Calligraphy Lesson

I loved Trungpa Rinpoche beyond words and admired him more than anyone I had ever met (I was also a little afraid of him).


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Sometime in 1983 or ’84, I think it must have been, Vajracarya the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche visited the San Francisco Bay Area and gave a public Dharma Art seminar at Berkeley Dharmadhatu. Having been a student of Rinpoche’s since 1975, and having lived in Berkeley since moving there for school in 1981, I took the opportunity to attend this seminar, together with most other Berkeley Dharmadhatu members and many interested Bay Area people.

On the afternoon of the seminar’s last day, a reception was held in the Dharmadhatu’s meditation hall for those who had attended. We cleared away the meditation cushions and stacked them along the back wall, opening up the floor of the hall, and tables were brought in from which to serve wine and snacks. It had been announced that the Vidyadhara would be concluding the seminar with a calligraphy demonstration, and a table was placed for that purpose near the center of the room. Wine was served, and we all stood about and chatted for an hour or so, sipping wine, nibbling on bread and cheese, and waiting for Rinpoche to emerge from the back office area, where apparently he was hanging out with various senior students.

While people were setting up the central table, laying out a large sketch pad, an inkwell, calligraphy brushes, and so on, a gentleman traveling with Rinpoche as a kusung (his name, if memory serves, was Peter Volz) came out from the back rooms and approached me where I was standing in the meditation hall sipping wine from a plastic glass. He said to me, “Hey, you know Chinese, right?” I replied that I knew very little Chinese, but that I had spent the past three years or so in pretty intensive study of the Japanese language. He responded, “Yeah, yeah, but I mean, you know how to write the Chinese characters, right?” I replied that I did know a fair number of them (Chinese characters are used in written Japanese), whereupon he asked me to stand near the Vidyadhara while he performed his calligraphy demonstration. When I asked what for, he said, “The Vidyadhara likes to have people who know Chinese characters stand close by while he’s doing a calligraphy demonstration, in case a question comes up or something.” I protested that not only did I not speak Chinese, but I knew nothing of calligraphy or working with a brush, having always memorized Chinese characters by simply writing them out again and again with an ordinary pen or pencil; but he assured me that it made no difference, that just knowing the characters was all that was required.

Now, while I was delighted to be of service to the Vidyadhara and to have this rare chance to perhaps interact with him directly, an alarming question immediately arose: What if he makes a mistake? I was not especially keen on the idea of being put in a position where I might find myself obliged to publicly contradict my guru, let alone flat-out correct him, whether on Chinese characters or anything else.

I could no more have quit being Rinpoche’s student than I could have quit breathing. But this issue of whether or not my vajra guru could literally do no wrong was one that, in a small, private way, I had always struggled with.


In fact, the whole situation fed rather uncomfortably into what happened to be a chronic sore point for me. I loved Trungpa Rinpoche beyond words and admired him more than anyone I had ever met (I was also a little afraid of him), and I was continually astonished at my absurd good fortune in having found such an extraordinary teacher. And I had always, as a matter of fact, been particularly enamored of the inspired ways in which he used language. But at the same time, there were certain things about Rinpoche that embarrassed me just a bit. For example, the fact that his English was not perfect had always, secretly, slightly bothered me.

It wasn’t Rinpoche’s Tibetan-Oxfordian accent that troubled me—that only made him classy and exotic. Nor was I given to censoriousness about his behavior in general. I had met many people who were offended by the Vidyadhara’s taste for alcohol and tobacco, by his open and uninhibited philandering, by his not wearing monk’s robes, or even by the fact that the left side of his body had been partially paralyzed in a car crash, causing him to walk with a pronounced limp (a young spiritual shopper once told me, in all earnestness, “A healthy vegetarian diet could cure that, you know!”). For whatever reason, none of this had ever bothered me at all. But as a bit of a perfectionist when it came to language, I found that the frequent grammatical and other linguistic imperfections that peppered Rinpoche’s English often made me feel just a little uncomfortable, in a sort of not-entirely-conscious way.

The truth is that I had always wanted to be able to regard my guru as a flawless genius who was wholly infallible in every way, to be able to regard him as one who never, ever made a mistake of any kind—and that was not so easy to do when, marvelous communicator though he indisputably was, he so frequently produced utterances like (to adduce one of my all-time favorite Rinpoche-isms) “You be completely engolloped.”

