1 MY JOURNEY TO WHOLENESS
God is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.
—LIBER XXIV PHILOSOPHORUM
When I was a teenager, I liked to wander around Harvard Square, where students and professors rushed across the bustling traffic on their way to classes. At that time it was a neighborhood center with bookstores, a grocery store, a hardware store, a deli with huge hot pastrami sandwiches on sourdough rolls, a restaurant to which my grandfather walked every day to eat fresh fish, and an ice cream parlor that had the best peppermint ice cream with little red peppermint candies melting in it.
My maternal grandfather had long since retired from teaching philosophy and business at Harvard, but he continued to live with my grandmother, a fellow philosopher and also a former professor, in a small white house in Cambridge at 8 Willard Street. I visited them on weekends from my boarding school on the outskirts of Boston, a great getaway from dorm life to their eccentric little house with uneven colonial wide-board wood floors, and the Greek vases he collected perched precariously on a rickety table in the small, dark living room.
During one of my visits, when I was a senior in high school, I was wandering in the book section of the Harvard Coop when I came upon a big hardcover volume called Man and His Symbols edited by Dr. Carl G. Jung. It had numerous illustrations and photographs, and it was unlike any book I had ever seen. A Tibetan mandala graced the cover, and there were many more mandala images within the book. I was so magnetized by the mandalas that I immediately bought it.
I took it back to my grandparents’ house, went up to my small guest bedroom, and leaned back on the pillows on the old horsehair mattress, opening the book to find Tibetan mandalas and all the other representations of mandalas from various cultures around the world. Looking at a Tibetan mandala, I held my gaze steady, concentrating on the mandala’s center. A luminous dimension opened up. I felt a deep stillness within me. No piece of art had ever triggered such a powerful experience. I had an eerie feeling of familiarity combined with fascination about what had happened to me and what these paintings were. Throughout the next years, I carried the book everywhere with me and contemplated the mandalas.
In the book, Dr. Jung introduced the mandala in many forms, not only traditional Tibetan, but also the mandalas in architecture, city planning, Christian art, stained-glass windows, tribal art, and indigenous ceremonies. But I was particularly drawn to the Tibetan mandalas: their depth and intricate symmetry resonated and called to me. I sensed they were not mere paintings. They emanated a mystical energy that made me wonder what truths lay within them. Their power was derived not from cognitively knowing their meaning, as I do now, but from direct contemplation of the mandalas themselves. It was this first encounter with Tibetan mandalas that became the catalyst for my budding spiritual search.
I was inwardly drawn to Buddhist culture, particularly toward Tibet, but had few resources available in New England. It was a time
before the Internet, Google, Facebook, and YouTube; communication took place only via telephone and snail mail. To find something out, you had to read a book, speak to someone knowledgeable, or go to the source yourself. I read about Tibet in my parents’ encyclopedia, but other than that couldn’t find any books on the subject. Around this time my maternal grandmother gave me Zen Telegrams by Paul Reps, a book of Zen haiku and calligraphy. The short poems combined with brushstroke paintings inspired what I would now call my first meditation experience, an insight into an “awareness of awareness,” or what I called at the time “consciousness of being conscious.”
I was at our summerhouse on a lake in New Hampshire. I had been reading Reps’s book in my upstairs bedroom, a rustic space with unfinished pine board walls and open beams. I decided to crawl out the window in my sister’s bedroom and sit on the porch roof. In front of the house were four towering white pine trees. A soft breeze was blowing from the lake as I sat in silence. Then I heard pine needles falling on the roof, a barely perceptible sound. At that moment, I was aware of my consciousness, and simultaneously I experienced the gentle breeze and falling pine needles on the roof. I did not fully understand what I experienced; I had no context, no spiritual teacher, and it was nothing my friends would have understood, yet it was something I would never forget, a profound sense of awareness and peace.
These early experiences and others inspired me to become a spiritual seeker, and this longing came to dominate my life. After I graduated from high school, I went west to the University of Colorado, but I found nothing in school that provided me with the inner wisdom I was seeking. Then one day in the autumn of my sophomore year, while meandering through the stacks in the university library, I spotted a book that drew my attention. It was one of the first books published in English about yoga, The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga by Paul Brunton. I quickly checked it out and brought it back to my dorm room.
