Rinpoche’s Colorado Retreats and New Mexico Visit
by William Bainbridge
Photos of Naropa by Richard Eagleton
It was extraordinarily fitting and auspicious that this year’s teachings in Colorado by our teacher, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, began with a retreat at Naropa University, and resulted in the creation of a new Dzogchen Community of Colorado. Colorado has been a major center of Tibetan Buddhist teaching and practice for decades. Perhaps best known is Boulder’s history as the center of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s activities, which in many ways set the tone for the widespread practice of Tibetan Buddhism throughout North America. The entire state, though, has been a powerful location for practice, with many important centers such as Tara Mandala, the magnificent stupa at the Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center, and the numerous permanent retreat facilities founded by important Tibetan teachers on the Baca Grande land grant near Crestone. Nonetheless, the open teaching of the essence of Dzogchen for which Rinpoche is famous has not been common, so that his retreat in Boulder had very much the character of a new beginning.
The retreat was prefaced by a meeting between Rinpoche and the President and other important officials of Naropa University, and a public talk on “The Three Vehicles: Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen” in the evening that the same officials attended. The university was founded by Trungpa Rinpoche with the explicit intent of helping to transform American culture and society by infusing it with the awareness, energy and wisdom of Buddhist and other spiritual traditions in a dynamic and non-doctrinal way. The enthusiasm shown by Naropa students and staff for Rinpoche during the retreat showed their understanding that Rinpoche and his Dzogchen Community embody the same purpose.
The topic of the retreat sessions was “Ati Dzogchen,” and Rinpoche’s teachings provided an extensive and inescapably immediate basis for the practice of Dzogchen for students at all levels of experience and understanding. Naturally, the practice of Ati Guru Yoga was explained in depth and we were led through it so that even new students could begin working with it. As always, Rinpoche interspersed explanations with his own experiences as a student in Tibet, and his vivid descriptions of his time with his root teacher, Changchub Dorje, helped create a sense of connection between Rinpoche and the attendees, as we could see that Rinpoche understands very well the feelings and challenges we experience in approaching the teachings. Attention was intently focused on Rinpoche during the sessions, and the atmosphere throughout the retreat was joyful and energetic.
During the times Rinpoche was not teaching, rather than scheduling several short sessions with different topics as is often done, the organizers decided to have longer sessions dedicated to Yantra Yoga, taught by Naomi Zeitz and Luke Karamol, and the Vajra Dance of the Three Vajras, taught by Leela Whitcomb-Hewitt. Attendance at these was extremely good throughout the retreat, Yantra Yoga was a general theoretic overview and instruction on complete breathing, stretching and warm ups and some introduction to preliminaries, and the equivalent of a complete Vajra Dance course, provided a strong impetus to continue training in both of these practices in the Boulder area after the retreat. Adriana Dal Borgo led two nights of Khaita dancing with the lively and invaluable assistance of Ana Couchonnal. These were joyful as always, and the way they seemed to please and energize Rinpoche impressed on us how important it is for the Community to do this practice.
Following the Boulder retreat, Rinpoche traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to rest in preparation for his retreat the following weekend at Tara Mandala as he had done in 2013. New Mexico has had a Dzogchen Community and local Gakyil for around 20 years, and with the generous cooperation of Rinpoche’s hosts, Lama Tsultrim and Tara Mandala, it became possible for the Community to hold an evening of Khaita dancing and an evening Ganapuja with Rinpoche while he was there. The available space was filled for both events, and the Ganapuja in particular drew in students of Rinpoche from all over the state who are rarely able to attend Community practices. The Ganapuja was held at the Rigdzin Center, a Drikung Kagyu group that kindly offered their space, obviously delighted at the blessings that the presence of a great Dzogchen master would bring. Rinpoche seemed very happy and comfortable, and even posed for the rare, but locally mandatory, group photo after the Ganapuja.
Rinpoche’s retreat at Tara Mandala, located near Pagosa Springs at an altitude of 7,500 feet and up, formally began the evening before Rinpoche’s arrival with an extraordinary practice of Rinpoche’s Chöd led by two of Tara Mandala’s authorized teachers, Karla Jackson-Brewer and Chandra Easton. Their rendition of Rinpoche’s melodies captured the same intensity and indigenous character heard in Rinpoche’s own recordings, and the skillful use of several kanglings during the invitation to the guests, combined with the late hour and powerfully beautiful presence of all 21 emanations of Tara in the shrine room, added dimensions to the practice not often experienced. Though only a portion of the hundred some attendees knew the practice well enough to participate, all were deeply moved.
The topic of the retreat was “The Concise Daily Practice of Urgyen Menla’i,” a Medicine Buddha terma practice discovered by Namcho Mingyur Dorje; however Rinpoche sensed that many attendees would benefit from a solid foundation in Ati Guru Yoga, which he spent the first session in laying with his customary thoroughness. This proved to be essential, because his subsequent commentary and explanation of the Urgyen Menla’i practice concentrated on doing everything in the Anuyoga way, which is based on the Dzogchen view and emphasizes the essence rather than the details of the sadhana. Thus, Rinpoche’s teachings on this one practice can in fact be applied to many of the traditional Tibetan tantric practices Rinpoche’s students might do, providing a way of integrating Tantra and Dzogchen. To support the practice he was teaching, Rinpoche performed a very traditional empowerment, including the body, speech, mind and “Word” empowerments with the appropriate objects and so on. Although he then proceeded to explain why doing the simple Ati Guru Yoga practice with the proper awareness is more important than any elaborate empowerment we could receive, a tantric empowerment by a great master is still a rare and important transmission which we were very fortunate to experience.
The final session of the retreat began with the consecration of what will become a traditional cremation site for practitioners who have passed on, probably the first such facility in the U.S. The steep walk up to the site gained a few hundred feet in elevation, no mean effort at nearly 8,000 feet, and ended near a statue of Tara that overlooks the entire grounds of Tara Mandala. The beauty of this center, and the skill and meticulousness with which it has been designed and constructed, are difficult to convey to those who haven’t visited it and represent a remarkable accomplishment by Lama Tsultrim for the benefit of Dharma practitioners. The future cremation grounds were consecrated with a traditional Tibetan Sang offering of smoke from dampened juniper, concluding with the Song of the Vajra. After everyone returned to the Gonpa, Rinpoche gave several reading transmissions for Dzogchen Community practices and made concluding remarks. As part of the announcements after Rinpoche finished, Lama Tsultrim announced that over $10,000 had been donated for the Gompa at Dzamling Gar in the online auction for Rinpoche’s Evolution Creations jewelry, and Dhyana Eagleton, one of the organizers of the Boulder retreat, announced that Rinpoche had approved the formation of the Dzogchen Community of Colorado; a fantastic way to end two highly successful Colorado retreats and a wonderful side-visit to New Mexico by Rinpoche.