A Kiss Is But A Kiss

David Nudell, Mark Nowakowski, David McCarthy, Jeanine Greenleaf, at Karmê Chöling, 1975.

In the summer of 1975 I went to Karme Chöling in Vermont for a seminar with Trungpa Rinpoche on “Meditation and Prayer in the Buddhadharma.” Someone suggested that I request a personal interview with Rinpoche. (I had had one interview with Rinpoche previously). So I signed up without really thinking that I would get one, if I had any reason to have one, or what I would say or ask him. I didn’t give it much thought.

One sunny afternoon, just after lunch I was sitting on the front lawn in front of the main house chatting with some other students. Hector MacLean, with his bright Jimmie Olsen smile, red hair, and freckled face, appeared at my side and said that Rinpoche would see me now.

I went in the front door of the house, up the stairs, and waited outside Rinpoche’s bedroom door. Even though he lived in his own nearby house when he taught at Karme Chöling, he also had a bedroom/sitting room on the second floor in the front corner of the main house. Earlier during the seminar, under the fastidious instruction of Connie Berman, I had helped clean the room, washing the windows with newspaper and vinegar from the outside on a ladder. I remember helping to clean inside the room and noticing that Rinpoche had an old ceramic chamber pot with a lid, on the floor by his bedside. I had never seen one before.

When the time came and the previous person left, I entered the room. Rinpoche was seated in a straight-backed, padded, wooden chair by the window, facing the door. On the floor in front of him was a new red zabuton with a zafu on it. In a previous interview, I had sat in a chair, so I was a little surprised to be sitting on the floor in front of him, but I just sat down.

I remember it feeling spacious and not having much to say, but it seemed like I should ask something. While I had been waiting outside, I had tried to drum up something to talk with him about. I had prepared a question based on something from his talk the day before. I vaguely remember it being about the sangha, “How could it be that ‘X’ is this way, if ‘Y’ is so?” Or something like that. I began asking the question, and in mid-sentence I just stopped. The bottom fell out. The flimsy scraps of logic dissolved and I couldn’t think of anything, nor say anything. There was a gap. It may have lasted a second, or a minute; it was timeless.

When I began to locate myself again, I found I was sitting on the floor on a flat red cushion, with the window open, and the soft summer breeze and light coming in, with my hand suspended in space, halfway through the gesture I was making when I was trying to ask my question. And nothing was happening, I tried to say something, to formulate a thought, to finish my sentence, and nothing arose in my mind, or out of my mouth. When I realized this was happening, I felt a little embarrassed that I was just sitting there agape, and thought I should at least try to finish my sentence, and so I struggled to say something, which was largely inaudible, and probably incomprehensible. Then I lowered my hand and just sat there.

Rinpoche asked if there was anything else, and I said “No.” As I got up, I raised myself up from sitting and onto my knees. I leaned forward a bit and offered my hand. My hand met his, a soft, warm, slightly plump, Tibetan hand, with his gold signet rings kept in place by the flesh of his fingers. As our hands met in a handclasp, it flowed into a gentle hug as my left hand found his right shoulder and our heads gently touched, the right side of my head and cheek to his. My hand felt the coolness of his crisp cotton shirt on his shoulder. I was aware of Rinpoche’s starched white collar against the soft brown skin of his neck. There was a slight hesitation as we began to part.

And then we kissed each other, on the lips. It was not an intentional, purposeful kiss. Not a pre-thought-out act of passion. Not a perfunctory, peck-on-the-lips kiss. Not a romantic, passionate kiss. But a kiss of circumstance, a kiss as-if-by-chance, of falling into each other. There was no resistance, but a kind of weightlessness. I felt I was falling into the Grand Canyon. And it ended as naturally as it had happened, one continuous moment of beginning, middle, and end, without any thought given to what was happening, but just now. No pre-programming, no passion, no aggression. Just human warmth, set in the cradle of space. I became his student, a servant for life, sealed with a kiss.

Then I got up and kind of backed out of the room, mumbling my thanks. Rinpoche was simply sitting there. I don’t know if someone went in after me or not. I wandered around for a bit, somewhat aimlessly, feeling very spacious and somewhat blissed out. Later, when I bumped into Hector, he asked what had happened to me, because he didn’t know that I had left. I suppose Rinpoche might have just sat waiting for his next student. I am so grateful to be part of this mishap lineage!

Mark Nowakowski is a member of the Nalanda Translation Committee living in Halifax. For the benefit of us and future generations, the Vidyadhara wrote and told many stories of his meaningful encounters with his teachers Jamgön Kongtrül and Khenpo Gangshar, as well as the life stories of many lineage holders. I am very glad that the Chronicles is helping us do the same.