Getting started on the path
I was raised without religion, not as an atheist, just religion wasn’t a big part of my world. My mom would occasionally try out different churches, but her motivation was to try to meet a new husband, nothing spiritual. My father didn’t believe in anything. One of my grandfathers, though, was a deeply religious man and one of the kindest I had ever met. We occasionally went to his church, and once we were called up to receive a blessing, and when he came by to administer it, I felt this incredible tingle of love from head to toe, and he looked back and winked at me. I think this was the first “blessing” I ever received.
When I got to college in 1991, I was of the view that religion was for those who could not think for themselves. As part of my liberal arts course requirements, I had to take an “Introduction to Religion” class. I was quite skeptical, to say the least. The Professor’s name was Professor Kucheman, and he was quite the nut! He would start class looking somewhat normal, but by the end of the class, he was covered head to toe in chalk dust! But he had a very profound point that opened my mind up to religion. He defined God as “that which is of ultimate concern” and Religion as “the pursuit of that which is of ultimate concern.” By these definitions, he said, everybody believed in God and everybody had a religion – the only question was who/what was our God and how committed we were to the pursuit. Given this, which is indisputable, the moral obligation then became to choose the best and highest object of ultimate concern. Fashioning himself a quasi-Kant, he said the categorical imperative was “free will must will freedom.” In other words, we must use our free will to bring about greater freedom for ourselves and others. With this, I was hooked, and I wound up taking every class he taught. I took these classes with my debate partner, Jason, and we would spend many an evening having “jam sessions” about the categorical imperative, how all great concepts are conal, and our ultimate philosophical triumph was realizing that “the cosmological constant is equal to zero!” (long story, don’t ask…).
During this time, I had a friend named Chris. He was incredibly smart, incredibly social, and very balanced. By this time in my life, I figured I had life and the universe pretty much mastered (yes, I was an arrogant s.o.b. …), and Chris just laughed at me! He started asking me questions that I didn’t have answers to, and he got me thinking. He asked me, “you think you have life under control, but do you have your own mind under control?” He said, “you talk about freedom, but you will never know real freedom until you know the freedom of a controlled mind.” This outlook changed everything for me. He encouraged me to start meditating.
So I then started going to bookstores and buying books on meditation and trying them out at home. I ultimately settled on a system by somebody named Eknath Eswaran. His whole system was we mix our mind deeply with the wisdom of the ancients, and whatever we mix our mind with we become. Essentially, it was a form of sadhana practice of mixing our mind with the meaning of powerful prayers. These were great books and they worked very well in practice, but I kept looking. Then, for the longest time, I kept running into the book “Meaningful to Behold” by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. I would open it up, conclude it was way too advanced for me, and then put it back. But I kept running into it again and again, in every bookstore I went to.
Then, I was on a Christmas trip to Europe. My mother had just lost both her parents and decided to join us in the hope it would make her feel better. It didn’t, and around Christmas time she became very depressed, drank a whole bottle of champagne, became strangely upset about not sight-seeing enough and then demanded to leave (it was Christmas eve…). We said no, she insisted, we said no again, she doubly insisted, and finally, we said “fine.” So we took her to the airport, put her on a plane, and off she went. Knowing my mother, I knew it would be years, if ever, before we could put this behind us. I was extremely down. In the end, I never saw her again. More on that below.
Finding the Kadampa
Then, in 1995, we went to London and went into some random hole in the wall book store, and once again I was led straight to Meaningful to Behold. This time, I said it was just too weird that this book was following me around, even to Europe, so I bought it and read it on the plane on the way home. This book changed everything for me. It presented me with “an object of ultimate concern” that was so big I could not even think how one could ever be bigger – the life of a bodhisattva – namely to work as long as it takes to solve all of the problems of all living beings for all of their lives! To accomplish this goal, one had to perfect within oneself every good quality to become the ultimate helping machine. It resolved for me perfectly and completely all conflict of interest between self and others (improve oneself to be able to better help others), presented me with the ultimate object of ultimate concern, and it was the ultimate expression of the categorical imperative! (And the chapter on emptiness confirmed that the cosmological constant was indeed zero…). From that point forward, I had found my path.
I then began devouring every book by Geshe Kelsang I could get my hands on. These books answered perfectly every question I ever had and even questions I didn’t even know I had. I remember one point, after having read the preeminent qualities of the Lamrim in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, I was literally dancing for joy around my apartment, going “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
My first teacher, my first center
In the back of the books, it talked about different study programs, including the Teacher Training Program. I remember thinking about how more than anything I would love to do that and become a Dharma teacher and dedicate my life to practicing and teaching Dharma. Then, one day in 1996 I called the number in the book to find a center near me. They gave me a number of the center in Santa Barbara, which I then called. I spoke with Gen Norden, a nun who was there at the time, and I was flooded with a feeling of having found home. I called back a little while later, and Gen Norden was gone, but the new nun, Gen Lekma said that Saturday they were starting Foundation Program on the book Joyful Path of Good Fortune (the one I was dancing around with before…). I then went to the first class and Gen Lekma explained how whether we are happy or not has nothing to do with our external conditions and depends entirely upon whether our mind is peaceful. Our mind will be peaceful if it is mixed with virtue and unpeaceful if it is mixed with delusions. The path to happiness, therefore, is to mix our mind with virtue. The Lamrim, the subject of Joyful Path, is the synthesis of all virtue, so by mixing our mind completely with the lamrim we will construct within ourselves a permanent state of happiness. By the end of the teaching, all I could do was look at her and say “thank you.”
For the next couple of years, I attended regularly Gen Lekma’s classes, first in Santa Barbara and then later when she opened up a center in Los Angeles. I still consider Santa Barbara my home center, and my Sangha friends from that time are almost all still around. A truly amazing group! A specific shout out to Maitrie, Nicole, Charlie, Chris, Tom, and of course Dave! Lekma placed me firmly on the path and taught me my most important Dharma lesson – how to enjoy the spiritual journey.
Gen Lekma also introduced me to Dorje Shugden. I was having a lot of obstacles with my then-girlfriend (now wife’s) family who was convinced I had joined some crazed cult. Gen Lekma explained that Dorje Shugden was a wisdom Dharma protector whose job was to arrange all of the outer and inner conditions necessary for our spiritual practice; and that through relying upon him, we would be able to view whatever arises in our life as perfect for our Dharma practice. Dorje Shugden was the very first empowerment I ever received. That weekend, I stayed at the Santa Barbara center sleeping in the gompa, and I memorized the Dorje Shugden part of Heart Jewel. I can say without a doubt that from that day forward, every year, my practice has grown and grown. It was very clear to me then, and even more clear to me now, that Gen Lekma was entirely correct – Dorje Shugden has cared for me and protected my practice, enabling it to deepen every year. He has never made it easy for me, but he has always made it spiritually rewarding for me.
I continued, though, to have lots of obstacles from my girlfriend’s family, with them threatening my girlfriend that either I had to abandon my practice or she had to leave me. I then wrote Geshe-la explaining the situation and asking for advice. When he replied, his first words were, “so nice to hear from you,” and, even though this was the first time I had ever contacted him, I was struck with a very clear feeling that we had known each other in previous lives and he was greeting me in the same way as one would after hearing from a friend we hadn’t heard from in a long time. He then said, “perhaps her family only really has problems with the external manifestations of Dharma. The real Dharma is internal. Everyone appreciates kind, loving, and considerate attitudes. You need to be skillful about which aspect of the Dharma you show them.” I then got a clear understanding that it was OK if I frankly didn’t reveal to them what I was doing externally and that if I just internally kept becoming a better person, their fears would subside and with that, so too would the obstacles that they were creating.
My first Summer Festival
In the Summer of 1997, I attended my first Summer Festival in England. At the time, Geshe-la was still meeting with groups at the festival. Many of us were going to the festival for the first time, and we really wanted to meet him. So we organized a requesting mandala drive, where everybody in the center (including those not able to go), made hundreds of mandala offerings requesting that he meet with us. We then put together a card explaining what we had done, requesting a meeting, and to our delight, our request was accepted. Unfortunately, though, when we got to the festival itself we were informed that Geshe-la is no longer meeting with centers in this way because there were simply too many requests and not enough time.
I didn’t mind because this was the year when the temple at Manjushri was being opened for the first time, and the first day of the festival was an Offering to the Spiritual Guide blessing puja ceremony for the temple with Geshe-la present at the puja. It is hard to imagine something more special than being there at the opening of the first temple doing Offering to the Spiritual Guide in Geshe-la’s presence. The festival was ostensibly Lamrim teachings, but in fact, he gave three days of teachings on basically just one topic: practicing without distraction. His essential message was we had been given everything we need to attain enlightenment. All we needed to do was practice what we had been given without distraction, and the results would naturally come. Distractions were the thief robbing us of our spiritual life.