After reading it for a while, I grew sleepy and then put the book down and turned onto my stomach to take a nap. As I lay there, I had the sensation that my body was being lifted off the bed, and I was floating up above it at the level of the ceiling. My experience was that this was actually happening. It was so real, and it terrified me to be floating, I forced myself to open my eyes, finding myself back on the bed. This out-of-body experience intensified my spiritual search, and I talked about it with my best friend, Vicki Hitchcock, whose father was at the time the American consul general of Kolkata. Upon meeting during our freshman year, we’d recognized each other as kindred souls, and constantly shared our search and interests in “the mystic East” as we called it. In fact, we have remained friends throughout our lives, and have both ended up following the Tibetan path since we were nineteen.
Our search heated up in the summer of 1967, the Summer of Love. We both dropped out of the University of Colorado and traveled together to India and Nepal. We flew to Hong Kong, where we found an esoteric bookshop and bought every book they had about Tibet. We then took turns reading them as we sailed on an Italian ship to Bombay and then flew to Kolkata, where Vicki’s parents were living in a large, old colonial house next to the US consulate. After working for some time in Mother Teresa’s home for unwed mothers and abandoned babies, Vicki and I made our way to Nepal.
Lama Tsultrim before leaving India, 1967.
One morning, while visiting a Nepalese family in the center of Kathmandu, we were invited up to the rooftop of their house to see the view. The valley was covered in low-lying fog, but in the distance were the crystalline peaks of the Himalayas; much closer, about a mile away, like an ephemeral palace on an island floating in a lake, was a glowing white dome topped with a sparkling golden spire. It was one of the most mystical sights I had ever seen, and when I inquired about it, I was told it was called Swayambhu, also known as the Monkey Temple because a troop of wild monkeys lived on the hill, and it was one of the most sacred places in the city.
A few days later, we had the opportunity to join a predawn procession that was going up to this hill. Walking through the darkened streets of Kathmandu was like being whisked back to medieval times. There were pigs, dogs, and cows everywhere, scavenging for the garbage people threw into the streets—a medieval garbage collection service!
We walked through the valley, crossing the river on an old bridge that led to a narrow dirt path between rice paddies, and then gradually made our way up the hill. The path became steeper and steeper, and finally became a staircase going straight up. The morning light began to illuminate our surroundings just as we emerged at the top of the stairs.
Stairs leading up to Swayambhu stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal, 1967.
Before me stood the white dome, its round golden spire soaring about three stories tall. On the spire’s square base were mysterious painted Buddha eyes looking out in the four directions—north, east, west, and south. I later learned that this was an ancient stupa (Buddhist shrine)
representing the mandala, which is the basic structure of the cosmos in the Tantric Buddhist tradition—the circular architecture of the centered enlightened experience, a cosmological representation of the universe. Swayambhu means “self-manifested,” because it was said to have been an island in the middle of the lake that was once Kathmandu Valley, and on that island there was a self-existing flame over which the stupa was built.
Swayambhu stupa in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal.
For a nineteen-year-old American girl to encounter this incredible structure, one of the most holy sites in Nepal, in the golden light of dawn was pure magic. Gradually I could see more and more as the sun rose. I began to circumambulate the stupa clockwise, following the Nepalese pilgrims. I saw that at the base in the four directions were five niches with Buddha statues, one in each direction—except for the east, where there are two, one of which represents the center—and they each had different hand gestures, or mudras. As I walked around, smelling the pungent Nepalese rope incense and hearing the huge bells ring, I experienced an incredible sensation of familiarity and remembering.
As I sat there that morning, on top of Swayambhu looking out over the valley, I felt that my life had been altered—and as it turned
out, it had been. Here is something I wrote about my first encounter with the Swayambhu stupa in 1967. It was the first stupa I had ever seen, and of course, I had no idea at that time that I would return to live there and became a nun.
We were breathless and sweating as we stumbled up the last steep steps and practically fell upon the biggest vajra (thunderbolt scepter) that I have ever seen. Behind this vajra was the vast, round, white dome of the stupa, like a full solid skirt, at the top of which were two giant Buddha eyes wisely looking out over the peaceful valley which was just beginning to come alive.14
It became a place I went every morning, sitting in a corner of the monastery at the top of the hill next to the stupa. After a few days, a little carpet appeared in my corner; after a few more days, I was served tea when the monks had their tea during their morning meditation practice. It became my place, my monastery—the outer mandala that I would refer to inwardly for the rest of my life.
