Our dear friend and dharma sister Frances Lewis passed away early Saturday morning, July 18, 2020, having suffered a very recent decline in what had been quite good health these last many years. She turned 90 on April 11. Fran became a student of the Vidyadhara in the UK sometime in the mid-1960s. She returned to the US not long before Rinpoche left for North America (January 1970) in order to help create a proper situation for him to teach there, and she lived at Tail of the Tiger in Vermont for its first couple years, moving to Boulder in mid-1972. Fran was among the first three directors of Tail (along with Richard Arthure and Tania Leontov), the business manager it seemed, and she later became one of the members of the Vajradhatu board of directors from its inception in early 1973, along with Rinpoche, Marvin Casper, and Ken Green.
Fran served Rinpoche as a close friend, protector, and gatekeeper for those early years, and was among only a few people to remain in contact, on Rinpoche’s behalf, with various important Tibetan teachers, including H.H. the Gyalwang Karmapa, Jamgon Rinpoche, and the lamas at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra.
The Sukhavati for Fran will be a private occasion attended by very few people at Fran’s request. But Fran’s close friends request that during that time, people practice on their own for Fran or hold her in their hearts. The time of the Sukhavati is 8:30 am MDT on Wednesday, July 22.
Fran and my Grandmother lived in the same building in downtown Boulder. While they both spoke different languages they quickly became friends. They would take walks together, enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Boulder Creek Path and share meals and conversations together. I grew up seeing my Grandmother and Fran, taking advice from her as the years went on, learning from her, getting to try some of the tasty treats she would get from the local bakeries, and getting some beautiful jewelry and clothing that I still have to this day. She was and is family. She had a way about her that was unlike anyone. Fran was truly one of a kind and I will never forget her.
I met Fran in Nepal. I followed her to her spot on the (cold concrete) floor at Sechen Monastery. I loved her instantly, and she pretty much despaired of me but took me under her wing as an old Nepal hand. Later in life I helped her redistribute pastries when I visited Boulder and we collected all manner of items to send to the Rez. Fran was my culture heroine in every way. What a dynamic accomplished practitioner. She was a source of profound encouragement to many beings and a tamer of the rest.
Pretty sure Fran was ready to move on,
loved her so very much.
we really met in Nepal where we became the best of friends
kisses along the way,
Oh Fran! The last of the old guard. I loved her so much! She was so kind to me when I was such a beginner. She truly embodied the superb vajrayana Dharma. She was Lenny Bruce’s secretary, and it showed. What a wicked sense of humor. One time we had just received a Chenrezig empowerment in the old KTD apartment on West End Avenue and there was Fran in her little room off the kitchen, swatting at the overwhelming cockroaches and saying “om mani peme hung!” with each swat. So many stories of Trungpa Rinpoche, starting with Vermont and on through Boulder. The day she suddenly really realized emptiness, and how it felt to open her friend’s door to a crowd of her friends...but empty. Like when you push the down button on an elevator and the floor seems to give way and for a second you’re falling. So many stories, like when she was having a furious and passionate fight with her boyfriend of the time, screaming and even dish throwing. Then suddenly they both stopped, looked at each other, and burst out laughing. Short pause, and then they resumed the fight right where they left off. Dharmadatu knew what they were doing when they asked her to take care of the precious Tibetan visitors who had been assigned to be KTD in America. The monks didn’t know America or westerners, but they knew people. And Fran knew the ways of the world, and guided them through the maize of setting up a nonprofit organization in New York. 💛💛💛💛💛💛💛💛
Farewell Fran, my dharma sister. Sending you on your way with love and gratitude for your service and devotion to the Kagyu and Ningma lineages and foremost to our root guru: the Vidyadhara , Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I first met Fran in 1970 at the Tail of the Tiger, where I first met Trungpa and became his student, which marked my life and joined many of us in our dharma path. Shortly thereafter, Fran, Kesang, and Kunga came to my Univ of Vt: comparative religion class and spoke to the students of the purpose of the centre. Fran was lovely and informative , and instrumental in organizing a weekend teaching program, taught by Rinpoche , at the university where I received my first mediation instruction from Trungpa. I moved to Bolder and resided there from 1975 to 1985, where in the course of that time attended many teaching and practice intensives with Fran over the years. And again , over the years when I have returned to Boulder, it was always a pleasure to see Fran in the shrine room again. Fran was a passionate, intelligent, beautiful and outspoken woman. At the foreground of new ideas and in support of spiritual, cultural, and indigenous causes. Fran joins the illustrious pioneers and our dharma brothers , who supported the Vidyadhara and the Buddha Dharma in coming to the west, who have passed this last couple of years. Kunga, Micheal, Sherab, and Karl Usow. May they join the nature of their mind and with the nature of mind of their guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Much love and gratitude to Fran.
