By Gloria Dyc

Published 7/11/2014

All names and places are pseudonyms

The sound of the conch: early morning practice. Too cold to get out of my sleeping bag. When I moved slightly, I could feel how stiff I was after eight hours of sitting the day before. Now after sunrise, I would not be able to go outside to relieve myself: a gratifying experience, the heat of urine creating steam and bringing forth the smell of pine needles.

I could hear zippers opening on sleeping bags. With only ten minutes before the morning practice was to begin, the quick and organized sangha members would brush their teeth, stand in line for the outhouse, pour a cup of hot water for tea, and would be standing in front of the meditation tent before Rinpoche and his attendant Lama Ponlop came down from their cabin for the session.

Sunshine Buddhist. I could be hard on myself, knowing I was fortunate to meet a teacher in this lifetime, and squandering opportunity for practice, unwilling to unclench my aching body and climb out of my tent in the cold, mountain air. The body: a bag of waste, a decrepit house.

How weak I was, compared to a lama such as Ponlop. He escaped a Chinese prison with some other men, dodging bullets. He walked with rags on his feet, crossed the icy crags of the Himalayas to escape the communists. Then there were the monks and nuns who traveled to charnel grounds to practice Chod. And in my exhaustion I was going to skip morning practice, hoping my absence would not be conspicuous. I would sleep an hour or two, and then help with breakfast and clean-up to off-set my defilement. Wasn’t it Dudjom Rinpoche who wrote: Reciting prayers, like a parrot repeating “Om Mani Pema Hung”—If I do it or not, it doesn’t really matter. Not keeping score of all that I have done, may I persevere in my practice of the sublime Dharma!


When I awoke the sun had moved above the shade of the tall Ponderosa pines, and I felt the heat of the high desert morning. I felt rejuvenated, ready to volunteer to help with breakfast, after a few cups of strong coffee. Michael and Karen, the caretakers of the retreat center, stood on the deck of the kitchen cabin. Michael looked vexed, hands on his hips. With his graying, patriarchal hair, Michael may have descended from the mountain, but if he had seen the burning bush, it had left him bewildered. Karen was picking up cups and napkins in a desultory way, her face shaded by a baseball cap. “Shakura quit,” Michael announced with disgust as I approached.

The Dorje Drollo retreat had attracted more than thirty to our burgeoning center, so we had hired a professional cook—Shakura—an iterant, retired New Yorker who traveled between India and various retreat centers in the States. There was an exotic quality to the practice, but the wrathful deities could bring tumult.

“Yep,” Karen added, “Ponlop came up and asked where the hot water for the lamas was; Shakura took off her apron and said, ‘I’m out of here.’ She said she wasn’t getting any help, but everyone who tries to help gets kicked out of the kitchen.”

“And we already paid her?” I asked. I was on the board of directors and knew about the finances of the center. Michael and Karen, having donated most of the land around their house to the center, were consumed with the activities.

“Oh, yeah,” Karen said. “She’s got the check, but she doesn’t have any cash. She said she wants to get out of here today, but no one is leaving. So there’s no way for her to get to Albuquerque, no way for her to buy an airline ticket.”

Karen was trying to quell her anger.

“But she’s going to call her mother,” Michael added with irony. “Her mother is going to put some money into her checking account.”

We all laughed.

Lama Ponlop emerged from the practice tent and signaled to us. “Michael. Karen.” He pointed to his watch. “Lunch in one hour. Noon.”

He waited for acknowledgement, then slid back into the tent, the source of the low-pitched, undulating chants.

“I’m thinking about the East Coast,” Michael mused. “A place on the beach. I just want to sit and listen to the waves coming in.”

“Sometimes we just dream of ditching all this and moving to the East. Just sign our place over to the foundation, and adios,” Karen added with a sigh.

“I never had problems with blood pressure. Now I have health problems,” Michael complained.

They had bought the mountain land in the seventies, when it was cheap, and had built a modest house out of clay bricks, hauling in heavy vigas for the ceiling, as the Spanish and native people had for centuries. For years they had lived without water. From time to time I envied them: no mortgage, no “straight” job. They lived off the grid for the most part, and without their land and their caretaking, there would be no retreat center, no dharma in our region in New Mexico.

“We’ll have to pull some sort of lunch together. We have thirty people who are going to come out of there expecting to eat,” Karen said.

We all went into the kitchen to do inventory. The shelves that Michael had built were jammed with a motley array of food products. Commercial-sized cans of tomatoes. Two cans of tuna. Five plastic bottles of honey in various brands and shapes. Three had been opened, and honey dripped own the sides enticing the flies. A giant can of pork and beans. A five pound bag of Anasazi beans, two pounds of cornmeal, a large bag of yellow lentils.

