Still Crazy After All These Years

The 35th anniversary of the founding of the Boston Dharmadhatu.

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That was the apt and cheeky title of the celebration of the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Boston Dharmadhatu (later, the Shambhala Center), which took place during a golden New England autumnal solstice, the weekend of the Harvest of Peace, September 22 – 24, 2006.

The festivities started in Christopher Pleim’s garden, where fifteen of us ancients gathered Friday night to enjoy Diana Evan’s sumptuous kebabs and pasta by the kindly light of torches. Of course we sized each other up, adjusting the old memories to the current reality – the usual reunion ritual.

We talked about the present – the political situation, our work, our dead or aging parents, our health… We asked after missing pals, some unable to come, some dead or missing from our radar… Rinpoche had told us to take better care of each other. Had we remembered?

Surprisingly, some of us drank very little or not at all, our aging bodies having said, “Basta! Enough already!” Equally surprisingly, some of us drank just as much or more than before. I remember Rinpoche saying, seemingly out of the blue, that one of the biggest problems in North America was how people used alcohol. He was drinking sake at the time. My mind seized up, as it did often in his presence and the questions dropped away. Now, of course, I regret not asking them. Alcoholism in our sangha remains a big issue rarely broached.

As it got cooler and darker, we drew closer together and piled on an odd assortment of garments. Maybe because of that or because of the torches, we looked like a gathering of the homeless around a makeshift fire, on the edge of nowhere. “Death is real, comes without warning,” goes the familiar reminder. “All the logic in the world will not save me from the simple truth that I age,” reads Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s (SMR’s) Birthday Sadhana. The evening had been tender, irritating, familial, yet already surreal, already slipping into the black hole of the past.

Saturday, the mood lifted. The big gala took place at the elegant Windsor Club in Waban. As Lodro Rinzler, the Director of the Shambhala Meditation Center of Boston wrote in his warm inviting letter said: “A full evening of drinks, dancing, toasts, music, a Shambhala Through the Decades Fashion Show, and More.” Tickets ranged from: “Patron: $500, Benefactor: $250, Sponsor:$100, Individual:$50 or just pay your age” (whichever was the greater).

The evening started with a silent auction. There was a rotating slide show of Mary Lang, Bob Morehouse and Joe Arak’s expert photos, proof positive that we had indeed once been as young and glamorous as today’s under-thirties. Bob Christopherson’s Jazz Trio played. Then a DJ from Montreal, a friend of Sara Bercholz’s took over. As Charlie Trageser remarked, people looked elegant yet relaxed. We danced with partners and in groups, women danced with women, Hazel Bercholz still the beautiful ballroom dancer she had been in her youth… We engaged in the coitus interruptus of cocktail party conversation, constantly bouncing from one person to another…

Cameo appearances of old friends, snatches of conversation… The perennial subject of relationships, of course. Two old friends talking, both declared their marriages were “hanging by a thread.” Surprised, I said I’d just talked with their husbands who both said everything at home was fine. “Oh, what do they know!” they chorused. And health. Some of us compared our recyclable, blue bag body parts – the plastic hips, the plastic implant lenses in our eyes, the occasional hearing aid… And children. People who had only yesterday been young roustabouts brought out pictures of their adult offspring. Where had the time gone?

It was Charlie Trageser’s inspired idea to do the musical fashion show—a dangerous last minute brainwave. Casting was the big challenge. Getting various sangha prima donnas and primo caballeros to do their parts was almost as hard as getting recruits to be cannon fodder in Iraq.

Chris Pleim and Beth Gordon Rinzler were to be the dancing hippies. Chris was dubious about the whole thing. Beth had to encourage him: “See it as a Khenpo [Tsultrim Gyamtso] exercise.” He would only do it if they could dance to Jimmy Hendrix.