Lama Tsultrim in Dharamsala for the first time, in 1967, looking a little dusty. She hadn’t bathed for three weeks, it was too cold.
Lama Tsultrim with Tibetan woman who dressed her up in Tibetan clothes, Dharamsala, India, 1967.
TRUNGPA RINPOCHE AND SAMYE LING
I returned home and went back to college in Vermont, because my parents wanted me to complete college. But all I could think about was going back to the Tibetans in India and Nepal. So after another year in college, I got enough money together for a cheap ticket to Europe. I went first to Amsterdam, where I heard about a Tibetan monastery in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, called Samye Ling, the first Tibetan monastery in the West. I left Holland the next day, took the ferry to England, and hitchhiked to Scotland straight from the docks.
The very day I arrived, as I was coming down the main staircase of the old Scottish country house that was the seat of Samye Ling (before they built their big monastery), I saw a young Tibetan man in a purple Western-style shirt struggling up the stairs accompanied by young Westerners, several men and a large woman, who were treating him with great deference. I stepped aside, but not before our eyes met and he smiled at me and said, “Well, hello!” in a high-pitched, slightly slurred voice.
It turned out this was the preeminent and unconventional Buddhist teacher, the wild, young, Oxford-educated Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and that day he was returning from a long stay in the hospital recovering from a serious car accident. The accident had occurred when he was driving drunk with his girlfriend. Coming to a fork in the road, he couldn’t decide whether to go home with her or go back to the monastery, so instead they barreled straight into a joke shop. The accident left him hospitalized for more than a year, and he remained partially paralyzed on his left side; it also led him to formally decide to disrobe. He had not been keeping his monastic vows for some time, so he decided to let this façade go and no longer depend upon the monk’s guise to make his way in the Western world.
I ended up spending six months at Samye Ling. I met Trungpa
Rinpoche several times during my stay and read what were then his only books: his biography, Born in Tibet, and the recently released Meditation in Action.
The first time I heard the word dakini was at Samye Ling. Trungpa Rinpoche had various girlfriends, and my friend Ted, a Scottish rascal with a mop of golden curls, who was Rinpoche’s driver and used his role as a perch for his own seductions, said, laughing, “He’s looking for his dakini.”
I asked, “What is a dakini?”
He looked at me directly with his bright blue eyes and said, “A dakini can be the consort of a high lama, but she also can be a deity, a wild and wrathful manifestation of wisdom, fierce but without aggression. According to Rinpoche, a dakini can simultaneously pull the rug out from under you and encourage you.”
Dakinis sounded both fascinating and a little scary to me. But I would always remember that first dakini introduction, as they became a central part of my life. In the meantime, Trungpa Rinpoche gave me a meditation practice text called The Sadhana of the Embodiment of All the Siddhas that he had composed during a retreat at an ancient cave cliffside retreat, Tiger’s Nest (Tagsang) in Bhutan. I began to practice it daily, chanting it out loud with my friends Craig and Richard at Samye Ling. Every night we sat in the ornate shrine room and read through it, then meditated in silence at the end. Through the sadhana I was introduced to the idea of the mandala and the five buddha families, and even without having in-depth teachings I could feel its power.
At the beginning of the meditation, there is a passage that awakened in me an awareness that the mandala is not a mere painting on a wall or something in a liturgy, but that the whole world is the mandala:
In the boundless space of suchness,
In the play of the great light,
All the miracles of sight, sound, and mind,
Are the five wisdoms and the five buddhas,
This is the mandala, which is never arranged but is always complete.15
I began to see that the mandala is a way of seeing the world. Seeing the world as the mandala meant recognizing the symbolic perfection of the five wisdom energies—all-encompassing wisdom, mirror-like wisdom, wisdom of equanimity, wisdom of discernment, and all-accomplishing wisdom—which manifest in everything. I particularly liked the idea that the mandala doesn’t need to be constructed or organized, that our world in all its apparent chaos is actually a spontaneous, ever-evolving mandala. It was with this view that I left Samye Ling and began to travel back to Asia.
