When I was around 13 years old I was very stubborn. One of my first real gestures of rebellion towards my parents was to refuse to go to church one Sunday spring morning. There was a blue sky and I ran out underneath that clear sky so that my dad could not find me and I hid out in the near-by forest behind our suburban backyard.
It was my first Sunday to be alone in years. I stayed alone in the forest for hours waiting to see my dad’s car pull back into the driveway without me. From then on I started reading about other religions to find something to fill in the gap in my sky of what I thought might be beyond my reach.
My family was large and fairly well to do. I was born in the middle of the pack and was a bit lost in lots of ways. When there were seven children in the house I tended to always try to find private spaces to be in or play in. I was the lone wolf in the pack.
My friend Scott and I used to go pick his mother up at the local Baptist church at four o’clock. She was a preschool teacher in the small basement of that church. Scott told me about the really cool janitor – Jim – who worked there. This was around 1968 and to fledgling hippies such as we thought of ourselves this guy seemed to be an older runaway hippie. On top of it we had heard that he was a Buddhist – whatever that was!
But the idea seemed so cool. The introduction was made and it was instant rapport between us. Jim and his wife Susan had been studying with Kapleau Roshi at the Zen Center in Rochester. I think that they were in their late twenties at the time.
I was invited over for tea and talk. This was the beginning of a long series of endless hours of talking about religions and primarily Buddhism. Soon Jim and I began to meditate together on a pretty regular basis and have tea and meals. Their home became my new home and a sanctuary from suburbia.
One bright afternoon Jim simply handed me a piece of paper with words that were thick and black on it that made it feel like metal when I took it into my hand. The words were simple statements by some Buddhist teacher who lived in China about a million years ago as far as I could tell at that point in my life.
Jim just left that piece of paper dangling in my hand. It took all my strength to hold it and look at the words. It was July in middle America and very, very hot. A slight wind would have made that piece of paper fall like lead on the dusty floor. I later learned that the words were Bodhidharma’s teaching on the basic precepts of Buddhism.
In September of 1970 I was at the public library looking for books on Buddhism. A red and yellow book caught my eye. I picked it up and sat down at the nearest reading table. Although I could not pronounce the author’s name, I read the entire book in one sitting. The book was the first printing of Meditation in Action.
That same afternoon Jim mentioned that some Tibetan teacher was going to give a talk the next weekend in Buffalo, New York – only about an hour drive away. When he told me the teacher’s name it kind of sounded like what I had seen printed on the book that I was reading that day.
The following Monday I wandered over to their house as usual, and as soon as I walked in the door Jim said, “Dan you have to meet this Tibetan guy! He is the real thing!” I was impressed with his enthusiasm and began to make plans to go meet the “Tibetan guy”.
A few weeks later in October I found the meditation retreat center in Vermont. The teacher was not there but I was invited and welcomed to stay for a few days. But since I had no money they said I could stay if I helped out and worked for a few hours a day. So, I chopped wood and used a chain saw for the first time in my life with absolutely no instruction. Luckily no fingers flew that weekend!
It was a rough autumn jumping between my parents’ home and my refuge at Jim and Susan’s but I made it back to Vermont in the winter — very unforgiving for a spaced out 17 year old with beat up rubber boots, no socks, an old army coat, and no gloves at 9:30 at night in -40 below zero standing by the side of the highway. A kind old woman spied me beside the road with my thumb out and kindly dropped me off at the front door of the meditation center.
There I was on the front steps. My feet were still tingling from the close encounter with Mr. Frostbite. I had left all my parents with no consideration for anyone’s feelings.
The next day there seemed to be a lot of people in the old farm house that was now a meditation center. Smoke was coming from every direction, including the kitchen, cigs, cigars, the shrine room, and the pot.
After lunch Rinpoche gave a talk which I sort of understood. He sat in a chair in a converted attic that now was a meditation room. My only memory of first seeing him is that – “I love this guy!” The deep brown eyes and the limp in his walk made me feel close to him and sad for him. His young wife sat next to him on the floor. She was my age and pregnant which confused me — not because of her age, but because my notion of a spiritual master was that he should be some old guy who did not have sex and probably should have gray hair. But somehow that she was there made me feel more comfortable and so did his brown eyes.
And then it registered somewhere in my mind that everyone else in the room was far older than I and I remember staring at him and trying to come up with a solution to my questions. Something in that room was far different than I had imagined it would be.
