Under a gray Scottish sky, we are driving from Edinburgh to Samye Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist community nestled in the farming country of Ayrshire. We drove through a foggy mist that never turned into rain – a moisture that made you smell the earth, the trees, and the grass.
I was excited in the back seat. I brought a culinary delight for the trip – a Dairylea cheese experience. I loved Kraft Dairylea cheese. Everything about it delighted me right down to the packaging. In my Scottish childhood, Kraft Dairylea Cheese came in flat, disk-shaped boxes. The top of the box was bright green, bright yellow and bright blue with Red and White letters that said, Kraft Dairylea Cheese Spread. When you opened the box, you saw six flat, silver-wrapped wedges. Each wedge had a picture of a cow pasted on top. I loved unwrapping that package. I loved biting into a waxy wedge of cheese from heaven. Dairylea cheese didn’t taste all nasty and sharp like regular cheese, like that nasty red cheddar. Nope, it tasted smooth and bland, just the way I liked it.
So, when Rod and Sissy Burstall offered to drive me down to Samye Ling, the Buddhist monastery in Ayrshire, I decided to bring sandwiches for the trip. Lately I developed a great recipe where I scrambled eggs and mixed in lumps of Dairylea cheese at the end while the eggs were not too hard and so that the cheese was barely melted. Mm-hm, yum! I put this concoction on lovely, buttered, stoneground, wholewheat rolls that I got from the Haymarket bakery.
We were on our way to see a Tibetan Buddhist teacher called Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a revered meditation master. Rinpoche escaped from Tibet in the 1950s during the Chinese invasion. Rinpoche was already 70 years old in 1980. He was a childhood teacher of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Tibet. Chogyam Trungpa founded the Edinburgh Dharma Study Group and an international network of meditation centers.
I didn’t know who Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was. I knew nothing of his decades of retreat practice and the great love and respect held for him in the Tibetan Buddhist world.
We wanted to hear Rinpoche teach and we wanted to take the Buddhist Refuge Vow with him. In the Refuge Vow, we commit to the Buddha (as example), the Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (fellow Buddhists and current teachers). We vow that we will no longer look to samsara for satisfaction. To take this vow with a master teacher is a great honor. I felt excited. The vow ceremony marks this new start in our lives. As part of the ceremony, the teacher will give us a name that is special to us and that reflects Buddhist virtues.
Kaija and I sat in the back seat. Kaija was 19 and Rod and Sissi’s daughter. We were quiet as Rod drove us through the countryside. I looked out at the gloomy landscape.
An hour into the journey, I pulled out the rolls.
When I lived in Edinburgh, I never properly cultivated Rod and Sissi Burstall as friends. Rod was the Coordinator of the Edinburgh Dharma Study group. Sissy his co-host. The Dharma Study group met in their elegant Georgian home in the West End of Edinburgh. Rod & Sissi were an upper middle-class family. Rod and Sissi lived the dream. Rod headed a computer department at Edinburgh University. As my father said when the Burstalls did not come to my wedding, “He writes books, Elaine.”
We had a culture gap. My Dad left high school at 15. He put me through university, but I was still the kid who grew up in a council house. And spent the years since college drinking beer and getting stoned.
What’s funny to me today though is . . . I never had an opinion about anything while I spent my days getting stoned, and living a sloppy life.
But suddenly, when I joined the Dharma Study Group, Buddhism became my passion. Suddenly I had opinions about every little thing. Sissy, for example sewed up these cute round purple cushions with yellow polka dots. And I’m all, ya OK these are nice, but we really want to get the new design that Rinpoche asked us all to use — rectangular blocks of foam and send to the US for the “gomden” covers. We did do that of course over time, and Sissi agreed, but she didn’t have to like it.
Before going on this trip I was reading up on the refuge vow, and I saw a different take on Rod and Sissy. Intentions make up a big part of the vow. One intention is to see people in your life with compassion and don’t see them as polluters who ruined your day. This was not lost on me when I considered my running battles with Rod and Sissi. The word polluters stuck in my mind. The refuge vow study book didn’t say outright take responsibility for your experience, but it pointed there.
So, when I pulled out the rolls, I was happy to have something to contribute to the trip. I got some interesting responses. Sissi said, “That’s sweet of you, Elaine, I’d like one.” Kaija said, “Cool, I’ll have one. Thanks, Elaine.”
Rod wanted a roll, but Sissi said, “You’d better not, Rod. Not while you’re driving. I’ll keep one for you.” Taking a big bite, Sissi said, “Mmm. So what is in this, Elaine?”