Becoming firm on the path
One day, I can’t remember exactly how, I stumbled onto all of the Dalai Lama/Dorje Shugden controversy. This was a real blow for me because I had no beef with the Dalai Lama and I absolutely loved Dorje Shugden. I then wrote Geshe-la asking him what this was all about and how I should think about it. He wrote back, “Dorje Shugden is a wisdom Buddha. It is unthinkable that he could harm anybody. Go investigate for yourself. I then read absolutely everything that was written on-line by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile against Dorje Shugden, and the more I investigated, the more what they said simply made no sense. Not only did it not conform with my own direct experience of relying upon him, but it also didn’t conform with a basic understanding of Dharma and emptiness. How could one who protects the Kadam Dharma be evil if the value of the Kadam Dharma itself is not in dispute? How could Dorje Shugden be an evil spirit if everything is empty? How could the Dalai Lama be seen as the defender of religious freedom, yet deny it to fellow Buddhists? The list of contradictions goes on and on. None of it made any sense. After conducting my own investigation, my doubts were dispelled.
As my love of Dharma practice increased, I started to get more into it and wanting to go to more and more teachings, festivals, etc. I started to view my job, my relationship with my girlfriend, and everything else in my life as “obstacles” to my ability to practice Dharma. For me, practicing Dharma was always being at the center doing formal Dharma activities, etc. I then went to Gen Lekma explaining my worries, and she told me, “Claudine (my girlfriend) is not an obstacle to your Dharma practice, she is your Dharma practice.” This completely flipped the script on my thinking and enabled me to view my relationship with her as part of my spiritual training.
I then later again was doing Offering to the Spiritual Guide, and I was struck with a very clear feeling that if I could just guarantee that I always meet Geshe-la in all of my future lives, I will eventually attain enlightenment. So I once again wrote to him and asked, “I see that if I can always meet you in all of my future lives without interruption, I will be able to attain enlightenment. Please provide me with a 100% guaranteed method for never being parted from you in all my future lives.” He wrote back replying, “concentrate on practicing Dharma and always keep faith.” I understood from this two key things. First, when we practice our guru’s instructions, we create a special karmic connection between us and him that ripens in the form of being able to meet him again in the future. Concentrating meant to focus on practicing Dharma single-pointedly throughout my life. Second, it is not enough to meet him again in my future lives, but I need to once again have faith in him. His advice to always keep faith would mean I create the karmic tendencies similar to the cause to continue to have faith in him so that when I do meet him, I can pick up where I left off with my practice.
Meeting Heruka, Gen-la Losang, and Venerable Tharchin
I can’t remember the year, I think it was 1998, I received my first highest yoga tantra empowerment of Heruka and Vajrayogini from Gen-la Losang in Seattle. Three things stood out for me at this festival. First, during the empowerments, I felt a very strong connection to Heruka, but everyone told me I should start with Vajrayogini, so I did. But I always felt like I had met Heruka for the first time, and even though I wound up practicing Vajrayogini for a couple of years after the empowerment, I never forgot that initial pull I felt during the empowerment. Second, I was able to meet Gen-la Losang for the first time. We sat at the same table during lunch one of the days, and I made some comment about what an amazing teacher he was, and he said, “I am actually nothing. You can see me as an Ambassador for the Pure Land of the Buddhas, and you can see your Dharma center as an Embassy.” The value of this view took on greater significance for me later in life when I became a diplomat.
But probably my most meaningful encounter at that festival was meeting Venerable Tharchin for the first time. A dear Sangha friend of mine from Santa Barbara was actually from Scotland, and she encouraged me to meet with Venerable Tharchin at the festival, so I set up a meeting. I was explaining to him all of the different delusions I saw in my then-girlfriend. He looked me straight in the eye and then said, “the faults she appears to have are actually mirror-like reflections of the faults within your own mind. If you purge these faults from your own mind they will, like magic, gradually disappear from her.” He then leaned closer and said, “and never forget, she is an emanation of Vajrayogini (followed by a knowing wink of the eye).” I understood from this wink that this is ultimately how Buddhas ripen and liberate us. They have realized directly the emptiness of all our faults, this realization functions to gradually bless our mind to reduce and finally eliminate all of our faults. By seeing us as already enlightened beings, they ripen our pure potential and draw out our own good qualities. By mixing our mind with their minds, we come to adopt their view of us, first seeing the emptiness of our faults and eventually seeing ourselves as fully enlightened beings. This very brief encounter with the incomparable Gen Tharchin reveals the very essence of a wisdom Bodhisattva’s way of life. And once again, my doubts about the spiritual appropriateness of having a relationship were dispelled.
Not long after this, the Dalai Lama started criticizing Dorje Shugden practitioners again. Gen Tharchin then wrote to me explaining that Geshe-la had asked him to write a book to clarify the matter, and Gen Tharchin wanted my help. He asked me to research and then refute everything that had been said. I then revisited all of the research I had done before and found everything online said about Dorje Shugden, organized it all into major arguments, and then providing a refutation of these arguments. I compiled it all together into about an 80-page document and sent it to Gen Tharchin for his book. The book was never published, but my faith in Dorje Shugden was never stronger either.
Vision of Tara
I got married in the summer of 1998, but just before our wedding, I attended the Summer Festival. I felt good about the decision to get married, but like all soon to be married people, I naturally had my doubts. Not about whether I loved my fiancee, but how it would impact my spiritual life. So I went to what was at the time called “the Protector Gompa,” a gompa in Manjushri center dedicated to the practice of Dorje Shugden. I sat down and prayed to Dorje Shugden saying, “OK, this is it. I’m about to get married. If this is not something I should do, please let me know now. It is now or never.” I then saw in my mind a liquid silver Buddha coming towards me. I understood this Buddha to be Tara. I can still see it in my mind, she looked like a special effect from a movie, but in her hands, she held a baby that was flesh and blood, and I could see like looking with my own eyes. Tara then handed to me the baby, and said, “this is where you will find your heart.” And then it all vanished, but I was left with an unmistakeable knowing. I had always been way too intellectual and abstract with my practice and had trouble getting down into my heart. Getting married and having kids was going to be how I unlocked everything I had been learning in my heart.
Suicide of my mother
After we got married, we had decided that we were going to move from Los Angeles to Paris (my wife is French). She had been accepted to University there starting in September, but I was going to finish the year where I was working in banking in Los Angeles to get my end of the year bonus. But then tragedy struck, changing everything.
Fortunately, Gen Lekma was there for me when my mother committed suicide in 1998. After the incident that one fateful Christmas mentioned above, my mother never spoke to me again until shortly before my wedding when she called, asking to be able to come. She had ruined my brother’s wedding due to her inability to emotionally handle seeing my father. Rightly or wrongly, fearing a repeat of my brother’s wedding, I didn’t think my wedding was the best time for us to try to resolve our differences, so I told her that she couldn’t come but I would come to see her after our honeymoon to try work things out. Unbeknownst to me, my mother killed herself on my wedding day. She took a bunch of sleeping pills and went into the bath, fell asleep, and drown in the bathtub. I quite naturally felt very guilty about the whole thing. Working through this was quite difficult. If it were not for Lekma, I would not have been able to do so and I would not be a Kadampa. The thing that moved me the most was when Lekma explained, “your mother has not disappeared, she is simply somewhere else. You can still love her, pray for her, have a relationship with her, and become a Buddha for her.” Lekma will forever have my gratitude.
Around the same time my mother committed suicide, Russia defaulted on its debts, which (through a long complicated chain) meant there would be no end of the year bonus for me. These two together changed the calculus for me to remain in L.A., and so I started making plans to join my wife in Paris.
Before leaving for Paris, I went to go meet with Gen Lekma once last time for some parting advice. Her advice to me was simple, “train in the first of the three difficulties (identify the delusions in your mind).” This was very difficult advice for me to accept for two main reasons. First, my pride blinded me to my own delusions and faults. I genuinely at the time thought I didn’t have that many delusions. Second, my attachment to what my teachers thought of me was very strong. Because I had lost my mother, I really cared what my teachers thought of me. Further, in the ordinary world, when people see faults in us they usually like us less, and so if my teacher saw faults in me, I thought that meant she would like me and help me less (yes, I had everything backwards). But looking back, she was exactly right. This was precisely the advice I needed, and the biggest thing I had to work on.
A period of intense Dharma training in Paris
In September 1998, my wife and I then moved to Paris and joined the center there. The teacher there was very powerful. Her greatest gift to me was helping me make the transition from my spiritual practice being something I do to it being the very purpose of my life. My practice went from being a hobby to being how I live every moment of my life. She had penetrating wisdom that could see right through me, and she had a powerful ability to put squarely on the table my deepest delusions which I wasn’t even aware of. It wasn’t always pretty, and it wasn’t always fun, but I liken this period to spiritual chemotherapy. I had the cancer of some serious delusions within my mind, and while painful to remove, it had to be done.
