Remembering JoAnn Carmin

Life-long sangha member JoAnn Carmin member died at 5:00 am on Tuesday, July 15, 2014 at the Chilton Street hospice in Cambridge, Massachusetts


18 July 2014

Life-long sangha member JoAnn Carmin member died at 5:00 am on Tuesday, July 15, 2014 at the Chilton Street hospice in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When someone dies, you remember things about them, how they looked, how they sounded, times you shared with them. For a short period of time, they are available in sharp relief. It is one of the sad-happy things about a death.

I can feel JoAnn this evening, her bubbliness, her relentlessness, her laugh, her furrowed brow, her intensity.

She spent a year on retreat in Mill Village, Nova Scotia, with the Vidyadhara, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I think she is the only being who spent the entire year with him. Even the dogs came and went, as I remember, but JoAnn stayed. She had a room on the first floor in the back. She was always available, if Rinpoche wanted to eat. Sometimes she cooked four or five dinners in a night; sometimes she cooked at three in the morning. When Rinpoche was sleeping, sometimes for days, she took care of the rest of us.

Once, I went shopping with her in Liverpool. We bought blood sausage at Sobeys. We got ourselves some pizza. It was a little break, but mainly we were in the house, and she was cooking, or cleaning, or sitting at the table talking with us.

She took care of the dogs. Tzarina, not a husky but a dog like that, and another one. Tzarina had puppies, I think, and JoAnn took care of them too.

She negotiated for money for food to feed Rinpoche. Many weeks there was nothing in the bank, and she would work it out so that the money would come. I remember now one night when she made me ramen noodles with ground pork. They were delicious.

Monday nights, all the garbage generated at the retreat had to be packed into the car, Rinpoche’s Mercedes, and driven down a long driveway to the road, to be picked up the next day. As I remember, some weeks there was too much trash, and so we would drive around the neighbourhood dropping off bags of trash at other people’s houses. After awhile, JoAnn and someone else would dress up as the Blues’ Brothers and, with all the trash in the trunk, we would drive slowly down the driveway playing Annie Lennox singing “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” blaring from the speakers. I have to find the photo of JoAnn and someone else as the Blues Brothers. I only got to do that once. It was great!

The rest of us came and went. JoAnn stayed. Some of us were there three, or four, or five times throughout the year. We came and went. JoAnn stayed.

She never lost heart, that I saw, and she never lost her pure perception of the Vidyadhara. Never. I loved her for that.

She was incredibly neurotic and she could drive you nuts with her endless speculations. But then there was her loyalty and her sanity, rock solid. She loved the whole Mukpo family and thought of herself as their servant. She was proud of this. Always. I loved her for that.

After the retreat ended, JoAnn did several months of solitary retreat herself. After that, I don’t think she cooked much for the Vidyadhara or saw him much again. After he died, she went back and took care of her parents. She went back to school, got a Ph.D. and became a professor at M.I.T.

I didn’t see her for years. Every few months she would phone and talk about the trip she was going to make to Nova Scotia. Who she would see, where she would go, when she’d be coming. She never came.

When she got cancer for the first time, I went to North Carolina, where she was getting treatment, and spent a week with her, cooking for her, which was an honor. All she could eat was chicken breast, steamed, and white rice, as I remember. I became friends with her cat, Shiwa. And I don’t like cats, but I liked Shiwa. He was JoAnn’s family for many years.

The third round of cancer was the last. JoAnn connected with new caregivers and exhausted many of them. Martha Rome was an incredible friend to her. And others I don’t know.

The last time I saw JoAnn, she seemed to be finally coming to terms with the finality of her illness. She wasn’t pleased, and she was too young — she felt that and it was true.

When we were at Mill Village together, one night around the dinner table, the Vidyadhara talked about a student’s death. He said, “When one of my students dies, I take them into my heart.” And I thought that I should never fear death again, although I might. I hope he has JoAnn in his heart. She always kept him in hers.

-Carolyn Gimian, 17 July 2014


JoAnn Carmin

With Shiwa, photo by Carolyn Gimian

The five photographs below are from the Collection of the Shambhala Archives, from a scrapbook that JoAnn maintained to document the events at Mill Village

Professional Links

For over a decade, I have been studying environmental governance,…

Urban Climate


JoAnn was a friend back when we were on staff at RMDC and afterwards. We were young, had great fun back then. I have great memories of her cooking in the kitchen at RMDC, chatting and laughing together. I think we were about the same age….I will miss her and wish we had reconnected over these past years!! Oh, I am also a cook/chef and I have a dog named Shiwa!! Sending heart prayers to JoAnn! -Judy Sachs Sullivan


Thank you for this and for knowing that his Boundless heart will hold all his students. That is truly heartening. -Elisabeth Gold


Dear dear JoAnn,

Your death was anticipated but as with most, unexpected when it came. As others have written you were challenged by cancer for the past few years. There are a few things I would like to share for those who knew you, know you or didn’t. Indeed you were the last Machen (chief chef) of the Vidyadhara and when you arrived on the scene he took you strongly into his family mandala which you served in your inimitable JoAnn style — dry wit, incisive and occasionally cutting commentary and of course, steady presence. And you were the only person to be with him (which means he was comfortable having you be with him) during the whole of the Mill Village year retreat in 1984. In many ways you were the glue, or perhaps the gluten of that retreat, especially during the last 5 months which were marked by the most extraordinary manifestations of a life of extraordinary manifestation. No one else could manage to stay with him during those months for more than 2 or 3 weeks without arriving at a state of complete physical and emotional exhaustion. And during those times your dry and sometimes bleak humor was one constant we could rely on — and the continuity of perspective.