“Scrambled eggs and Dairylea cheese!” I said with pride.
“Really?” Sissi said, “I never thought of putting that in a sandwich.”
“It’s my favorite breakfast,” I said. “How d’you like it?”
Sissi continued munching away and turned round to say. “That was quite tasty. Thank you, Elaine!” I felt relieved. The rolls seemed to go over well, and here we all were going on a journey.
It felt like a good day. I looked out the window at the misty countryside. I savored my Dairylea cheese scrambled egg roll. Fields were just turning green and sheep dotted the hillsides.
Samye Ling was an old farm. We drove into the paddock, found ourselves surrounded by a collection of stone buildings – the farmhouse, of course, a byre (cow barn), stable, sheep pens – and a corral where a couple horses chomped at bales of hay.
After parking, we wandered around the lawn. People from near & far were coming today to hear Rinpoche teach, so tables were spread with the inevitable jewelry, photographs of teachers, and tangka art. Bigger, real-live tangkas were also displayed for sale. I liked looking at the tangkas painted by Sherab Palden Beru, a Tibetan master painter of the Karma Gadri tradition. I fell for a tangka of Green Tara. The painting showed a beautiful, green-skinned maiden. Her vermilion lips looked stunning in her green face. I bought two photographs of Tara’s tangka: one for myself and one for a friend who was sick in hospital. I wanted to cheer her up.
A woman showed me inside. This Scottish farm didn’t look Tibetan to me. Indoors, I wandered past
rooms covered in faded flowered wallpaper. Persian rugs lay on the floor and tables heaved with small dishes of offering symbols. In one room, I saw a shrine with candles and water bowls and statues of the Buddha. I saw a low table with wide strips of paper piled next to a bell and other metal implements. A man in yellow and red robes sat at the table that faced the shrine. Sometimes he picked up the bell and rang it and he picked up the hand drum and twirled it from side to side while a bright scarf fluttered from it and wooden beads pinged each side.
I asked my guide what the man was doing. “That’s a puja,” she said. It seemed surreal to me against the flowered wallpaper. I resolved there and then not to pursue the puja path.
After the classic Buddhist lunch of soup, bread, and cheese, we waited for Rinpoche in an upstairs room that might have been a master bedroom. It had a window that showed the top branches of the trees. The room was full, and we sat all scrunched up together – a crowd of wandering souls in this small room where a revered teacher of Tibetan Buddhism will soon enter. I say revered. Yes. Revered. Sure, this was not the Dalai Lama. No. This man was the senior teacher of the Dalai Lama. As I learned in later years, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was the teacher of everyone in the Tibetan Buddhist world.
I remember exactly what my mind felt like because I was all over the place. I was right in the middle of samsara. I felt uncomfortable right up behind someone’s back. I felt irritated about the scrambled egg rolls and wondered if I detected a touch of insincerity in Sissi’s voice when she thanked me. I wore an olive green top and olive pants. Under my light wool jacket, I wore my Granny Henderson’s pink knitted polyester cardigan. I hated unnatural fibers but I loved this cardigan because my Granny gave it to me. OK well. She didn’t exactly give it so much as it changed ownership.
Deep inside, I ached with sadness. I was dating a man who gave me fun sex, but who was on his way out of my life. He didn’t know how to say goodbye. He was just gradually disappearing. So, I was all uneasy in my skin. Preoccupied.
And then, there he was: Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche proceeded into the room with slow, deliberate steps, yoking his arms round the shoulders of the much shorter, attendant monks. Rinpoche was large. He wore a faded red skirt and a loose gold jacket. Later, I learned Rinpoche ruined his knees in his 12 years of retreat practice. Tibetan Buddhist meditation was about the yoga of the mind, not the body.
As Rinpoche climbed the steps to his seat, the room got quiet fast. It felt like Rinpoche sucked all the anxiety out of the space. My racing thoughts sank into a quiet attention. I could feel the fresh cool air of an ordinary Scottish afternoon – gray and cloudy. Rinpoche spoke through a translator. I like watching him when the translator is talking. Rinpoche sits like an ordinary person, a super-large ordinary person, on a wooden platform piled with thick, lush cushions.
Rinpoche did ordinary things, like scratch his head. His thin gray hair was pulled back into a yogi’s knot and he scratched the top of his head with his fingers curled into claws. At one point Rinpoche picked his nose with a simple practical enthusiasm.
