5 December 2013
Life-long sangha brother Bob Sonne died in his sleep on December 2, 2013 in Boston. He was a dedicated dharma practitioner, a devoted student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, and a loyal member of the Dorje Kasung. Bob completed four years of solitary retreat in a small apartment near Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in the early 2000s.
I met Bob Sonne in Boulder. Circa, 80’s. He was senior to me in every way well worn currency, rough cut from hard fabric. I was a newly minted dharma coin, rushed through production, pushed into circulation and shiny with naivety. We existed together from a distance, at a time when the Sangha was being fused into what felt like a spaceship bound for galaxies to be discovered.
It was a heady time. If you could find your head. Daily, the Vidyadhara unfolded reality in reverse origami to the revelation that not only was there no creases in the paper, there was no paper. And in the event that Kagyu parlor trick escaped your attention and / or eclipsed your mind, The Regent would somehow make the paper reappear for you. Then patiently demonstrate again, how both paper and crease were the same as space.
In this matrix of practical magic, copious sake and your best intentions mirrored back as mind trying to hide in plain sight, was Bob. He looked less like he’d been born, more like he’d been carved from rock. His face was all angles and crags of features from which escaped deep set eyes and a hearty laugh. He had hard, workman’s hands someone once said shaking hands with Sonne was like grabbing a metal doorknob. He spoke plainly and simply. But his innocence of language belied a nuanced grasp of what he saw, and precisely how he saw it.
And that, made for wonderful, raw and superbly honest exchanges he’d engage in with the Lineage. Bob had a surprisingly light voice. It had a hint of lilt, and he’d often end sentences in an upward inflection, giving questions a childlike levity. In a packed shrine room, silent in awe of the Vidyadhara, Bob would stand proud, microphone in hand and ask questions of VCTR/ VROT with a sincere grit that made for beautiful theater of the absurdly real.
Around ’95,’96 Bob spent an extended tour of duty with Sakyong Mipham. He remained so free of pretense he could simplify even the obvious to a Spartan existence of necessary parts. He would say things to the Sakyong like ‘Now, Rin-po-che, that tea you want that with milk, righhht’. The Sakyong would smile, nod and watch as Bob left the room. Then he would erupt in a barely suppressed giggle that threatened to tear him from his chuba. He didn’t regard Bob as comic relief, he appreciated him as a breath of fresh humanity.
Around that time, Bob accompanied The Sakyong on a visit to see H.H. Thinly Norbu Rinpoche, in Delhi, NY. Now, visiting H.H. was a big deal. Not so much because of who H.H. was with regard to prestige among the Nyingma Lineage, but because of how, H.H. was. And that was well, really, really odd. Powerfully so. H.H. would spend all day in retreat, coming to the main house in the late afternoon, when he would eat, then sit and watch boxing on TV.
Being around him was like tripping over reality and falling upwards. The air in the room felt like slow waves of pure awareness washing into your every pore. To be with H.H. was immensely wonderful and simultaneously unnerving. Bob seemed deliciously at home. Beyond tired one night, I excused myself from that night’s ‘boxing watching’. In the time it took me to fall into bed, I knew I was really sick.
Hours later in mid hallucination, I heard someone calling my name: ‘day-nuh….’. I opened my eyes, saw Bob kneeling down to the mattress on the floor I slept on. ‘Yeah, that uh Rinpoche wants to see you’. ‘Rinpoche, needs me’, meaning Sakyong Mipham. ‘Nooo, the u-ther one’. Bob meant no disrespect, but it actually seemed ludicrous to call H.H. by name or title, since there was such an obvious lack of self to which you could stick a name. Now I was sick and, confused. ‘Are you sure’. ‘Yup, he just looked up and said please come and get you’. ‘Bob, I’m really sick…’. Bob put his hand to my forehead, ‘Yer burnin’ up for sure’. ‘Just please let His Holiness know I’m sick okay, I don’t think I should be near him…’. I faded back to sleep as Bob closed the door behind him.
Again, sometime later, I heard Bob from somewhere distant calling ‘Day-nuh…Day-nuh…you’re gonna have to wake up’. There was Bob, ‘I told him, but he just said I better bring you to him right away’. Bob and I walked down the dark, dirt road arm in arm. After a minute, Bob pretty much summed up what we were both feeling ‘I’m ah, not real sure what’s gonna happen when we get inside’.
I remember very little after that. We went in, everyone was quiet. H.H. had me come over. He talked about obstacles. I vaguely remember him blessing me. Then I left, went back to the retreat house and fell asleep. Awoke the next day free of fever, fear and, obstacles. Bob didn’t say a word about it. Until the day we left. Both of us carrying our things to the car, Bob casually said ‘Well, that was something, huh’. And it was.
Something beyond words. Parsed into simplicity by Bob’s knack for making the obvious, graspable. The tour ended, he went his way. The Sakyong and I went ours. I never thanked Bob for that night. Which of course, would have seemed patently ridiculous to him. He was simply doing his job as friend, practitioner, fellow-witnesser of the odd and inexpressible. So here’s to Sonne, who one night did his duty and roused me from samsara, to the blessing of a real life Buddha.
Thank you brother, hope I can return the favor sometime.
I am undone by Bob’s death. He was a great friend. Bob and I met in 1969 when he arrived at the Federal prison in Virginia where I had been living for 5 months already. We were both failed smugglers.
We were natural friends, we shared our stories; Bob’s life, as a novel, is like the continuation of On The Road with a new Neal Cassady. Bob joined the army at 17 and was stationed in France. Somehow he was spending a lot of time in Paris in the pigalle with Moroccans smoking hash. He eventually went AWOL and moved in with a woman who worked in the pigalle. After finishing his time in the brig and leaving the army, Bob returned to Baltimore and got married. For whatever reasons Bob decided to go to Lebanon and bring back a brick of hash via London. It didn’t work out.