That evening, bare-chested, festooned with beads (his malas), wearing only a borrowed L.L. Bean vest, stuck with signs reading, “Make Love Not War” (which came unglued in the heat of limelight), his unlined face framed by a cheap yellow wig, a red bandana around his forehead, his jeans expertly ripped, he looked so uncannily like his old self that I went into a major flashback… Chris getting high flipping his strawberry blond mane back and forth at a rock concert. Chris the disciplined, dedicated, party-line practice coordinator, with his razor-sharp mind, nicknamed “Emmanuel” because he did everything by the book, the manual. Chris with his teenage indifference to environment. Now, his home is the favorite B&B of traveling acharyas (and occasional riff raff like myself and my husband). It’s not the firm mattress nor the freedom of a bachelor pad that attracts guests. It’s Chris’ astute mind and his uncompromising honesty and the long stimulating, far-ranging discussions over breakfast…

Back at the Gala, Beth was amazingly limber due to lujong, (also known as warrior exercises) she said. Chris, the reluctant hippy, put on an X-rated show on stage and then kept his costume on all night.

Fashions in clothes are like the rings on a tree – a way of gauging time, pin-pointing an era. But Shambhala fashions were not necessarily in sync with our host community, the Western World. When le tout Boston was going Banana Republic or L.L. Bean casual, we discovered Saville Row.

The greeting in those days was not a hug or a handshake. We’d walk up to each other and finger the lapel of a jacket or the fabric of a sleeve: “Nice cashmere! Filene’s Basement—” We stood out like Jehovah’s Witnesses making house calls. I remember an Alphonse-Gaston routine with a delightful Zen student, each of us complimenting the other’s dharmic community style.

She: “You people at least acknowledge your emotions!”
Me: “But you are so disciplined!”
She: “You are so good at staging events!”
Me: “You have such elegance and aesthetic restraint!”
She: “You have power.”
Me: “You have ethics.”

And so on until she dropped the routine to say: “But what’s with the clothes you people wear? All those three piece suits and the pearls and the cashmere twin sets! That’s so trippy! Do you go in for foxhunting too?” I was stunned. “Trippy?” Us, trippy? Trippy was our word! Our ultimate put-down. Love and lightiness, New Age spiritual smorgasbord, Shirley MacLean, Esalen, California, setting-sun world, vegetarianism, yoga… Trippy, trippy, trippy. But us in our Saville Row/Filene’s finery “trippy”? No way!

So watching the next act was painfully familiar. This was the Vajradhatu couple of the three-piece suit era – the male peacock who does no work, she the wife or assistant who does everything, as envisioned by Charlie Trageser. Joe Inskeep agreed to be the male if he could dance to “Saturday Night Fever”—which he did with Travolta flair. No older female student would play the part of the long-suffering assistant. It was too close to reality. So Kathy Vieweg, a relatively newer student with no scars did it with ease.

Mark Diamond would only play the sweaty prostrator if he could also embody fruition, which he did by wearing a necklace of Halloween skulls and a faux leopard skin skirt. Lodro was a good sport and allowed himself to be rigged up incongruously in a kilt and a tight skull cap to impersonate Richard Reoch.

The two pros were Sara Bercholz and Tom Krusinski. The gorgeous Sara opened the show with a fluid and flawless yoga routine. (Were we ever that good?). All Tom had to do was walk on stage for all of us to instantly recognize the professional skill of his eloquent dancer’s body as he fast-forwarded through all the sartorial changes of a typical day at a dharma program. Holding it all together with her voice and her confident presence was the circus ring mistress, artist Linda Brown of the great legs.

Of course, there was the de rigueur torture by toasts, aging knees buckling as we stood at attention holding up our glasses, praying for mercy. Heartfelt devotion to CTR was expressed by Jim Wilton and to SMR by Nick Kranz. The indefatigable Mary Lang, whose camera and whose mind misses nothing, toasted the Boston sangha and our journey through the decades. Mary was largely responsible for organizing the weekend cornucopia of festivities.

On Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s “The Current”, I heard an interview with the cello-voiced Nigerian writer, Nobel Prize Winner (1986) and heroic activist, Wole Soyinka, who is called by some, “The conscience of Africa.” He was talking about two types of leadership: the first, arising out of natural authority (a la Mandela); the second, engineered by self-promotion, jockeying for power or worse. The greater Shambhala community has examples of both types. The three who spoke briefly to wrap up our festivities Saturday night belong to the first category of leadership.