Not, you understand, that I cherished any illusions that I myself could ever have moved to Tibet and attained anything close to perfect native fluency in his mother tongue—but that did not change the way I felt. There was an underlying calculus of hesitation at work here whose subliminal rationale ran more or less as follows: Yes, these are mostly minor errors, and to be expected from a non-native speaker of English. But if Rinpoche can make little mistakes, does that not suggest that he can make big mistakes, too? And if he can make big mistakes, then is it not dangerous for me to repose anything approaching total trust in a fallible spiritual guide who might at any moment lead me into some sort of big, possibly even catastrophic, error?

I could no more have quit being Rinpoche’s student than I could have quit breathing. But this issue of whether or not my vajra guru could literally do no wrong was one that, in a small, private way, I had always struggled with. Over time, however, I had managed to settle into a certain level of comfort with that uncomfortable state of conflictedness. Certainly I had no desire to confront it head-on, to lay my finger right on that particular sore spot. Thus I was far from eager now to go stand behind Rinpoche during his calligraphy demonstration, poised to pounce on any error he might commit. It just threatened to bring the whole infallibility issue a bit too close to home.

However, that is what I had been asked to do, and it was by no means an unreasonable request. It was, moreover, a request that I could not but regard as coming, however indirectly, from Rinpoche himself. So I agreed, despite my misgivings, to stand behind the Vidyadhara during his demonstration.

When the Vidyadhara came out into the meditation hall and walked over to stand at the table, everyone of course immediately gathered around to watch, with a tight knot of people quickly forming right around the table, where they could get the best view of the proceedings. Feeling ill-mannered and bumptious, and mumbling apologies, I dutifully pushed, squirmed, wedged, and elbowed my way to a position just behind Rinpoche and to his right, from which I would be able to clearly see what he was writing on the large sketch pad that lay on the table. Rinpoche did not make eye contact with me or acknowledge my presence in any way; so far as I could tell, he was not even aware that I was there.

I was where I was, and it was beginning to become clear to me that I was not about to tell my guru that he was right when I knew for a fact that he was absolutely dead fucking wrong.


The Vidyadhara, using a medium-sized Japanese calligraphy brush of fine quality, drew a couple of individual Chinese characters to start out with, explaining to the assembled audience as he did so what each calligraphed character meant. (I seem to remember that one of them was the character for “emperor”: 皇.) So far so good, as far as I was concerned. Maybe I could get away with just standing there and watching, like everybody else.

Ah, but no such luck. The next calligraphy that Rinpoche drew was the Chinese character for “big,” which looks like this: 大. He then announced to the audience, in that high-pitched, breathy voice of his (another frequent source of slight, private embarrassment), “This character means ‘heaven.’” The Chinese character for “heaven,” however, looks like this: 天.

For a few moments I kept mum, waiting for him to realize his mistake and correct it, and hoping fervently that he would. But he did not, and in fact he seemed to be preparing to move on to the next calligraphy. So I took a step forward and murmured diffidently, “Uh, sir, that’s not ‘heaven.’”

Still holding his brush, Rinpoche pivoted clockwise from the waist, looked at me out of the corner of his eye for a moment, looked back at the character and back again at me, and then retorted, putting some force into the plosive, “Is too!” Cursing my fate, but constitutionally incapable of letting it pass, I responded, as innocuously as I knew how, “No, sir, that’s not ‘heaven.’ It’s—” Rinpoche, having turned back to look down at the character again, swung back again toward me and repeated, even more forcefully, “Is TOO!,” sounding for all the world like a schoolboy in a playground quarrel. I could not seem to read the expression on his face. I had no sense that he was in any particular hurry to get past this interruption and move things along, nor did he appear to me to be offended, or threatened, or angry, or even irritated; nevertheless, in his way of speaking there was something almost pugilistic. A fleeting suspicion crossed my mind that he might actually be enjoying this, but I found it impossible to tell. I certainly was not.