I loved that. I got it. My cousin Sheila always teased me when I picked my nose, “You don’t need to unpack your trunk. You live here.” She loved to say that when she came to visit at my Mum and Dad’s. She made me laugh. But this is one of those funny things you feel you shouldn’t do in public. Seeing Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche pick his nose made me smile and feel good. If it’s good enough for Rinpoche, it’s good enough for me, I told myself.
After the greetings, Rinpoche launched into this story. A long time ago lived a rich man called Abek. After Abek’s wife died young, he dedicated his life to helping others. Every day, Abek left his home and went into the world, searching far and wide looking for people to help. He brought food to the hungry, medicines to the sick, clean clothes and fresh water to the poor. It helped Abek to help others. It soothed him and somehow brought meaning to the loss of his wife.
Two demons heard about this story. Abek’s selfless behavior became famous far and wide in the land.
Jolki and Relgo, the demons said to each other, “Ha. We don’t believe this – this phoney do-gooding. Let’s play a trick on him. We’ll sort him out.”
The next morning the demons swooped down from their cloud to stand outside Abek’s front door. Sharp at the crack of dawn, Abek opened the door – ready to go out and help the needy.
“Stop!” says Jolki. “Look down!” says Relgo.
Abek looked down into the depths of hell and torment. The demons opened up a portal to hell in front of Abek’s door.
Together the demons said, “If you step across your doorstep, it will be your last step. You will fall into the 7 hell realms and experience centuries of torment.”
They were sure they had foiled Abek. Nobody was going to risk hell just to help others.
“Good Morning, Demons!” Abek said. “Have a good day.” Abek stepped across the portal to hell, lifted his arms, parted the demons and walked past them to live his day of helping the suffering.
That is what it means to be a bodhisattva, said Rinpoche. Walk past the demons.
Rinpoche didn’t give a lot of commentary to this story, but it resonated in my mind stream down the years. The demons, right? The people who say you’re wasting your time. The people who make you angry and want to give up? The portal to hell, right? All the things that scare you about helping others. And stepping across, politely parting the slanderers to make a path to walk through.
After this story, Rinpoche started chanting, ringing the bell, and flipping through some of those long papers that Tibetan texts are traditionally written on.
Then, Rinpoche stood up with help from his attendants. For a second I thought of the portal of failing health and body Rinpoche walked through to travel this world and share these teachings.
Somehow, the application of this story in my life escaped me but years later gradually it resonated with the ebb & flow of compassion in my life. It became an image for getting up every morning and making a difference.
After the talk, we went to the farm kitchen. The light was dim and we stood in a circle. I understood we were taking the refuge vow in front of the stove.
We stood in the dim light, seven of us. Me, Rod, Sissi, Kaija, the translator & Dilgo Khyentse and his attendant.
Dilgo Khyentse repeated the Tibetan words for each line of the vow in turn. We repeated the strange sounds each time, three times, adding, I Elaine. Then the attendant went round pouring saffron water from a small copper jug into our cupped palms.
I looked at Rod & Sissi, hunching over in a semi-bow to receive the amrita (sacred water). I hunched into my bow too.
Kaija stood tall and eyes brimming over with brightness, a slight blush on the soft skin of her face, mouth slightly open. Wings of straight shiny hair curtained her face. So young. So vibrant.
Rod looked as professorial as ever, his glasses sliding down his nose. Sissi for once is not busy. Today, she is a mother. Today she is relaxed. Today she is proud of her daughter.
The ceremony was exactly that short. Not a long, drawn-out business, dedicating your life to study these teachings with these teachers and generally give up your evil deeds – but noting that picking your nose is not one of them.
After we recited the vow, the translator passed round the names on small pieces of paper. Then we hunched with fervor while Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and his attendant left the room.
Rod read the Tibetan from my piece of paper. My name was Tsering Palmo, also known as Tseringma, for the Goddess consort of Milarepa. My name means GLORIOUS LONG LIFE. Kaija’s refuge name means GLORIOUS TORCH. “They give torch names to tall people,” Rod says with pride in his voice, “And torch is a name for a teacher – who sheds light.”
I was happy with GLORIOUS LONG LIFE. That resonated. I looked down at my cardigan, my jacket, my scarf, and my boots. Maybe Sissi wasn’t the only one who could relax. I opened my jacket and loosened my scarf.
In 1982 Kaija was diagnosed with a form of Hodgkin’s lymphona . . . That beautiful face went through so much pain and so much “trying to eat anti-cancer food.” Kaija did everything she could, everything the doctors asked and more, and then she died. I called Kaija before she died. She seemed peaceful and it meant a lot to me to speak to her. Kaija was kind. She had a pure heart, and yes, she was a teacher. Kaija shed light. Kaija jumped across that doorway and parted the demons every day of her life.
