Interview with Jonathan Eric

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Before this interview, Jonathan had made a list of the stories he wanted to talk about, stories that he felt would convey a flavor of the early days of the sangha and the atmosphere around Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Jonathan Eric: Okay. Tail of the Tiger, summer of 1970. One thing I remember is that once a week during times when there were no programs, Trungpa Rinpoche would lead a meditation practice in the evening for an hour. He would sometimes, I remember, give a brief dharma talk as well. I remember him leading us in a minute or two of chanting the Vajraguru mantra at the beginning of the sitting.

Walter Fordham: OH AH HUM VAJRAGURU PADMA SIDDHI HUM

JE: Yes. So that’s one of the flavors. It was a very small shrine room, an upper room. We could squeeze in only about fifteen or twenty people at the most, I think. I don’t know specifically about the numbers, though.

WF: Was it a guided meditation?

JE: No, after the mantras it was silent for an hour. I think he had a little gong or something to signal the end.

One day when I was there, I was hanging out on the front porch and Lady Diana came out. She wasn’t known as Lady Diana in those days; she was a sixteen-year-old girl who happened to be married to the guru. She came out and said to me, “You’re taking me down to the mailbox.” I said, “I am?” And she said, “Well, if you don’t mind.” So we got into my bus and we drove down to the mailbox —maybe a quarter of a mile to the end of the dirt road. She got her mail and came back. That’s the whole story.

I think just about everybody at Tail of the Tiger in those days was very trippy. But there was one guy who even us trippy people considered trippy. He was a guy named Bob and he was on some sort of mucusless diet. So, naturally his name became Mucus Bob. So that’s all of that story.

There was a community meeting in the living room, which was where the talks had been for the first seminar, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation. The second seminar, Four Dharmas of Gampopa, was held in a tent. But there was a community meeting and somebody proposed doing it in Native American style. There was a moderator, and everybody could have a say on the issue, whatever it was. There wasn’t any time limit to how long a person could speak or what they could say. The only restriction was they had to refrain from using the word “I” or “me.” If you referred to yourself, it had to be in the third person. There was no first person allowed.

WF: That’s interesting. Were these Rinpoche’s rules?

JE: They seemed to be agreed to by Rinpoche, proposed by some of the students, and sort of accepted by acclamation, more or less, “Let’s try it this way.” Trungpa Rinpoche asked me to be the moderator. There were a few people who had to be reminded not to use the first person. We got to Trungpa Rinpoche and he started saying some things, quite pointedly using the word “I” several times. I let him speak and come to his conclusion, and then I said, “The moderator does not wish to interrupt a person’s train of thought, but wishes to remind everybody that we are not to use the first person and that includes people from Tibet.” We went around some more and then concluded the meeting. After everybody had had their say, I thought that the meeting was over so I started making some comments using the first person myself and got called on it. But then after the meeting Trungpa Rinpoche complimented me by saying I was a good moderator — I think he used the word “great” — and we were just hanging out with him in the dining room, which was a slightly smaller room next to the living room. And I remember he was wearing my hippie hat. It was a black hat, sort of somewhat floppy, that I’d put a red bandana around, and he was wearing that hat and just goofing around. So that’s that story.

WF: Do you have any photographs from those days?

JE: No. That would have been a good one to get though: Trungpa Rinpoche in Jonathan’s hippie hat. That’s a good one!

Another time at Tail of the Tiger that summer, Polly Monner (Polly Wellenbach now) and I took our guitars and drove in my bus a little ways down the road to the mailbox and turned off on an old track and drove up to a sort of flattish place, and were playing guitars. I think there were probably one or two other people with us. We both were into sort of bluesy type music. We were playing and it was evening, beginning to get a bit dark, as I recall, and at a certain point a car came down the driveway and Trungpa Rinpoche got out of the passenger side and he looked up to where my bus was and where we were sitting there with our guitars. His face brightened and he began limping up the path. But when he got up to where we were, he looked at each of our faces. From my point of view, I was kind of seeking some relief … from these teachings … somehow. And maybe Polly felt the same way, I don’t know. But he looked at each of our faces in turn for a moment, and his smiling countenance immediately went to neutral, and he turned around and walked down to his car.