While in Paris, I was still practicing Vajrayogini, but then one time when we were doing Offering to the Spiritual Guide at the center, I got a strong feeling reminding me of the empowerment back in Seattle and the close connection I felt with Heruka. So I thought, OK, what the heck, I’ll give the practice a try. I had no intention of switching, I just felt like doing the practice. About halfway through, I felt such a strong connection and strong blessings that I decided then and there that I would switch. At first, I thought I should discuss it with my teacher to seek her advice, but by the time I finished the practice I said to myself, “I don’t care what she says, I’m switching.” I felt at home.
Later that year in Paris I did my Heruka close retreat. This was the first time I had ever done a long retreat, but I definitely got the bug, and ever since I have longed to do long retreat. I have had only very few opportunities to do retreat since then, but the wish has remained just as strong. The main conclusion I reached during the retreat is definitive Heruka, or the Dharmakaya, is like a universal hub connecting the hearts of all living beings. At the heart of each being is their pure potential, but all of these pure potentials are connected together in the Dharmakaya. All living beings are linked together at the heart. If we move into this space and do our practice there, it radiates out directly and simultaneously into the minds of each and every living being, in the same way as shining a light inside the hub of a wheel will illuminate directly and simultaneously all of the spokes connected to the hub. From this, I could understand not only that enlightenment was possible, but how by attaining it we could directly benefit each and every living being every day. And we don’t have to wait until we attain enlightenment to be able to do this, we can right now engage in our daily practice with this recognition and offer all living beings a similitude of our future enlightenment.
At one point when I was in Paris, my teacher asked me why I had never gotten ordained. I then babbled something, recounting the story of what Gen Lekma and Gen Tharchin had told me above. But then that night I had a very powerful dream. I was walking along in the dream when suddenly everything dissolved into emptiness. Then, from the ten directions came the robes of an ordained person around me, but I remained completely hollow – it was just the robes in the shape of a monk. Then, the world reappeared around me, and I then went to go try to help people. But because of the robes, I wasn’t able to help anybody – they were all turned off by me. Then, once again everything dissolved into emptiness, and my normal lay clothes came around me – I was still hollow. Then, the world reappeared, and I went to go to help others, and I was able to do so effortlessly. I then woke up. The next day, I explained my dream to my teacher, and she said, “ultimately, whether we are able to help others is the only valid reason to choose to ordain or choose to remain lay.”
Geneva, the early years
in 1999, we then moved down to Geneva, where we remained for the next 10 years. It was in Geneva that we established our lives. We founded our family there, three of our children were born there (born in 2000, 2002, and 2007), we built our home there. For all practical purposes, the Geneva area is our first home as a family. While we were in Geneva, we would regularly visit our childhood homes. My wife was more or less raised in Southern France and most of her family resides there. It is her home. She would take the kids there several times each year. Likewise, my home was in Spokane, Washington. My wife would also take the kids there in the Summers. I spent all of my summers growing up in Spokane, and my kids were doing the same. I was very happy about that.
While I was in my Master’s program from 1999-2001, I had unbelievable conditions to practice Dharma – literally doing 2-4 hours of formal practice a day. I worried about not doing anything concrete about helping cause the Dharma to flourish, but Venerable Tharchin, no doubt my teacher for many lifetimes and I hope for many more, assured (or should I say warned…) me, “Don’t worry, your conditions won’t last. So enjoy them while you’ve still got them!!!” This was essentially a period of retreat for me.
During this time, I was very much into planning out how to accomplish my goals. The Dharma was an ocean of instructions, it was a bit hard to know what exactly I should do to create a “strategic plan” for how to attain enlightenment. I knew the key was I had to at least make it to the pure land by the end of this life. If I made it to the pure land, then I could complete my training there. So I wrote Geshe-la asking him what I need to do to 100% guarantee I could make it to the pure land by the end of this life – what did I need to practice and in what order. He replied by saying, “Lamrim and Highest Yoga Tantra. You should practice them simultaneously.” I knew, of course, that one of the characteristics of our tradition is we plant all of the seeds of renunciation, bodhichitta, the correct view of emptiness, and the two tantric stages at the same time so that they ripen at the same time. But what I understood from Geshe-la’s response was what I needed to do was fully and thoroughly integrate all of my practice of Lamrim first into my self-generation practice and later my completion stage practice. I then started meditating on the union of my self-generation meditation and each of the 21 Lamrim meditations, finding the spiritual relationship between the two and finding a way to engage in each of the Lamrim meditations within the context of my self-generation. I understood him to mean I needed to not just practice both Lamrim and HYT, but I needed to attain the union of the two. I have been practicing Tantra this way ever since.
When I finished my master’s degree, I went to go apply for jobs. Two jobs, in particular, were perfect for me and I should have gotten, but I didn’t. The first was in real estate investment banking in Paris. I had done this for four years in L.A., my interview went great. But then, the person who I was going to replace decided not to leave and the position was no longer available. The second was with a consulting firm in Zurich. There were four interviews, the first three went very well. If I passed the fourth interview, I was in. The night before the interview, I had a dream where Dorje Shugden appeared very vividly to me – only for a few moments, but when I woke up, I very clearly understood the message that he was with me. I got into the interview, they presented the business problem that I had to explain how I would solve. I understood the problem very clearly, in the end, it was just an issue of being able to calculate 15% of some number, something I could do in my sleep. But for the life of me, my mind completely blocked – I was absolutely incapable of performing a very simple operation. I stumbled with the problem for about 3-4 minutes in front of a panel of about four people, and then finally one of the interviewers took mercy on me and said, “thank you Mr. Engen for your time, we will let you know when the panel has made a decision.” Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I then remembered my dream from the night before and felt even though I wanted the job, Dorje Shugden had other plans for me. So I decided to stay in school and get my Ph.D.
Becoming a teacher
About a year later, in 2002, a friend of mine came to me about a job opportunity he had heard about at the South Korean Mission to the WTO in Geneva as an Economist. Again, the night before the interview, I had a very clear dream that in this case I got the job, I showed up to work on my first day, and there was absolutely nothing for me to do, I had all the free time in the world. Sure enough, I got the job and my first day of work unfolded exactly as my dream – I had even seen in my dream what my office would look like, everything. This was a fantastic job because it not only solved my financial worries of having to take care of my family, but it also gave me all of the time I needed to do as much Dharma activities as I wanted. It was then that I became a moderator of NKT-chat (an old yahoo group of Kadampa practitioners), and I began helping develop materials and the conditions for kids’ classes in Dharma centers and kids’ programs at Festivals.
There was a young Dharma center in Geneva at the time, renting out space in a massage school once a week to give General Programme classes. I approached the local teacher and the National Spiritual Director Kadam Bjorn about starting classes in English. Both thought it was a good idea, and so I started teaching once a week.
At the time, I also worked very closely with a very dear Sangha friend to help the tradition become more child friendly. There were two main issues parents faced, first bringing children – especially young children – to the teachings at festivals was extremely difficult and frankly unwelcome because they made noise and distracted other people. This made the parents nervous their kids would make noise, so they couldn’t enjoy the teachings, it made others around the kids unhappy since they had trouble listening, it made the kids feel controlled so they would act up even more, and it made the temple wardens uncomfortable since they had to manage the whole process. The second problem was there were no Dharma materials available for kids at the time, so parents who wanted to share the Dharma with their kids had nothing available and centers who wanted to start kid classes had no resources available.
To solve the first problem, we worked with the managers of the Festivals to dedicate a room for child care in Manjushri during the teachings. We put TVs in the room so parents with young children can watch the teachings taking place in the temple with their kids playing in a corner, and we created a rotation of parents who would look after other people’s kids so some kids could be dropped off and the parents go to the temple in peace. We also found volunteers who could organize activities for the kids in between the teaching sessions so the overall festival experience was also a delight for the kids, making it easier for families with children to happily return year after year.
To solve the second problem, we put together an extensive library of resources for teaching Dharma to kids in centers – games, activities, stories, even a kid’s sadhana. We then made this material freely available through the NKTforKids yahoo group, and several centers (including Geneva) started kid’s classes as a result. Now admittedly, the materials were not very good; but I think it helped create the causes for the NKT itself to produce materials for kids. After this, the Liberating Prayer was written, and we were told this could be used as the sadhana for kids’ classes. And Tharpa produced storybooks for kids, which are now used in kids’ classes around the world. Later an actual Kadampa school for kids opened up. I don’t think the school is still open, but it ran for several years.