There were several large bottles of Amino acids, so I joked, “Maybe we can make a soup out of these Amino acid soup.”

Michael was aghast. “The problem is that every cook brings what they think we need, And we end up with all this crap … some of it is from last year. And we don’t have time to sort through this. Look: these are expired,” he said, and tossed some curry dinner mixes into the trash.

Tara, a long-time sangha member, left the practice and came up the kitchen steps with a canine eagerness. “I heard. I heard what happened. You know, Shakurabanned me from the kitchen, but I can help. I’ve gone through this before. Crested Butte. Vajrakilaya with Norbu back in 2002. Sometimes you just have to make due.”

Tara had an extensive list of retreats to reference, and could remember places, dates, and events as a rock aficionado could reconstruct the concerts of Dylan or the Ramones. Tara tied on an apron.

Shakura was ordering these young girls around,” Tara recounted, “’Girls, three eggs in a bowl. Beat.’”

Shakura has spent a lot of time in India, and she speaks pidgin English out of habit. I had tried to help her the previous day by washing lettuce, which I did at my slow and deliberate pace.

Shakura stood back and watched, then admonished me, “Yes, it’s beautiful, but if you can’t move quickly, get out of the kitchen. No offense, but I have a group of thirty to cook for.” Shakura had taken vows of renunciation and wore the maroon robes of a nun. She kept her hair shaved, which accentuated the beak shape of her nose.

“I’ll tell you what,” she had warned me, “if I don’t get the help I need, I’ll walk. I’m tough. I had the toughest job in the world—I raised three boys. Now they’re all settled and doing well. I’m on cham-cham. I have nothing. The hair—I love it. The robes? No worry about clothes. My husband had money. I know: hard to believe. I used to change my clothes four times a day. Now I tell my boys, ‘If you want to see me, you’ll have to meet me at an airport.’”

Shakura was bitter because few people showed respect for her in the States, but people in Dharmasala accepted her stature as a nun.

She offered me advice for future travel, “No go Delhi. Too crowded and crazy. Give me your e-mail; maybe we’ll see each other in Nepal, no?”

I listened patiently even though travel to Asia was not in my near future.


The four of us remained confounded in the kitchen until Tara went into the refrigerator and pulled out some dandelion greens. “Greens and ginger soup. The lamas will love it,” she reassured us. “The soy … this has to go. Do you realize what this is doing to our hormones?” Tara dumped the soy milk, cheese, and tofu into the garbage. “Not to mention the globalization of our food supply. This kind of thing always happens at Dorje Drollo. It’s the nature of the wrathful practices. In Boulder a few years back everyone got food poisoning.”

Tara recruited Lydia, a quiet, self-effacing woman, to help with the lunch. Lydia was taking a break from the practice, and was eager to help; Tara barked out orders to her new assistant.

I went over to the practice tent and sat outside, listening to the concluding chants of the morning practice. The thangka above the shrine depicted a wrathful deity with bulging eyes and a slack stomach in the act of mounting a pregnant tiger. They were engulfed in flames. Rinpoche would use a ritual dagger and a black silk scarf in the ritual to cast away the wrathful deities; Ponlop would fill a skull cup with beer for an offering, and then remove it from the shrine room.

Rinpoche was dressed eccentrically for the practice: he wore a faux, leopard vest over a turquoise shirt, and loose-fitting cotton pants. Karen, Michael, and I have been connected to the lama for fifteen years, and we’ve watched him move through a series of manifestations. When our root lama was new to the States, his hair was dark and short. He was clean-shaven and wore jeans when he was not practicing. Rinpoche was more talkative in the past, enchanting us with his sightings of dragons in Tibet—they were flatter, he claimed, than in conventional depictions—and stories of giant, long-haired beasts in the wild which occasionally kidnapped women and held them in caves.

After the few years we were able to practice with Rinpoche, he returned to Tibet to take up residency in a monastery built for him in an isolated region. We heard stories of how he crossed the mountains on horseback, entering the dangerous zones patrolled by the Chinese.

There was a void in our lives, but we didn’t look for another teacher. Once I visited a stupa in Santa Fe to retrieve the feel of the dharma. I found myself tearfully asking a woman in the bookstore if she had heard anything about Rinpoche.

When Rinpoche returned to the States after seven years, his hair had turned grey and he had grown a beard, which he leaves untrimmed. With each passing year his inner light becomes more intense as he waxes steadily toward his full state of enlightenment.