So I just thought that was an informative story, that it was a learning experience for him as well, that he could no longer hang out with everybody or something like that. I don’t know precisely, but I always thought about it that way, that he was no longer exactly one of the gang. This was the summer of 1970. It was less than two years since he had received the Sadhana of Mahamudra. It was about a year since he had gotten married and somewhere in those two previous years he had decided to give up his robes. And so I think he was just in a learning curve for himself at that point.

WF: Hmm, interesting. Did you see him start to hang out with people less after that?

JE: Well, I never saw him hang out with people playing music and singing songs at all.

WF: Yeah, I don’t think I ever did either.

JE: Another topic: Food at Tail of the Tiger. I remember lots of buckwheat and turnips, cooked turnips. I remember those, because I’d never eaten any buckwheat or any turnips before then, and I found both of them sort of difficult, shall we say. It was all vegetarian at that point. I assumed that was his students’ choice rather that his. And I remember that we always did an offering chant before meals. I don’t remember the precise chant but I recall that it was the Jigme Lingpa feast chant, which I think is rather famous and well known. I don’t know anymore about it than that. But somebody such as Tanya or Fran might remember precisely what it was.

Next topic: I was hanging out at Rinpoche’s house in Four Mile Canyon and I remember one day he came limping over to me and said, “Jonathan, I think you should be a monk.” I had thought about that myself during my long retreat the year before and I said, “But I’d never be able to keep the precepts.” And he said, “Maybe, later.” And I said, “Maybe later.” As an addendum to that, in 1999 I had a brief audience with Thrangu Rinpoche where I told him that story and I asked for his blessing so that I would be able to be a monk in my next life.

WF: Is that a question that has stayed with you through the years, whether or not to take vows?

JE: Yeah. Yeah, it has … very much so.

At another time in Boulder when I was Trungpa’s interview scheduler, there was an occasional wedding that he performed with me there. One day after a wedding – I don’t remember whose wedding it was – he looked at me and said, “You’re next.” And I said, “I wouldn’t mind getting married if I could find somebody who liked me that I liked.” And he said, “For how long— Ten minutes— Ten years—” I didn’t have an answer for that. [Chuckles.] So later I got married and we had two children, a boy and a girl, who are both in Boulder High right now.

One day after another thirty interviews, I asked him how he did so many interviews. He said, “No rest for the wicked.”

WF: As the person who was there during the interviews, you really had sort of a front row seat, seeing people coming in and out the door. Can you talk about that at all?

JE: Yeah. Yeah, I even wrote a song about it. It’s better with guitar, but I can’t play guitar anymore, so if you don’t mind I’ll sing it.

WF: Please.

JE: Trungpa Rinpoche had me sing this without accompaniment in a meeting that I was in with him. I said, “Do I have to?” He said, “Yes.” So I sang it. It’s called, “O Rinpoche.”

O Rinpoche, O Rinpoche, please tell me what to do?
O Rinpoche, O Rinpoche, do you think I should drink and screw?
O Rinpoche, O Rinpoche, please tell me what you say
O Rinpoche, O Rinpoche, please show me the middle way

O Rinpoche, O Rinpoche, I’m feeling so uptight
O Rinpoche, O Rinpoche, I know you can set me right
O Rinpoche, O Rinpoche, I want to take some vows
O Rinpoche, O Rinpoche, just tell me the whys and hows

I’ve taken vows
with the rishis and roshis and the yogis and sat-guru
And the only thing I’m finding
Is my mind is not unwinding
And it ain’t no use

O Rinpoche, O Rinpoche, it’s you that I adore
O Rinpoche, O Rinpoche, please talk to me some more
O Rinpoche, O Rinpoche, I’m never gonna quit
O Rinpoche, O Rinpoche, but I just don’t like to sit

JE: So, he enjoyed that.