Like many Dharma parents, I became quite attached to my kids also practicing Dharma. I saw its value and I wanted them to enjoy it as well. “On behalf of all Dharma parents,” (or so I told myself), I approached both Gen-la Losang and Gen-la Samden to ask for their advice on how to help Dharma parents encourage their kids to practice Dharma. Gen-la Losang said, “Oh, that’s easy. Send them all to Catholic school! Seems like most adult Dharma practitioners these days came from them.” While joking, his point was clear. Catholic parents who want their kids to become good Catholics send their kids to Catholic school, they then have a terrible experience and feel forced, so when the kids grow up, they reject their upbringing and become Buddhists. If Dharma parents similarly approached things, desperately wanting their kids to become good Kadampas, then the result was likely to be the same, just in the opposite direction. Gen-la Samden gave some amazing advice along the same lines. He said, “parents should create the space in which the kids have 100% freedom to come into the Dharma from their own side; and then in that space, they should try set a good example.” He then continued by saying, “come to think of it, I guess it is the same for adults.” While more flush, the point was the same – let go of attachment to these things, don’t force things, and just practice Dharma, letting karma and blessings take care of the rest.
At the first Summer Festival when all of this was being put in place, the child care room was going to be in the Creperie in the basement of Manjushri. But this is where Geshe-la walked through to go to the teachings, so the idea was for the parents and their kids to stage themselves somewhere else, and then after Geshe-la went by, everyone would go into the Creperie. My job was to set up the room to receive the families after Geshe-la passed, which meant I was going to be in the room when he walked by on his way to the temple. I was so excited. This was going to be my first time meeting Geshe-la. I thought, “oh, he must know all I have done on NKT-chat and for NKTforKids, he must be so happy with me.” I would see him and basically, it would be just him and me in the same room. When he walked into the room, I was there, with my palms pressed together, sending out mandala offerings, eagerly anticipating his loving smile of appreciation. He took one glance at me, seemed to look away in disgust, and proceeded to aggressively blow his nose into his handkerchief and walked right on by! I was simultaneously shattered, but at the same time, I was blessed to remember the Advice from Atisha’s Heart of, “Words of praise and fame serve only to beguile us, therefore blow them away as you would blow your nose.” This was Geshe-la’s wrathful teaching for me! I still chuckle to this day when I think back to how I was.
Becoming a Resident Teacher – My Golden Years
Later, I think it was 2003, there was an issue with the local teacher where he could not teach anymore, and I was asked to become the Resident Teacher for Atisha Buddhist Center in Geneva. This period was my glory days of doing formal Dharma activities, virtually all day every day. The Sangha in the Swiss Romande is my vajra family and my best friends. It was in spending time with them that I learned the real meaning of bodhichitta – striving to gain Dharma realizations so that I can help others.
When I became a Resident Teacher, I had a conversation with Gen Tharchin to get his advice. He explained, “the real Dharma center is the inner collection of realizations of its practitioners together with the karmic connections they have with each other. If you focus your efforts on cultivating these, the external development of the center will happen almost automatically, without you needing to think much about it.” He went on to say, “as the people in the center encounter problems in their life, they should view them as problems similar in nature to what others in their community have. By transforming these difficulties into the spiritual path, the people of the center will gain the realizations that the people of the local community need. These inner realizations then function as a light in the darkness of the minds of the people of your area, drawing them in towards the center. Then, when they arrive, they will encounter the solutions to the problem they have. You continue in this way, year after year, and the center will continue to flourish.” This, then, defined my philosophy for how I approached being a Resident Teacher.
As the center grew, we needed to find a larger and more permanent space for the center. We looked and looked and couldn’t find anything. We then did a 24 hour Tara practice at the home of one of the members of the Sangha. This woman came along who had only come to the classes maybe once or twice in the weeks preceding the Tara retreat. She heard us talking about needing to find a place. Then, about a week later, she came to the class and said she had found a place. It was only one block away from where we were, in a quiet area behind a major road, it was exactly the size we needed, the rent was below our budget, and the landlord agreed to renovate the place A-Z according to our needs for free. The center remains in the same space now 10 years later. We never heard or saw from this lady who came out of nowhere again. We are all convinced she was an emanation of Tara who came to find us our new location.
Since the center was new, we had to fundraise to buy all new statues. There was this one practitioner named Taro, who had been in a psychiatric hospital for about 10 years but was the purest Dharma practitioner I have ever met, who was a huge fan of Dorje Shugden. He said his greatest wish is to take his place in Dorje Shugden’s mandala. Taro dedicated all of the funds necessary to buy a temple sized Dorje Shugden for the center! Even though the gompa for the center is relatively small, we have this huge Dorje Shugden statue ready for whenever it is a temple finally opens in Geneva! It defines the power of the center.
I was particularly pleased when the first empowerment I ever granted (Geshe-la granted through me, to be more precise) was Dorje Shugden. It seemed fitting given how it was the first empowerment I ever received and he had meant so much to my practice over the years. After that, the center began to grow and grow. We started Foundation Programme classes, most of the Sangha went to all of the major festivals, we started Tantric classes, we opened up new branches in Lausanne, Neuchatel, and Fribourg, we held weekend retreats and empowerments, and most importantly, we grew close together as a spiritual family.
One year, shortly after becoming a Resident Teacher, I requested a meeting with Geshe-la at the Summer Festival. I wasn’t able to meet him after Santa Barbara since he stopped meeting centers as groups, but he was still meeting with Resident Teachers. I thought, “now that I am a Resident Teacher, perhaps this is my chance to meet with him.” Like before, my request for a meeting was approved, but when I got to the Summer Festival it was canceled, again on the same grounds of there were so many requests and not enough time, so Geshe-la is no longer meeting with individual resident teachers, just the National Spiritual Directors. Once again, I was disappointed but accepted it was perhaps my karma to never meet him. Then, the next year at the Spring Festival, I had incredible obstacles and wasn’t able to go. I accidentally put my passport into a suitcase, which we then used to take a computer down to a repair shop. It was only when I went to pack that I realized my passport was in the suitcase, but the shop was closed and we couldn’t make contact with the shop owner, so I wasn’t able to go. About halfway through the Festival, I get an email saying Geshe-la can meet with me the next day. But I was stuck in Geneva! It was then, I concluded, yes, I must simply not have the karma to meet him physically in this life, but that’s OK because it is forcing me to learn how to connect with him in other ways.
These truly were the greatest spiritual years of my life.
International Teacher Training Program
One of the best parts about being a Resident Teacher is the opportunity to attend the International Teacher Training Program in the Summers at Manjushri. It is three and a half weeks of intensive teachings by the most senior teachers and all of the other students are other resident teachers. I have so many life-changing memories from my years attending ITTP. I will share just a few of the key ones.
In my first year at ITTP, I was consumed with how alone I was, not at the ITTP itself, but in life in general. I was a father, a resident teacher, a moderator for NKT-chat, and I felt like I was responsible for everyone. Yet, I felt like I had nobody who loved me and who I could turn to for help and support. I had lots of people who relied upon me, but I felt I had nobody who I could turn to with my problems. I got to the ITTP hoping there I could find support, but even there I felt alone. Almost all of the other Resident Teachers were ordained, they all knew each other, and I felt nobody could understand my struggles. One night, I went out for a walk feeling sorry for myself – in truth, I was genuinely very sad – and I wound up finding a seat in the Creperie (yes, the Creperie again!). I then began to cry. About five to ten minutes later, Kadam Lucy came by and found me crying. She then stopped to console me. I explained to her what I was thinking, and she said, “don’t be ridiculous, lots of people love you and are here for you,” and then she started listing off all these people. Each person she listed just made me cry even more because even though I knew she was right about each person she listed, in my heart, I couldn’t “feel” that they loved me, so it made me feel I was even more alone. The next morning, I had a meeting with Kadam Bjorn. I told him the whole story, and he just started laughing. He then said, “the truth is, a needy mind can never feel satisfied. The more you grasp at needing to feel loved, the less you will feel the love that is there. With a needy mind, the whole world could be around you sending you genuine love, and you would feel nothing, only more alone.” He then went on to say, “every time you feel like you ‘need’ something, take it as a sign from your guru that this is something you need to give to others. Then, instead of turning towards your spiritual guide saying, ‘please give me,’ turn towards others and become a channel giving Geshe-la’s love and support for others to others through you. When you do, by giving to others whatever you feel you need, you will feel your guru give you everything you need.” This has been my antidote to neediness ever since.
