Alone with my family

Interview with Lama Tsering Everest by Sandra Pawula and Dorje Ross, Edited by Anjali Mazel. © View Magazine, 1996,

TSERING Everest describes the special retreat she has just completed, which her teacher, H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, adapted to balance solitary practice and family responsibilities.

Tsering Everest received her first name, which means ‘long life’ in Tibetan, from Dudjom Rinpoche during her first Buddhist empowerment in I 979- She was 25 at the time, and a single mother who had grown up in Montana, USA. Since then, she has been a student of H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, a highly realized meditation master, artist and Tibetan physician who was recognized at an early age as an incarnation of the Abbot of Chagdud Monastery in Tibet. He was trained in that country by many of its greatest lamas in the philosophy and meditation practices of Vajrayana Buddhism.

For ten years she interpreted for Chagdud Rinpoche and last spring finished a three and a half year retreat. Since then, she has been ordained and has become resident lama of the newly-established Chagdud Monastery in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She also teaches in the United States and continues to inspire Western practitioners by relating traditional Vajrayana teachings to contemporary and personal issues.

What brought you to the spiritual path?

My first exposure to the Dharma was very interesting because I was not looking for a spiritual path. I was a bit of a hermit by nature. The way it happened was that a friend of mine insisted I meet a certain man who was coming to town. My son was very young at the time, and I refused the invitation for weeks. Finally, I went to what turned out to be the last afternoon session of a week-long teaching by Sogyal Rinpoche. I knew nothing about him or about Buddhism at all.

I tried to sit down very inconspicuously at the back, but he asked me immediately “Who are you and what do you do?” I was so angry at being singled out that I barked my name and said, “I pay attention, what do you do?” I was so rude, but he laughed and laughed. I found his voice and language interesting, but I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then someone asked a question about prostrations. Before I knew it, Sogyal Rinpoche grabbed me by the hand and tricked me into doing three of them. I had absolutely no idea what they were. Then, as I sat down, he began the pointing out instructions of the Great Perfection. He didn’t say that was what he was doing, but I knew that’s what it was. I was so deeply moved that my life has not been the same since. I felt that someone was telling me things I didn’t know I knew. Someone had introduced my blood to me.

After the teaching, I went up to him and said, “You’re a very nice young man, but I want to know who your teacher is. I want to know who knows everything”. I was so rude, he laughed. He laughed and laughed and replied, “H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche”. I insisted I needed to meet him and he said, “OK, OK”.

A few months later Sogyal Rinpoche called me, although how he found my number is still a mystery, and said His Holiness would be in Ashland, Oregon. So it was he who connected me to Dudjom Rinpoche. I took refuge with His Holiness, had a meeting with him and asked him for a teacher because Sogyal Rinpoche lived so far away from me. I had a three-year-old child and couldn’t travel.

Not long after that, Chagdud Rinpoche stayed near us and taught. I was very fortunate in that I was really able to practise on an ongoing basis in a way that worked for me. Rinpoche slowly learned English. Sometimes when he had translators, the teaching would come like a waterfall, like a gigantic dam bursting. He’d teach five to seven days a week, all day and all night. It became like food to me. That period was a downpouring, a downloading of Dharma. We just listened, because he didn’t allow us to ask questions for a year. Later, when I travelled with Rinpoche, I heard teachings all the time.

How did you begin your retreat?

I asked Chagdud Rinpoche to tell me if and when I should do one. After a trip to France, on my birthday he suddenly said, “OK, now retreat”, and that started the process of entry.

Then, during one particular Losar (celebrations for the Tibetan New Year), a group of lamas sat in my living room. One said that to practise I didn’t even have to visualize the celestial mansion, because I already lived in a palace. Then another one said, “Yes, a palace retreat”. When Rinpoche had a dream which made it clear that I needed to stay in my home and do the retreat there, that sort of sealed my fate.

How would you describe the style of your retreat?

