April 4 is Parinirvana Day, the day when we commemorate the passing of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. This piece by Frank Ryan of Boston shares a personal memory of Trungpa Rinpoche and the Sixteenth Karmapa. The Seventeenth Karma is currently on a tour of North America.
by Frank Ryan
Among the vast wealth the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche passed on to his son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, was the capacity to enrich and instruct in every situation, not simply from behind a microphone. This was particularly evident in the Vidyadhara’s deep relationship with the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. When he first invited the Karmapa to teach at Karmê Chöling (then called Tail of the Tiger) and other centers in 1974, the Vidyadhara demonstrated first-hand how to mix profound respect for the Kagyü and Nyingma lineages with insight and relaxed graciousness.
It was His Holiness’s experience with the Vidyadhara’s training of his closest students, and his son, the Sawang Ösel Mukpo, that revealed how deeply the wisdom traditions of Tibet were interpenetrating and taking root in the minds and hearts of students throughout North America and the West. Several years later His Holiness memorialized this unfolding dynamic with the discovery of the Namkhyen Gyaldar, or “Dream Flag” during his second visit to the West.
In 1981 His Holiness was diagnosed with terminal cancer at a hospital in Hong Kong. The monks at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim immediately began preparations to care for His Holiness in the final months of his life. To their dismay his Holiness announced that instead he would be traveling to the heartland of America to be cared for at the American International Hospital in Zion, Illinois. Within a short time the entire Kagyü lineage was transplanted to this small town fifty miles north of Chicago.
The Ven. Tai Situ Rinpoche, Ven. Sharmar Rinpoche, and Ven. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, along with attendants and cooks all took apartments in Zion close to the hospital. Striking was the fact that all of these apartments looked out over the panorama of the tree line and the forbidding towers of the Zion Nuclear Power Station. An incredible array of master teachers such as the Vidyadhara also traveled to Zion to visit with His Holiness, express their love, and explore this daring break with tradition.
Serving as a Dorje Kasung in Chicago at the time it was my honor, and duty, to accompany the Vidyadhara on a number of his visits to see His Holiness in Zion. Many accounts of magical events later surfaced regarding His Holiness’s final days, but the interaction between the Vidyadhara and His Holiness in early November, 1981 was remarkable in two ways: the power of their mutual presence and an ordinary quality rich with simplicity and compassion.
The Vidyadhara closely monitored the care His Holiness was receiving through his constant communication with the Lamen, Mitchell Levy, but during all of his visits he never drew undue attention to himself, always focusing on what was needed for His Holiness on that given day. On some days there would be heartfelt conversations but even when His Holiness wasn’t speaking the sense of communication and trust was palpable. At one point when a visiting physician failed to notice that the heart monitor display for His Holiness was flatlining, the Vidyadhara gently drew his attention to the malfunction as he moved closer to moisten his lips.
The evening the Lamen informed the Vidyadhara that His Holiness had passed into paranirvana the final trip to Zion was marked by a palpable sense of sorrow and loss. For students and attendants this continued throughout the three days the body of His Holiness remained in samadhi.
On November 8 the casket of His Holiness, whose body was to be transported back to Rumtek, was momentarily kept on the tarmac of O’Hare airport before being loaded onto the plane. As the Vidyadhara approached an attendant removed the grey tarp revealing a brilliant Dream Flag meticulously placed over the casket. With tender silence the Vidyadhara touched his head to the Dream Flag and motioned for the rest of us to draw close. The message was clear—this was no time for burrowing into hesitancy and doubt. The fearless display of His Holiness’s compassion in coming to the heartland of North America for his final weeks planted a powerful seed. Depth of the monastic tradition was respected in the construction of Rumtek in Sikkim, but the past didn’t define and contain the vibrancy of the wisdom lineage. Just as His Holiness XVII Karmapa now engages with the youth of North America and the world, our vow is to perpetuate the world of authentic presence.
A stanza from the poem the Vidyadhara composed on the occasion of His Holiness’s first visit to Tail of the Tiger sprung to mind:
The Dawn of Karmapa
The only living monarch on earth
Be kind to us
We wait for your lion’s roar
Ostentatious display of your presence
-Supplication to the Emperor, 1974
Frank Ryan is a longtime student of the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. He and his his wife Susan live in Boston. Still active as a Shambhala teacher, Frank also sits on the Board of the Prison Mindfulness Institute.