listening to this in English, not comprehending the words, but the meaning. All at once, he looked at Rinpoche and said in Tibetan, he would forgo the trip—his chance to make the lifetime Kailash pilgrimage—in order to stay with me. Can you imagine this? Further, he had a duty, in a way, to stay with Rinpoche as his attendant. Understanding all of this, I was deeply touched, and will never forget his offer. Of course I declined. Tears, yes, but i knew i would be okay, and didn’t wish to be the cause of such a sacrifice.

There were more trips to Tibet and more meetings and adventures with Gonpo. I watched him once in a passionate fight with his brother, thinking one of them was going to kill the other—Gonpo was interrupting some alcohol-driven action of his brother, and his brother had a large knife—again, Gonpo as protector.

Every westerner we brought with us to Dzachuka was charmed by Gonpo in his imp manifestation, including the time he reached through an open window and smeared a female relative’s face with a huge handful of cake frosting. He was often the cause of belly laughing.

I watched him mature, taking on increasing responsibilities at the monastery. He was a doer, with this combination of fearlessness, big-heartedness, and capability. He was his uncle’s right-hand at the monastery, and indispensable for his family and community.

So, in 2009, when I was in India with extra weeks on my hands, his uncle asked me to help Gonpo, who had crossed the border to seek medical treatment. Of course I said yes. I became his advocate at the hospital, with doctors and medical technicians, and I learned how to navigate the health system in New Delhi. After the main treatments were completed, together with his cousin, we three made a pilgrimage up and back to some Himalayan destinations. And Gonpo and I continued looking after each other all along the way. When i put them on a bus in that hot, dusty Delhi parking lot, headed back home to Tibet, I didn’t know that would be our last meeting.

I thought Gonpo had been cured—of two diseases, Hydatid disease and Hep B —in China and in India. But no. More recently add to that a third, TB. You can look up the first one. Difficult. Dzachuka has one of the highest incidences per capita in the world.

Even though he went out of this life too early, Gonpo lived well and completely. He was beloved by countless people, including that brother of his, who did recover himself, now settled down with wife and kids.

I remember one time in my thirties, saying to someone, a stranger on a bus, “I’ve lived so fully at this point, if i were to die tomorrow i’d feel satisfied.” I think Gonpo could say this, too. Yes, young, but a beautiful life, a beautiful being.

He’s being honored by Kilung Monastery, his body being brought into the sacred space there, prepared for a lama’s cremation.

Om mani peme hung