FALLING IN LOVE WITH A BUDDHA
A memoir by Frank W. Berliner
Posted 27-December: 2012
by Bill Scheffel
Chogyam Trungpa, c. 1970s. Photograph by Cynthia McAdams.
A Book Exploration in Three Parts
Less than a year before my mother died I showed her this photograph of Chögyam Trungpa, his gaze so penetrating. My mother was almost ninety-one. She had met Chögyam Trungpa for a very brief moment in 1986 and had observed my life over three decades as his student closely and sympathetically. My mother stared intently at the photograph and finally said, "My goodness, he sees right through you!" As soon as she said that something happened. She seemed to know Chögyam Trungpa from that moment on. The remaining months my mother's life were often accompanied by his humor and seeming presence. Bedridden and with less than ten days before she died, she once playfully rebuked me for interrupting her while she was looking at his photograph, "I'm talking to Chögyam Trungpa now," she scolded.
Frank Berliner wrote Falling In Love With A Buddha to explore his experience of Chögyam Trungpa's gaze. How he was penetrated by it when he read the book Meditation in Action, before he ever met Chögyam Trungpa. How he found his way into Chögyam Trungpa's teaching sphere in 1974 and soon after into a personal relationship with him. How the gaze has never left him. How falling in love with Chögyam Trungpa has continued to profoundly transform Frank and those around him, including those who are meeting Chogyam Trungpa through Frank's life now.
Throughout the book, it is those moments when his hesitation or pride or spiritual ambition was pierced by an encounter with Chögyam Trungpa that Frank most often writes about, showing us the experience of being brought into the uncertain and fertile space of self-exposure. Sometimes the ego-unmasking occurred in solitary conversation with Chögyam Trungpa, sometimes in front of a lecture audience of hundreds. Such a trope at Frank's expense makes for dramatically good reading. He is us and has our sympathy.
This is Frank's chronicle of more than a decade of encounters; as Chögyam Trungpa's student, as an administrator in the organizations he founded, and as his personal teaching representative. Here, Frank describes his first opportunity to speak to Chögyam Trungpa. It was after a public talk and his guru to be is characteristically receiving people from his chair, one by one.
The student in front of me shakes Rinpoche's hand briefly without speaking and goes on his way. I envy the composure and economy with which that person has just handled himself. It is my turn at last.
I approach him. My mind is spinning uncontrollably. He sits unflinchingly still and completely at ease. His only movement is his eyes, which follow me closely as I approach. Now I stand directly in front of him. His head seems massive, almost adamantine. His face is large and round as a full moon. His hair is glossy and very black. A subtle, pleasant fragrance emanates from it.
I prepare to speak -
"Don't try so hard," he says gently before I can get any words out.
My mind stops moving, abruptly. He looks at me with what seems like a trace of curiosity. My senses are suddenly heightened. I notice how exquisitely shapely his ears are, with lobes that bend outward slightly, like one of the traditional marks of the body of the buddha.
"I see what you mean, I reply." I flush, probably.
An interminable moment hangs there between us. Suddenly I want to say more, but can't quite think of anything specific. At this point I'm just looking for a way to remain in his presence a little longer, uncomfortable though is feels to me. I furtively glance at his glass. It's definitely beer.
"More," he says then.
Frank and I fell in love with this same Buddha at more or less the same time and gradually became the closest of friends. Falling in love with Chögyam Trungpa was to fall in love with those around him. But the winds of impermanence have had various ways with us. Chögyam Trungpa's students have been scattered all over the place in diasporas that began with his own migration from Boulder, Colorado to Nova, Scotia Canada in 1986, and continued following his death the next year. Miraculously, Frank and I are still very much in each other's lives; whenever we see each other it is with gusto and a kind of surprise that we are both still here, still in contact. As Frank likes to joke, "I guess we haven't exhausted our karmic good fortune yet."
I read the prototype of Falling In Love With a Buddha in manuscript form as Frank was writing it; chapter by chapter, it came to me as e-mail attachments. I knew Frank could still recite from memory a Dylan Thomas or Walt Whitman poem he learned as a freshman at Yale but I didn't know he could nail remembered chunks of dialog with the same veracity, or describe so well the settings they occurred in. I knew immediately this would a true memoir, compelling beyond its seeming subject audience, with a drama to unfold and vanished eras to describe. I believed in it from the start and enjoyed reading every page of the finished book.
