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His Holiness Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa

His Holiness Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa, performing the Ceremony of the Vajra Crown

Thirty-five years ago at the age of twenty-five, I attended the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa’s Black Hat [or Vajra Crown] ceremony in San Francisco at the invitation of a dear friend. This same friend also gave me a copy of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which I still have today and have read many times. It is said that those who witness the Black Hat ceremony are destined to achieve enlightenment. In my immature understanding of that realization, I presented His Holiness with a large pink amethyst crystal in the shape of a diamond, and as I bowed before him he gently placed his hand atop my head. It was, as we used to say in ’74, “far out.”

Twenty years later, while having a conversation with my mother in New York, I happened to mention the Karmapa. “Karmapa!” she said. “I spent time with the Karmapa.” She hauled out some old photos of herself, her Buddhist nun friend Barbara and His Holiness, and proceeded to tell me stories about which up to then I knew nothing, including one about how the Karmapa suggested she see a doctor because he sensed that she had a growth in her sinus cavity. She did, of course, and had it removed. In some strange way, I was not all that surprised by her tales. I’ve come to accept that my karmic connection to Shambhala and Buddhism runs deep and is long-standing, extending well beyond this life’s modest imaginings.

At twenty-five I was already a father, beginning a career in graphic design and marketing and in business for myself. While Buddhism attracted me, the demands of my life pulled me in many other directions, and it was not until I was fifty-five (and running out of time!) that I turned my attention finally to developing a disciplined, formal Buddhist practice.

At fifty-five, in public office for nearly a decade, I found myself again chosen the Mayor of Sonoma. A calling to public service–in this case my unpaid elected position–melded with my developing spiritual practice. Serving as mayor and councilman is ordinary life with the heat turned up full blast. Everything is hotter, internally and externally. My sitting practice on a cushion alternated with my sitting practice on a podium, and over time became politics as a spiritual path. I came to understand that one role of public office is to be the grounding wire for others. Whether receiving praise or insult during meetings, I practiced hearing and observing, and thanked every speaker with courtesy.

At one meeting, after a minute or so of a particularly nasty verbal assault on a member of city staff, I stopped the speaker gently and said, “Pardon me, sir. You are being awfully harsh and unkind; I feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. Is there anything else you might choose to say?” He said,”No,” but returned to the podium at the end of the meeting and apologized. Leadership, it turns out, is not about developing a thick skin at all. It is about being open and genuine. As Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche teaches, ruling your world is the path of practice, and the heat of leadership accelerates everything. It’s not for nothing that my dharma name Sonam Tobgyal can be translated as “king of virtuous action.” Ah, well.

Since retiring from public office in 2006, I’ve turned my hand to writing, and have produced a weekly column in our local Sonoma Valley newspaper. Having gained some measure of public influence and recognition, I feel it should be used responsibly to further decency, generosity and thoughtfulness. My column gives me the opportunity to speak about how we treat others and wish to be treated, and to engagingly bring teachings about enlightened society to the general public. Along with my writing, serving as our local Shambhala Center Director, running Epiphanet (a four-person website development company), daily yoga, being a new grandfather and 34-year husband, keeping up with the garden, and dharma practice and study keep my days full and rich.
“Far out” still works for me.

Larry’s columns can be read online at www.barnettweekly.com.

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