WF: [Laughing] That’s great Jonathan.

JE: That was sort of near the end of my tenure as his interview scheduler.

WF: How long did you do that?

JE: On and off for two years, just in Boulder. After the first year, 1971, I remember taking some time off. I don’t remember what the problem was. I was probably overdosing on the intensity surrounding him. But in the summer of ’72, during the first seminar that he gave at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center, I asked him if he had anybody to help him with his interview schedule when he returned to Boulder. He said, “No.” I said, “I’d like to offer my services.” And he said with a broad grin, “I think your services will be required.” So I did it for about another year.

WF: Who were the people that were around him in a secretarial role at that time, ’71, ’72?

JE: That would have been John Baker and Marvin Casper and Bill Indich. Bill Indich was a director of Karma Dzong, with John and Marvin.

WF: Were all three directors at the same time?

JE: I think so. I might be able to … I mean, if you can put this on pause for a moment, I’ll go get my refuge and bodhisattva names.

[pause]

WF: Okay, for the tape: Jonathan is showing me his refuge and bodhisattva names. The refuge name document lists, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche as director and Marvin Casper and John Baker as assistant directors. The bodhisattva name document lists Bill Indich as assistant director along with Marvin and John. This is before there was a Vajradhatu, right?

JE: Yeah, Vajradhatu was formed, officially, in 1974. And the reason I know is because I became a notary public at John Roper’s request so that they could conduct business without having to scramble for a notary public. I notarized the articles of incorporation of Vajradhatu.

JE: And that leads into the final note that I have. We purchased the land that became Rocky Mountain Dharma Centre in 1971. There was a hefty down payment of something like forty thousand dollars, and then yearly payments for five years to pay off the mortgage in full. As I recall, it was something like fifteen thousand dollars the first year, twenty-five thousand the second year, thirty-five thousand the third year and between forty and forty-five thousand for the final two years.

At that time, Rocky Mountain Dharma Center was under the direction of Karma Dzong. I became a director of Karma Dzong in 1974 and John Baker was supposedly my co-director. When I say “supposedly,” I mean that John was very busy that year helping to start Naropa Institute. So the office that John and I shared became a Naropa Institute office with lots of phone calls, meetings and so forth. I remember being personally uncomfortable. I felt I needed a co-director and I felt that I didn’t have one. I didn’t complain to anybody, but one time I did get angry … in Rinpoche’s presence. I don’t remember what I said but I remember Rinpoche kind of encouraging me, praising me for getting angry … because I was always so controlled and cool, at least on the surface.

Karma Dzong was responsible for the subsequent yearly payments for Rocky Mountain Dharma Center. I think that the sellers probably planned the whole thing from their point of view, thinking: We’ll get a nice down payment and a couple of yearly payments from these fly-by-night trippy Buddhists and then we’ll foreclose on them and then we’ll sell it to somebody who can really buy it.

WF: That seems quite plausible.

JE: I think that.

WF: Your donation certainly went to good use.

JE: It certainly did. But in 1975 one of those yearly land payments was due and I was the director of Karma Dzong who was responsible for raising the money. We had sent out an appeal to all of our membership and the returns were very meager. The calendar kept ticking down closer to the time when the payment was due, and I was freaking out. So what happened was somebody offered a one-year loan of forty thousand dollars, or whatever we needed. I don’t remember his name but I think he was a lawyer, and a friend of John Roper’s. John recommended that we not accept the loan, because it would make it doubly difficult the following year. But I decided to go ahead with the loan. It was my call. John drew up the papers; we accepted the loan and we made the payment.

I don’t remember any details of how we made the final payment in 1976, which was another one in the forty thousand dollar range. In retrospect, I can see that I dumped it on somebody else. But all I know is that we didn’t lose the land. So I think some major donors came forward by that time and we paid off both the loan and the mortgage in 1976. I don’t know how we did it, though. There are probably others who can tell that story. Ken Green might know. I mean he was on the Board of Directors of Vajradhatu by then.