OVERLAND FROM LONDON TO KATHMANDU
In late autumn of 1969, I got in a VW van in London as a paying passenger heading for Kathmandu by way of Austria, Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The driver and VW bus owner was Eric, a Dutch Indonesian, whose parents had migrated to Australia. He was aiming to get home by Christmas, following the overland journey. He planned to sell the VW bus in Kathmandu, using the money to buy his ticket to Australia. We were six in the bus: an innocent young Canadian couple with red maple leaf patches sewn on their backpacks; my dark-haired, bright blue–eyed Australian friend Craig from Samye Ling; a young, blond English guy who had just gotten out of the military and was exploring the world before settling down to a job; Eric; and me.
The back of the bus had been converted into a flat platform of plywood with a layer of two-inch foam. Our luggage was under the platform, atop which we could either sit up or lie down. I made
curtains for the windows out of a blue printed cotton fabric to keep out prying eyes as we traveled through Muslim countries where young foreigners, especially Western women, were a rarity. The trip took much longer than Eric had expected. We had to get two entirely new engines along the way; and in Turkey, when we lost the first engine, we had to be towed through the mountains for two hundred miles to Ankara. It took all night over treacherous icy roads.
After that intense experience, I was shocked to see Eric’s whiskers coming in white instead of black from the strain and fear of being dragged through the mountains; they had literally changed overnight! There were stretches of road in Afghanistan that were unpaved, and we had to lie in the bus and wrap our faces in scarves to breathe. The fine dust poured into the van, and the bumps were kidney-rattling and painful, continuing for days on end. After another van breakdown in Pakistan, Craig and I jumped ship and hitchhiked the rest of the way to Kathmandu. About a week later, Eric arrived with the van, sold it, and accomplished his mission to go home to Australia.
We arrived in Nepal about a week before Christmas 1969. The town was abuzz with the presence of the magical Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, a great Tibetan lama who was the head of an even more ancient reincarnation lineage than the Dalai Lama’s; in fact, the first Karmapa had predicted his next life with outstanding accuracy. He wrote a letter with the names of his parents, a description of the house where he would be reborn, and even his birthday and year. This began the whole Tibetan tradition of reincarnate lamas such as the Dalai Lama, but the Karmapa lineage is the oldest in which the lama leaves a letter predicting his next rebirth. The Karmapa was in Nepal for the first time in thirteen years and was staying in the Kagyu monastery next to the Swayambhu stupa, which I had first visited two years earlier.
My friend Vicki had visited the Karmapa in Sikkim with her parents before we traveled to India together in 1967. She’d told me,
“He is very fat and wears a big gold watch.” I thought that someone could definitely not be fat, have a gold watch, and be spiritual at the same time. I was determined he wouldn’t be my guru. I didn’t want a fat guru. I wanted a thin, ascetic, spiritual-looking yogi-type teacher, like the gurus in Autobiography of a Yogi, who all seemed to be thin and otherworldly. But everyone, all the Tibetans who were pouring in from the Himalayas and all the visiting Westerners, was going to see the holy Karmapa whether he was fat or not, and I decided to go too.
There were the native Ladakhi people with their curly-toed boots matching their stovepipe hats with the curled corners, who looked like they had stepped out of a fairy tale. From the eastern part of Tibet came the wild and fearless Khampa people, and for this auspicious pilgrimage the Khampa women were all decked out. Each had 108 braids interlaced with turquoise, coral, and amber. The amber was stuck in large hunks on top of their heads and looked like antennae. The tall, handsome Khampa men had gold teeth that lit up when they smiled. They wore coral and turquoise earrings, and each had a long braid wrapped around his head with a red silk tassel dangling rakishly off the side. They walked around with their right sleeves hanging almost to the ground to “open” that shoulder like the monks, so that when they circumambulated sacred places and stupas clockwise, the right shoulder was more open to receive the blessings. These native Tibetans looked at everything and everyone, including me, with unabashed directness.
For the occasion, I wore a full-length turquoise and green quilted Afghani coat with long sleeves that hung down way past my hands, paired with a golden-yellow cotton skirt. I had dyed the cotton myself in London. The skirt was fashioned by hand-sewing the piece of cotton into a large tube; I stepped into the tube and wrapped it around my waist, making one big pleat in front, and then tied it in place with a colorful Afghani belt. I wore my long brown hair in braids with thick strands of turquoise and yellow silk
threads woven through. I must have looked as odd to them as they did to me.