Here’s the story according to Fran behind the yellow hat on her head scattered with diamond rhinestones. Rinpoche was visiting Rocky Mountain Dharma Center, and at some point he quite unexpectedly paid a visit to the Vajra Yogini group retreat practitioners right in the middle of the Sadhana donning this same British looking ladies hat veil and all. Fran somehow managed to obtain the hat, kept it for many years and at some point gave it to me. I in turn kept it for many years and then gave it to one of our Boulder Sangha ladies — can’t remember just who.
With a deep heart smile for our one and only Fran,
The portrait of Fran taken by me [Rachel Homer] is from the first four karmas fire puja conducted by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche which took place at RMDC at Camp Amakula in 1985. It was taken during the enriching session when we were all dressed in yellow. Even the hat Fran wore was yellow with yellow veils. Afterwards, upon seeing the photograph. Fran asked that it be used for her sukhavati.
Ever energetic, I think it is important to remember that in addition to work for the native peoples of North America, Fran also continued well into her eighties to work for the benefit of others. Fran was actively involved in the food recovery movement in which leftovers from farmers markets and elsewhere is collected to be made available to others in our society who may be food insecure.
In the early days of Buddhism in the USA, women played a key role in establishing centers. And they had to be tough, and sure of their commitment, know how to make something out of nothing and create sacred spaces with little resources.
The Tibetan Buddhist world owes much to Fran Lewis - that irreverent New York lady, the epitome of Governor Cuomo’s description of New York: “tough, disciplined, smart, united, and loving.”
She was a pioneer; pioneers have to be one-of- kind unique, inventive, and very dedicated. She had the guts and vision with Tania Leontov (Kesang) to bring Trungpa Rinpoche to the USA, turn a remote Vermont farmhouse into a center that became one of the most beloved sites for our lineages’ teachings.
I knew Fran in the early days of Tail of the Tiger (Karma Choling). I arrived there in 1970 to meet Trungpa Rinpoche after reading his book, and attend my first ever Buddhist teaching.
Fran immediately magnetized me…she was totally herself. She was a breath of fresh air. I had just come from a “love ‘n light” yoga world and Fran instantly became my role model of how to be your own particular self, true to your own culture and also be open and utterly devoted to the teacher and the Dharma. She taught me how to work creatively with what was given with dedication and imagination.
Those were the wild days when Vajrayana Buddhism first came to the West (see the photo of our community in the first Mudra magazine and you will understand the situation).
Franny had a funny and pointed wit and great intuition about people. She had been Lenny Bruce’s assistant and that itself explains her sharp sense of earthy humor.
With her beautiful wicked smile and flowing hair, she seemed to be able to roll with any punches. I was mesmerized by her and inspired.
Franny took me and the elegant Sara Kapp under her wing. She created the environment at Tail helping to run and organize it (not that easy), tending to the many plants decorating the house, buying furniture and materials to create both a sacred shrine room space and a comfortable “sewing room,” and so on.
She knew how to bargain and how to make magic with very little resources, creatively careful as money was so scarce in those days.
Rinpoche loved her honesty, her smarts, her joy, and her pure devotion. She could be perfectly culturally correct with the lamas and act with pure devotion and still be herself, if you know what I mean. To the delight of the teachers.
Frannie spent a lot of time at Shechen Monastery in Nepal with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. She loved the Shechen monks and, loyal as ever, she continued to send them annual donations for decades.
Her heart was so full of love, her eyes twinkling with compassion. Earthy, honest, spiritual, caring, and stable in devotion, practice, and friendship. She was devoted to the very essence of the Dharma. And thanks to her and other pioneers who, alas, are fast leaving us, the teachings were planted and thrived. I will always cherish and be grateful to her.
Frannie and I were frequent travelers together throughout south east Asia. We had way too much fun and it was usually due to Frannie's creative ability to find it in the most impossible situations. Once upon a time we decided to travel across the Nepal boarder into India to a place we determined no one that we knew had ever been before. Once we arrived we realized there was nothing there but a government hotel. Tired, dusty and filthy dirty from a long bus ride we rapidly fell asleep. Hours later we were both awakened by a thick hoard of mosquitos. There were no bug nets in the room so we covered ourselves with repellant. It did not work. Frannie quickly arose to the occassion and with the repellant bottle in her hand she pointed out 4 capital letters on the back. "Here is the problem right here!" "It is not enough to rub the stuff on our skin....we must also do the mantra!"