Dr. Janet Romaine, a lady and a scholar, who wears her learnedness lightly, laughs readily and never “bangs her own trumpet” (as one of our old housemates with a talent for malapropisms would have said). And she had plenty of cause to bang and toot: with a BA in English, a PhD in Business, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma in 1992, braved her way through lung surgery and chemo, and for the past seven years has been Associate Professor of Business at St. Anslem’s College in New Hampshire.

At the Gala, Janet reminisced about a Keystone Cops episode when sadhakas had to feast at the home of an MIT dean, where she was house-sitting, because we did not have a space of our own. Somehow, we triggered the burglar alarm which summoned a whole contingent of police. The neighbors later confessed they had been peering in at the windows, watching us practicing Vajrayogini Sadhana, probably thinking they were witnessing a Warlocks and Witches’ Sabbath. With this cautionary tale, Janet underscored the importance of having a center of our own.

Next to speak was Winfield Shaw Clark, Binny, the patrician, a man who needs no title, no credentials. Binny’s vision is as large and his intellect as far-ranging as the panoramic view from his eighteenth century family mansion in New Hampshire. Binny’s wheelchair is his constant practice. He neither complains nor withholds information about his condition. There is no sentimental flab about Binny: when challenged he plays a mean game of verbal murderball! He is a talented composer with a fine singing voice. He and Suzanne Duquette have recorded some of his beautiful Milarepa songs with their haunting purity. This summer in Halifax, Khandro Rinpoche talked about teaching through being, embodying the teachings, and there is no more inspiring exemplar of this than Binny.

At the Gala, Binny spoke about coming to Boston as an ambassador. Ambassadors were the Vidyadhara’s representatives, somewhat like today’s acharyas, connecting the center of the mandala to the fringe. Cynthia Kneen was Boston’s first ambassador. She’s also the author of Awake Mind, Open Heart, a brilliant and very helpful book. Binny was the second one in that distinguished lineage.

Third to speak at the Gala was Bob Morehouse, our puer eternus, our Dorian Gray. He always looked a glamorous eighteen, his voice sounding as if it had not entirely broken. Now, on the cusp of sixty, he looks a somewhat tired twenty-five year old. And his voice has not broken completely yet. Bob was a budding film maker when he met CTR. He and I were co-coordinators of the Boston Dharmadhatu for about seven years. We were the resident aesthetes and did the publicity. Bob was ever the skillful peacemaker of our sangha, but communication between us was a constant sibling swordplay and he was the artful dodger. But Bob has sheathed his sword. Director of the highly successful graphics firm, Vermilion Design, which employs fourteen people, Bob now leads by being the consummate good parent, kind and nurturing.

Foreshadowing the Sakyong’s Harvest of Peace talk, Bob put our reunion in a larger perspective. He reminded us that we started our journey together when the Vietnam War was still raging. Today, stuck in the quagmire of the Iraq War, we face the prospect of endless conflict and the even greater need to cultivate peace, beginning with ourselves.

There are 165 dues paying members in Boston now. About 100 were at the Gala. But only about five of the under thirty group came. Can one fault them? When we were young, did we enjoy hearing our dotty aunts and goofy uncles recounting their adventures and even worse, their sexual peccadillos? We also ran out of booze in the first hour of the Gala. The innocent manager of the Windsor Club having calculated that like average patrons, we would consume about a third of a bottle of wine per person during the evening. But the Shambhala Center made $3500 on the Gala – probably a first – for the Genuine Expressions Scholarship Fund in Boston. It was a classy family reunion. Our version of “The Russian Ark.”

Saturday afternoon, I got to interview Beth Gordon Rinzler and her son Lodro – the then and the now of it all.