Spiritual lineages move in mysterious ways, seeking as they do continuation through transmission of essence. Sometimes the spiritual essence survives in secular places (Christian icons and altarpieces housed in museums) and perishes in its own institutions (Buddhism aligned with the Emperor cult in pre WWII Japan). The history of lineage, like all history, seems to dwarf us. We wonder if we are even part of a lineage much less that we could effect it. We don't easily realize we are the crucial link in a chain.
Almost as soon as one met him, Chögyam Trungpa made you feel that you were part of his lineage, that the lineage was already inside one (see my interview with Jim Yensan). Transmissions find their way to unexpected corners and almost always in ways we cannot foresee. Frank gave a copy of his book to his cousin Fred, a stockbroker who made many millions on Wall Street and went on to live in Moscow for five years, helping the Russian's set up their own stock market after the fall of communism. Frank doubted Fred would read his book, much less find interest in it. In fact, Fred so loved the book he bought seventy fives copies and mailed them to his friends and associates - eight of whom live in Moscow. Along with the book Fred sent each this note:
Shortly you will receive a book written by cousin Frank. It is such a beautifully written, true tale about a lifestyle I knew little of but now duly respect. It helped that I know/knew some of the cast of characters, but I learned so much, specially about myself.
I know this book deserves to find many more cousin Freds and many more wide circles of association.
Falling In Love With A Buddha is also the story of Frank's relationship with his father, and how that relationship was transformed through his relationship with Chögyam Trungpa. As he writes in the introduction:
The is also a book about a father and son. It recounts my history with my own father, whose impact on my life was powerful and profound, both painful and inspiring... it is about how my encounters with my teacher clarified and healed my relationships with my father, even if that was never his real agenda or intention. Indeed, beyond communicating the urgency for each of us to wake up fully in our own lives, i have no idea what his real agenda or intention was. In that sense he was, and will always remain unfathomable.
In 1974, Frank rode with his mother and father to a talk Chögyam Trungpa would be giving that night. His father was driving. When he was a child, Frank's father would sometimes drive on the shoulder of the highway on family outings, passing jammed-up traffic because was a doctor and could get away with it. He was a kind of Jewish Father Knows Best, with the good looks and charisma of a Leonard Bernstein, intelligent, educated who relished his perch at the top of the patriarchal food chain. He might well be playing a Beethoven symphony to accompany his driving. Frank was the first-born of four children, positioned from birth to idolize his father, be likewise driven to succeed and equally vulnerable to his father's opinions, criticisms and unavailabilities.
When he was seven or eight, Frank came across a wounded robin in the family's backyard. Suddenly filled with an inchoate rage out of nowhere, Frank abruptly crushed the bird with a stone. Jealous for his father's love, often angered by the ways in which he did or didn't receive it, the moment was one Frank would immediately regret, but also a seed of his future spiritual search, perhaps its beginning.
I bury the broken little body quickly and furtively. The next day, gnawed continuously by shame and remorse, I confess to my father. Though not at all pleased, he is not unkind. It is very confusing to confess to him. I feel my own headlong fall from grace, yet feel at the same time he is somehow the cause of it, though I have no words to express to either him or my mother why this is so.
The confusing and ambivalent love Frank held for his father would continue to unfold, maturing and bringing them twenty years later to Chögyam Trungpa's talk. Frank's father drove to the talk as he did when they were young, fast, determined to arrive punctually, skeptically armed with his agnosticism though quite curious to see this Buddhist master his son was so enamored of. Frank's mother was mostly quiet, still unable to coax her husband into driving more reasonably.
They did arrive on time, though Chögyam Trungpa arrived late, as Frank assured his father he would. Frank's mother and father received lasting impressions of the cherubic young Tibetan who drank sake on stage and electrified the audience. His father was semi won over, his mother almost completely. Afterwards Frank asked his parents about their experience, "What were your impressions of Rinpoche or his talk?"
"The way he answers questions," says my father, with his characteristic decisiveness. "He answers them, not just their question. He answers them behind their question," he continues. I marvel, once again, at my father's unique blend of skepticism and genuine appreciation.
"As if he knows what you're thinking even better than you do," adds my mother. "It's uncanny. It gave me the chills."
Did he persuade you to meditate, Dad?"