I had decided to use my time in prison to really become a better person. Bob had the same idea. I had books on Zen, Taoism, Hinduism, Hatha Yoga and more. Bob and I wore out days and nights doing yoga, talking about the acid trips we had taken, and working in the tire re-capping shop (huge truck tires).
We had the Evans-Wentz books and we read and re-read them. Bob fell in love with Milarepa. A year and a half later (11/1970) I was released on parole; Bob had almost another year to do. I was paroled to live with my parents in Pa. I tracked down Garma C.C. Chang (translator of The Songs Of Milarepa) who was a professor at Penn State. He advised me to seek a Zen teacher, or if I was inclined to the Tibetan practice lineage, there was a young Lama who had started a center at Tail of the Tiger Cave in Vermont. After a stint in Rochester at Philip Kapleau’s Zen Center. I made it up to Tail and decided to stay; I got a job at Hatch’s store in St. J.
When Bob got out he got a job in a tire shop in Baltimore. He got back with his wife. She was in very poor mental condition and tragically ended her own life that same year. I invited Bob to Vermont. Bob came up and got work right away building a house on the land at Tail for Howard and Cincy Moore. He was accepted to live at Tail, and he was off to the races, Dharmically speaking. He was admitted to the first Seminary in 1973.
Bob was powerful, dynamic, roughhewn, funny and very tender. He was in the thick of the evolving relationships and events at Karme Choling in those early years. He continued his career as a carpenter working on the expansion of the facilities at KCL.
Bob moved to Boulder in 1975. By then I was married with 2 children. Bob said Boulder was full of work and invited me to Boulder (by then I was also a carpenter). Bob was a hard liver, and hard on his liver, he drank, partied, and practiced with uncommon gusto. During those years he learned to waltz, got his first tuxedo (he could be powerfully handsome), built a number of houses and went to I don’t how many more seminaries, assemblies, and talks. He lived for the Dharma. He loved Rinpoche immensely.
He was a tireless Kusung. There are many people who could flesh out the story of the ensuing years with outrageous and poignant personal anecdotes, I am sure. Bob will certainly not be forgotten by anyone who ever got to know him, and probably not by many who only met him in passing. He was a dear dear friend and we were kissing close and in touch up to last week.
Bob had many painful ailments, which he shouldered with aplomb. He was recuperating from a second spinal surgery he had a month ago. He was a superb sufferer, he was funny about it. Finally his body was wrecked, but Bob was happy happy in being what he had become: a genuine yogi.
I’m sort of stopped in my tracks right now. Thinking of Bob I will move gently forward happy to have been a real friend to a real yogi.
Bob chopponed the first fire puja I did at KCL in the late 80’s. For a guy who had had a reputation as a roughneck in the Vajradhatu sangha, he turned into an exemplary practitioner for that event: with a deep experience base, panoramic respect for the form and execution of the practice, mindful of every detail and sometimes exquisitely delicate and respectful of the fire, the process, the mandala and the discipline.
I was startled by his transformation, and took him as the example to follow when my turn came to chopon fire pujas.
Out of gratitude for his example and precision, the least I could do was to contribute some funds to his solitary retreat at the Abbey.
Indeed, he did not waste his life. When he met the Vidyadhara he found what he’d been looking for and remained steadfast in his devotion to him and to the practice.
I’m sorry he, too, is now gone; he had a weatherbeaten purity.
I had the privilege of assisting Bob in his four year retreat at the Abbey and we became good friends. I was deeply inspired by his practice, humbleness and exertion. His health was poor at the time and he was in constant pain but earnestly and fully completed all his practices, including the complicated drupchens and fire offerings and yogic exercises. His devotion was epic. One day he had a severe tooth ache and I convinced him that he could leave retreat to go to the dentist. Accompanying him, I was amazed that after years in retreat, he slipped in and out of the ordinary world without a ripple of reaction one way or another. I’m sad to think we’ve lost Bob but he is someone who surely didn’t waste his precious human life and I have no doubt the dralas will be with him in his transition.
I had the honour of doing a fire offering and other practices with Bob. He was both crazy and wisdom 🙂
He dove into practice like his hair was on fire. Knowing the point he stuck with it. I wish him the best in his passing and thank him for being a wonderful example of how the practice paths of Kasungship and deep retreat can transform someone in this lifetime. Thank you Mr. Sonne.
I knew Bob off and on thru the years and more intensely when he was up at the Abbey to begin his long retreat. He was a very rough and ready character and he said to me that he wanted to become the kind of person that people are automatically drawn to. It seems he accomplished his goal. I feel very touched by his devotion and exertion, find myself thinking about and inspired by him and wish him well on his journey. May there be many practitioners of his caliber.
I’m quite saddened by the news of Bob’s death.
I met him during three month seminary at Shambhala Mountain Center 1999. I was spending a lot of time at the Court, being trained as Head of Service. One day the Kusung on duty told me that the ornery Bob Sonne would soon be on the scene for several weeks, forewarning me that he would/could be difficult to work with. Well, Bob Sonne showed up and there was no problem at all. We hit it off. Hit it off enough that a few years later we tried a more intimate relationship, which we both acknowledged wouldn’t work, despite the strong connection we had. Last time I saw him was when His Holiness the Karmapa was in NYC. Bob came running across the street to get to me, loose pants and fine silk shirt rippling on his lank frame in the breeze. I wanted to eat him up. He was and always will be sunny in my heart.
Love from Vermont,