I’ll start with the then, with Beth who is ageless. She was our group pioneer, our canary: the first coordinator, the first to go to the first seminary (1973). She was our Marpa, bringing back the teachings (and gossip) from that celebrity seminary. She was also our resident buddhist astrologer, interpreting buddha families and refuge names. Beth had body-mind synchronicity down long before we were familiar with the concept or learned to dance to Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso’s tunes. Sentences with Beth started somewhere at the hip and emerged at the finger tips (and still do)… When I think of Beth, I think of flair, style, intelligence, great honesty and much laughter. She is always ready to play, to lean into a joke.

And now the progeny and prodigy. At twenty three, Lodro Rinzler is the youngest director of a Shambhala Center – a pioneer, like his mother. A cross between St. Exupery’s Little Prince and Napoleon (but for us old ones, ultimately, Beth’s clever little boy).

When I saw Beth and Lodro in his elegant three story walk-up in a lovely old brick building in Brookline Village near the Center, Beth exercised her inalienable right as a mother to embarrass her son the director by pulling out a 2006 calendar of Lodro pictures, starting with the photo of a very cute baby Lodro. The calendar pictured him through all the stages of a buddhist upbringing (Children’s Day, Sun Camp, Rite of Passage, etc.) with Lodro consistently in the forefront.

It is the inalienable right of children to rebel against their parents. So what happened— Where is Lodro the rebel? At age seventeen, Lodro did the youth dhatun at the Abbey in Cape Breton. His head was shaved. He took temporary vows, like the other young participants. As he watched the whales leaping in the ocean outside the Abbey shrineroom he realized this was no longer his parents’ path. He was doing something they had never done. This was the turning point, the making of an enthusiastic and devoted young student of SMR. Beth’s generation of students were very aware of being Juboos (Jewish buddhists) or Caboos (Catholic buddhists) or whatever our families of origin may have been. Not so the “dharma brats.” They seem to come unencumbered by old cultural baggage.

At Wesleyan University, Lodro started The Buddhist House (on the lines of Marpa House in Boulder) and wrote his BA Honors Thesis on the Shambhala Buddhist Lineage, based on oral histories. He coordinated the first Vajra Dawn program and a Shambhala Seminary. He is – wonder of wonders – an administrator who practices (now doing Vajrayogini Sadhana).

Comparisons are odious, but irresistible. To us, the old timers, “the cherry on the rich sundae” of the current situation (to quote Lodro out of context) is that today’s Boston director actually gets paid the stellar salary of $40,000 US (out of which he pays his own health insurance, he reminded me). We never dreamt of asking to be paid! Is that an example of being “Not karmically astute”? Rumor has it that that is an epithet sometimes applied to us, the battered and unsalaried old time administrators by the young ‘uns.

My exposure to a few of Boston’s newer leaders – Lodro, Emily Bower, Jon Wyman, Jeremy McDowell, Sara Bercholz and others – was extremely brief, but I am in awe of them. They are poised, they are fit. They speak to groups with seeming ease. Like Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Lodro and Sara ran a marathon to raise scholarship money for other members (who likely can’t afford the Ritz prices of our dharma spas). And they seem hard-working and responsible. At the Gala, Lodro was doing yoeman labor, setting up, organizing, dismantling. No old style peacock he. “They’re a bit earnest and a little religious,” an old timer commented to me. A confidante of the younger set told me the under-thirties complain they often experience the senior students more as a lid than the open sky. CTR’s “You can do it!” turned into “You should do it my way.”

In the meantime, one thing hasn’t changed much. Everyone seems to feel left out of something. Some of the old timers feel left out now – Mayflower people feeling like wallflowers. Newer students sometimes envy the older ones’ personal relationship with CTR and feel they missed the boat. But we old ones were like backwoods tribes people and CTR was the tour guide who brought us to the seashore and said, “See, this is the ocean. I can teach you to swim in it.” Today’s Shambhala students are like the fish living in this ocean, in the amniotic sac of his large mind. They haven’t missed a thing. CTR empowered us with his mantra, “You can do it! You can do it!” SMR empowers us by showing us how it can be done.


Previously on the Chronicles by Anna Taylor: Boston Dharmadhatu, the Early Days

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Anna Taylor, one of the original members of the Boston sangha, now lives in Blockhouse, Nova Scotia with her husband, Richard Wurtz.