The next morning I was told that I could have an interview with him. I became extremely nervous. The few weeks before setting out for Vermont I had become quite despondent, was forlorn and was taking powerful drugs. That hitch-hike up to Vermont was my last gasp at coming back to this world. And now I was faced with meeting him – him who I hoped could save me from the fire of my mind.
I entered the room and was invited to sit down. It was so simple. He asked me a few questions about my practice and the books that I had read. I mumbled a few words and then did not really know what I was saying. I told him about the books that I had been reading, but I could not remember any titles and I did not care. I said that I was looking for a teacher. All the books said that I should find a personal teacher. Rinpoche said that maybe I should go to California and find a Japanese teacher who he had met recently.
I was looking at my teacher and he was advising me to go check someone else out. He gave me some basic ideas about meditation and I left. When I walked into the hallway I was shaking and laughing so hard that the people in the hallway who were lined up to see him must have thought that I was drugged or stoned. At that moment I knew that I had found the home that I was yearning for. It had something to do with his home. It was embodied in his eyes and the very kind handshake as I left that room.
That night I was sitting by myself upstairs in the shrine room and a question came up about meditation and I ran downstairs to ask him about it. I did not think that I was being forward or presumptuous. As I gently knocked someone opened the door and to my surprise there he was drinking with a few people. He asked me what I wanted. I said, “You said something to me this afternoon and I want to ask you more about it.” Promptly, Rinpoche asked everyone to leave the room so that he and I could talk. Our conversation was actually quite simple and he was deep and showed me simple affection and I left.
That is what I needed at that moment and I walked down to the kitchen to find Diana and a couple of other people making food in the kitchen. And as I remember she said “well that was fast”! I replied “That was all that I needed.” I went back up to the common room with a wood stove and she went back to their room.
After the seminar I went out to the West Coast and checked out all the teachers that I could find. I met Suzuki Roshi and other teachers but my months of searching in California steered me straight back to see him again. There was nowhere else to go.
I met him again in Vermont a few months later when I put anchor down. I got out of my small ship of loneliness and came back to talk to him. He seemed to be happy to see me and remembered everything about my life. I was so surprised and happy too!
I suggested that I go on a long retreat and he was enthusiastic about the idea. My guru was going to send me away. I was so happy and scared at the prospect. About a month later I was sitting alone in the old shrine room of Tail of the Tiger. I heard the slow steps of Rinpoche coming up the old windy steps with two other people. I had lit the candles and incense and was surrounded by my secret blanket around my shoulders. The first one up the stairs was an old lady named Lila Kalman who was quite old from my perspective – maybe about 70 or so – and there was also Karl Springer, whom I came to know well. I just sat in the darkness of the background of sitting. The light of the shrine showed me their faces. Rinpoche was going to do a ceremony. I did not know what it was about and stayed in my shadow. I watched from my corner at the edge of the quietness of the situation. I believe Lila and Karl took refuge during this ceremony.
About a month later, the first official refuge ceremony performed by Rinpoche in North America took place in the same room. Everyone crowded into the small shrine room and sat in a cloud of incense. I was nervous about this step and additionally nervous about my departure for the long retreat that I was about to engage in. Rinpoche and Diana slowly made their way up those creaky old steps and sat down next to the shrine. In his sweet high voice he spoke of the significance of taking refuge in the buddhadharma. After everyone repeated the vows he handed out a piece of paper to everyone with their new name on it in his own handwriting in Tibetan and English.
I was the first to receive a name that afternoon — maybe because of my imminent departure for retreat. Rinpoche had such a nice smile on his face as he handed me my piece of paper. His almond brown eyes looked at me and melted all the snow outside and inside that room. That January afternoon the sun was bright and warm on my back as I sat down reading my new name over and over. Thomas F. Rich was third in line. I cannot remember anything else about that day. I just kept looking at my new name over and over.
I began to prepare for my long retreat gathering food and supplies. Coincidentally, my friend Jim from Rochester and a friend of his were there for the seminar with Rinpoche. The night before I was to go up the mountain by myself, my friend came by to say goodbye. I was scared to walk up the hill on the 8th of January 1972 at the height and depth of Vermont’s winter. A woman came to offer her secret to me that night which I accepted. I then felt ready after that night.
The next morning Jim and his friend loaded up two toboggans and dragged them up the hill through four feet of wet snow to my small black trailer up in what had been a cow pasture a couple of years before. The spot had a great view of the green mountains of New Hampshire. We had snowshoes that did not help at all. I fell over in that mass of frozen water over and over and so did the two of them. We laughed at the stupidity and extremity of our adventure. They left and I was alone and scared. As it turned out I was there for seven months. The next morning the birds chirped as if they were cheerleaders at my newest attempt at having a life.
