Ashley Playfair-Howes

I first truly saw Jack when visiting his studio in Boulder in the mid-70's where the silk screen banners were made. He was not there, so I was able to soak in not only the extraordinary number of different designs and dimensions but also the almost stark ordinariness of the workshop space. I was not yet a formal student but this glimpse into the workshop bowels of the visually fruitional panoramas on display during talks and events jolted me into appreciating how CTR and his students were creating something together akin to a theatrical production. It wasn't already there, it wasn't a given, it was made, produced, created. Somehow this made it all seem more real to me, more human - and much more interesting. After this brief glimpse, and even years later having become a student who was fortunate enough to spend some 'quality time' with Rinpoche as guru, I never lost the sense that of Rinpoche as a man living in the world just like all the rest of us, navigating through our life and our times, in his case producing a huge, multifaceted, living art form known as the Sangha and Vajradhatu and Shambhala and all the rest of it. Years later at Prajna during the 1985 Seminary, his last full one, after I had put the five flags up in the wrong order by inadvertently placing the Sawang in a position superior to himself ('no, keep it there that way,' he said, 'for he will surpass me'), we started chatting about Nova Scotia and flags and the importance of visual symbolism. And then I recalled Jack's studio in Boulder and the sight of all those banners on the walls and row upon row in printing frames and had a little 'gotcha' moment; Rinpoche noticed and gave a playful 'pray tell' lift of his eyebrows. "I get it! You start with the sambhogakaya! To create a kingdom, you don't start with the territory, the buildings, even the people per se, the physical realm, you start by conquering the sambhogakaya realm; that's why one of the first things you did to create Vajradhatu and Naropa and the Centers was to get Jack Niland to make all those banners!" So much of our experience of the teachings happened within containers visually permeated by the symbolism of those banners. It is impossible to imagine the Vajradhatu-Shambhala world without them. Indeed, it is impossible that that world could have existed at all without them. In this regard Jack, like his teacher, was indeed both a true lineage holder and also a man who like each of us has had to navigate through the ups and downs of the ordinary life journey. I often felt, hearing his stories occasionally from afar, that as a community we could have done a much better job of recognizing this and encouraging many lineage holders among us like him to develop further and teach more. How different things might have turned out had we done so! Instead, we were often too busy leading our own lives or competing with each other for status, access and spiritual progress within our own community bubble. But that's nothing new: people are like that throughout history in nearly all communities, spiritual or otherwise. In any case, for a while at least, Jack played a leading role in helping to create a splendid world whose magnificence on the sambhogakaya level has influenced many of our lives forever, an integral part of our sense of sacred perception and feeling, reproducing the flawless line drawings made by the Vidyadhara by hand and then printed onto brightly coloured satins, planting seed syllables in our hearts and minds which will last through many bardos, as will Jack's indomitable sambhogakaya wisdom spirit.
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Walter hitchhiked from Philly to Boulder in 1974. He seems confused about what happened after that.