A series of miscellaneous articles on the Sixties in general and Ann Arbor, Michigan in particular.
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Chögyam Trungpa March 25, 2016
By Michael Erlewine (Michael@Erlewine.net)

[You have all heard this before, but I am posting it over in Ann Arbor Townies Only, so it goes here too.]

In the 1960s, spiritual teachings and teachers from the East were still in rather short supply around Ann Arbor. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Ann Arbor began to have many visiting spiritual teachers: yogis, gurus, swamis, etc. You name it, they turned up, and many of us checked them out. Yet it was not until 1974 that I encountered the “real- deal,” and a double-whammy at that. It was February 12th, 1974 that I first met the great Tibetan siddha Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who founded Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado that same year. I had read Trungpa’s books, particularly "Cutting through Spiritual Materialism," and was enthused to see a small flyer on a bulletin board announcing that Trungpa was coming to the U-M Campus to speak. I called the number on the flyer, looking for more information on the visit, and ended up designing the poster for the event and being Trungpa's chauffer for the weekend. What a life-changing event that was!

By that time I knew at least some of the Buddhist lingo and had been trying to meditate for years, but I really didn't know how to meditate or if what I was doing was correct or not. A lot of us were playing at meditation back then, but we never shared what our meditation was like. For some reason, it was an unspoken rule that our personal meditation was considered too private to talk about. What a mistake that was! I spent years doing what I thought was meditation, without any feedback from a living practitioner who actually knew. We might give each other the high sign or a thumbs-up when asked about, it, looking back it seems many of us just didn’t know what we were doing. As it turned out, I was not doing it correctly, and so little to nothing was the result. Of course, years later I found out from the Tibetan lamas that in Tibet they talk about beginning meditation practice all the time. There is nothing secret of private about it at all. It is expected. They even debate it!

So I was geeked that a real Tibetan lama who spoke good English was coming to town. As it turned out, meeting Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche provided me with a deciding moment. I have told this story many times, but if you don't mind, I will tell it briefly once again. As acting chauffeur, I was to pick up Trungpa Rinpoche at the airport, and all I had was a beat-up old Ford station-wagon, one that, when you turned the key off and removed it, continued to sputter and belch smoke for another ten seconds or so. Some of you must know what I am talking about here. It was what we call a beater.

But there I was at the airport (and early too) in my Sunday best (which since I never went to church was not much), but I was enthusiastic as all get out. Let me tell you, I

was pumped. I was there waiting at the gate and the plane was a little late. The passengers slowly filed out, but no Rinpoche. Then way at the back I saw this short Tibetan man in a suit and he was smiling and at me! And suddenly there we stood, eyeball-to-eyeball, even a little too close for my comfort. I am sure I mumbled something, but what I saw was this very tired pair of eyes staring into mine, and with a yellow tinge to them at that.

Then Trungpa, still looking right at me, rolled his eyes up into his head until all I could see were the whites, and they stayed there for an uncomfortably long amount of time. When at last they rolled back down, I found myself looking into perfectly clear eyes with no tiredness or yellow. Suddenly here was this incredible being staring right into me, and friendly too!

Traveling with Trungpa was Larry Mermelstein, who later became the head of the Nalanda Translation Committee at Naropa Institute, in charge of translating so many valuable texts from Tibetan into English. By that time, I was already in some kind of contact high as we made our way out of the terminal, into my station wagon, and headed back to Ann Arbor where Trungpa would stay at the house of Donald S. Lopez, Jr., professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan.

I carried Trungpa's bags into the professor's house, where a small welcoming committee was doing just that. My job as chauffeur was done for the moment and I probably should have left, but I hated to leave, so I kind of hung around at the back of the room taking this all in. I was very intrigued by Trungpa Rinpoche. Before I knew it, everyone present had decided to go for a tour of the U-M campus and suddenly they were heading for the door, while I scrambled to get out of the way, hoping I would not be noticed.

Suddenly, Trungpa Rinpoche said he was tired and that they should go ahead while he took a nap. I waited until the rest filed out and began to follow suit, when Trungpa motioned to me. "Michael, you stay here with me." This was like too good to be true, and he motioned me into a small room that turned out to be the professor's study and had me sit in a straight-backed chair that was there.

