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Meeting Lama Zopa

May 29, 2016

By Stephen Damon

After receiving my diagnosis I have found myself going over the various chapters of my life. I say “found myself” because I haven’t been actively trying to do anything. Instead, memories of major events of my life appear as if from nowhere calling me or perhaps challenging me to review things that have happened to me. Often when I review an old experience I see things that have happened to me from another point of view. It’s as if I am being given another opportunity to experience some of the “hidden” aspects of things that have happened to me that I had missed before. Events that I haven’t thought of in a very long time appear before me as if for the first time. Sometimes, as I am falling asleep I hear the voice of an old friend calling me in whispers to join him or her in another reality that seems very far away. Sometimes, they follow me into sleep and appear as silent companions as I move along the landscape of a dream.

One memory that is especially alive in my mind took place twenty years ago when I met Lama Zopa Rinpoche at an airport where he was waiting to board a plane for Nepal. Before I go into what happened I need to say a few things about who he was and why I was told to meet him at the airport. Lama Zopa Rinpoche is the guiding teacher for the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition or FPMT, which has over a hundred Tibetan Buddhist centers on several continents. I had been a member of its San Francisco Center for about five years or so and had heard Rinpoche give a few teachings, but had never had the chance to talk with him. About a month before his visit, the Director of the center resigned and many people thought that I should take her place. And so, when the center found out that he would be at the San Francisco airport while he waited for a connecting flight, I was told that I should meet him.

I remember what happened very clearly. As soon as I walked through the glass door into a very crowded area of the airport, I saw a robed figure who was too far away for me to make out, waving to me. As I got closer I saw that it was Lama Zopa, and I wondered how he could’ve recognized me since we had never met. After I made my way to him I genuflected as is the custom when a student meets a Lama. When I picked my head up, Rinpoche took my head in both his hands and pressing firmly placed it on his forehead. As he did so I felt all the activity of my mind come to a halt. I felt that hundreds of years of confusions, unnecessary questions and doubts evaporated into an emptiness beyond my comprehension. All I felt was stillness and peace, and all I saw was blackness. Then in bright letters I saw the word “Help.” And nothing more. When I looked into his eyes he nodded with a smile. And then he took out a fancy candlestick holder for an altar and gave it to me.

Not a word had been spoken and yet I felt that what had been communicated to me was more substantial than all the teachings and philosophy lectures I had ever heard. I was very aware that the energy of his hands physically changed the structure of my mind. Some might call this a spiritual experience, but it felt very physical. I think that this may have been the first time that I experienced the fact that things that we usually call spiritual or theoretical have a materiality that can be measured. In fact, I think that everything is material. And when I say “everything” I include things such as knowledge, truth, and even God. The duality of spirit and matter was just another false duality that I was able to get beyond during my Buddhist practice.

As I said, I met Lama Zopa more than twenty years ago, but I can still see the color of his robes, the smile on his face, and feel the warmth of his hands. Most strikingly, I can still see the letters of “help” very clearly. I really don’t have the vocabulary to exactly describe how I felt when his hands changed how my mind was working. All my words seem to be only a vague approximation of an experience unlike any other that I’ve had in my life; an experience that was beyond the grasp of ordinary language.

While I had often been impressed by the strong presence that many Tibetan lamas have, I had never experienced first-hand anything that even remotely suggested something other than what my mind could easily understand. Of course, I had read many books about the psycho-physical power that Tibetan masters often have. One of my favorite books is “The Life of Milarepa” in which countless miracles, such as the monk’s controlling the weather and turning himself into a yak, are described. Reading the book (which I have done several times) I have always taken note of the teachings and ignored the miracles. After my experience at the airport I have found it impossible to ignore the many anecdotal stories about the powers of spiritual masters. I think this experience more than any other, changed my way of thinking about the possibilities of a human life. Now, as I am in the early stages of a terminal illness and find myself pondering “the great matter of life and death” it is a vivid reminder of another life that I once touched and now seems so far away.

I bring up this memory because it has appeared and reappeared quite often during the past few months as I adjust to this new stage of my life. Sometimes as I drift off into sleep I can feel the gentle strength of Rinpoche’s hands on my head as I move from one state of consciousness to another. Just the other night as I was falling asleep I saw “Help” lit up in neon colors. I think the reason why this memory has become so alive at this time is that it conveys another measure of things than the one I usually have, a measure that is absolutely necessary as I live this last part of my life. If I never felt his hands, his physical presence, change my state of mind I think I would not believe that another life in this world at this time is possible. It verified beyond any doubt that there is a reality that has its own laws that can supersede the laws of our ordinary, daily lives. And this reality is as physical or material as the one we see and feel in our daily lives. Without this experience I think I might not have a sense of hope that even though I am sick and not as strong as I used to be, things are still possible

I am still on the mailing list of the Tibetan Center where Rinpoche visits, but I now see that what is most important for me is not to meet him again, but somehow to find a way for me to touch the reality that he embodied. When I was younger I felt that I always had to find another book, or listen to another teaching in order to find a “truth” out there, somewhere. I have countless memories of going through the indexes of countless books in hopes of find something “new” that could open a door into another world. Now I feel that everything I need is inside of me and I need to find a way to access it. My practice is to find a state of relaxation and openness in which “truth” or perhaps I should say “reality” appears.

And so this old memory has changed from a recollection of something that had happened to me long ago into a question of what I need to do now, based upon many years of study and practice. Upon reflection I feel that Lama Zopa loaned me something to help my practice, and now I have to find a way to make this “something” my own. Looking back on my life, I have the sense that all teachings I have heard, all the instructions given to me by my teachers, and all the books I have read were loans that had to be paid back by efforts to make them my own; to incorporate them in my daily life. I have used a few of these loans to make real changes in my way of life, but I have not yet been able to repay many of the loans I have been given. These unrepaid loans, although I have great power, remain dormant in the depths of my subconscious. And so I think that one of the things I need to do is look deeply into myself for the teachings and instructions I have been given, and try to find ways to bring them back to life.

One Comment
  1. Thank you again Stephen for this loan.

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