In my second year of ITTP, the highlight was when there was a meeting between all of the Resident Teachers and Geshe-la. While I did not ask a question at that meeting, I received an answer that later came to define my spiritual activities. Somebody asked, “Geshe-la, there is a lot of negative talk about the NKT online, what should we do to correct misunderstandings?” Geshe-la then said, we need Kadampas to share their positive experiences of this tradition online, through blogs and the like, and then through seeing these examples, we let people make up their own minds. When he said that, I thought to myself, “oh, yes, one day I would like to do that.” I never found the time to do so, but later when my spiritual life in Geneva collapsed and I began rebuilding, this advice became the inspiration for me to start this blog and for me to share my experiences online through my Kadampa Ryan Facebook account.
In my third year at the ITTP, I received the greatest gift of my spiritual life. About two years before, I had thought of the question I would ask Geshe-la if ever I met him. For me, this was the question to answer all questions. The question was, “how can I make internal questions to you and receive perfectly reliable responses every time?” If I could get an answer to this question, it would answer all of my other questions. I held this question in my heart and never actually asked it, though I generated the determination that at the coming ITTP, I would put this question in a card on Geshe-la’s table outside his room. Before I had a chance to do so, at one of the teachings, Gen-la Samden said, “I was just given a very interesting note from Geshe-la. He said, ‘some of you may be wondering how to make internal questions and receive reliable responses.'” I started getting chills. He continued, “then Geshe-la’s note continues, ‘It is important to develop a good heart, a Buddhist intention, a beneficial intention, day and night, even during our sleep. We will perceive a special idea, a mental image, or a plan as our intention is maintained. Through blessings, imprints, receiving teachings and so forth, a special understanding or idea will develop. Then our teachings will be perfect. If we follow the writings alone, we will maintain just an intellectual understanding. It is most important that we improve our motivation.’” After this advice was given, the ITTP then discussed this in great detail about what it means and how we practice it. This was probably the most magical moment of my spiritual life. More detail on the meaning of this advice can be found here. You can find extensive explanations on how to rely upon the internal spiritual guide here and how to rely upon his mind alone here. I felt as if all of those years in which I was unable to meet with Geshe-la were all set up for receiving this advice in a way that created the maximum impact on my mind. I did not need to physically meet him, I just needed to receive this advice, and he gave it to me in the most miraculous way imaginable.
In one of my last years of ITTP, the Dalai Lama started criticizing Dorje Shugden practitioners again, so I spent almost every waking moment outside of the teachings fending off all of the attacks. This often involved defending the Wikipedia pages on the NKT, Geshe-la, and the page about the ‘controversy.’ We had determined critics who would constantly defame us on these pages, and so we had to go back and forth trying to preserve balance. We also had a crew of people responding on the different Buddhist discussion forums where people were issuing slander trying to correct the record and clarify misunderstandings. To be honest, confronting all of this negativity took an emotional toll. And the truth is, many of the criticisms that were being lodged against the NKT had, like all criticism, a degree of validity to them. I remember one night running into Gen-la Dekyong, and I just looked worn down. She asked if I was OK, and I explained what was going on. She said, “people who criticize us are our kind mothers helping us do better.” This lifted my spirits and helped me know all of this was for the best. It also meant I didn’t need to feel like I had to defend the indefensible, rather I had to just learn spiritual lessons from whatever I was encountering against us. But the majority of my time that year was spent creating a website called “Dorje Shugden Debate.” The idea was simple, in old times when there was a spiritual dispute, the two sides would agree to a public debate, and whoever one the debate, the other side agreed to switch their views and come along. The goal of the website was to publicly challenge those who criticized us to such a public debate, with all sides agreeing to follow this basic rule of intellectual integrity of the ancient practitioners. I spent almost all summer preparing the site, and we went live with it. We invited those who disagreed with us to engage us in the debate. If they were so confident in their views, then surely they should be prepared to publicly debate them. We were willing to do so. But not a single person took us up on the offer. I believe this is because they knew they couldn’t actually win. While nobody took us up on our offer, I have left the site up as hopefully a resource others can use when they encounter their doubts about this controversy. As Geshe-la had told me all those years ago, “go investigate for yourself.”
At my last ITTP, I had a feeling my karma was about to shift, but there was no external reason why it would. But I just felt like this was going to be my last year at ITTP, but I didn’t know why. I met with my dear Sangha friend Kadam Olivier after the Wishfulfilling Jewel puja one evening, and I told him, “I don’t know why, but I feel like my karma is going to shift and this may be my last year here. I feel like I am about to go on a very long journey, and I might not be back in the same way for maybe perhaps more than 20 years (I was 35 at the time). For some reason, I had a feeling like it wouldn’t be until I was about 56 years old that I could start to reclaim the spiritual life I had. He just shrugged and said, “well we never know; but if that does happen, Geshe-la will be with you.” I didn’t give that feeling much more thought after that since none of it made any sense. Until…
My old life dies
I thought I would stay in Geneva forever, serving as Resident Teacher, growing the center, raising my family. But I forgot what Gen Lekma once told me, “be wary of the day you grow too comfortable because that will be when you will be made to move on.”
In Spring 2008, the karma for us to remain in Geneva all came undone. The most significant factor being the school where we were working at the time was sold, and the new owners had the bright idea of getting rid of free tuition for the kids of teachers. We couldn’t afford to put our kids in the school, and for a variety of reasons we didn’t feel it was appropriate to put our kids in the French schools, so we decided we needed to leave back to the U.S. At the same time, there was a major landslide at our home, forcing us to have to flee. We then had to spend over 100,000 euros on legal fees, emergency repairs, technical experts for the lawsuit, and double mortgage (one for the house with the landslide, one for the house we were living in). This completely wiped out all of our savings and forced me to borrow very large sums from friends and my brother. Essentially, I was bankrupt if not for my brother and a dear Sangha friend bailing me out. In short, we lost our home, lost schooling for our kids, and lost all of our money. Everything we had was gone.
When we went back to the U.S., I took a Professor job in Dallas, Texas. My original intention was to teach Dharma in Texas and I had even spoken with Gen-la Jampa about it, who was supportive. But then we unexpectedly had twins – bringing the total number of kids to 5! There was no way I could have time to fulfill my work and family responsibilities and also have time to teach at a center. It was extremely painful for me to let go of teaching, but there was little doubt that this was the right thing to do. I had now lost everything, including the very intense Dharma life I had.
Reborn into a new spiritual life
Around this time, while my wife was pregnant, I had a series of very powerful dreams. In one, I was at Manjushri Center in England and it was being overrun by an army of demons. I remember at one point being in a “war council” meeting, and the conclusion was “what needs to survive is the internal rules of the NKT.” Then I found myself out in the courtyard in front of Manjushri, and there were corpses everywhere. I was buried underneath some dead bodies and the demons were going around with swords stabbing everybody to make sure they were dead. A sword went right by me but missed me. I then got up to try run but was stabbed in the back and died. But then I found myself reborn somewhere else. Everything was different, but the one thing I knew for sure was I was still a Dharma practitioner. I had been reborn into a new life but was able to carry my practice with me forward. I then woke up. I then remembered that fateful evening with Kadam Olivier and his words.
A new life had begun for me. It was as if I had been reborn into a new life. I had to start rebuilding my spiritual life from scratch in an entirely new life context. I feel like I have been doing so ever since.
With the arrival of the twins, we couldn’t afford to support the kids on the salaries we had, and my wife and I both wanted to get back abroad. So for about a year I studied and prepared to be able to take the Foreign Service exam to join the State Department. I was finally offered a job in November 2010 and started in January 2011. After some training in D.C., I was posted to Brussels Belgium where I stayed for two years. While in Brussels, I was able to make it back to the Summer Festival in Manjushri. It was shortly after Modern Buddhism had been published. I was stunned to see how much the tradition had been re-organized around this book. During one of the teachings, Gen-la Dekyong said, “Geshe-la said that our job now as a tradition is to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.” When I heard these words, I felt as if I had been given my new personal mission. I knew what my new life – so different than the one I had in Geneva – was all about.
It was after that festival that I started this blog. I had recalled the advice that Geshe-la had given at the meeting with Resident Teachers several years back during the ITTP about sharing our positive experiences through blogs and so forth. The thing I missed most about being a teacher was sharing the Dharma I was realizing. When I was a teacher, I would go through my week, learn various spiritual lessons, then I would share these conclusions with my students in my classes. This was the practical meaning of my bodhichitta – gaining realizations to be able to share with others. But without the opportunity to teach, I couldn’t do that anymore, and that immediate feeling of bodhichitta subsided. As I try to explain here, my thought was this blog could serve the same function. Around the same time, I also joined Facebook for the first time. This was a deeply spiritual thing for me because I felt like I was reconnecting with my Sangha after having been separated from them due to the big changes in my life. Sharing my lessons learned on this blog and Facebook has become the lifeblood of my bodhichitta ever since.