Fly well Frannie! I know you are 100% fine.
50 years and 4 months ago, I walked up the driveway at Tail of the Tiger for the first time. Fran Lewis guarded the gateway to the dharma, and the stream of activity which defined my entire adult life.
There was no going over, under or around Franny but mostly there was no need. The point of my excursion from Brandeis University, along with Karl Springer, Marty Janowitz and Alan Schwartz was to check out this Tibetan Buddhist Center where later in the summer we planned to meet the Vidyadhara. Even though it would be another 10 weeks or so until Rinpoche and Lady Diana would receive their visas and could leave Montreal for Barnet, the seed had been planted.
The often-unheralded Joanne Newman wrote the $50,000 check to lokapala/farmer Joe Patenaude and literally bought the farm. Fran, Kesang Tonma (Tania Leontov) and Kunga Dawa (Richard Arthure) were sent ahead as the first occupying force, preparing the ground. They each had their jobs. Kesang was the corresponding secretary, fielding a growing mountain of cards and letters from want-to-be students seeking time with the Vidyadhara. Kunga was the primary dharma teacher and Shakespearean influenced chant master, offering meditation instruction to all who sought it. And Fran ran the show. She held the checkbook, collected the fees, kept food in the pantry, gas in the cars, maintained the rota, was a force to be reckoned with as she sailed through the shops of St. Johnsbury, never-ever-paying retail, and in general through word and action made clear to all of us that we were embarking on a life-changing journey.
She manifested devotion to the teacher and the teachings, delighted in nurturing the space where minds were blown daily, and happily shared the wealth by encouraging us to take full advantage of our proximity to the guru-confident in the depth of her own connection to make room for countless others.
The ease with which she related to and cared for the lineage masters such as His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, His Holiness Dilgo Kyentse Rinpoche manifested as if she had many lifetimes of experience. She also understood more quickly than most the importance to Rinpoche and all of us to the connection with other Buddhist lineages made by the Vidyadhara. Fran became close to Kobun Chino Roshi and an important representative of the Vidyadhara to Suzuki Roshi. Her style was her own. When asked by the Vidyadhara to attend an early sesshin at Tassajara as a kind of personal ambassador, Fran was an early student of Rinpoche to learn the oriyoki form of taking meals. But always with a twist. In that case by slipping some chicken bouillon cubes into her meditation robe so she could add it to the rinse water drunk at the end of the oriyoki meal.
I am immeasurably grateful to Franny for her more than half century of service to our sangha, her early embrace, and great kindness carried just beneath her tough skin. We owe her a great debt.
About 10 years ago I volunteered to help with an effort to collect Christmas gifts at the Boulder Shambhala Center to take to the Indian Reservations in South Dakota. During this drive I learned what a force Fran was. She knew all the merchants up and down Pearl St., and was able to talk them into donating an amazing amount of stuff off their retail shelves and inventory. She moved quickly, and my job was to drive around and pick up the goods. She would go to small t-shirt manufacturers on Old East Pearl and procure boxes filled with hundreds of t-shirts or jackets with logos that may have been slightly misprinted, but were brand new. I began to catch on that Fran wasn't messing around, and this was a hard work. We'd store some of the stuff at her apartment at the Senior building on Walnut St across from the Courthouse on 6th. It was a functional building on a spectacular sight. Fran had an unimpeded view across Canyon Blvd to the Flatirons. She was proud and grateful for her low income senior housing apartment with a million dollar view, believing it was her good karma to land so well at this point in her life. And she was pleased that a number of Rinpoche's students lived in the building, calling it her deleg. She liberally shared her strong opinions about her fellow practitioners living there, as well as others who didn't live there. She remained extremely devoted to Trungpa Rinpoche , and the 16th Karmapa. We packed her place with all kinds of things, but she seemed to know exactly what she had and where it was located. What I remember from our conversations while moving boxes was her passing a large mirror in the room and remarking, 'aging plays hell on your vanity', and another time 'getting old is not for sissies.' 10 years later, I understand experientially more what she was saying. Her sense of humor and relaxation about it was refreshing.
Thinking of karmic connections; in how Fran Lewis was unwavering in helping CTR in the earliest of times. Also THEN there was plenty of controversy -- this did not matter to her. She knew that laying the ground work for Rinpoche to come to N. America would be of great benefit for many to come. She worked tirelessly during those creative formative years.
Now in July 2020 we still have controversies with massive societal changes, these karmic connections we [young and old] may have are very precious indeed. May we follow in her footsteps and take hold of these rare positive energies and bring them to useful fruition.