‘….I fight in the old fashion.” -Makkyi Rabjam
As I turned onto the Karme Choling road in May 1987 for the cremation, my mind slipped back to the first time I set foot there. It’s 1973. I’m wearing ochre-colored, baggy Indian pants with a drawstring and leaning against a tree just outside the talk tent next to the road. The talk is late. A blue Chevy Impala station wagon comes up the road, raising dust. It stops at the tent. Narayana, who will later become the Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin, gets out of the driver’s seat, walks around the front of the car, and opens the door for Rinpoche, I have only heard of him. He walks toward his chair, wearing a white shirt and khaki shorts with suspenders. He limps. I grope, but I can find no reference points for this man.
He talks about renunciation. Renunciation is nausea. Nausea with life. He says you can feel it in your gut—a physical sensation. And until you do, you have not really begun the spiritual path. At some point, I think he looks at me. Strangely, I love this man. Strangely, I know he is my teacher.
Then, I thought I knew about spirituality. Over the years he will teach me how little I know. At some point he will become all I know.
It is fourteen years later, and I’m traveling on the same road, now freshly steamrolled and filled with people. It’s a bustling scene that I will soon learn to call “downtown.” Up the road behind the house is the meadow where the Purkhang is being erected. Just below the Purkhang site, nestled in the pines, is Gade Gar.
After a steep climb through the woods, strewn here and there with personal tents, we arrive at the gate to Gade Gar. I’m home. I’m so happy to be here and so afraid. It’s the same comfort I have felt in the company of fellow Dorje Kasung on our sacred land of Magyal Pomra at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center. Like a wool blanket—warm and itchy.
Soon I take over command of C Platoon. Mr. Goodness has been at the helm for about a week and the Platoon is running smoothly. With my arrival, he will now begin work on planning for the cremation as part of Dapon C’s staff. People have been enjoying Goodness’s command, like a glass of English beer, hearty, warm and sweet.
As the days roll on, with Sergeant Andato as den mother, the platoon feels more and more like family. These are old friends. There are many new faces, of course, but all of them are old friends. We all know the routine, from washup through formation and breakfast and practice and shifts and lunch and meetings and work and mess and dinner and drinking and bed. Life is simple, but life is also raw. Soon we will carry out our last major campaign with the Boss. As each day passes, we seem to remember more about the Makkyi. Our broken hearts bond us together.
Gade Gar is extraordinary. When you travel downtown, your energy is ripped and torn, pulled in every direction. Everything is happening at once, with plenty of people to make it happen. When you climb back up the hill you walk slower and you breathe slower. When you salute at the gate, the Makkyi is waiting there, greeting you like your mother, welcoming you home. The habitat energizes you with the flags and the cannon and the Makkyi’s chair and trident standard. The land is conquered.
There are neighborhoods — A, B, C, and K platoons, command, and staff — each with its own distinct quality, a combination of the people and the land they inhabit. The land brings out the best in us. Although living is not always easy, each Kasung knows exactly where they are, and they are brighter for it. The Makkyi has shown us this and taught us how to do it. This is the place where ruggedness and gentleness meet.
At morning formation, Mountain Rupon sets the tone for the day. His command of the situation is unquestionable. His presentation is always the same: The Rock of Gibraltar speaks. After formation, we drill on the road that passes by the Purkhang. Moving together, we feel ourselves as a single organism, with the same heart and the same blood, the same sight and sound. Some of us are less than perfect but all of us are eager to go ahead.
The Purkhang is a stunning sight, beyond words: the Vidyadhara’s magnificent imprint on this landscape, through the hands of his students. The land was made for the Purkhang to take its seat at this spot. It is also a reminder of what we are about to do.
We are very busy, guarding and serving three households, Ashoka Bhavan, His Holiness’ quarters, the front desk, honor guard in the shrine room, and traffic control on the road. Transportation is constant. The flow of people to see the Kudung in the Shrine Room swells by the day, and more Kasung are absorbed into Gade Gar. Momentum is building.