By now, some of the onlookers were beginning to shuffle their feet, and faint mutterings could be heard from the crowd. People were staring at me, and I knew what they were thinking: “Who the hell does this jerk think he is?” I was wondering much the same thing myself. I would rather have been anywhere than in that situation—but I wasn’t. I was where I was, and it was beginning to become clear to me that I was not about to tell my guru that he was right when I knew for a fact that he was absolutely dead fucking wrong. In for a penny, in for a pound. So I replied, with a bit more spirit, “No, sir, that’s not ‘heaven,’ it’s ‘big.’ For ‘heaven,’ you need one more line at the top.” There was a brief pause, during which the restless shufflings and mutterings seemed to me to be increasing.

Rinpoche, having turned to reexamine his calligraphy, now pivoted toward me again, and again looked into my face. He turned back and looked once more at the calligraphy. And then he drew himself up to his full height, squarely facing the audience across the table, and proclaimed very loudly and very distinctly, without a trace of embarrassment, in his funny, high-pitched voice (and rolling the double “r” in the proper upper-crust English manner), “This gentleman is perfectly correct! This is not ‘heaven,’ it’s ‘big’! For ‘heaven,’ you need one more line at the top!”

More moments passed, during which I felt that everyone was a bit confused as to what was going on here, but at the same time decidedly outraged at the intrusion and glaring daggers at me. I had no idea what to do, so I just stood there and felt uncomfortable. Rinpoche had seemed to be about to move on to another calligraphy, but instead he turned back toward me, appeared to hesitate a moment, and then suggested, in the mildest of tones, “Why don’t you do one?”

Pause. “A calligraphy, you mean?”

Pause. “Yeah.”

So, feeling that I had little choice, I stepped up to the table and stood in front of the sketch pad. Rinpoche moved over a bit to the right and handed me his brush. He reached across with his good right hand and, with a smooth, sweeping motion, fsheeeet!, tore off the piece of paper on which he had written the last character, and set it aside, leaving me with a large, white, blank sheet on which to write. Holding the brush in my right hand, I asked, “What should I write?” Rinpoche replied, “Why don’t you do ‘sun’?”

I could feel people’s eyes on me. I was intensely aware of the Vidyadhara’s presence to my right, but somehow was not able to formulate any kind of useful thought about it. The whole situation seemed very simple and clear-cut, very immediate and real, yet at the same time a bit surreal, as if time had become unsure of itself, and every sensory perception heightened—like going in to work with a high fever, or minutely examining the delicate, gracefully undulating antennae of a small insect while drowning in an immensity of brilliant space. It was, in point of fact, quite engolloping. Off and on, I noticed my mind laboring ponderously to latch on to one passing thought or another, but none provided any mooring. I felt too nervous and discombobulated to be sure whether Rinpoche had meant “sun” 日 or “son” 子, so I asked, “You mean like the sun in the sky?”

Pause. “Yeah.”

A very simple character. I dipped the brush into the shining pool of jet-black ink, wiped it on the inside rim of the inkwell to remove any excess liquid, as I had seen Rinpoche do, and then held the brush over the yawning white blankness of the pad. As I was preparing to lower the brush to begin my first stroke, a large drop of ink gathered at the tip of the brush and fell with a plop near the center of the page, forming a black blot whose edges began slowly to bleed into the thirsty fibers of the surrounding paper. This was unexpected—a catastrophe of sorts—and I froze, not quite sure how to proceed. A second or two seemed to pass, and then Rinpoche reached over and, fsheeeet!, smoothly tore off that page, too, once more providing me with a fresh, blank sheet of paper.

Grateful for his intervention, I dipped the brush again, this time very carefully wiping it several times on the rim of the inkwell to forestall any further drips. I lifted the brush over the pad again, and was just bringing it down to start my first stroke when, plop! another drop of ink dripped off the end of it and splashed onto the white paper, forming a black dot perhaps ¾ of an inch in diameter. I glanced over at Rinpoche, half-expecting, I suppose, that he would again come to my rescue. But this time he just stood there. So I decided to play through it, so to speak, and brought the brush down right onto the wet blotch, beginning my first stroke there.

