Climbing a Staircase

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During the Vidyadhara’s last visit to England in 1986 I served many times as a kasung around Rinpoche’s activities. As a long time city resident and car owner I swapped between driver, server, house guard and all round “gopher” for whatever was needed. Many indelible episodes arose as a result of being in his presence.

Rinpoche’s health at the time was changeable. Even so he was with us more often than not, generally watchful and silent. I invariably experienced his presence as a vast mountain in space. Every time I approached or served anyone in the same room, it seemed I entered a pristine expanse, where all was at rest, even amongst frisky, chattering guests. Without effort, detailed activity such as serving a five-course dinner co-existed in the foothills of a samadhi-like stillness.

One day, dinner was served with perhaps ten people around the table. Of those present, I remember Jim Gimian (then Head of the Dorje Kasung) and Mitchell Levy (Rinpoche’s physician), and the Sawang (Sakyong-in-waiting) who was studying in Oxford around then.

After dinner finished, Rinpoche was tired and wanted to retire early. Following the car accident in Scotland his mobility became limited but during his latter years, any tricky terrain required steady assistance. As the guests moved from the dining room to the bottom of the stairs to bid him good night, I was summoned and shown how best to assist him to his room — a spontaneous, complex mutual entanglement of arm holds. It felt like a hasty improvisation given the steep narrow stairs and sturdy sharp newel posts at each level.

In a blink, sobering responsibility was thrust upon me: escort Padmasambhava’s heir, Proclaimer of the Victory Banner in the West up two or three steps to a landing, make a perpendicular turn, climb ten or more steps to another turn, finally ascend three or four last steps to the top hallway outside of Rinpoche’s chamber. No pressure. With such jolly, capable guests supporting us (me!), all will be well.

Cue massive adrenaline rush.

As we move off, I quickly become aware of how unpredictable Rinpoche’s movements are; any pattern or rhythm isn’t discernible. What this means is being absolutely ready for any change of direction at any time that makes sure footing questionable. My expectation is to help direct an unstable man to where he needs to go. It’s instantly apparent this is anything but the case. I’m stepping into the unknown — being taken on a test drive by forces beyond control. We start well and make the first landing buoyed by the wit and commentary of a jolly band of brothers. A left turn, and we set off up the main face. Unbidden, come memories of stories of Rinpoche intentionally hurling himself down staircases to test the mettle of his students…however, any thinking quickly dies with the visceral reality of increasing danger in every step. Not only does Rinpoche’s center of gravity alter from moment to moment but the stability of his legs threaten immanent collapse. Will I have to carry him like a bag of wriggling sticks?

We lurch from one solution to the next. Nothing stays fixed. Every time I think we’re making progress, Rinpoche disappears on a new vector. I’m flailing in a wind of anxious re-activity amidst distant laughter and surreal spectator comment. Halfway up the stairs (about ten feet above the landing) we completely waver in a gentle directionless lurching. My entire being longs to compensate for impending catastrophe. He has completely unseated any definite sense of direction, suddenly like a Redwood in a forest, he starts to topple backwards and we lose all solidity and footing. Pure free-fall-panic, energy-on-fire in every cell is unlocked. Following whatever words can be used to describe “at the very last moment”, we come to a complete stop for a millisecond. Any further back and broken limbs will ensue. Out of this bardo, a resurgence of balance makes itself known and we resume our ragged climb. Strategy is now gone, I am barely present with every move or flicker. Another five steps…the last turn is done…next step up…nearly there… and exactly the same thing happens all over again with a twenty foot drop at our backs. This wily trickster is messing with me big time — again hanging on a precipice literally unable to breathe for fear of being crushed. Out of a timeless spacelessness we regain momentum and arrive at his bedroom door.

Whatever or whoever Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was, his presence unlocked in me a profound longing to emulate his essential example. His kindness and love are foremost but also the utterly original ways he taught his truth, often cutting through every expectation. Gently climbing a set of stairs with him, a gift I treasure more every day, showed me an essence….panicking at the abyss…is momentary and simple. It’s that easy. Just relax and keep going.

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