Meanwhile, Trungpa Rinpoche proceeded to completely ignore me while he went over every inch of that room, picking up and examining all of the various statues and knickknacks that were there and, at the same time, drinking a bottle of saké. I sat there like a bump on a log and hoped I was not disturbing him. Like a turtle coming out of his shell, I gradually relaxed and realized that Trungpa was totally occupied in every moment, delighting in everything that was there. I had never seen this kind of focus being exercised in my life, and that was my first lesson right there. My natural inclination in that kind of spot would be to do nothing but fidget, which is exactly what I was doing.

After a while, Trungpa finally got around to examining me and suddenly there he was right in front of me and looking straight at me again. He then proceeded to give me a series of instructions, never telling me what it was he was doing. But it had to do with

watching my breath and breathing in and out, deeply, like we do when a doctor uses a stethoscope. And this next part is hard to describe, so you will just have to take my word for it.

I was breathing in and out, as directed, but Trungpa Rinpoche was concerned with my out-breath, the way I was breathing out. He told me I was not letting the breath go out far enough, but somehow holding back. By now, I was nervous for sure, and I sat there trying to exhale as hard as I could without actually fully exhaling. I was just too nervous and simply going through the motions.

Then he said to me, "Let the breath go all the way out… Don't worry, it will come back!" And with that I exhaled, and all of the way out too. And here is the unusual thing: at the same moment I let my breath go, in the back of my mind (and at some higher level) all of my fears of death and dying that had haunted me all my life arose like a swarm of darkness and just evaporated. Gone.

While today I am still not anxious to die, I no longer have the kind of dread and fear that I had before those instructions. Of course, later I was to find that Trungpa Rinpoche was teaching me basic Shamata (Tranquility Meditation), the cornerstone of all basic meditation practice. I guess what I am trying to communicate here is that doing ordinary things with Trungpa Rinpoche end up being extraordinary. I must have spent an hour and a half with Trungpa Rinpoche, after which he did go to take a nap, and I hit the road.

We had one more significant exchange on my way out of the professor's house. As Trungpa walked me to the door, he pointed to a copy of the poster I had made for his talk that was on the wall. It was a woodblock print of a Tibetan dragon flying in the clouds, while each of its four feet clutched a pearl. I include part the poster here. "Do you know what this represents?" he asked? I told him I did not, but that I just loved the image and thought it might be appropriate for his talk.

He went on to explain that the dragon, which in the Tibetan and Chinese cultures is perhaps the most important and positive of creatures, could fly, but only as long as he held those four pearls, one in each hand. If he dropped even one of them, the dragon would fall from the sky. Of course, I took this in.

Later, I understood that the four pearls that the dragon held were what are called in Tibetan Buddhism the "Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind to the Dharma," sometimes called the "Four Reminders." And those four thoughts have always been key in my understanding of the dharma. Here Trungpa was pointing them out to me and making it clear that we must hold all four thoughts in mind at once to maintain our awareness.
The Four Thoughts are something one encounters at the beginning of Buddhist study, but also just before learning the highest form of meditation, called Mahamudra. They are profound and so much already a part of each of us. Trungpa was pointing something important out to me.

There are other stories of Trungpa's visit, perhaps for another time. I will never forget the last thing that Trungpa said to me. I was trying to tell him that he was the first person I ever met for whom I had no personal resistance or criticism. He turned to me, took my hand, and said: "Well, Michael, we are both married men and we are about the same age." And then he was gone.

That weekend with Trungpa Rinpoche was the beginning of a 42-year romance with Tibetan Buddhism, although I did not end up working with Trungpa’s students in Ann Arbor. For one they all had to wear suits, and someone has to die to see me in a suit. And second, they all drank too much. As a local musician in Ann Arbor, I had already been through my drinking days. I did hook up with another branch of the same Tibetan lineage as Trungpa and my wife and I have run a meditation center for the last 30 years or so.

The second part of the double-whammy I referred to earlier is meeting His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the head of the Karma Kagyu Lineage, in Ann Arbor later that same year. This is the lineage I have belonged to since that time. That could be another story sometime.
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