Within the space of a very few days this past August, four people significant not only in my life but in the lives of so many of my contemporaries passed away. Two of them, the baseball hero Mickey Mantle and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, were famous public figures and, as such, were known, admired and even loved in the peculiar way those who are extremely famous can be known, admired and even loved by millions who have never met them in person. The third was a friend and Dharma brother – Ashley Walker – who was deeply loved in the far more personal and intimate way a rare man such as Ashley can be for his warmth, kindness and gentle good humor. The fourth was Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, a highly respected Tibetan lama from the remote Trehor District of Kham who taught Westerners for many years at the Library in Dharamsala and then at his own center in Dunedin, New Zealand, where he passed away.
I first met Geshe-la – known respectfully by his many Dharma students as Gen Rinpoche: the Precious Teacher – in 1971, a few months after arriving in India for the first time. My childhood friend, Alex Berzin, had been studying with him for about a year and I came to join him. At that time Gen Rinpoche and his long-time attendant Khedrup Tharchin, were living in the ruins of an abandoned house in an area of upper Dalhousie in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. His home consisted of the remains of a kitchen and an adjacent room not much bigger than its only piece of furniture: a platform which served as meditation seat, bed and teaching throne. Everyday, four of us – Alex and I and two young tulkus who served as our translators – would squeeze ourselves into this tiny space to receive lam-rim teachings.
He was always very animated while teaching and his room could barely contain him as he commented forcefully on the text before him. I particularly remember one occasion, when he was telling a story about the effects of anger, how it seemed as if a fierce thunderstorm raged through the room as he demonstrated the sudden rise of this most destructive delusion. I was so frightened that I silently vowed then and there that I would try my hardest never to give him cause for directing such anger at me. Some years later, when I happened to see him taking a walk along a mountain trail with his friend, Geshe Rabten – another powerful teacher from Kham – I easily imagined seeing dozens of malevolent spirits scattering in fright at the approach of these two invincible Dharma warriors.
Perhaps because I was in awe of his strength, or merely because I could not understand a word of his dialect – which, I was told, even other Tibetans had a hard time understanding – I did not develop the same type of warm, personal relationship with Gen Rinpoche that I did with Lama Yeshe. In fact, I remember being very surprised years later when, for the first time, I saw him reveal a most gentle and loving aspect while toying affectionately with a young Tibetan child who was like a niece to him. I could scarcely reconcile this sweet, playful Tibetan uncle with the powerful destroyer of Mara’s forces that I had studied with for so long.
Yet Gen Rinpoche had, in fact, always been extremely kind to me, but it took quite a while before I could fully appreciate the immeasurable depths of this kindness. For many years, first in Dalhousie and then in Dharamsala, I had received numerous teachings at his feet – sometimes for nearly four hours a day – and he never imparted these teachings with less than full enthusiasm. Although he expounded the lam-rim more times than I can remember, the familiar stories with which he illustrated these teachings were always recounted as if for the first time. Furthermore, it was Gen Rinpoche who introduced me and so many of my friends and fellow-students to Nagarjuna, Asanga, Shantideva, Chandrakirti, Atisha and numerous other Indian and Tibetan masters, making their profound works clear, alive and compelling.
When I was about to leave the idyllic setting of the north Indian hills for the first time in several years and face the shock of returning to the West, I asked him for some parting advice. He replied by simply saying, “Remember the compassionate bodhichitta motivation.” Some months later I found myself riding the subway in New York City, and I realized I could read in the worn, worried and preoccupied faces of my fellow passengers life stories of heart-breaking desperation and confusion. At that moment something briefly opened up in my heart that allowed me to see this previously anonymous crowd as my dearest family, and deep sympathy with their plight mixed with the joyful realization that I had been shown the way out of their numbing misery. It was then that I felt indescribably close to Gen Rinpoche, and profoundly grateful for all he had given to me. As a result of such experiences, I found that I felt closer to Gen Rinpoche when I was with others than when I was with him.
Now that I shall never have the opportunity of meeting him again in his old, familiar form, I am reminded of what Atisha said towards the end of his life. To those who would come later and regret they did not have the chance to meet him, he said words to this effect: “There is no reason for regret; those who meet my teachings meet me.” How fortunate to have meet the teachings of Gen Rinpoche!