At home base, as we manage the numerous shifts and shifting requirements, we are also preparing for the day of the cremation, the largest operation we have ever taken on. Tactical genius is plentiful, and humor is abundant. Platoon commanders are fretting and tussling over who will cover what, when, and with whom. All the while the Gate Dapons each travel in their unique orbits, reaching the same place by different paths, and occasionally colliding. The sergeant major tackles the impossible task of training an uninitiated group in the intricacies of the slow march, an exercise designed for smooth pavements now to be executed on rugged terrain. The Sergeant’s Corps drills the honor guard with love and rigor until its approach becomes a singular salute to the Makkyi. The whole thing is coming together.
Lady Diana has come to address the Kasung. It’s late at night, and we are gathered around her as she sits next to the Makkyi’s chair, facing the parade ground. A gentle rain begins to fall. The Kasung Kyi Khyap introduces her. His voice is quavering slightly. The Makkyi, he says, had entrusted us with the protection of his body, and now “Sadly, we will never do that again.” This hits in the pit of the stomach and the heart at the same time. We are crying along with the rain. The Kasung Kyi Khyap reminds us of how important it will be to now carry on the forms the Makkyi has transmitted.
Lady Diana speaks in a deeply affectionate tone about what the Makkyi has meant and continues to mean to her and to all of us. She talks about the love that the Makkyi had for his Dorje Kasung and that she feels now more strongly than ever. She reminds us that he always spoke of himself as a military man. She asks for our help and offers her love and encouragement. She is certain that the Makkyi will return. As Lady Diana and the Kasung Kyi Khyap leave the camp, we are heartbroken. We are sad and happy at the same time.
The day of cremation begins in a slow drizzle. Sangha members are making their way up the paths to the Purkhang site in a steady stream. The Kasung and Kusung have taken their positions in the Outer, Inner, Secret, and That mandalas. We have rehearsed and over-rehearsed. Now it will happen.
The three main Dapons are in the shrine room, preparing the Vidyadhara’s body for the last time, a ritual they have performed regularly for nearly two months, not so unlike the rituals they have performed for many years now. As umbrella-bearer, I am gathered with the Kudung-bearers in the post meditation hall (PMH). The Kasung Kyi Khyap is looking up the hill we are about to climb. He is quiet and tears are welling in his eyes. History will be made today, he says.
The umbrella had been placed in the PMH early in the morning, propped on a white plastic bucket. As we pick it up moments before the start of the procession the bucket falls over, spilling white paint all over the carpet in the PMH. Briefly surprised, we begin to clean it up. Mountain Rupon remarks that “Now, at least we’ve got something to do other than stand around.” The monks are waiting with their horns for the start of the procession and burst into laughter as I wrestle the umbrella into the parade flag holder we have borrowed from the St. Johnsbury American-Legion Kagyu style, Western technology.
The procession through the woods is rhythmic and solemn with quiet intensity. Everyone’s heart, everyone’s ayatanas become part of that rhythm. As the Vidyadhara’s body emerges from the woods, the Torii gate and the Purkhang and the assembled teachers and sangha come into view. We hear and see students crying. All emotions are manifest in a tremendous spectacle. It is sacred and deeply passionate, but not morose. The broad smile of the Vidyadhara is there. Perhaps acknowledging that, at one point the Vajra Regent comments that Fellini could not have done it better.
The cremation was good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end. As we all know, the Vidyadhara’s presence was vast and splendid. Even though we were arrayed in a large meadow, it felt entirely contained, a large open shrine hall, with everyone in touch with the practice conducted by His Holiness Khyentse Rinpoche, the Kagyu Tulkus, the Vajra Regent, the Sawang, and Lady Diana. The sangha in all its many forms as attendants, artisans, administrators, engineers, Kasung, Kusung, and above all as practitioners offered its mandala.