We’ve come to expect his long silences, his expressions as unguarded as those of a child, his face a palette for the ever-shifting clouds of sadness and compassion and humor. His voice has been reduced to a low-pitched rasp from incessant chanting. When he is particularly remote, we say, He’s out there in the dharmakaya.


Within an hour, Tara and Lydia had soup roiling in a pot, and the smell of ginger and brown rice assured us that we would indeed have lunch at noon.

Shakura came out of the tent and sat next to me on the deck of the kitchen; she had some affinity for me. We watched people hanging out near the practice tent. Ponlop and a lama from LA were talking with a pretty woman dressed in a body-clinging yoga outfit. We called her the Raw Food Princess, as she would only eat carrots, peppers, and celery from a plastic bag she carried around. As she talked to the lamas, she would flex her legs in yoga poses. She handled her torso and breasts self-consciously, as though she were trying on a blouse to check the fit. The lamas laughed, and accepted her offerings of raw vegetables.

“Look at her,” Shakura said with some bitterness, “she shouldn’t be bothering these monks like that.” She had taken off her maroon robes and put on jeans and a sweatshirt, still hoping to find a ride to Albuquerque. “These monks are trained tohate women. I know: I’ve seen what goes on in these monasteries. These young men are told to visualize women—their hair and their breasts—and then cut them up into little pieces to throw to the crows. Ponlop seems okay, but watch out for the lama from LA. Don’t get caught alone in a room with him. No one is speaking to me anymore, so you’d better warn the women around here.”

Ponlop had been in the country for only a few months. Gangly, he had the limbs of a great dane, and people joked that he was the biggest Tibetan they had ever seen. The women in the sangha were drawn to his deer eyes, the relish with which he ate his food. But when he was asked if he had any marriage plans, he responded brusquely. “‘Find a beautiful, young girl and get married. We need more Tibetans.’ No, I stay a monk.”


Tara and Lydia had pulled together a decent lunch: the soup, along with rice and lentils, seemed to satisfy the group. I sat next to Ponlop and the Raw Food Princess as the lama described the treatment of his people in India. Like other Tibetan monks, Ponlop was often interrogated by the Chinese police; when he proved to be intractable, they had put him in prison. The police beat him—he pointed to his back—and hung him with his hands tied behind his back, resulting in some nerve damage. Ponlop demonstrated the position he was in. His use of English was still in a rudimentary stage, so we would occasionally repeat his or interject words.

“Oh, wow,” the Raw Princess interjected. She arranged a diaphanous scarf around her shoulders.

After six months, Ponlop continued, eight prisoners broke free while they were working outdoors. The guards sent a hail storm of bullets, but they did not touch Lama. He ran without stopping and crossed the mountains until he arrived in Nepal.

“You were protected,” the Princess noted. “That is awesome.”

“Whatever the communists say, I say ‘Okay.’ I say whatever they want me to say.” Ponlop savored the soup, lifting the bowl to his mouth. He described his entry into Nepal. “They check all over. Head. Body. ‘Take off shoes. This shoe is thick; maybe money is in the shoe. How much money do you have?’ I say, ‘Please I only have a few hundred rupees for travel.’ They don’t care. They see we are Tibetan, they want money. We go to a restaurant for tea, give them money. We wait. Wait. ‘Where is Our tea?’ ‘No tea. No serve.’”

“That’s not fair,” the Princess insisted.

Rinpoche never said much about politics. If we got on the subject of the tense situation in the Mid-East or global warming, he would say, “The world is going crazy.” The arc of his vision was much longer than ours—hundreds and thousands of years. He told us we lived in a dark age, a time of defilement.


The stress of the day overcame me in the early evening, and I went to my tent around ten o’clock. I had offered to help Lydia in the kitchen; she avidly scraped plates and washed dishes, but she told me she could handle it on her own. In my tent I fantasized about soothing my body in a hot tub, then chastised myself for wanting more than more when the gift of the dharma was so close.

“Don’t get too attached to me,” Rinpoche would say. “I’m not worth it.”

Our teacher was unpredictable. We worried that he would leave the States and retire to his monastery. There the monks had a large picture of Rinpoche in the shrine room—they had to be content with his image. Once Michael said, Rinpoche, sometimes we worry that we’ll only have your picture someday.” Rinpoche just smiled in his non-committal way.

As I rested in my tent, I decided to become more active, to take advantage of the opportunity to get to know more about the lamas. I had many questions, but I held back from asking them out of shyness and deference. What was it like to meditate in a cave for three years? If I asked, would lama Ponlop raise his shirt so I could see his scars?

As I was falling asleep, I heard raucous laughter from a distance. There was a party going on.