I’ve had the comfort of my home, although at the time I began the retreat, the house wasn’t finished. My husband David was quite busy with Rinpoche, and it might never have been finished. Because of the particular circumstances, the house was actually built without obstacles, and my husband finished it while I was in retreat.

One marvellous aspect of my retreat was that I wasn’t in strict isolation, although I had very strict boundaries, and I didn’t go anywhere outside my confined area. At one point, Rinpoche suggested that members of the Sangha come to see me when they needed to talk.

When Rinpoche told me to teach, he devised a screen so that people could hear me without seeing me. I could only see their feet under the bottom of the screen. It was like the anchorites in the Christian tradition who never left the church and communicated through a curtained window to answer questions and receive confession.

How did you adapt to the discipline

The restriction on reading at the beginning of the retreat was very difficult for me. We tend to read like ravenous animals; our intellect is in overdrive all the time, and we don’t even think twice about a simple thing like reading. Not reading even the mayonnaise jar or the soap box was daunting at first. The only things I could read were my prayers. I had no idea Rinpoche was going to do that, but I think it is quite traditional. Later, I was given permission to read the life stories of great siddhas. I could then just sit with one paragraph or sentence, savouring its beauty and the richness of its meaning. To think that previously I could finish entire books in a day and then be looking for the next one! Before, I wouldn’t eat a meal without reading something.

So it was very important, rewarding and freeing for me to turn that motor off. Later, I regained the pleasure of reading without quite as much greed or consumer attitude.

How were your husband and son integrated into your life during this period?

They were both able to serve the retreat. My husband David was wonderful. He would do all the shopping for me. He’s very patient, hardworking and supportive, whereas, in general, I’m crabby and very demanding. His example and his qualities have helped me tremendously.

My son Joseph was fourteen when I started the retreat and he’s now nineteen. During this time, I was simply confined and he could always come to me. This is Rinpoche’s way with children. They are never made to come, and they are never denied access. As Joe got older, his orbits around me have got bigger, but he still continues to orbit.

He went through some difficult phases as a teenager. His stability was that I was always here, just sitting here. Once, when the retreat was over and he came home, I was out. When I returned, he said, “You’re home, you’re home, I’m so glad you’re home, where have you been?” It had been a long time since he was here when I wasn’t.

I think he gained a lot from the process of the retreat. I wasn’t so active in his life, but he could come to me. I didn’t meet the girlfriends or attend the basketball games — they came and they went, they came and they went, and I was still sitting. He was able to see a certain kind of impermanence and a certain kind of stability. We would talk about changes in life from the point of view of the Dharma and that was certainly beneficial to him.

I think Dharma provides a lot to families who don’t deny access to their children. If you push them away, of course they will feel resent¬ment towards the Dharma. If you allow the Dharma to be a natural part of their life, you embrace them as much as you embrace the Dharma, and your practice includes them, then they grow up with a very special gift.

How was the rest of your family affected?

Marvellously. Since I didn’t have a telephone, it was not possible to call, but they could come to see me. Since then, my mother has been doing her Ngondro (preliminary practices). I did not have to invite or convince her. She was just interested in the quality of life Dharma produces and asked questions. My sisters have both been exposed to the Dharma and deeply moved by it. It is said that any practice you do directly and positively affects your parents, but I did not understand that as clearly as I do now.

If you are practising it’s pretty obvious, because changes begin to happen which people notice. They want to be happy, and when they see that you’re more content with your life, that you have a glow or quality about your being, they naturally want to know how you got it. Then it’s just a matter of sharing that — the quality of life that you’re beginning to cultivate by listening to the teachings, contemplating and meditating.

Actually, it’s not so hard, unless your temperament makes it so. Generally, it depends on having a good teacher. I think that everything you gain on the path is dependent on the teacher. As Rinpoche says, “the replica is only as good as the mold”. We are very fortunate to have such extraordinary teachers from whom we can learn — His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Sogyal Rinpoche, Chagdud Rinpoche…

What more can you tell us about your retreat?