In 2012, after I had received my assignment that I would be posted to China after one year of language training, I wrote Geshe-la telling him what was happening in my life, and he replied, “I deeply appreciate your good heart with the intention to help flourish Kadam Dharma anywhere, including China. Please maintain your supreme intention and whenever we need your help we will let you know.” This was very liberating for me because I had this nagging guilt that I should be doing more to formally help the tradition flourish, such as trying to teach again in centers, etc. When he said “we will let you know” when they need my help freed me up to let go of that guilt and just plunge myself into transforming my new life as a father of five and a diplomat into the spiritual path. So far, it seems he is quite content to have me learn how to transform my modern life into the path. That is what I am trying to do, and that is what this blog is all about.
Separated from my family
In June 2013, I did one year of intensive language training learning Chinese in Washington, D.C. This was one of the hardest things I had ever done. I am not particularly good with languages (just ask my former students in Geneva about my French), and Chinese was unlike anything I had learned before. I was also in class with a guy who found it all so easy. Here I was struggling just to survive, and he was surfing ESPN.com. Drove my pride crazy! While I was in D.C., the medical unit of the State Department said that my twin sons, who had mild asthma, could not go with me to China, which has awful pollution. This created quite a dilemma for us. I had been admitted to a fabulous six-year program (one-year language in DC, one-year assignment in Guangzhou, China, another year language training in Taiwan, followed by a three-year assignment in Taiwan), and I didn’t want to lose it. At the same time, we didn’t want to be apart as a family. Since it only represented being apart for one year, in the end, my wife and I decided that she and the kids would go to her home town in Southern France for the year and I would go to China.
Being apart for a year was not easy, but I think we were all better off for having done it. My wife grew tremendously in terms of her ability and confidence to manage five kids by herself with essentially no help, my kids had to grow up and assume greater responsibility for making the home function and they were able to learn French since we put them in the public schools, and I was able to spend a year more or less on retreat, enabling me to work on my blog, do some work trying to resolve the Dalai Lama/Dorje Shugden issue (failed miserably at that), and yes, play a lot of board games with my friends (yes, I am a geek)!
The hardest thing that happened during that year was father decided he never wanted to see me again. He felt I was not sufficiently appreciative of what he had done for me and that I had a perverted sense of entitlement, so he concluded it was no longer worth it to try to maintain a relationship with me. After what happened with my mother, this was a difficult blow, especially since in my view his accusations are largely unfounded. He said and did to me more hurtful things than I care to recount. While I thought I could handle it, the truth is this planted in me a deep inner rage – more anger than I knew I was capable of. If I even thought about him, unbelievable anger would arise in my mind. This soured everything in my life and made me bitter and cynical. It cast a cloud on everything and it lasted for about a year. My old teachers provided me some very good advice, but it was never enough to shake the resentment. During this time, I prayed every day that I be able to heal my mind of all delusions towards my father, but I remained quite disturbed by the whole thing.
Period of extreme stress
My time in Taiwan has largely been about transforming extreme family stress into the spiritual path. It has been about moving beyond an intellectual understanding of Dharma to a very practical understanding of how to use it in extreme emotional situations that arise in family life.
In Summer 2015, we transitioned to Taiwan for five years. We spent from September to Christmas running around getting settled in our new lives and schools for the kids. The lawsuit associated with the landslide in Geneva took 8 years before it was finally resolved, and we did not get enough back in damages to pay back my brother. As a result, I still owed my brother a tremendous amount of money and I could not pay him back. This was a constant stress on us that poisoned my relationship with my family and meant that we basically had no money for several years until we were able to find a solution.
After Christmas passed, all of the stress and problems of my father, my wife’s abusive father, the financial difficulties from the landslide we were facing, and culture shock came crashing down on us, in particular my wife. She then fell into a deep depression. There is sadness, there is having the blues, but depression is something completely different. Imagine hell reaches up, grabs you, drags you down, darkens everything, destroys your self-confidence, completely incapacitates you to do anything about it, and then combine that with a feeling of helplessness that no matter how hard you try nothing you do helps get you out of it. This was one of the hardest periods of my life. I was once again studying Chinese (something very difficult to do), trying to help my wife cope with her mind, deal with kids who were in very hard schools who couldn’t understand what was happening to their mother, carrying around the deep rage against my father, plus the financial stress became worse in that the renter left our house in Geneva, causing it to be vacant for now 10 months. I already had no means to pay back my brother all of the money he had lent me, but now I lost another 27,000 euros paying the mortgage of an empty house. I had no time, no money, and no spare emotional capacity. This period crushed me under its weight.
Resolving things with my father (and son)
I then tried reaching out to my father on Father’s Day to try to see if something could be done to heal the relationship. He continued to insist he was justified in his views, but when pressed, he couldn’t provide even a single thing I had done wrong nor any suggestions on how I should have behaved differently. And then it hit me: his anger is not my problem, it’s his. My anger is not his fault, it’s mine. His anger has nothing to do with me, and my anger has nothing to do with him. I no longer needed him to say or do anything for me to let go. All of a sudden, all of my anger towards him just disappeared and I felt genuinely sorry for him trapped in his own hallucinations. I was then able to write to him and say that I forgive him completely for all the harm he inflicted on me. This was a watershed moment for me that is difficult to describe. After my mother’s suicide, having these sorts of problems with my father was not easy, but this episode also taught me a good deal about letting go of my attachment to other’s love and other’s approval. Of course, their love and approval are good things, but attachment to them, thinking my happiness depends on them, is a delusion. I need to learn to love without expecting anything in return and forgive when the other person will never admit they are wrong.
Eventually, I was able to see how his attachment to his views on financial matters had basically destroyed every meaningful relationship in his life – with my mom, with his siblings, and now with me. Instead of feeling resentment for him, I was blessed to feel compassion for him. I knew these relationships meant a lot to him, but he couldn’t help himself and sacrificed his most important relationships on the altar of a very narrow financial ideology. He just couldn’t see past it. When compassion touched my heart, almost all of the anger I felt towards him melted away. And when it did, I was then able to start to see things from his perspective. He was right that no matter what he did I felt it was “never good enough.” I had all sorts of reasons why I thought what he did wasn’t, in fact, good enough; but that didn’t change the fact that he was entirely right about that. I could see how me thinking that way could cause him to think, “well, if he is never going to be happy no matter what I do, no point even trying.” I could see how he could consider me ungrateful for what he did do because I had inappropriate attention on all of the things he didn’t do that I thought he should. I then wrote to him and apologized – unconditionally – for my behavior and said where he was right. I didn’t add any “buts” or caveats, I just admitted my mistakes without referencing any of his. This then created the space in his mind to start to see things from my perspective. We then spent about 3 months of back and forth emails trying to agree on some basic principles for avoiding blow-ups like this again in the future, and I’m happy to say that now our relationship is mostly good. We managed to largely heal what was a painful wound for both of us.
Interestingly, but I guess not surprisingly, it was only after I realized all of this that I began to see how I was doing to my son exactly what my father had always done to me. My son is incredibly smart and there is nothing he couldn’t do, but he certainly didn’t work very hard. He did perfectly fine in school and in everything else he did, but all I could see was how he was “failing” to “live up to his potential.” I knew if he would even apply a fraction of effort, the sky was the limit for him. I tried everything – bribing him, grounding him, taking everything away from him, appealing to his better angels, even just letting him be. But none of it worked. There were many times when I got really angry at him – yelling, screaming, and saying all sorts of hurtful things. It was awful actually. The saddest part is he started to internalize the guilt I was throwing his way. He would start every situation with these great intentions to do it right, but then he would procrastinate until it was too late and then perform at a sub-standard level. Then, he would beat himself up with guilt, just as I had beat him up emotionally before. Once I became aware of what I was doing with him, I apologized saying, “I see now I have been doing to you exactly what I was so upset at my father for doing to me. I will try to stop. But please be patient with me, old habits die hard.” This conversation marked a turning point in our relationship.
I then started to genuinely just let him be – not just let him be as a tactic to get him to do more while still grasping at thinking he should do more. I tried to help him let go of the guilt that he had internalized and tried to adopt a posture of “I’m here if you need me, otherwise, I’ll let you be.” One day, about a year later, there was something really important that he needed to be doing, but was procrastinating on and if he continued to do so, it would have been a big problem for him. So I said something, with a hint of frustration in my voice. His reply blew me away. He said, “on that issue, you are right. On the larger issue of me not living up to my potential, I now see things differently. If you look at any one domain of my life – such as school, commitments to family, friendships, relationships with girlfriends, etc. – then it is clear I am always falling short of my potential on every front. But, if you look at things on the aggregate, I am optimizing across all of these dimensions. So while I am falling short on each individual one, I’m actually doing well at being an overall well-rounded, balanced human being.” This was absolutely correct and enabled me to see both he was “falling short,” but in fact was not at all. Neither one of us could see that when we were trapped in the unhealthy cycle of before. I’m able to appreciate him and his choices, and so is he. We are both happier for it.