That night I had a dream: the conch sounded and everyone was getting up to go to practice. I tried to crawl out of my tent, to join everyone in the routine, but my eyes wouldn’t open completely. My eyes would not open and seemed stuck together by dried mucous. I tried to move forward to the practice tent, half-blind, but I couldn’t see. I just couldn’t open my eyes.


The next morning the conch did not sound and there was no morning practice. At first I thought I had slept through the wake-up call. When I approached the kitchen, I saw Tara comforting Lydia. Lydia was in tears.

Karen was heating up water for tea. “Did you hear?” She came close and spoke in a low voice. “There was a big party last night. I guess someone opened a case of wine. And the lama from LA came on to Lydia. She took him to her tent, and then afterwards he pushed her away and said, “You’re an old lady. Get away from me!”

“Where is he now?” I asked, looking around for the lamas. Rinpoche was sitting on a bench under a tree close to the shrine tent, looking a bit impatient and forlorn. The lama from LA was handsome, but he had a scar across his forehead, a slash from a knife, not a recommendation for his character.

“Oh, he split,” Karen said with a little laugh.

“Why would she sleep with him?” I was puzzled. Then I remembered my conversation with Shakura: I had been assigned to warn the women at the retreat about the rogue lama.

“I guess Lydia thought it meant something—that he chose her. I guess he’s some sort of Lothario, sleeping with every woman he can. Young, old. Beautiful, ugly. Lydia is packing up and leaving.”

We watched with curiosity as a white government truck came up the road to the retreat center, whipping up a cloud of dust. Michael walked down the road to meet with the forest ranger.

“I don’t know what’s up. We told the rangers we were having this event. They gave us permission to have a fire puja.”

Shakura came up to the kitchen. She was wearing her robes again, and walked with determination. “The lamas want us to get a move on it. We have a practice to finish. If you all can’t get it together, I’ll take over breakfast, even though I’d like to get out of here. The lamas want me to stay.” Shakura began to pull food out of the refrigerator.

The forest ranger drove away in his white pick-up.

Michael talked with Rinpoche, and then they both came up to the kitchen. “Everything is on hold for now,” Michael announced. “We have to disassemble the shrine that we put up in the Malpais, or they’re going to mess with it.” The day before the retreat, Rinpoche had found a mountain cave on public land which he found ideal for a shrine. He had carved a mantra into sandstone, set up candles, flowers, and prayer flags.

“We have separation between church and state here, Rinpoche. The shrine is on public land, so we broke the law,” Michael explained.

“We broke the law,” Rinpoche giggled. “We offended the state.”

Tara arrived at the kitchen, and saw Shakura. “I’m still the cook. I’m starting breakfast,” Tara said, putting on an apron.

Shakura put her hands on her hips. “Where’s my soy?” she demanded.

“We don’t do soy here,” Tara retorted.

“I had soy milk. Soy cheese. I brought that,” Shakura demanded.

“No one should be eating that crap. It’s all genetically modified. I threw it out.” Shakura was undaunted. “They’re burning down the rain forest to grow this stuff!”

Shakura picked up a knife and pointed it at Tara. “I never liked you from the moment I met you, I knew you were trouble.”

“Okay, now,” Tara said, backing away with her arms up in mock fear. “We’re not on the streets of New York.”

Shakura chased Tara out onto the deck.

“Put down that knife!” Tara screamed.

Slowly, and with a smile, Shakura put down the knife. She put up her hands in mock surrender.

Tara moved forward and began to pummel Shakura’s chest. “Get out of my kitchen.”

“Michael,” Shakura yelled, “Get your bitch off of me.” Michael began to laugh. “No, no. This is not going to happen. You’re both off kitchen duty. Rinpoche and I need to take down that shrine before the rangers get at it.”

“Meanwhile …” Michael continued to laugh. “I don’t know; I’m out of here. Maybe we should get the men to take this kitchen over.”

Shakura and Tara, disarmed by his laughter, found some dignity in rearranging their scarves and moving off in different directions. Shakura looked back and took one last shot at Michael: “That would be good. We wait on you all hand and foot.”

Karen and I defaulted to breakfast duty. We prepared oatmeal and toast, bumping into each other in our confusion. Karen was shaken by Lydia’s trauma. “I just can’t believe this … transgression. And Lydia of all people. She seems so vulnerable.”

“At least we avoided blood-shed,” I said. We had to laugh.


After Michael and Rinpoche returned from the maligned shrine-site, we managed to herd the remaining practitioners together to complete the ceremony. This was the last session, and I could feel a common need to regroup and find refuge. There was an unusually long period of silent meditation prior to the practice. I noticed flower petals on the carpet; we should have been more attentive in our cleaning. At least the lamas had their hot water for tea in front of them.