Up early, up late. My day began at 4am, and I usually finished my session by 9.30 or 10pm — a long day.

What did people ask you about the retreat?

Women always asked David, not me, if we slept together. They’d pull him aside and ask, “Well, well, well?” He would avoid the question, but I think it is a question people would have. Rinpoche worked it out so that David stayed in his own room to ensure the continuity of waking, sleeping and remaining throughout the day with a Dharma mind. But we had one day a month to relax. I still had to keep certain commitments, but David could sleep with me. That worked very well and in general, our relationship was only enhanced by the retreat.

It is possible to do this kind of retreat within the context of a marriage. It all depends on the basis of the relationship. Our Dharma marriage was made with the idea of helping each other attain enlightenment. The point was not simply to have an attached relationship to one person, where he or she becomes necessary to the other’s happiness, but rather we both made commitments to help and serve others.

So within that context, the marriage could embrace my travelling with Rinpoche, the retreat, and whatever might present itself to foster progress on the path and enhance realization. That is what is important to us. If there is that common aspiration towards each other’s enlightenment, it’s a little easier to make joint choices and decisions in this direction. You create a track record, a continuity and a mutual support of each other’s practice, which doesn’t exclude having a marvellous loving relationship. Then you can use the marriage itself as the path. Of course there are challenges along the way — struggles with the mind, learning our limitations and weaknesses, but when you really need to cut attachment, you can do so joyfully and dedicate the merit. When you need to serve and support each other, it’s not like serving 2.2 cups of tea one week and demanding in return your 2.2 cups of tea the following week. The ledger system of marriage doesn’t produce happiness.

What if you’re in a relationship with someone who is not in the Dharma?

Actually, you can have a Dharma relationship even if you’re the only one who studies it. It works from the inside of you, how you look at the relationship, how you practise towards the person, how your mind is. He or she becomes the object of your practice. Traditionally, we serve our cup of tea to the lama. In the case of a marriage, you serve your cup of tea to your spouse. You care for them and serve them as a representative of all sentient beings. A relationship can in fact be a good way to practise Dharma, inside or outside of a retreat.

How do you create the circumstances for a retreat?

Special circumstances aren’t necessary. People become very object-oriented about this, thinking that they have to do a retreat. Mostly, we need to apply the Dharma to our minds now, in the moment. Also, people think, “Enlightenment someday. Someday I’ll be enlightened.” But it’s more about cutting in this very moment, applying selflessness, pure motivation and view in the present tense. H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche said not to talk about having done three, six, or twelve year retreats, but instead to remember that all of life is Dharma. It must be practised every day, every minute.

If an opportunity arises and you really want to sit without distraction and meditate in the privacy of your home or cave, in whatever style works best for your particular situation, then that’s fine. But it doesn’t take the place of doing daily practice or practising in the moment. If not, we lose time — who knows if the retreat will ever manifest?

Sometimes people think that practice in the moment requires mantra recitation, or visualization, or doing something in particular. Actually, it is very simple and natural. It means being at ease and open and present. Whatever arises or appears has a perfect nature and you can allow its perfection to become apparent. Then you can relate to your life experience by seeing its complete perfection, and this ripens the mind. If you simply allow your mind to move in this direction, all the conditions for ripening and fruition will automatically happen — be it a retreat, a special teacher or a perfect practice. Your absolute nature will do everything to become manifest.

H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche

Tsering Everest’s teacher fled Tibet at the time of the Chinese occupation in 1959- At the request ofH.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, he established a refugee camp in Orissa, India which the Indian government considered a model in economic self-sufficiency. Since 1979, he has founded study and practice centres throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and South America.

Chagdud Tulku established his North American seat at Rigdzin Ling, in Junction City, California. He currently resides in the town of Três Coroas, one hour north of Porto Alegre in Southern Brazil. He is developing his primary South American centre there, including the construction of a traditional Tibetan temple.