The story of Bokar Rinpoche’s influence on KCC demonstrates the fruitful intersection between two different cultures and ways of life and is testimony to the power of the dharma to transcend these differences. Bokar Rinpoche, a lineage master of both the Shangpa and the Karma Kagyu, was born in Western Tibet in 1940 to a family of nomadic herders. When Rinpoche was four years old, he was recognized as the reincarnation of the previous Bokar Tulku and received an official recognition letter from the Sixteenth Karmapa.
While still a teenager, he assumed full responsibility for the Bokar monastic community. At the age of 20 he had the strong wish to do three-year retreat. But the instability and violence due to the Chinese occupation interrupted this plan and in 1959 he followed his teachers in the exodus from Tibet, joining the refugees in the Darjeeling area. After several years trying to pursue his studies, he became determined once again to do the three-year retreat and thus became a close disciple of Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche since he was renowned as retreat master in Tibet.
Since there was not yet a retreat center, Bokar Rinpoche joined in with Kalu Rinpoche and the other monks to stack stones and do the other labor needed to make a place for retreat. Under Kalu Rinpoche’s guidance, he completed two traditional three-year retreats. In total, he spent over 19 years in strict retreat and was considered to be Kalu Rinpoche’s spiritual successor and principal holder of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage. Bokar Rinpoche was also one of the main meditation teachers of the Karma Kagyu, appointed by the Sixteenth Karmapa to be the retreat master of a new retreat center at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, a position he fulfilled for 13 years.
In 1986, Rinpoche founded a monastery called Bokar Ngedon Chokor Ling in Mirik, a village in the hills near Darjeeling. While it started small, with facilities for just a handful of practitioners on extended retreat, it steadily grew to accommodate more monks. Along the way a Karma Kagyu three-year retreat center was added, followed by a large new temple which now houses about 300 monks and another retreat center to permit concurrent three-year retreats in the Shangpa Kagyu tradition.
Bokar Rinpoche’s connection to KCC began near the end of the tenure of KCC’s first resident teacher Lama Thinley Drupa. Asked by Kalu Rinpoche to leave the monastery in India to guide the center’s development, Lama Thinley served from 1980 to 1991. During his tenure he taught a wide range of practices, and the center hosted the most esteemed teachers of the lineage. He enthusiastically presented many teachings and is fondly remembered for the stories he shared. Lama Thinley, who came from a remote village in Bhutan, was an excellent teacher; however, KCC did not have a translator to help bridge the gap in language and culture. In spite of everyone's efforts and good intentions, both Lama Thinley and the small group of practitioners at the center found themselves struggling to make the situation work.
By the time of Bokar Rinpoche’s arrival in September 1991, only a handful of people were actively engaged with the center and its future was uncertain. Rinpoche assembled the group and reminded them that, since the center was founded by the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, it was essential that it continue.
The members in attendance were moved by the Rinpoche’s openheartedness. After reinforcing the importance and potential of KCC, he asked the group: “what you think needs to happen here?” In this way, he transcended his cultural moorings in which practitioners were expected to simply follow the dictates of their lamas. Rinpoche was extraordinarily astute, quickly sensing the dynamics at play. Since he had had personal interviews with some KCC members, he could sense that there was energy and desire to continue. He expressed respect for and confidence in the people present and in the power of the dharma itself, which would offer solutions if practiced earnestly.
Rinpoche listened carefully to the concerns of the group and their ideas for moving forward, then said “let me think about it.” Some days later, he came back to the group and affirmed their suggestions for moving ahead, including greatly simplifying the practice schedule. He stated that, if the sangha did calm abiding and chenrezig practices weekly, along with a study group, it would be an effective approach. He also thanked Lama Thinley and gave him permission to retire as resident lama, suggesting that Lama Tsang Tsing from Eugene visit KCC periodically to provide teachings. He appointed Sanje Elliott, who he had met in India, to be president of KCC since he had confidence in his persistence in getting past obstacles. This is how the sangha proceeded from 1991 until 1993. At that time, the sangha requested that a Western teacher, Michael Conklin, come to serve at KCC. Bokar Rinpoche assented and Lama Michael Conklin moved to Portland to serve as KCC’s teacher.
Following his remarkable visit in 1991, Bokar Rinpoche continued to provide needed support and inspiration to KCC. In 1992 he started the Mahamudra Seminar in India, which became an essential opportunity to develop an ongoing relationship with him. Having traveled to centers throughout the west, Rinpoche had become convinced that spending a few days here and there giving empowerments and teachings was not an effective way to make the depth of the dharma truly accessible. There was no way to focus on a core of teachings or to provide ongoing guidance. In response, he started the Mahamudra seminar to provide a path of meditation and contemplation that was accessible to householders—a path that was concise yet still offered a systematic progression of practice that could lead to attaining enlightenment.
Over the years many KCC members went to India to receive the Mahamudra teachings. In addition to having the benefit of engaging in the practices they also had personal interviews with Bokar Rinpoche. People had the experience that a five-minute interview with him changed their practices and their lives.