We listened to the swoosh of winds in the ponderosas. I could experience some peace: the rogue lama had left, Lydia had left. Shakura was in her robes, sitting in her subordinate position in the row of lamas.

I looked at Rinpoche: he seemed on the verge of starting a chant when Shakura spoke up suddenly and forcibly.

“Before we begin, I want to say something. My wallet is missing. It’s black and it has my credit card and my driver’s license. I need it to travel. I have no money, as most of you know, so if someone could put it on the deck table, I will not say more.”

No one spoke. A bee flew into the tent and hovered around the saffron water on the altar. A look of incredulity passed over Ponlop’s face, but he quickly composed himself.

“Yes, I am accusing a lama of stealing,” Shakura said firmly.

I kept my eyes down as did everyone else, absorbed in prayer texts and bare feet.

Rinpoche remained impassive; he sighed. Was he slightly amused, or was I?

When there was no response, he began the first deep syllables of the opening prayer. Fifteen minutes into the practice, Shakura pulled herself up from her lotus position and quickly left the session.

At the end Rinpoche smiled, satisfied, and told us in his raspy voice that we had practiced in a most excellent way.

We all stood for Rinpoche and the lamas to leave, then bliss-smitten and exhausted, faced the tasks at hand. There were tents to disassemble, altar statues to pack, thangkas to roll for transport. Rinpoche went up to his cabin to receive people and accept offerings.

Michael reminded the group that there would be no activities scheduled for the next nine months. Then Michael and Karen went up to their house, locked the door, and turned on the message machine for their phone. They were through for the year.

I’m always sad at the end of retreats. The lamas live in California, so unless we travel to the Coast, we know we won’t see them for a year. On the way back to my tent I passed Shakura, loaded down with her backpack.

“I’m heading out for the airport. I found my wallet on the deck,” Shakura admitted with a look of chagrin.

“Good. Lost and found.”

“Everyone’s heading out. My mother did remember to put money in my account. I worry, she has some dementia. So, how did this go for you?”

“Oh, I’m facing my limitations,” I responded.

“Tell me about it. Ego. Create crisis. ‘Pay attention to me. Pay attention to me.’ I was going to leave yesterday, but the lamas asked me to stay. Ponlop took off with that pretty woman,” Shakura reported with a little laugh. “The one on the raw diet.”

I had wanted to talk more with Ponlop. I lost the opportunity.

“See you in Nepal, maybe?” Shakura said over her shoulder.

“I know. ‘No go Delhi.’”


As I drove back down the gravel road winding out of the canyon, I thought about Rinpoche’s generosity. We were so gross in ways, as Westerners. Disrespectful, skeptical, materialistic. Rinpoche could reside at his own monastery in Tibet, with the only light from candles, his monks in deep reverence. In a previous incarnation Rinpoche had taught in Tibet hundreds of years ago. At times in our own center, meditating on the statues of the dakinis and buddhas passed on through generations, with the only light from candles, we enter into a deeper channel of time, free of the debris of the present.

The geological events of this New Mexico canyon, with millions of years stratified in sandstone and granite, where one can imagine the recession of shallow seas, the upheaval of Mt.Taylor and flow of lava, make me realize the newness of humans. There were mammoths here once, tropical flora, and stubby horses which eventually evolved into our elegant, long-legged friends.

A light rain fell, and the black wings of my windshield wipers were taking me back to the mundane: coffee and schedules and tire rotations. The dharma practice for me has been like eating a pomegranate—Rinpoche’s favorite fruit. The outside is plain and impenetrable. Once cut the juices run clear, and then there is a long process of picking off the seeds held together ingeniously by a membrane. So many seeds: identical yet distinct, as the various manifestations of the Buddha.


The next day we all received an e-mail from Rinpoche. The Dorje Drollo practice, he explained, was an advanced practice based on the Three Terrible Oaths:

Whatever is to happen—may it happen!

Whichever way it goes—may it go that way!

There is no purpose!

Just as the round relics of the Buddha’s bones were said to mysteriously increase, so did the seeds in my pomegranate.


Gloria Dyc serves as the Regents’ Professor of English at the University of New Mexico-Gallup. Her recent publications include Gargoyle #59,BRICK/Rhetoric 2013, War, Literature, and the Arts, (forthcoming, 2014.) East, West and Beyond, a collection of poetry, was published in 2007 by Plain View Press. Gloria Dyc has taken refuge in the dharma with the reincarnation of the translator for Padmasambava, the Brahmin who was invited to introduce Buddhism to Tibet.  
(Updated Jul. 2014)