I wouldn't go that far," he says with a chuckle and shoves Beethoven's Fifth Symphony back into the the tape deck.
Frank's mother and father would go on have their own relationship with Chögyam Trungpa. Not an overtly student-teacher one, as Frank would, but a relationship of impact, as my mother did. Who can judge what such impact will mean or where it will lead one?
Frank with his mother, 2012.
In this final section exploring Falling In Love With A Buddha I have printed Chapter Thirteen in its entirety. This Chapter documents a visit Chögyam Trungpa made to California in 1986, the year before he died. I participated in this visit, as Frank did. Like other parts of the book, reading this chapter is almost like reading my own memoir, the overlap and shared experience familiar and haunting and so much my own.
As Franks points out in the chapter, Chögyam Trungpa was quite different during the last few years of his life. Of course he was always different - Walter Fordam, a long-time head of Chögyam Trungpa's household, once remarked that every time Chögyam Trungpa returned from a teaching trip it was like meeting a stranger, he had to constantly learn anew who this person was. But this was another quantum difference, as Frank writes, "He literally spends most of his life now in a place to which we cannot accompany him or even follow him." It was during this time that we began to understand the dralas. Not necessarily in a direct way, but through the phenomena of being with Chogyam Trungpa, since he was so clearly with them.
I have long intended to print this chapter, having to do as it does with the central theme of this website, the drala principle. Eamon and Michele Killoran enter into the chapter below, but they have also entered my own writing through tributes I wrote when they died; Michele in 2004 due to a sudden stroke when she was only fifty-eight, Eamon in May of last year (see sidebar). In the mid-1980s, Chogyam Trungpa would stay at Michele and Eamon's home when he visited the Bay Area, as Frank mentions.
from CHAPTER 13
We can begin to feel him leaving, more and more.
Not just this country, which he obviously no longer sees as the focal point of the work he has to do while he is still here on the earth; but this human world altogether. And the realization of this fills me with a growing panic, and sadness, too.
Already he spends more and more of his time communing with an unimaginably pure and potent but, to us, still invisible world of energies and elemental forces-- the sacred world of the gods, or dralas. From the start, he has made it quite clear to us that it is only through the existence and blessings of these dralas that he has gained access to Shambhala in the first place.
And because they are his access, and because he in turn is our access, it is more and more obvious that the dralas are of indispensable importance to everything we’re doing together.
Before, however, it seemed he would visit the dralas for short, pregnant periods, and return with new spiritual offspring each time. Now, it seems that he spends most of his time playing or conversing with them, awake or asleep. That persistent ambiguity about his humanness in any conventional sense of the word-- those ordinary qualities that link him to us and to our visible world-- becomes more and more heightened. He literally spends most of his life now in a place to which we cannot accompany him or even follow him.
In retrospect, this will be the final phase of his life with us.
I travel from my post in Berkeley to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to see him where he now lives. He gives a public talk at the medical school of Dalhousie University, sitting in a simple chair in the operating amphitheater of one of the surgical training rooms while an audience of hundreds fills the seats all around and above him.
He speaks about familiar things-- the importance of creating an enlightened society, the need for greater kindness in the human world, the decency of what already exists here in Nova Scotia as a fertile ground for the dharma to take root and flourish over many coming generations. The more I listen, the more I realize that he is not coming back to America again except to visit us there and, if anything, urge us to move up here.
I think about the logistical challenges of uprooting my life in order to be closer to him. I consider the inconvenient fact that I’m still serving in California at his express wish and command-- "a diplomat in a foreign country."
I begin to feel increasingly lonely and cut off from him-- something I have not experienced in his presence now for several years. It is something that I naively thought I’d finally outgrown, as if my loneliness were somehow a weakness. Clumsily, and in reaction to these uncomfortable feelings, I raise my hand after his talk. He looks up into the audience and makes a gesture in my direction with his right hand.
“Sir, for those of us who feel deeply about the things you are describing tonight, but who live many thousands of miles away from you, how would you suggest we could best share your vision now?”
Will I never learn? Scarcely have I finished the question when I see him taking off his eyeglasses and holding them up towards me.
“Perhaps you should borrow my spectacles,” he replies. Peals of laughter fill the hall. He puts his glasses on again, and gestures graciously toward the next question.