An air of festivity permeated the area of Kimdol, the village below the Swayambhu stupa, because of Karmapa’s presence. New groups of tribal Tibetans were appearing every day. They traveled happily in groups all wearing similar clothes according to their region, teasing each other, laughing, or saying their mantras on small Bodhi seed rosaries in one hand while spinning handheld prayer wheels with the other.
At that time, the Westerners who were around were all young and beginners in Buddhism, but longing to learn more about the spiritual practice that motivated these joyful people emerging from the Himalayans: What made them so joyful when many were refugees who had lost everything? I met a couple from California who became my closest friends. Pam was tall and thin, with sparkling green eyes and wild, curly black hair that stuck out in a halo around her head. Jon had long blond hair, gentle brown eyes, a strong jaw, and the body of a mountaineer. We often ate together and spent time wandering around Kathmandu, and they convinced me to go see Karmapa in the Kagyu monastery at the top of the Swayambhu hill, where he was to give the Black Crown Ceremony.
The fact that Karmapa was mentioned often with great devotion in the Sadhana of All the Siddhas, the meditation practice I had received from Trungpa Rinpoche in Scotland and recited daily on the arduous journey from Europe to Nepal, also contributed to my decision to see him.
We climbed Swayambhu’s long staircase early in the morning, joining the river of Tibetans heading to this ceremony that the Karmapa was known for. When we arrived, we could see him in the distance sitting cross-legged on a throne in front of the huge golden statue of the future Buddha, Maitreya, who is always portrayed seated Western-style in a chair. Karmapa’s throne, covered by golden brocade, was positioned in the large doorway of the temple and
surrounded by maroon-robed monks, with the Tibetan masses crowded before him in the courtyard. After the lilting, melodious sound of the jalings (Tibetan oboes) announced the crown, it was brought out in a hatbox wrapped in silk brocade by a monk wearing a mask covering his mouth.
I turned to Pam and asked, “Why is his mouth covered?”
She whispered, “So his impure breath doesn’t pollute Karmapa and the black crown.”
Inside the box, the crown was wrapped in layers of antique brocade, which Karmapa unwrapped ceremoniously; then he slowly raised the crown and placed it on his head, continuing to lightly touch it with his right hand. My friend Pam knew more about the ceremony than I did; she had attended it several times, so I asked her, “Why is he holding the crown on his head? Would it slip off otherwise?”
The 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje.
She threw back her head and laughed, then whispered, “No, they say it may fly away, because it’s made of the woven hair of the dakinis, who fly through the sky. Their hair would make it fly away. The story is that a hundred thousand dakinis wove their hair into a crown and gave it to his fifth reincarnation. But you couldn’t see it unless you had special powers. Then the emperor of China through his devotion had a vision of the dakinis’ crown. He had a copy made and offered it to the fifth Karmapa.”
Again I heard that word dakini, which Ted had talked to me about in Scotland; from what Pam said, I now knew that they fly in the sky,
though it didn’t look to me like the crown was trying to fly away. Once he had the black crown on, I saw Karmapa settle into meditation, drawing in a deep breath and steadying his gaze on the distant horizon as he picked up a crystal mala (Buddhist prayer beads) and recited a mantra. I asked Pam what he was doing.
She replied, “He’s transforming himself into Chenrezig, the Buddha of compassion, and he’s saying the mantra Om Mani Padme Hung Hri one hundred eight times counting on his mala, sending compassion to all beings.”
People were packed around us like groupies at a rock concert, except these were gorgeous mountain people wearing rough wool and embroidered felt boots bound at the tops of their calves. Their deep devotion and rugged physical beauty touched me deeply. They were in the presence of their spiritual leader at a time of great insecurity, when the Chinese invasion of Tibet had caused them to flee their homeland. Here was someone who could offer them solace and spiritual support in a time of great need.
