On The Death of The Guru

by Dimitri Ehrlich

It goes without saying that spirituality is one of those topics about which there is often confusion, a gap between language and meaning. So it is sometimes helpful to have some reasonable standard for measuring progress on the path.

According to tradition, there are three levels of spiritual practitioner. The lowest is the individual who can die without regret. The middle level meditator should be able to die without fear. But the highest level practitioner should actually die with joy, welcoming it. Because they are no longer dying in an uncontrolled way.

Normally, our death and dying experience is controlled by powerful unconscious currents and thought habits. During talk given a few months before his death on February 15th, Gelek Rimpoche mentioned in passing, that while he was in the hospital last year, he noticed he did not experience any fear.

He was not blowing his own horn. I am quite sure he handled the experience masterfully, with that mountainously solid presence and irrepressibly joyful spirit we all know and miss so vividly right now. I am 100% sure Rimpoche died without fear or regret. If anyone on this planet could handle death, he could do it effortlessly and with total control of the dying processes.

When I was 22 years-old, I got my first real job, at Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine. Being locked in a 9-5 job with only two weeks of vacation for the first time in my life, I decided that since I could no longer travel freely, I would still take advantage of adult education classes and thereby do some virtual "traveling" by means of expanding my mental horizons. I came across a catalogue for the Open Center, on Spring Street, and selected a weekend workshop with a Tibetan Buddhist lama named Gelek Rimpoche. It was one of the first formal events in New York of the organization he founded, Jewel Heart.

I had already been studying Tibetan Buddhism for a few years, having started in college and earlier than that, at home. My parents had given me my first instruction in meditation when I was 7 years-old, and when I began learning martial arts 10 years later, I learned to meditate in the dojo. The household in which I was raised was Jewish, but Buddhism was ever-present, and so by the time I met Gelek Rimpoche in the fall of 1988, I had already read a lot about Tibetan Buddhism.

The first day I met him, I asked him this question: "Is it true that on some level, pain and pleasure are the same thing, and we just project these labels onto an otherwise neutral experience?"

Rimpoche took my head in his hands and head-butted me. I can still remember the shock of his forehead tapping mine. Then he said, "Pain is also pain. Pleasure is also pleasure. You have read too many different books. Read one book, do one meditation practice." Years later I learned that for a Tibetan lama to touch his head to the head of a student was a great auspicious sign. At the time I was just stunned. I had the great opportunity to spend the next 29 years as Rimpoche's student. He called us his friends, but I never had any doubt that I was in the presence of a fully enlightened being.

I had the wonderful good fortune to travel with Rimpoche to Tibet, India and Nepal and to get teachings from him at the holy places where the Buddha became enlightened and where the Buddha first taught. Like many hundreds of other students around the world, I found that he saw my potential and knew how to transform my neurosis patiently and skillfully, slowly and with great kindness, and in that way he changed my life completely.

Rinpoche had a singular life. He was essentially born in the Middle Ages, in a feudal Tibet without electricity or any modern conveniences. By today's standards, he was a billionaire, as a member of the 13th Dalai Lama's family, he was part of a great landowning clan that had enormous wealth and power. He was educated by the last generation of Tibet's great masters, was recognized as an incarnate lama at the age of three, and by the time he was a teenager was head abbot of Drepung monastery, with 13,000 monks under his tutelage.

Rimpoche fled Tibet as a refugee. He lost his monastery and his family. He lost his country. He arrived in India penniless. He endured hardships and physical abuse and loss on a scale most people cannot even imagine. But he never once indulged in bitterness. He remained a cheerful champion to the end. Over the last year, he spent a lot of time in the hospital but he never lost his sense of joy and gratitude for life.

With his words and his actions, Rimpoche showed that what really matters is a kind warm heart. In every teaching he gave, no matter how difficult the practice was, the message was always there: Relax. Have a sense of humor. Be gentle and precise. Enjoy life. And always be kind to yourself.

I can hear his raspy voice saying these words: everything is impermanent. Death is a reality to which none of us is immune. Death is nothing other than a separation of the body and mind. So while it is natural for us to be sad, the best practice is for us to be peaceful and happy and grateful. And try to live in ways we know would make him proud.

We are a family bonded by this most astronomical rarity: to have brushed the storyline of our lives against Rimpoche’s unlikely trajectory. Those intersections changed each one of us in different ways, but we have all been transformed by our relationship with the same person.

That is what makes Sangha a community. That is the essence of our bond: we all perceived a Buddha in our midst. We all walked around thinking, Holy SHIT! This is actually happening. We all remember moments when we saw the vajra master toss a lightning bolt. Sometimes it was scary or solemn but we all felt it.

I’ve been thinking lately that while we feel heart-broken and all prayed for Rimpoche to remain as long as possible to continue to teach and nourish us, in a way, it was selfish.

He always said that the human body is like a rented apartment and the mind is the tenant. Eventually the roof starts to leak and plumbing won’t work so reliably. The building that housed Rimpoche’s magnificent, rare blazing constellation of a mind—generous and dazzlingly brilliant—had been through a lot in 77 years.

He was not necessarily suffering the way that we would in such circumstances, but the difficulty of the basic functioning of his outer relatively existent physical body was getting pretty kleshic.

On one hand, I feel that among the Jewel Heart sangha, the overriding feeling has been gratitude more than dark, panicked grief. On the other hand, of course, we are rudderless. Our navigator--our north star--gone but not gone, has gone beyond.

But we are not alone. We are experiencing this loss together, like shattered pieces of a planet whose center could not hold, we will be pulled together again by the centripetal force of our shared love for Rimpoche. We will survive and change and grow, and we will collide in our views of how best to move forward, and we will lose some and gain some. It would be naive and simplistic to say things will ever be the same in Jewel Heart.

Of course not. But some things won’t change. The mind of our teacher is alive and strong within each of us. We are now a global multitude of vessels for the mind of the lama, and every day is a chance to let the best of him shine in our actions of body, speech and mind.

Rimpoche is here every time we feel compassion or show kindness to one another. That is his mind at work, playful, brilliant, alert, and always teaching. Always sharing. Always generous.

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