My routine was simple: I meditated eighteen hours a day, slept about four sitting up and ate and walked through the snowfields the rest of the time. The fierce winter of the northern kingdom keep me in perpetual fear of dying in the middle of the night if the wood stove went out and I fell asleep or spaced out. The trailer was painted black and I hoped that if I did get overwhelmed with drifts they would probably find me easily after a storm. The first month the wind never stopped trying to knock that little trailer over. One night the wind picked up and blew the stovepipe off the top of the trailer. The immediate effect was that the trailer was full of terrible smoke and I threw the door open to the minus 50 degrees F winter storm.
I was naked and ran out to jump on top of the black trailer to put that pipe back on and fell off after I sort of got it in place. I had lost a lot of skin from my hands. I landed in the snow with no real injuries and got up on my feet and ran inside. There was no time to look up at the wonderful full moon. When I got the fire going again I slept like a dead and happy bird that night.
The weeks became months. I got used to running up the hill to watch the sun rise every morning, take a shit in a new hole every morning, have one menthol cigarette each day, stare at the same TV of my window and drink tea waiting for the next time that a friend would come to visit. He was called a meditation instructor and became a good friend later in life but never really said much to me while I was alone on that retreat. Supposedly he was to show up every three weeks. But, sometimes the time span would be longer.
On average I would go down the hill to see Rinpoche about every five weeks. He became my only real human contact for that whole period of time. I was eighteen and probably impressionable I guess. Lucky me. Our meetings were always significant to me. I always got some general and specific advice as to how to deal with my meditation and the on-going fight with myself.
The next day I was so happy to have seen him the previous day that I felt inspired to be playful somehow. There was a small hill behind my retreat hut and occasionally the sun would melt the outer surface of the snow which would make it a little hard and slick. My parents had given me a blue down parka before I had left to do this retreat. It was my famous blue parka – a parting present from my folks and the gift was significant to me.
I discovered that if I lay down on my back on that hill with my bright blue parka that I could slide at extreme speeds past my home down the hill. I became my own ski lift about every fifteen minutes. I laughed for hours that day in the February sun. I walked back to the Black Trailer where I lived and stoked up the fire and practiced, remembering my few hours with him.
Spring came and snow banks were hiding under the trees in May. I always walked naked through the forests and trees for a couple of hours a day and watched city people taking walks. Those people were mainly from New York City.
The next few months I relaxed with my solitude and I fell in love with being alone and wandering about those fields and woods by myself in pure isolation with no answers except Rinpoche’s resonance thundering in the sky. I was only eighteen and wondered why I could not paint. A few weeks later I got a message that Rinpoche wanted to see me.
I knocked at his door and heard his high-pitched voice say “Come in!” I think I may have looked a little scruffy and was a bit smelly. I owned one shirt, one pair of long jeans, one pair of underwear and a pair of hiking boots. My glasses were bent out of shape and I had not had a shower in at least a couple of weeks. He said “I think that you should come out of retreat pretty soon, in about a week or so. I think that you should stay at the retreat center for a little while and then go to New York City. I said “OK”. It was as simple as my life had been for so many months and I left the room and wandered up the hill to get packed up for my trip. There was not much to pack but it was my life and therefore took a few days. I was off to New York City after being in simple isolation for so long and actually was not nervous at all. I had already seen it all. I hesitated and then said goodbye to the Black Trailer. It did not say goodbye. It was good that way. No goodbyes are best.
As soon as I came down the hill I met with him and asked “Why did you think I should come out at this point?” He replied, “Well you were starting to speak in sort of pigeon English; you do not speak in sentences any more.”
The first few days after being out were pretty strange. I felt like a wild deer that was being forced to live among people. I wanted to go back to my solitude. I wanted to find my antlers again. I was invited to ride in the car with him on my journey to New York City.
I had five dollars in my pocket and no gas in my lungs or pockets. But I did have the motivation to get free. Just free. Just free from my past life.
He bought me a hamburger at our only stop on the way to the city somewhere in Connecticut. He was so kind and simple. The four of us who were in the car pulled into Manhattan with four different purposes. There was a driver, a girlfriend, he and I. We all wandered off in our own directions.
I was so glad that I had met that man and then I wandered off to my own journey through the streets of September in the West Village. I was in love with him. And I still am.