That autumn, he comes to California for what will be the last time. Meeting in the living room of a private home with a small group of his closest students in the Bay Area community, his face is gaunt, his expression is wrathful, his complexion dark as basalt. Every word from him has the weight and conviction of clairvoyant prophecy:
“This country will become unrecognizable to you in the next twenty-five years. There will be crises and challenges of all kinds-- the economy, the climate, politics, the spiritual scene. There will be huge ups and downs financially and in terms of livelihood. It will create great suffering for many people. There will be extremes of climate-- fires, floods, earthquakes, unlike anything in the past.
“There will be much more fear which politicians will take advantage of. There will be much less hospitality for spiritual views and practices which are seen to be outside the mainstream. There will be a rise of religious fundamentalism throughout the United States. You will feel more and more as if you’re living in a Third World country.”
He leans forward, peering at us with great intensity. His certainty is at once terrifying and oddly comforting.
“You must each make every effort to move to Nova Scotia and help with our work there in establishing the Kingdom of Shambhala. There is no time to waste. No time at all.”
He offers us a gentle, closing bow, and gets up to go to bed.
Next morning his attendants rise early to take him to the airport. We line up around his waiting car to say goodbye.
"I love you, Rinpoche", says my friend Eamon to him as he helps him into the car.
Eamon and his wife Michelle have made their home available to Rinpoche as a residence for many years whenever he has come to Berkeley to teach. At those times, their house is referred to, simply, as The Court. Even in the years after Rinpoche visits there for the last time, all of us will still call their house by that name. And it will still carry the dignity of his presence, like an empty perfume bottle.
"I love you all," Rinpoche replies with a huge smile, taking in all our heartbroken expressions as we stand there in a circle around his car, even in front of it, as if we would restrain it from leaving.
For most of us there, it is the last time we will ever see him.
Bill's Journal & Essays
Index of Previous Journals
Connection with the Invisible: Posted 12-Dec: 2012. An Interview with Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche on the Drala Principle.
Passion for the Intangible. 04-Dec: 2012 In falling-apart inner priorities become more vivid, as confusion does. Our longing or passion for the intangible becomes more intense...
I Have No Pill For You; or How I Came to Spent Five Nights in a Psych Ward. 28 Nov: 2012. Reflections on psychosis or "spiritual emergency" and a near-death experience that followed it.
The World Tree and Vertical Time.
23-Sept: 2012. Connections between trees, consciousness and the human body.
What is Vertical Time yoga? 14-Sept: 2012. Background of VTY; personal biography, meditation, inhabiting the body.
What is Celtic Buddhism? 7-Sept: 2012. Insights on Celtic Buddhism, a lineage-stream from the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa, founded by John Perks.
Art and Vertical Time. 31-Aug: 2012.explores walking a museum to allow the accidents to come forth, the liminal presence that grabs one - often from the corner of the eye.
Food & Transformation. 23-Aug: 2012. Hestia, goddess of the hearth; the transformation of food and of friendship.
Food, Meals and the Portals of Vertical Time. 12-Aug: 2012. The feast as portal to the unseen world, to the unconditional.
Reflections of the Drala Principle. 07-July: 2012. An introduction to various meanings and implications of the drala principle.
Wheel of Vertical Time: An understanding and practice of vertical time in the four directions.
Father as Ancestor: An essay on the death of my father, the journey of loss and the discovery of ancestors and the support they make available to us.
I Ching: The Four Eternal Hexagrams and the Shambhala Path of the Warrior:
Learn more about the I Ching and its relationship to horizontal and vertical time:
The Light of Time: An essay on vertical time, reflecting on the death of my mother, time as circle and the "goal" of philosophy.
Prophetic Guidance and Vertical Time: A travel-writing essay, or Reflections on Henri Corbin from Istanbul.
Candor Ends Paranoia: A Tribute to Allen Ginsberg. Recollections from studied and contacts with Allen Ginsberg.
Also see: Street Musicians of Istanbul.
A homage to various street musicians I came upon during countless walks along Istiklal Cadessi, the historic and perpetually popular grand boulevard of Beyoğlu district, Istanbul.
More on Falling In Love With A Buddha
Franks Berliner's mother Ester
Ann with the Piper Cub she piloted.