The Kasung worked hard and with gentleness throughout a hot day in the sun. Many sangha members thanked us as they left and the state police offered praise for how we carried ourselves and how smoothly the event was conducted. Some of the newspaper accounts would compare the scene to Woodstock, but the comparison would be strained. When we swept the grounds after the event, the trash we picked up over the whole area would fit in a dixie cup. That evening we marched over that ground as we had done so many times before, thanking the Makkyi, pledging our loyalty, and asking him to return.
There was still much work to be done at Gade Gar over the next couple of days and just as many shifts to be filled downtown and at the various residences. Suddenly, we were informed that we would repeat the cremation day procession in the opposite direction with the Vidyadhara’s relics. As rain and wind pelted the camp, we huddled in a tent planning and staffing the event in record time, emerging from the tent just in time to save it from collapsing in the wind. The ceremony and procession with the relics was our last major mission. Many would now leave and others would stay on to work with Khyentse Rinpoche’s program.
Our main objective now finished, takedown was accomplished in one day with a skeleton crew of encampment veterans, because most people were attending an abhisheka, with Khyentse Rinpoche. Mountain Rupon had yet to figure out how to get the trident down from atop the center flagpole as we began the final flag lowering. As the cannon fired and recoiled with a particularly loud burst, the center Trident shot into the air and careened to the ground, narrowly missing the gunner and the center flag bearer. We belted the anthem with particular vigor. When we left that ground for good, we gave it back to the earth and left it as we had found it, as the Makkyi taught us. I have heard since that one can hardly tell that Gade Gar had ever existed on that ground, except for a certain air about the place.
It was very hard to say goodbye to people and leave Gade Gar. It seemed we had been there, together, as part of that patch of earth for a long time. The spirit of carrying everything out without dilly-dallying, with humor, appreciation, and camaraderie made this world feel complete, and the world beyond somehow shabby, tattered, and cowardly.
Throughout history, armies have inspired their ranks by remembering past campaigns and reliving the spirit that was born there. For our part, at certain times, when we pull on our boots, place our pins, and adjust our cover, we will remember Gade Gar. We will remember the Makkyi as he manifested there.
Dapon is a rank within the Dorje Kasung. It means arrow chief, roughly equivalent to a general.
Downtown is what members of the Gade Gar encampment called Karme Choling proper, down the hill and a hubbub of activity.
Rupon is the rank just below Dapon.
Kudung is the body of a Buddhist teacher who has passed away.
Gate Dapon is a rank of Dapon just below the highest Dapons. At the time of this writing, there were three Gate Dapons.
Lady Diana is the Vidyadhara’s wife. She had a close relationship with the Dorje Kasung.
Kasung means command protector, essentially protector of the teachings, which are regarded as a command to awaken oneself. Kusung means body protector, a person who looks after the precious person of the guru.
Kasung Kyi Khyap is the commander of the Dorje Kasung, directly under the Vidyadhara.
Ayatanas are the gates of perception in traditional Buddhist teaching.
Thank you so much for posting “In the Shadow of the Purkhang: Ten Days at Gade Gar”. Can’t tell you how wonderful it was to read over Raging Bear’s very personal and very moving account from a Dorje Kasung point of view. Mr. Moore’s photos are extremely good and help us grasp some of the insider activities, even for those who had practiced in the Main Shrine Room with the kudung for a short period, and were then enmassed on the hill overlooking this ungraspable event. We all had the opportunity to pass in front ot the phurkang and offer our khatas onto a receiving wire, thanks to the DK’s efforts to expedite the foot traffic for 3,000 () people. It’s extraordinary to be able to savour the details presented here on this website whereas Johanna Demetrakis’ film (“Crazy Wisdom”) has to by necessity no doubt, compress coverage of the cremation of our teacher into a matter of a few minutes. Thank you so much for making this available!
With much appreciation,