They jostled and pushed with joy as the ceremony ended and the Karmapa began the process of blessing each and every one of the people. Tibetans thrust and shoved toward the narrow side door of the monastery to go before Karmapa. As each person passed, he touched them with a cloth-covered cylinder that hung from a stick, blessing them. Mothers held babies up for the first blessing of their lives. Bent-over old people with canes were led through by relatives. The crowd pressed toward the door. We decided to go too, carried forward by the masses. The smell of old butter, sweaty yak wool, and yak dung smoke filled my nostrils as we surged forward, funneling through a side doorway single file and then emerging in front of Karmapa.
The 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje wearing the Gampopa hat.
Finally my turn came. I placed my hands in the prayer posture as I had seen the others doing, and as I passed I looked up at Karmapa and saw the biggest smile I had ever seen in my life. A spark of
recognition flew between us. He stopped for a moment and whispered something to a man standing near him, who was wearing the traditional Bhutanese men’s garb, the gho, a striped kind of kimono, belted at the waist, ending at the knees, with long sleeves and wide white cuffs. I did not know it at the time, but he was Karmapa’s doctor and translator, Dr. Jigme. I was amazed to see that Karmapa’s head was so big his glasses didn’t even reach behind his ears. His smile was vast as the sky, emanating joy, warmth, and compassion. I’d never seen a human being with such an expansive presence. His physical size made perfect sense: it was reflective of his largeness as a being. His presence seemed to pervade everywhere.
In the following days, I began to go to all the initiations Karmapa was giving and visited him in his room at the top of the monastery. I would just walk in and, while the others were prostrating, go straight to him, and give him big bunches of dahlias that I picked in Jon and Pam’s garden. He always gave me a huge, warm smile in spite of my unusual behavior.
Over the next weeks I became more and more agitated, because I felt like there was something important I should be doing, but I didn’t know what it was. I was sleeping very little, and one sleepless night I was reading the meditation Sadhana of All the Siddhas; when I read the line “The only offering I can make is to follow your example . . .”
I suddenly realized that since Karmapa was a monk, to truly follow his example, I had to become a nun. This was the answer to what I was supposed to do.
My body ached as I arose the next morning. In the Kathmandu winter chill, it was cold and damp sleeping on the mud floor with only a straw mat under me and no heat. I dressed quickly and made my way with the crowds up the hill to the monastery and went into the Karmapa’s room.
He nodded to me with his usual big smile, and gestured for me to sit down, but I stood in front of him. I took my braids and made scissoring motions with my fingers, indicating that I wanted to renounce the world and take the ordination of a Tibetan nun. He raised his eyebrows and gave a hearty laugh, then asked for the Bhutanese man I had seen him talk to at the Black Crown Ceremony.
When Dr. Jigme came, I said, “Please tell him I want to be a nun.”
The Karmapa was looking at me all the while, and after the translator told him what I’d said, everything in the room went silent. The monks gazed at me and then at him. He became very serious and fixed me with a look I shall never forget. His eyes narrowed; then he closed them, then slowly opened them again. He looked at me as though he were seeing my whole karmic stream. Then, just as quickly as he had become serious, he broke into a wide smile and nodded his head and spoke to the doctor.
Dr. Jigme turned to me and said, “His Holiness has said he will ordain you in Bodhgaya in a week. You should get robes and meet him there.”
Dr. Jigme took charge of me. First, he told me to get my head shaved. So I braided my hair with gold and blue silk, and put on my Tibetan canary-yellow shirt made out of flannel and the shantab, a maroon monastic skirt I had purchased in Kathmandu. Then I went with him into the little town of Bodhgaya, which, in 1970, was a sleepy village with a few chai tea shops, vegetable and grain shops, and one barbershop. The doctor took a picture of me in front of the Mahabodhi Temple, the main temple in Bodhgaya that rises above the Bodhi tree, wearing robes but still with my hair in braids. Then we went to the barber. This was a surreal moment—I was half nun in robes and half layperson with long hair. The robes were made of a heavy, rough Tibetan yak wool, and I didn’t know it at the time, but I was coming down with hepatitis, which I had contracted in Afghanistan. So dressed in wool under the sweltering Indian sun and with the illness making me feverish, I felt very strange indeed.