Falling In Love With A Buddha places its central story, a spiritual search and the finding of a teacher, within the larger story of a life, its passages and defining events, such as the assassination of JFK and the Vietnam War. The backdrop of all of our lives are our parent's lives; a central drama, how we individuate from them. Here Frank describes a particular stage of his individuation, the aftermath of a severely disturbing LSD trip, the summer after he graduated from college, a desultory first time on his own.
My father's hair seems to turn white overnight that summer. Maybe it's just his biological clock, but more likely, it's me.
Whatever else my drug experience two months earlier has been, it certainly is not a sudden inspiration to teach anyone else about the meaning of ife. I plummet into depression. Somehow I finish the remaining weeks of college and cross the stage with my Yale diploma like everyone else, but the accomplishment feels hollow and meaningless.
The one photograph remaining from that occasion shows a smiling young ma with thick, unruly dark brown hair in broad June sunlight, wearing blue cap and gown in an ocean of blue caps and gowns My father is proud that day, no doubt, bu probably more relieved than anything else. I am dazed.
What will I do next? Never mind for the rest of my life - how about just for the coming summer? i am listless, without motivation,ready to be pushed in any direction by anyone who has a plan more definite than my own, no matter how questionable or misguided it might be.
My classmate Drew has just such a plan. Let's go to a seaside town on Cape Cod, rent a house, get jobs as waiters, makes lots of money, read poetry, drink, and pick up woman at night. It's a time-honored plan, requiring no imagination or vision, simply youthful male hormones.
Drew has these in abundance, along with an entrepreneurial vigor that is relentless. He'll put up the deposit for the hour we find, take on the responsibility for renting out the extra rooms, and assume the risks and rewards for whatever the situation yields by summer's end. All I'm required to do is pick out a nice room for myself on the top floor and bring my favorite books of poetry with me. Like flotsam on the tide, I drift along in the wake of his enthusiasm.
The plan is complicated slightly by the fact that the town of choice turns out to be Provincetown - the gay mecca of the Eastern seaboard at the time. Drew has been reading Eugene O'Neill all semester and wants to spend the sumer in the place where he wrote some of his masterpieces. A budding young playwright in his own right, Drew rhapsodizes about a windswept house on the beach, surrounded by the picturesque, turbulent Atlantic wave that will inspire him to great depths of existential insight.
But it turns out he's more actor than dramatist, the truth being that he really only wants to get laid, nor is he overly discriminating about the gender. I watch him with a mixture of curiously and grudging admiration.
Note to the reader: Eamon and Michele Killoran were close friends of mine, and of Frank's. They are refereed to in the chapter from Frank's book Falling in Love with a Buddha that is printed in the column to the left.
A Tribute to Eamon Killoran
The photograph above shows Eamon Killoran eleven months ago. A few weeks after this picture was taken, Eamon learned he had cancer. In less than a year he was dead. I took the photograph of him in Portland, Oregon, soon after I had arrived for lunch at the home of mutual friends. My first impression of Eamon was his beauty. That a transparency had come to his complexion - as it often does to people well into their seventies. That his beard and his eyebrows were now the same luminous grey. That he smiled with his familiar stature and sense of reserve, but none-the-less, extremely warmly. I had the feeling of falling in love with him, as if in this moment our thirty-six year friendship was being restored, renewed, amplified. Continue reading...
A Tribute to Michele Killoran
M I C H E L E
Last week a friend had a stroke, died a little over a day later and was cremated four days after that. Her sudden and unexpected death shocked us all. Her relatives were many and those she touched with the kind of love most people extend only to their family could be counted in the hundreds. Her stroke occurred hours after a pleasant meal with her husband: a glass and a half of Côtes-du-rhône, baked chicken, potatoes and asparagus. The story of the meal and her collapse on the living room carpet is the story we have heard and will agree upon. A sudden death attaches itself to facts which we repeat as if squeezing a sponge to find the water inside it. We want to know the element the dead inhabit. What do we do with our memories and visitations? Today, I read about a gust of wind that traveled from Argentina to Chile with the sole intention of informing a woman that her mother had died. Without knocking or using a key, the gust blew both doors of the woman’s house open. And she knew.
Dozens of us gathered at our friend's cremation. A liturgy was read and the fire was lit. Large flames leapt into the blue sky, each one disappearing as it separated from the fire. On a cold January day, the bones of our friend were gradually reduced to ash, and though the fire was very hot, this took many hours. It was upon the funeral pyre that I saw how strong our bones really are.