Oh, here’s a good story. During the 1975 seminary, I was invited for dinner at Rinpoche’s house. There was a roast beef being passed around the table and I remember taking a piece of meat and passing it on. I was sitting next to Trungpa Rinpoche, and before he accepted the platter of meat to be passed around, he scooped off several more pieces of meat onto my plate, because I think that he perceived that I was just trying to be polite, or trying to be non-greedy or something. So I ate it all. It was good. [Chuckles.]

And I remember another thing at that time. There was a rumor of some threat on Trungpa Rinpoche’s life. I didn’t understand any specifics about that, but at one point I was placed on duty near the entrance of his house to look for anything suspicious outside. It was just at the very beginning of when he started to formulate the Dorje Kasung. And … I just remember how difficult it was for me to be out there by myself by the entrance looking for something but not knowing what it was. It was just very groundless and very uncomfortable.

Another topic I could talk about is His Holiness Karmapa’s first visit in 1974. I was director of Karma Dzong then, and, as such, I was requested by the Vajradhatu people to help with his visit to the seminary. So first of all, I got a haircut — I had really long hair. I got out an old suit that I had from high school, because we were told that we should dress up for His Holiness.

I was asked to find a place for His Holiness to stop and rest. So I made a reservation at an historic hotel in Leadville that I thought he would find enjoyable. But then when I tried to describe it to whomever I was talking to at Vajradhatu, I was told to cancel that and make a reservation at a Holiday Inn, quite a number of miles closer to Boulder. So I did that. I remember waiting in the Holiday Inn for his Holiness’ party to arrive with a ribbon signifying that I was part of the official party. I was sitting very motionless in the lobby of the hotel and some old woman came by and made fun of me for being so stiff. Then His Holiness came. I remember a meal at the hotel with His Holiness and his party and our traveling retinue of Vajradhatu directors: Fran Lewis was there, Ken Green, and probably Karl Springer. I was introduced as the person who had made the arrangements at the Holiday Inn.

At one point His Holiness was sitting by himself by the pool and one of his monks brought out a bowl of sherbet for his dessert and I was made to understand that I could take it to His Holiness and so I did. He ate it and I sat down by him. We were the only two people by the pool. It was just … a peaceful place, a peaceful moment.

A couple of years later, I saw His Holiness again in Chicago. There was a Black Crown ceremony at a hotel … a huge auditorium. It was packed and I was sitting up there with Karl Springer, sort of as part of the official entourage or something like that.

WF: What was your situation in Chicago?

JE: I was the ambassador. I found out about that the evening that Thomas Rich was empowered as Vajra Regent. Michael Root came over to me and said, “The Regent wants to see you.” And we both went into his office. The Regent said, “Rinpoche and I have decided to send you to Chicago to be ambassador.” He further said that of the ambassadors that were sent out, I was the first one that they’d decided on. “You should do it.”

I had just begun doing a little bit of teaching in ’76. I taught a little class on meditation at Naropa Institute and I taught a pre-seminary class at Karma Dzong. Also, before starting as ambassador, they sent me to Texas for a month. I gave some talks and some seminars in Texas: a talk in Austin, in their blazingly hot attic shrine room, and seminars in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. I also gave a public talk in Salina. Salina is where … I can’t think of his name. He’s an oilman …

WF: Craig Thompson?

JE: Craig Thompson. That’s right. I stayed with Craig Thompson and Karen Lavin in Salina. Karen asked for meditation instruction, which I gave her. She was concerned that she would have to give up her Christian beliefs. And I remember I said to her, “You don’t have to believe in Buddhism to be able to benefit from meditation.” I was completely dumbfounded a few years later to see that she had been transformed into a Buddhist lady … you know … a very close personal student of Trungpa Rinpoche.

At this point, Jonathan needed to rest. We said our goodbyes and agreed to continue our discussion at a later date. Unfortunately this next meeting never took place. -WF

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