Tribute to George Howell

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George and Julia

A student of his own sensitivities, George was gentle and forgiving, inviting intimacy with his simplicity. When others spoke, he afforded them space and listened intently. Precise and measured in his words, he had a gift for transforming complicated interpersonal exchanges into straightforward situations. George was patient, quiet and kind, and though he navigated life unassuming and humbly, there is no denying he loved a party, especially if it originated in a kitchen. He was the type to see one out ‘til its very end, gratified to be the last one standing (or dancing). When doctors disclosed his short prognosis, he was heartbroken to learn the party would end so suddenly. 

George faced his body’s rapid decline, days of pain and goodbyes with bravery, and corralled his family into a care-providing team to see him off, naming their efforts at support “the knot.” Though he wasn’t one to dwell on adversity, once farewells helped him realize death was the pending reality, George willingly admitted tearfully, “the hardest part is the people.” He did not pass up opportunities to express his love to those in his life, and in his last week, when his voice went and he communicated through a whisper, he reminded family about the importance of prioritizing the well-being of others. He waited for all of his children to arrive alongside his wife Lucy so they could gather as a family one last time before he let go. George took his last breaths in New York on the evening of April 18, 2024.

Before George committed himself to the Buddhadharma he attended the Wheatley School on Long Island (class of ‘60), studied at Cornell University, ranched in Montana, served in the Peace Corps (1967-70), and helped his long-time friend Walter Guthrie launch his first restaurant in St. Croix (early ‘70s). 

During his time with the Peace Corps George was stationed in Kabul where he worked on a government accounting project. In Afghanistan, he enjoyed exploring the bazars (markets), partying with the locals, learning the seasonal fruits, and travelling the provinces on foot, bus and gandi (horse-drawn carriage). He visited the Bamyan Valley’s many cultural sites, including Salsal and Shahmama, (the 6th century soapstone cliff carvings), known as the “Buddhas of Bamyian.” 

It was in Afghanistan that George began to study meditation, alongside Farsi and the Afghan Ministry of Finance accounting system. After tiring of the city and slowed workload, he pushed for a teaching position in rural Khonabad, where his appreciation for a non-materialistic life and critical regard for American sociopolitical norms grew in tandem with what became a life-long commitment to practice.

In the ‘70s, while travelling on bus through Vermont, George was inspired reading what he thought was The Myth of Freedom by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Seeing the list of meditation groups associated with his to-be teacher, he collected the gumption to disembark the bus and hitch a ride to Tail of the Tiger. He often recounted his memory of being dropped off, rounding the last leg of the long driveway on foot, and catching sight of a group of students hanging on the front porch. He immediately recognized them as “[his] kind of people: drinkers and smokers, but more importantly, serious meditators.”

Connie Berman recalls when Tail of the Tiger was under Bill McKeever’s directorship, George attended a retreat, and responded to a fundraising request with a $50,000 donation, an amount then “unbelievable, unprecedented, and generous almost beyond belief.” His donation helped to propel the development and construction of Karmê Chöling in the mid ‘70s. 

George Howell

Like many in the later 1970s, George took his vows with the Vajra Regent, Ösel Tendzin. Over the years several sangha members have recounted George gifting the keys of his convertible during the Bodhisattva Vow Ceremony and the memory of Rich driving away in the offering after the event. George later moved to KCL from the Virgin Islands to live and practice in community, working in the accounting office and becoming Comptroller when Connie served as director. While there, he met Kathy McCullough, a younger but more advanced practitioner from Berkeley, who lived at RMDC, Marpa House and Boulder before moving to KCL, and who grew sprouts in her bathtub for the kitchen’s rota. George invested in several Sangha ventures, including Kensington Jewelry, The Great East Trading Company, and The Great Ship (TGS) Inn.

In October 1982, the Vajracharya, Chögyam Trungpa, sent George a letter from the Kalapa Court, inviting him to move to Nova Scotia. George and Kathy married two weeks later at KCL, and without hesitation, soon immigrated to Canada, becoming innkeepers of The Great Ship Inn in Maitland. At TGS Inn they hosted teacher visits, including that of Thrangu Rinpoche, as well as banquets and events for the Kalapa Court and early sangha members in NS.

In Halifax, George and Kathleen had three children together, (Julia, Patrick, and Diana), whom they raised in close friendship with the Beall and Ritvo families. Every June, George mentioned the phlox that bloomed in their backyard that time of year on Cornwall Street, during what he called “the true glory days” when raising their children in community. 