After his death you seemingly faded away — the job of machen disappearing along (with others) with the earthly manifestation of the prime servee. Occasionally I would hear distant glimmers of news of you — going back to university, studying environmental topics, getting your PhD which were interesting to me given the evolution of my own interests/effort. And then nearly 20 years later we re-connected. You had taken the position at MIT and I was going down to Cambridge a few times a year for work related things and we discovered how much we had in common and how much we enjoyed exploring those things. A regular pattern of dinners wherein we discussed your extraordinary work — lo and behold becoming a world renowned academic, author, theorist and activist in the realms of climate change adaptation in the developing world, democratic institutions bearing on sustainability progress and so much more. It was quite amazing to have the opportunity to engage with you. We discussed many things as my own work then included a share of focus on building adaptive capacity in communities- and we shared articles, papers and reports we were each involved in. I was so proud that you, our Shambhala warrior comrade was in the front rank of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that you were flying around the world to consult and supervise pioneering projects, that serious practitioners really valued your work. And your students did too. I also enjoyed hearing about the dramas within your university department and the recruiting war that unfolded from a number of universities while you were contemplating tenure offers. And we got to design a workshop that we hoped to pilot at SMC (and spoke to Jon Barbieri about) — about mind and crisis with climate change and sustainable transformation as the case studies. But it never could be as then the cancer arose and then the ups and downs, in and out — yet you still managed when your energy allowed to travel to far off events, consult and advise at distance and supervise brilliant students. I relished the opportunities to get together with you when I came to town although the topic of your ferocious effort and discussion was now focused on meeting the challenge of the disease with the same no-compromises, tough, analytic and determined JoAnn style and appreciating the growing surround of sangha friends new and old from the local center who were supporting you. I last saw you in early June when on the way home from staffing Scorpion Seal at KCL (Elaine Yuen was there as well) and even though you were amidst pretty stiff pain and facing another surgery you were on your feisty game — later apologizing to me at having been so focused on yourself. In the time since it was clear in your communication that you were tiring and recognizing the finish. When I sent you a note last Friday and got no response (you were always the quickest respondent) I worried that things had taken a turn for the worse …and then the end. Dear, dear JoAnn you were a transformational warrior from first to last. I will miss you so …

Transformational Warrior Comrade

Transforming self and others
Transforming ingredients and communities
Transforming the kitchen and Court of Kalapa
Transforming the meanings of loyalty and constancy
Transforming cities in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe
Transforming acquaintance into friendship into comradeship
Benefiting your guru, enriching his days
Benefiting your king, enriching his belly, his evenings, his retreat and his subjects
Benefiting your kingdom by transforming the metaphor and making it ‘so’
Being there amidst the storms of Vajrayogini, Chakrasamvara and the dakinis galore arriving for the crazy vajra feast
Steady, slicing, dicing, serving, hosting and remarking
Dear warrior comrade JoAnn, you exemplified, embraced and encouraged adaptation
Of self, of society and of our desperate world.
We cry as we go on working towards the kingdom and transformations you embodied.

Marty [Janowitz]


Thanks Marty and Carolyn for your remembrances. Hear, hear.

And then … there was the amazing Dr. JoAnn Carmin, Associate Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: -Julia Sagebien


I re-met JoAnn 3 years ago when we moved to Cambridge MA — I don’t think I’d seen or spoken with her in over 30 years. As both she and her beloved cat Shiwa became increasingly ill, she began to wrestle with how to best prepare for diminished capacity, pain and the how to deal with death and after. With a sly smile she expressed a wish that Shiwa be reborn as a princess in the family of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

For JoAnn the challenges of life were problems to puzzle through and solve with precision. She once described her intellectual abilities as almost seeing the elements of a hypothesis, question or activity like pieces of a puzzle floating in space. She could visualize them and rapidly fit them together in myriad ways, discarding the poor fits and quickly moving on to the next hundred ways to put it together. When she found something that worked, she was able to just let it effortlessly fall into place.

She described her year at Mill Village and relationship with the Vidyahara as certainties — a time when her loyalty and devotion were unquestioned. I suspect that year created a baseline of intensity and service that became the blueprint for the rest of her life. Once she came over to cook dinner with me. As she effortlessly prepped and timed the meal she wondered why it should take me longer with less reliable results! Her expectations provoked her to fury at times — why couldn’t others see as clearly or act as rationally— Why couldn’t illness and death be timed and prepped, organized and overcome—

She would have loved her Sukhavati, I found myself wishing I could call her up and tell her about it. It was well attended and a strong testament to her intellectual passion, dedication and tirelessness. Shastri Frank Ryan presided and the Boston Shambhala sangha, who helped care for her during her last year came out and practiced together to mark her passing. Her PhD students from MIT cried and said that learning they could work with her was like winning the lottery. Her colleagues lauded her contribution and integrity.

There was no way to comfort her as she fully experienced illness and the proximity of death. She wanted the perfection with which she strove to live her life; the comfort of fresh food prepared simply; the elegance of perfect service and the warmth of unconditional love. I hope that she knew we tried and that the memory of the excellent meals she cooked, the flawless service she rendered and her perfectly tender heart for Rinpoche comforted her as she made her final transition.

I find myself thinking I’ll call her when I find a good summer peach or see a beautiful rug. She really appreciated things like that. I miss her; her complaints, her hope, her fear and resentments. Her ashes and Shiwa’s are on my shrine on the way to Shambhala Mountain Center to be scattered in the shadow of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya. Although she made out a will, she wasn’t ready and she wasn’t going gently. At the end she sounded euphoric and told me to look up how to make a “raft” for a broth that’s been sullied and to find out how vitamin D might work for calcium depletion. JoAnn was working on sorting it out until the very end. May she be in the heart of the guru and at peace.

-Martha Rome


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