The Chinese character for “sun” 日 looks like a box with a horizontal line inside it, and is drawn with four strokes, in the following order: first, a vertical stroke on the left, from up to down; second, the top and right-hand sides of the box, drawn in one continuous right-angled stroke; third, the horizontal line inside the box, drawn from left to right; and finally the box’s bottom line, also drawn left to right. I drew the left vertical line, then the top-and-right stroke, and then, as I was about to start the inside-the-box horizontal stroke, I was struck (not knowing much about calligraphy) by a doubt. So I turned to Rinpoche and asked him, “Does it connect on the left or the right?” meaning “Is the horizontal line inside the box required to make contact with the left-hand or the right-hand vertical line?” I knew it was one or the other, but was not sure which. Rinpoche, being an experienced calligrapher, understood exactly what I was asking, and replied (correctly), “The left.” I went ahead and finished the character, then just stood there with the brush in my hand, with no idea what to do next. Looking down at my “sun” calligraphy, I judged it plain but almost passable, except that the first stroke was marred by a slight but clearly discernible bulge where that wayward drop had landed.

Rinpoche said, “Thank you,” retrieved his brush, moved back in front of the pad, and resumed his calligraphy demonstration, and I again took up my position behind and to the right of him. He went on to create quite a few more calligraphies, some in Chinese, some in Tibetan, and all with—to my considerable relief—no call for further input from me. As he drew each one, it was torn off the sketch pad and laid to dry on a low, built-in bench (a heater cabinet, I think it may have been) that ran all the way down the long wall of the meditation hall. After 40 minutes or so, the Vidyadhara wound down his calligraphy demonstration and said a few words thanking the participants and bringing the Dharma Art seminar officially to a close. After a celebratory toast, he withdrew to the back-office area, behind closed doors, accompanied, as before, by a number of his more senior students.

As soon as Rinpoche had left the room, everyone, it seemed, rushed over to the bench and snatched up whatever calligraphy they liked best, or whatever was left, as the case might be, to frame and hang on the wall at home. Truth be told, I would rather have liked to have one, too, but somehow I just could not bring myself to join in the free-for-all.

When the scrum had ended, two sheets of sketch paper remained on the bench: my ink blotch and my sun. Everybody wanted a calligraphy by Vajracarya the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche to frame and hang on their wall, but nobody wanted one by Herschel Miller (or whatever that obnoxious little twit’s name was). Well, of course they didn’t—who would? I didn’t want a Herschel Miller calligraphy, either! I briefly contemplated taking the two sheets home as some kind of memento, but there didn’t seem to be much point. In the end, I think someone (most likely me) picked them up and stuffed them into the trash, together with the used plastic cups and empty wine bottles.

The crowd thinned out and the seminar participants began to go their ways. A few of us stayed to put the meditation hall back together, folding and putting away the tables, tidying up the plastic glasses and wine bottles, and returning the stacked-up meditation cushions to their everyday configuration.

As we finished up with the cushions, I was just standing alone for a moment near one corner of the hall, gazing over at my two sheets of sketch paper still lying there on the bench along the far wall, and feeling suddenly, inexplicably bleak and desolate, and just a tiny bit dispirited, when Frank Berliner, who at that time was serving as Vajradhatu Ambassador to the Berkeley Dharmadhatu, came out from the back-office area and walked directly up to me. “The Vidyadhara asked me to tell you,” he said, slowly and gently, “that you did a very good calligraphy.”

Caught off guard, and unexpectedly touched, I said something or other in reply, whereupon Frank, his message delivered, turned to start walking back toward the rear offices. It now occurred to me that perhaps I could be helpful to Rinpoche again, so I stopped Frank and told him the embarrassing truth about the large Chinese character for “deity”/“divine”/“spirit” (in Japanese, pronounced kami) that Rinpoche had beautifully calligraphed with a huge brush and had had elegantly silkscreened onto large vertical banners that now hung on the walls of every major Vajradhatu meditation center, including Berkeley Dharmadhatu: I told him that the character as drawn on the banners , though clearly meant to be read kami 神, was actually not quite correct, for it had one small brushstroke missing—a glaring error to anyone at all familiar with Chinese characters.

Frank moved closer with a chagrined expression, raising and lowering his two hands in a shushing mudra. “He knows, he knows!” he replied, in a conspiratorial stage whisper. Whatever you do, don’t fucking tell him—he knows already, and he’s not happy about it!”

Looking back on it now, I do wish, just a little, that I’d taken those two botched calligraphies home and framed them.