 

The Ritvos & the Howells

 

George with Julia and Moh Hardin with Cecily

George remembered preparing the Vidyadhara’s infamous “bandit soup” and helped to set up the Kalapa Court when the time came for him to settle, but spent more time serving the Vajra Regent’s household. George retained respect for him over the years and like many felt anguish through community conflict. After both the Vidyadhara and Vajra Regent passed and the Sangha struggled with grief, George drew solace spending time at his family’s cottages, first on Sherbrooke Lake, later on River John near the Cape, not far from what became Dorje Denma Ling (in 1992). On the North Shore, George built a massive vegetable garden, taught his children baseball, spoke to cattle, and reveled in the pink skies and the warm tides of late Summer. He shared with his children the healing that comes from being in salty ocean waves, a constant he enjoyed since his youth around the Long Island waterways.

In June 1993, George and family departed the Maritimes for the Salish Sea, despite hesitation on his part. They lived in Shawnigan Lake then Victoria, where he became a beloved member of the intimate practice community on the lower island that came to consist of many students of VCTR. George’s heart practice was Vajrayogini and he attended many feasts over the years with the Vancouver Island sadhakas, and later online with Ocean. He served as Co-Director of the Victoria Shambhala Centre alongside Hamish Tucker and Isabella Gauvin, and was a calm and consistent presence supporting Victoria’s weekly offerings. 

In the Pacific Northwest, George helped host many teachers over the years, including Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, Khandro Rinpoche, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Changling Rinpoche, Kalu Yangsi Rinpoche, Rabjam Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, the 14th Dalai Lama and the 17th Karmapa. 

George travelled to receive teachings, several times embarking on the near 3-day long Greyhound bus ride from Victoria, BC to Shambhala Mountain Center for retreats. George’s penchant for studying with a multitude of Tibetan Buddhist masters after the VCTR passed was also evident in the extensive library of dharma books he left behind, each holding many index cards of his carefully hand-written notes. At the end of his life, George connected most with the teachings of Mingyur Rinpoche and the offerings of Tergar International, as well as those on Ocean. 

Though George and Kathleen separated once in BC, they remained close friends, often moving towns in tandem in order to co-parent their children. Kathy, re-inspired from attending the consecration of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya in 2001 at SMC, spurred their move to Boulder for some years before both eventually returned to Victoria. Together they attended the first Scorpion Seal program with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and old friends, before she passed away in February 2010. 

George was present with Kathleen (alongside their children) when she passed on, one week after a final Werma feast together at the Victoria Shambhala Centre. He fulfilled his bodhisattva commitments to her by seeing her off and as closest relative officiated her 49th day ceremony. His care and commitment to Kathleen taught his children much about how to support him through his own transition.

In 2011 George attended his ’60 high school class gathering where he rekindled his love for social connection and old friends from Long Island. He returned to Victoria with a renewed spirit…and a new love interest! George, once Wheatly School’s football team captain, had fallen for Lucy Mullman, once captain of the cheerleaders. Full circle, George reclaimed his teenage nickname “Dixie Howell,” (after the MLB catcher with whom he shared name, position, and style of catching a pop-up fly), and with a kick in his step, reacquainted with the vivaciousness of his pursuit for connection, moved ‘back East’… and home to New York. In his and Lucy’s neighborhood in Queens, George befriended market clerks, and his enthusiasm for locating quality cooking ingredients for dinner parties or just to enjoy a perfect piece of fruit earned him the title of produce ‘detective’ by his nearby grocer. 

George became a grandfather to Charlotte Smith (2011) and Benjamin Schilds-Howell (2021). And finally, sandwiched between the couple weeks between George’s birthday and passing, a rare NY earthquake and solar eclipse, he met his third grandchild, Theodore Mae Schilds-Howell, over video call.

As both meditation instructor and tax accountant, George looked out for his students and clients, and trusting his care, many stuck with him for more than 4 decades. Unable to file his clients’ returns this year, he was careful and methodical as ever to ensure they had all needed to go on without him and bid them farewell, with love. 

Thrangu Rinpoche’s visit to The Great Ship Inn

George appreciated Joanne and Walter’s work on the Chronicles since the early 2000s, including how they kept him connected to Sangha he otherwise lost touch with. He aspired to, but due to his declining health, was unable to participate in a final Parinirvana practice day they hosted for Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche this past April 4th 2024. Hearing messages from old Sangha friends at the end of his life touched him deeply and gave him strength. When practice became difficult, Simone Lavoie, the Sacamanos, Julia and Diana helped him recall his root guru, dharma teachings, the sangha, and instructions at the moment of death and in the bardo, and practiced for him.

George is lovingly remembered donning an apron, preparing a methodical, humble yet elaborate meal, reading the NYT, enjoying an evening beer, studying a dharma book, or simply reveling in the sound of birds singing from trees budding with Spring leaves. George was a uniquely kind, committed and forgiving person whose ways of being in the world remind us that fulfillment comes from appreciating life’s most simple offerings.

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