By 1995, KCC was back on its feet and profiting greatly from Lama Michael’s presence. At this time, KCC leaders took the bold step of inviting Bokar Rinpoche to come to Portland to lead a retreat. When they asked Lama Tsang Tsing about it, he replied that there was no harm in asking but it was highly unlikely he would come. Persisting, Bill Spangle and Lama Michael flew to Los Angeles to meet with Bokar Rinpoche. After reviewing everything that had been done to implement the advice he had offered in 1991, they requested that he come to Portland. After thinking it over for the morning, he called them back in and responded “I’ll come.” The result was an extraordinary 1996 Mahamudra seminar with 200 people at Lewis & Clark College, which opened the dharma to many more Western practitioners.
From that point on, KCC had a very close working relationship with Bokar Rinpoche. Whenever they met with him in India to receive guidance about the center, Rinpoche continued to seek their input on what should happen next. The Rinpoche instilled confidence in sangha members that they could do anything they decided on. Interactions with him always provided them with insight and strength.
In 1999, while a KCC group was in India, they asked Rinpoche whether they should look for a larger urban center or construct a long retreat center first. Noting that we already had an urban center, he strongly encouraged us to build a retreat center, saying that it was important to really make the Dharma our own and that retreat was essential to allow this to happen. He expressed confidence that the sangha could both build the retreat center and lead the retreat in a way that would benefit others.
While Bokar Rinpoche’s death in 2004 was extremely saddening to sangha members, it provided further fuel to honor the commitment made to Bokar Rinpoche to develop Ser Cho Osel Ling. With the completion of the recent one-year retreat and a three-year retreat set to begin in April 2015, during a recent audience with His Holiness Karmapa, we were able to report that this commitment has been fulfilled. At that time, we asked him to dedicate the merit of this work so that we may soon meet a new incarnation of Bokar Rinpoche.
Events for the New Year
In a year of change for the KCC community, the Three-Year Retreat begins in April 2015. The retreat center at SCOL will close its gates to all but the cloistered. Until then, keep a watch for opportunities to help out. Work parties on the retreat land near Goldendale, Washington, are frequent—and all are welcome.
To keep well-informed, check out this page on the KCC website: http://kcc.org/form/join-our-e-mail-lists. Here you can sign up to receive this newsletter and occasional info on KCC happenings. To subscribe to the community list-serve, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, for the every-message-as-soon-as-it's-posted edition, or email@example.com, for the occasional digest edition. The community list-serve is more informal—a space where people post happenings, work parties, prayer requests, rooms for rent, job search information and more. KCC also has a Facebook page!
The 2015 Personal Winter Retreat takes place January 17 through February 13. Take some time out, if you can. This lovely opportunity provides time to deepen practice, contemplate and reflect—while eating three prepared meals a day in quiet company. Please contact Bill Spangle with questions and David McWherter to secure your place. See the KCC website for details.
The Seven Point Mind Training Study Group has begun again, thanks to Tim Campbell's organization and encouragement. The group meets on two Thursdays each month, from 7-8:30 pm at KCC. Please check the website for dates. You can also send questions to Tim, and he can get you on the list for future announcements. He usually sends out reminders and several commentaries on the Point to be discussed. This group is open to all and is not led by a teacher. http://www.kcc.org/event/seven-point-mind-training-study-group-Nov14-Jan15
A series of classes will be offered by Bill Spangle, beginning in March: The Three Turnings. Over the course of 2015, each is a Saturday event in two parts. Details will soon be available on the KCC website.
For now, if interested, you can mark these dates.
Another date to consider is Saturday, August 29. A class on The Bodhisattva Vow will be offered by Lama Michael Conklin, beginning at 9 am.
The only currently scheduled residential retreat for 2015 will take at Cloud Mountain in Castle Rock, Washington:
A Creation and Completion class is scheduled for Saturday, November 14, beginning at 9am, taught by Lama Michael Conklin.
The year will end with the annual New Year’s Retreat.
Thoughts on “Kindness”
By Deborah Brink Wöhrmann
“Kindness,” by Naomi Shihab Nye, is a poem I have lived with for many years. A friend read it at my wedding, and another recently confided that she had included it as a part of the funeral plans she recently drew up before undergoing surgery. (Thankfully, the surgery went well!)
In relation to my practice at KCC, the poem arises again as I reflect on a recent Sunday evening conversation led by Lama Michael. Someone asked what the best Buddhist response is to the world in conflict—referring to recent talk of more military action in the Middle East. While Lama Michael did not use the word “kindness,” he spoke of realizing the “victim” in even the perpetrator of the worst atrocities. He invited us to ask ourselves: “How does it happen that a person kills another so ruthlessly?”
He and then others in the sangha shared their thoughts on how to cultivate more deeply our own clarity—to know who we are.
This poem supports my practice as it invites me to realize myself in the other. It reminds me to recognize myself in “the Indian in a white poncho / [who] lies dead by the side of the road.” The poem continues, “You must see how this could be you, / how he too was someone.”
The poem speaks of how joy and sorrow work together—each impermanent and a part of the other. The poet shows us—as does my own practice (at its best)—that when I can see myself in others and realize the real connection between us, I feel more joy, more love, and more hope for each moment. When I can practice taking and sending, angry feelings fade, hurts lose their power and my compassion grows. This is not to say those moments happen often, but rereading “Kindness” is another tool along the path.
Before you know what kindness really is
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