Lama Tsultrim in front of the Mahabodhi Temple just before her head was shaved. Bodhgaya, India, January 1970. Photograph by Dr. Jigme
The barbershop happened to be across the street from the Mahabodhi Temple. So I went in and sat down in the one wooden chair, gesturing to the barber to cut off my hair, with Dr. Jigme translating into Hindi. The barber looked aghast at my request; he had certainly never shaved the head of a Western woman. The shop was open to the street at the front and consisted of a chair, a mirror, and three walls. My braids were the first to go. He cut them off easily: one, two, and brown braids with strands of blue and gold silk interwoven in them fell on my lap. A crowd began to gather around.
After ordination as Karma Tsultrim Chodrön by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, 1970.
The next phase was strange. He cut big clumps of hair close to my head, making me look like a mangy Indian dog. Then he sharpened his single-edge razor on a leather strap, dampened my hair, and began to shave. I felt like I was in a movie, as a gaping crowd of at least thirty men were watching me, and moving closer. They were unabashedly staring at me with something between horror and blank curiosity in their faces. Then the straight edge of the barber’s razor scraped my skull—ouch—and I snapped back to reality. This was no movie, as I felt the dull razor painfully pull the hair from my scalp.
The razor was not sharp enough, and my head was not prepared well with warm water and soap. I tried not to move or cry, but my eyes were tearing. I waited stoically for it to be over, and before long my head was shaved bare. I touched my scalp with my hand, and it felt like fine sandpaper.
The Indians from the village continued gawking as if I were an exotic animal in a zoo. I felt so exposed, but I felt refreshed at the same time. Losing my hair seemed to clear all the history I carried in it. It was as though everything I had experienced was imprinted in it. I took my braids and wrapped them in a piece of white cotton cloth; I contemplated them occasionally over the next few months, feeling some longing for the life I had left, unsure of what my new life would bring. Ultimately after a few months, when I returned to the monastery in Nepal, I let them go. I threw them over the wall near the stupa into the trees below that cover Swayambhu hill, imagining I was letting go of the vestiges of my past and fully embracing monastic life, and that the birds would make soft linings for their nests from my hair.
RETURN TO SWAYAMBHU
So it came to be that, in a hotel room in Bodhgaya, I was ordained by His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa, the first American woman he
had ordained. After my ordination, I returned to Nepal. The lama of the Swayambhu stupa, Sapchu Rinpoche, found me a little room on the second floor of a rickety, clay-brick building next to the stupa and set me up with tutors in the Tibetan language.
My room was so tiny I could sit in the middle and touch all the walls. It had two big windows with no glass in them, just ancient wooden shutters. On one side, I made a small shrine from a cardboard box covered with cloth, where I always had beautiful dahlias in small brass bowls from Pam and Jon’s garden in Kimdol, down at the bottom of the Swayambhu hill. Along the opposite wall, next to one of the windows, I had my bed, a woven grass mat on the floor covered with a flowered cotton sleeping bag I had bought in Holland. I kept my books in the window niche, and at the foot of my bed was my kitchen, consisting of a round, one-burner kerosene stove and a few aluminum pots.
I studied Tibetan with two Tibetan nuns who lived on the other side of the stupa, and my lessons began at 6:30 A.M. From my little room I could look out the window and see the stupa right there; I could almost touch it. The mysterious eyes on the top of the dome followed me everywhere. Never before had I lived near a sacred structure that was in itself a mandala. The stupa brought hundreds of pilgrims a day to circumambulate it, and by living in the rhythm of the stupa, I became acutely aware of the lunar cycle punctuated by the monks’ celebrations, especially during a full moon.
The architectural mandala of Swayambhu stupa has been a central spiritual landmark for me ever since as the first outer mandala that I “lived with.” Watching the way the community related to the stupa, day and night, made me aware of how the outer architectural mandala functions as a centering force for the community it serves.
Even today, with the work I’ve done with the mandala over almost five decades all over the world, whenever I teach or practice the mandala, in my mind I go back to Swayambhu stupa, when I was a twenty-two-year-old newly ordained nun. I can almost smell the red
rice and ghee offerings, the rotting bananas, the rope incense placed in the niches of the stupa, and see the crowds of devoted Nepalese and Tibetans who came every day to worship at the stupa. It is my root mandala, and I still draw on the blessings of the stupa. Swayambhu became my spiritual “mother,” and I have continually felt the glowing presence of her blessings.