Working through my wife’s depression
When my wife fell into a depression, it hit me very hard. I was at my limit with my work and financial stresses, but then to add her falling into an emotional pit and having to pick up the slack of taking care of the family, it was hard. I offered some moderately helpful advice, but frankly, I didn’t know what to say. Whenever I would offer some sort of solution on how to think about her situation differently, it would make the depression worse because she wasn’t able to do what I was saying, so it reinforced her feeling of being a failure. While Geshe-la is of course 100% correct that fundamentally depression is a case of our self-cherishing taking over, when somebody is in a depression they are not in a position to hear that and respond to it. Guilt is a powerful driver of depression, and when we are in the throws of it, it is hard to make a distinction between ourselves and our delusions.
Not being particularly helpful, I just tried to listen and to pick up the slack around the house. Eventually, the way my wife got out of her depression was a combination of medications and a conversation with our daughter. There are a lot of people who think it is somehow wrong to use psychiatric medications, that we are somehow supposed to do everything through the power of our meditation practice. But there is absolutely nothing in Geshe-la’s teachings that lead to that conclusion. In fact, he is very explicit that we should take medications exactly as normal, and then practice patient acceptance while we wait for the medications to take effect. So why do we make a distinction between physical illness like a headache or cancer and mental illness like anxiety or depression? I think it is because we have internalized the social stigma associated with mental health problems. Society tends to think of mental health problems as a personal failure, and we internalize this narrative. But Geshe-la repeatedly refers to delusions as the sickness and disease of the mind. He uses medical terms talking about delusions as sickness, so we should too. Of course, medications alone can’t heal the mind, but they can put us into a zone of functionality (zone of tolerance) where we can then use our Dharma practice to finish the rest of the internal work. But if we are outside the zone of functionality, trying to practice our way out of the problem will often lead to discouragement, failure, and perhaps loss of faith.
In terms of the conversation with our daughter, one of the recurring thoughts during my wife’s depression was what a “bad mother” she was. Of course, this was a ridiculous way of viewing things because she was a great mother – not perfect, but who is? But her running narrative was always to see all of the different ways in which she was not good enough and could not forgive herself for her mistakes. One day she was crying about feeling like a failure, and my daughter just kept telling her, “it’s not your fault, it’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.” Hearing it from my daughter, who my wife felt particularly guilty about being a bad mother with, enabled my wife to let go of her guilt. As soon as that happened, the depression quickly faded. This reminded me of something Kadam Lucy had told me many years earlier, namely, “the fastest way to solve an anger problem is to first solve the guilt problem.”
Round 2 of extreme stress
The period of Fall 2018 basically until the present (Fall 2020) has been the second round of extreme emotional stress.
My wife’s father is probably the angriest person I know. He was incredibly verbally, emotionally, and sometimes physically abusive to the whole family as I was growing up, and frankly ever since. For more than 50 years, her mother was trapped in this dynamic and for a variety of reasons, simply wasn’t able to get out. In the Fall of 2018, my wife’s sister, who had been taking care of her mother and who previously had understood that the father was abusive, for some reasons (which I won’t go into here) flipped and started to adopt her abusive father’s perspective. She started to normalize the abuse as “every marriage is difficult,” and “Papa was just being strict,” and so forth. She then started chasing after his approval and love and started to adopt his view that the mother (who is the sweetest person on earth) was the problem and the one being difficult. The sister then started trying to get the mother to go along with what her husband said and did so that everybody could just get along. For the mother, this was a complete betrayal, and it sent her into a terrible depression. This depression then resulted in her being unhappy and more difficult to live with, which just reinforced the narrative that it was “all her fault.” Because all abusers try to convince their victims that it is their fault they are being abused, there was a good deal of this perspective that the mother internalized and fell ever deeper.
My wife also had many very difficult conversations with the sister trying to help her see where she had gone wrong, but she would not have any of it, and their relationship deteriorated quickly.
My wife, who had navigated her way out of her own depression a couple of years earlier, was then on the phone with the mother every day, sometimes for many hours, trying to help her navigate through everything and start to see things with wisdom. Eventually, after about 6 months of this, the mother finally decided that she wanted to get out, but she lacked the means of doing so. From our side, we answered every single concern she had, bought her an apartment in France that she could live in, told her she could stay with us, etc., etc., etc. Eventually, she agreed and started feeling better because she had a plan for getting out. She didn’t dare tell either the abusive husband or the now flipped daughter because they would have found a way to block it, as it was they were telling her every day how incapable she was and that she would never be able to even come to Taiwan for our daughter’s graduation. But she came to Taiwan with the sister, and when it was time to go back to the U.S. after graduation, the mom told the sister that she wasn’t going back. This was a bombshell, but she held firm. For the next month, the Mom made huge progress in becoming happier and getting out of her depression. Working through all of this taught me a great deal about how to break free from abusive relationships.
But then, she started having extreme chest pains. We raced her to the hospital, and the doctors told us that her Aorta had likely ripped and she needed to have emergency surgery, and there was a very real chance that she would not make it. This was devastating news, and for about 12 hours that is where things were heading. We called the sister, who then went straight to the airport to get on the next plane. In the end, when they did deeper tests, they realized that it was the gall bladder had burst, and so they did a surgery to treat that. Afterward, the mom was more rattled and felt more vulnerable. More on that in a second.
In parallel with all of this, my daughter – who was a graduating senior – was getting rejected from basically all of the colleges she had set her sights on attending. She had special education needs, but through unbelievable hard work and determination, put herself into contention to go to some of the very best schools in the world. When she kept getting rejection letters, she felt as if everything she had worked for was for naught. She did get an acceptance letter to what was an incredibly good school for what she wanted to do, but it was a “conditional offer” on her getting certain exam scores on her International Baccalaureate. The IB exams are these huge tests covering two years’ worth of material on six classes over a two-week period. For somebody with special education needs, this was impossibly stressful for her. So while my wife is trying to manage her mother deciding to escape from 50 years of abuse, at home we were trying to manage our daughter who was breaking down with overwhelming anxiety – anxiety which if she didn’t learn to control would mean she would not get a high enough score on her exams, thus not being able to go to the University she wanted.
Summer from hell
It all came to a head in the Summer of 2019. My wife took the mother and our kids to France so that she could get settled. The plan was for the mother to come back with us to Taiwan after Summer, and then move to France with my wife in the Fall of 2020. My wife got the mom set up in her new apartment, but my wife and our kids were staying somewhere else. The mom, having been rattled from 50 years of abuse, the difficult decision to leave, and then the near-death experience when they told her her heart had burst was simply incapable of being physically alone for even one moment. She needed 24/7 care. At the same time, my daughter received her IB scores back, and she missed the score she needed by only one point and was devastated. At the same time, the four other kids who were with my wife at the time wanted a summer vacation and needed to be cared for. So my wife had three different groups of people all needing her 24/7, but there was only one of her.
To make matters worse for my wife’s mother, her family also lived in the same town in France, but instead of “welcoming her home,” they basically didn’t want to have anything to do with her and made her feel rejected. So she thought she was going to be able to escape and build a new life in France (a difficult decision to do at 78 years old) but was instead rejected by the people she thought would be there for her. The mother then became suicidal, saying she would jump off of the balcony. It was an impossible to manage situation for my wife, but all three groups – her mother, our daughter, and our kids – were all looking to her to solve their problems for them. But she couldn’t. But she thought it was her responsibility to do so, and she felt not only torn in 3 directions at once but that it was all her fault that she couldn’t make everybody happy.
During this time, the sister back in the U.S. fell ill and wound up in the hospital. She came out of that experience feeling like she had lost her mother and she was determined to get her back. So she got on a plane and flew to France to get her mother back. From one perspective, this was a relief for my wife who had more responsibilities than one person could manage. But from another, the sister convinced the mother to go back to the U.S. and not come back with us to Taiwan. Thus all the work we had done to get her out of her abusive relationship with her husband was being undone. The compromise with the sister was the mother doesn’t go back into the abusive husband’s house, but instead lives with the sister. While not ideal, it was at least a step forward compared to where we had been when the whole story started – she had at least gotten out.
For our daughter, it took about a month to do, but we managed to successfully appeal the decision on her IB exams, got them rescored, and she got an extra point enabling her to go to the University of her choice. We then had to scramble to get everything ready for her to go to school, and in September 2019, my wife took her to school in London, got her settled, and then came back. Sending your first kid off to college is hard on every parent, but after everything we had been through, we had less capacity than normal to handle it. Nonetheless, when my wife got back to Taiwan, we felt this enormous relief that “we did it.” We thought we could finally let down our guard and the period of enormous stress was passed.
