A Guard Story
by Hudson Shotwell, Halifax, Nova Scotia
I drove the Eggplant Express up Ninth Street to the Hill, parked and walked to the house for my shift. It was July, 1976. This afternoon we would be going to a friend’s home where Rinpoche was to visit and have tea. The first manifestation of the Kalapa Court, the house on Seventh and Aurora, was dark and quiet. I sat in the hallway chair, staring into the mirror by the front door that John Perks had rigged up. Like a periscope, it allowed the guard to see in from the seat at the back of the entryway.
There was nobody in the sitting room. Vajra Guards were on duty during the day in the afternoon, and we had an all-night guard who slept on the couch after Rinpoche retired. It was the natural thing to do because Rinpoche was by nature and training so much more generous than any of us and it was a privilege just to be around him. He was upstairs with Major Perks, getting ready. The house had the cool empty feeling of massive dark woodwork on a pleasant summer afternoon.
The stairs came down to a half-landing and ended in the entryway by the chair. I heard Mr. Perks laughing as they began to descend so I went outside to the back gate to wait until Rinpoche came out, as was the norm. He came down the back path; I offered him my arm and helped him into the car. The leather interior of the Mercedes smelled like warm tack as he eased himself into the back seat. I closed the door and went around to the driver’s side. In those days you were alone in the car with him because it was only Rinpoche and the guard.
He sat quietly in the back and once again I tried and failed to not make conversation. “It’s one of those pure days when the mountains look almost translucent, isn’t it, Sir?” His response was a blank, high-pitched, “Yes.” By this I intuited he didn’t want to talk. As we drove along he said nothing. His silent presence was almost like an insult, but the sound of my own voice would have been worse.
He had a “private” life, one supposed, but he didn’t have a private hideaway. His life was open but sometimes you wanted out of it. It was completely open. When you walked into this open life there was no guarantee he would act one way or another way. So in 1976 we had many opportunities to practice the slogan, “Not afraid to be a fool.”
The intensity of being around Rinpoche had only increased as I did these weekly guard shifts. His being right there went beyond my concept of being right there, thus it impinged upon my own small mind. There were times when being around him made my skin crawl and those times weren’t predictable. Unexpectedly, a great wave of his being there would radiate out and wash across the environment. He was like a solid rock creating ripples by simply being in the current flowing around it, and before long he was the rock and current as one. In short, his there-ness shortly began to mess with you.
We arrived at the house and nobody was home. The door was locked, so we couldn’t just enter the house and wait for his friend to arrive. I asked him what he would like to do and he indicated we might go around to the back of the house and wait. I escorted him along a side path to the back yard.
The house had a covered patio with a small patch of dry Rocky Mountain grass in front. Near the shady edge of the lawn, fifteen feet below, was a typical little ravine along which a creek flowed cheerfully down from the Flatirons to Boulder Creek. There were tall trees on either side and Rinpoche asked me to put a metal lawn chair near the edge. The air was redolent with the scent of dry weeds as he sat down in the dappled sun and looked down at the water.
I stood next to him momentarily, hesitating for a moment because I wondered what to do now in terms of where to be, then decided to walk back to the patio and settle down in a similar lawn chair on the concrete. This I did.
Soon the problem was that nothing was happening. I was sitting outside in the warm afternoon in my coat and tie, like something out of Masterpiece Theatre, but now I wasn’t watching the mirror from my guard chair, or waiting for him, or driving him. There was no one else around, he didn’t want to chat and there was only twenty feet between us. I could not avoid him and stared at his back and the back of his head. My mind was jumpy and overactive and I began to wonder, what was he thinking, really?
Did the water remind him of a secret valley with a stream he sat beside when he was escaping from Tibet?
Was he thinking about his next seminar?
Was he thinking about women?
Was he thinking about somebody who was faking their prostration practice?
Or was he not thinking at all? Was he just there, in the windy shade, looking at the water?
Time dragged on and still the person didn’t arrive. Something shifted and I thought, “Maybe he is doing that wave-after-wave thing of the nowness that has no owner.” It was the feeling you’re never sure about. Is it your mind, or is it real, or is anything real? The nowness could also be the silence of the trees and the bubbling of the creek, but mainly I was sure it was coming from him, with his back to me and me staring at the back of his head and his glistening black hair.
My desire to communicate was beginning a rapid descent towards a state of total atrophy and there was nothing worthwhile, funny or relevant to say as the waves washed over my lawn chair. At some point I think I gave up and just sat there. And as usual he continued to sit without moving. For an indeterminate amount of time, I had no desire to break the silence with words. I suppose you could say it was a moment of surrender.
Then whoever it was came home and found us in the back yard. Rinpoche rose in a relaxed way and smiled broadly as he greeted them. They had tea in the living room and I was back in the hallway, waiting in a chair for the next thing to happen.
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