In 1985 Sissi was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer, then she died in 1985. I did not get the chance to speak to Sissi. The cancer came fast. It seemed like no sooner had I heard Sissie was sick, than I heard she died.
Rod is still going strong. One day he came to where I lived in Boulder, Colorado. He apologized for our various tugs of war. I apologized too. I felt it was only fair. For the sake of the ones no longer with us if for no other reason.
Rod is living a long life. And yes, a long life with so so much loss. How do you live on after losing a daughter like Kaija? How do you live on after losing a force of nature like Sissi.
I wanted to be outdoors. I went for a stroll and left the Burstalls to have their moment with Kaija.
I’m walking a bit – up a dirt road – and I meet a woman with a silver streak in her hair. “Did you get to take refuge then?” she says.
“Yes. I did.” I’m smiling.
“What name did he give you?”
“GLORIOUS LONG LIFE.”
“That’s nice,” she says, “But of course you know it doesn’t mean you are going to live a long time, right?”
“Oh,” I said to this fine bit of womansplaining… “OK”
One day I learned Tseringma is known as the goddess of long life because she carries a chalice of long life elixir.
Anyways, for now I turned back toward the farm. Rod is standing by the gate. “You want Rinpoche to bless that card for your friend?”
“You can go in now. It’s here.” Rod opened the door to a hallway. “It’s in this door and first room on the left.”
Rod disappeared into the twilight.
I walked through the doorway past the old, green-painted farmhouse door.
The bedroom door was open. I stepped in. The light was warm, gentle. Rinpoche’s attendant stood by the bed.
Rinpoche was sitting up on the bed. It was a Scottish-sized unit, and attendants had piled it high with more than one mattress. Rinpoche sat up high in it. Even sitting, he looked tall.
Come to think of it, speaking of my grandmother’s cardigan, Rinpoche looked like my warm-bodied, soft-skinned Gran.
All the same, in this moment, I felt nervous and tongue-tied.
I handed the picture of Green Tara to Rinpoche’s attendant. Tara, I learned today was the Tibetan Goddess of healing. The kindness radiating from Tara’s beautiful-green face and her raspberry lips entranced me.
I sat back down in the chair. I told the attendant the picture was for my friend who was ill in hospital.
In 1981, I spent a lot of my days ruminating on fear & suffering. I struggled. That’s why I found Buddhism. Now I felt overwhelmed by the waves of confusion again — even after the refuge vow. My brain was spilling over with fear & pain. So much pain. Not so much the pain of pain, but the pain of agonizing about the pain. Everywhere I looked. Every part of my life felt jangly. Feeling misery. Feeling scared. Trying not to think about feeling scared. Not to think about feeling misery. Trying not to see each moment as a hoop to jump through.
Before Rinpoche blesses the photo, the attendant turns to me and says do I want to ask Rinpoche a question. I shake my head. The words won’t come. I can’t find the words to start – to describe my misery. I can’t just walk through the doorway and ignore the demons, like the good man, Abek, in Rinpoche’s story.
Rinpoche murmured a prayer and signed a Tibetan letter on the back of the card with a soft red pen. Rinpoche’s attendant handed it to me. The attendant bowed and Rinpoche bowed and I crossed the room to leave
Rinpoche is sitting up in the bed. He is a big man. His head and body seem to glow like a large golden triangle. His shoulders are bare. That doesn’t seem strange to me. The room is warm and Rinpoche always wears robes that wrap under his arms. His yogi topknot is loose. Strands of white hair fall by his face.
I turn at the door to look at Rinpoche before I leave the room, and all my misery shows on my face. I wish with all my heart for what – for something. I don’t know. I shoot a pleading look at Rinpoche. Help me, I say, with my eyes. And then Rinpoche does something that will stay with me for the rest of my life – something that no one else can ever take away from me.
Rinpoche smiles at me, and I swear, it is like hearing Itzhak Perlman play a few notes on the violin. I understand in that moment that everything is OK and that everything is going to be OK. Rinpoche’s smile tells me here is a human being who has dedicated his life to practicing kindness, practicing compassion so that he can produce a smile of beauty and heart in the same way that Itzhak Perlman dedicated his life to producing beauty and heart on the violin.
I feel peace and my fears fade away, but more than that, I see the skill of kindness and I want to learn it too.
I understand there’s something bigger than misery – kindness.
This time my feeling of well-being lasts a long, long time. Perhaps for me this is the real refuge vow.