But then, not 24 hours after my wife landed back in Taiwan, we got a call from an Ambulance technician that our daughter had broken her leg while dancing in a night club. This broke my wife. She had been through hell, thought she was finally out of it, and then got this call. Our daughter was alone in London, with nobody around to help, on her own in an apartment, without any means of getting food or even getting to the bathroom at first, while trying to start a new school on your first year at college away from home. Impossible. My wife had no choice, she had to get back on a plane and fly back to London to help our daughter. This took about three weeks to get her settled again to the point where she was barely functional on her own, but finally she did, and then my wife came back to Taiwan. And what was when she had an emotional burnout.
Burnout, depression, anxiety
Essentially for close to a year, we had been under extreme emotional stress and throughout that whole time, my wife held it all together amazingly well. She was full of wisdom, helping everybody around her at superhuman levels, it was extraordinary. But it was also apparently way beyond her capacity, and when the music stopped and the crisis adrenalin faded, she completely collapsed and went numb. She was completely incapable of doing anything. It wasn’t a depression like before, just total burnout that nonetheless incapacitated her. When she went down (again), I went down with her (again).
Eventually, the burnout activated a second depression. She felt like a total failure for falling again, this reactivated her guilt, and from there a depression set in. She dreaded the prospect of a second depression because the first one was so traumatic and difficult, but the karma for it had already ripened, and down she went. The depression then triggered severe anxiety where she did not feel like she could handle anything more, so everything scared her. I was trying desperately to help, but again, I didn’t have much I could offer.
I then reached out to Sangha. I have a dear Sangha friend of more than 20 years who is also a trained psychiatrist who works with trauma patients. I emailed him asking for his advice on how I could help my wife. I explained the whole thing, I asked a million questions to better understand how to help people who suffered from burnout, depression, and anxiety. He then patiently answered all of my questions, and then at the end of his note, he asked a simple question: “your whole email was talking about her. My question for you is, ‘how are you in all of this?’ If you don’t deal with your own mind, you won’t be any good for anybody.” With this, it hit me. I remembered what Gen Lekma had said all those years ago about training in the first of the three difficulties. I realized all of this time, I was viewing the whole situation as “my wife has a problem, I need to fix it,” as opposed to I have a problem in my own mind, I need to heal that. I then saw clearly that for the last four years, I had been suffering terribly from attachment to those I love being happy and free from suffering. I thought it was all my love and compassion, but in truth, it was just my attachment. That is why I was sinking too.
I then quickly realized many things. Such as how to avoid sinking with those we love, how to recover from stressful times; repression is our worst enemy; accepting our limits; and how to accept depression, anxiety, and mental illness. It was as if all of this extreme emotional stress over the preceding 18 months was for the purpose of helping me realize these things. I’m hopeful that the lessons I learned from these experiences will be helpful for others struggling with similar issues.
And then the blows kept coming
My wife started to finally be coming out of her burnout/depression/anxiety episode, and then the global coronavirus pandemic hit. Taiwan was very much on the front line of this, one of the first countries exposed to the virus. All predictions were that Taiwan would be devastated by the virus given its deep and frequent connections with China. Schools started shutting down, businesses were closing, and the government was issuing dire warnings. My daughter in London was forced to evacuate her school, come back to Taiwan, and go into quarantine. She just made it to Taiwan in time before they closed the borders, otherwise she would have been stuck in London. Then, my son came down with a respiratory infection, which the doctors couldn’t rule out being a COVID infection – at first, at least. For my wife’s mother, this caused her depression she hadn’t recovered from either to get much worse because now they were trapped inside and couldn’t go anywhere, so her mom fell emotionally even further. For my wife, who wasn’t exactly stable in her recovery, all of this together sent her right back down. Her anxiety then saw every surface and every person she met as a potential infection vector, and she became paralyzed by fear. This then reactivated her depression and discouragement of having thought she was getting out of it, only to then relapse back.
Once again, the medical unit of the State Department said my family couldn’t go with me to my next assignment in China in Summer 2020. The original plan was for my wife to take the kids back to her home town in France as she had done before. But with COVID ravaging Europe and Taiwan bringing its outbreak totally under control, going to Europe no longer made sense. Going to the United States made even less sense since not only was the virus raging, but the government response was counter-productive. So we decided to shift gears and try to find a way for my family to stay in Taiwan. Thus began a six-month process of trying to get everyone visas, secure housing, finding a program my daughter could do, deferring enrollment for my son who was also planning on starting college Fall 2020, and so forth. At the same time, the reality that we would be apart again as a family for another 2 years started to take hold, so my wife was going to lose the support that I was otherwise providing by being there. We quite literally were only able to have certainty about a viable solution to all of these questions the day before I had to leave for China in Summer 2020. It was extremely stressful and hard on my wife who was now back in a low-level depression.
Having been dealing with all of this for some years now, I felt OK through Spring 2020 despite everything going. In the end, I feel as if the final spiritual conclusions of my time in Taiwan were it’s not our responsibility to make others happy, nor our fault if they are not. These Dharma understandings protected me in ways I was not protected from the first round of extreme emotional stress.
But the hits still kept coming…
And then, again, just shortly after I left Taiwan, my wife’s mother had a terrible stroke. She had been in a depression from before and was suffering from pretty rapid cognitive decline. We all just assumed it was the result of 50 years of unprocessed emotional trauma from the relationship with the abusive husband. But then, she had a devastating stroke. Once again, it wasn’t clear at first whether she was going to survive. Once it was clear she would, we realized the real work is psychiatric. Her brain was fried. She couldn’t remember anything, couldn’t speak, was terrified like she was in hell, she would thrash about psychotically ripping everything out of her arms to the point where the hospital had to strap her down in her bed, she wasn’t able to have any visitors due to COVID and she thought she had been shipped off to a mental institution all alone (her deepest fear), it was awful. Finally, she regained enough strength to go back home for home care, but she had to go back to her home with the abusive husband, which itself was emotionally triggering. For the last week, she has daily had more than 5 hours of total breakdown thrashing about uncontrollably in utter terror and despair. The other hours of the day, she just cries in hopelessness. The abusive father can’t emotionally handle it, so has barricaded himself basically in his room, coming out only to get mad at people for not taking care of his wife enough that she calms down. My wife’s sister, God bless her, has stepped up and been there for her tending to everything, but she is careening towards burnout. She calls my wife regularly for support.
And my wife is once again smacked down. Each time she starts to stand back up and come to terms with the latest blow, something new happens. There is no respite. She has been in emotional trauma for almost two years now, with only temporary waves of respite, following by another round of emotional hits. In the span of a week, her husband left, her mother almost died again, and now they are looking at a very long and difficult recovery, where it is entirely possible that the mother might not mentally recover even if physically she does so. It’s so hard on her. And I am powerless to do much about it because I am now in China. I can’t go back because there are two weeks of quarantine to go and another three weeks to come back to China afterward, which is impossible for my work. And it is not clear what good it would do anyway since there is nothing I can do to change any of this. The conclusion I am drawing from all of this is the only real solution is for me to become a Buddha. I need to accept that those I love will suffer and there is little I can do about it until I can attain enlightenment.
What does the future hold?
I now have two years where I will essentially be on my own in China. I was able to do the Summer Festival online this year, which was a real treat. For the next two years, I will be without my family, I will in effect be trying to do a quasi-retreat for two years. I plan to sync my life with the Kadampa calendar as best I can, work on my blog, keep up with STTP, and do 35 confession Buddhas twice a week. When I walk to and from work, I plan on listening to the audiobook of either Modern Buddhism or Joyful Path. Mentally, I will also view everything that happens to me at work and in my life during this time as emanated by Dorje Shugden for my retreat. At my work itself, I’m trying to view my boss as an emanation of Tara, and all of the activities of the Consulate as Tara’s activities in Northeast China. Additionally, in terms of my personal behavior at work, I’m going to try to have all of my actions be consistent with and inspired by the Eight Verses and Atisha‘s advice from the heart. In this way, I hope to transform my career into the Kadampa way of life. I think US-China relations need Kadampa wisdom to heal the divisions. Likewise, my work covers relations with North Korea. That can use some Kadampa wisdom as well! From a spiritual point of view, I’m looking forward to it all. But at the same time, I am acutely aware of all of the suffering around me of those I love. I need to find a way to be there for them without being there and to use the present circumstance to reinforce my bodhichitta motivation to become a Buddha for their sake.
I pray that my every experience becomes a cause of enlightenment of myself, my family, and everyone who winds up reading the lessons I am learning from all of this.