Getting started on the path
I was raised without religion, not as an atheist, just religion wasn’t part of my world. When I got to college, 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 which 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 for 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 really 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. 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.
Then, I was on a Christmas trip to Europe. My mother had just lost both her parents and decided to join us on 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.
Finding the Kadampa
Then, 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 all the way 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 so as 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 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 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.
Suicide of my mother
Fortunately, Gen Lekma was there for me when my mother committed suicide. 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 resolve our differences, so I told her that she couldn’t come but I would come 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. She will forever have my gratitude.
A period of intense Dharma training in Europe
My wife and I then moved to Paris and joined the center there. The teacher was Gen Lhamo. 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 the means by which I live every moment of my life. She had a 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.
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, 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 are doing the same. I am very happy about that.
While I was in graduate school, 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 since 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 basically a period of retreat for me.
I then got a job at the South Korean Mission to the WTO in Geneva. This was a fantastic job because I had a tremendous amount of free time with which I could engage in Dharma activities. I did a lot of work as a moderator of NKT-chat (an old yahoo group of Kadampa practitioners), and for helping develop materials and the conditions for kids’ classes in Dharma centers and kids’ programs at Festivals.
During this time, I was Resident Teacher with Atisha Buddhist Center in Geneva. This period was really 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. I really thought I would stay there forever. 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.”
My old life dies
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 bailing me out. In short, we lost our home, lost the 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 there, 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, 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.
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.
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 has 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 personal mission. I knew what my new life – so different than the one I had in Geneva – was all about.
In 2012, 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.” 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)!
Father disowning me, deep resentment arises
The hardest thing that happened during this 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 maintain a relationship with me. After what happened with my mother, this was a difficult blow, especially since in my view these accusations are completely 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, 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 really 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 the worst suffering of my 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 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 owe my brother a tremendous amount of money and I have no ability to pay him back. This has been a constant stress on us that has poisoned my relationship with my family and meant that we have basically no money. 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.
I then tried reaching out to my father on Father’s Day to try 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 actually 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 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 to 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.
My wife’s depression is now finally starting to lift, and I am cautiously optimistic that the worst of it is behind us. I will later do a series of posts on dealing with depression. Our financial worries remain, forcing me to confront a great number of fears and delusions.
What does the future hold?
One day I would like to start attending regular Dharma classes again, and even start teaching again. Until then, though, I trust that the life I have is the one Dorje Shugden is emanating for me. All lives are equally empty, so my job is to learn to transform the life I have been given into the path. I do not yet know whether I will have the karma to begin teaching again when I get there. I feel my first focus has to be caring for my family because our years together are numbered, but I also hope to one day return to teaching. Whether that karma ripens in Taiwan or not remains to be seen.
One way or the other, I will most likely stay with the State Department until I retire (16-23 years from now), being posted at various places around the world. After that, who knows.
In short, I have three spheres in my life, my formal practice, my professional life and my personal/family life. I feel as if these are the conditions that Dorje Shugden, the Dharma Protector, has provided me to learn how to transform such a life into the path to enlightenment. This blog will be my main spiritual project during this phase of my life, where I will attempt to share my experience of putting the instructions into practice in the context of my new life.
In the future, I will add many more stories, such as my first spiritual experience with Grandpa Mott, the very intelligent guy who became a Christian through being convinced by the weight of argument, when I was in the protector gompa before getting married, dealing with concerned in-laws, the work I did on Dorje Shugden while I was working in investment banking, learning about relying upon the guru’s mind alone, my experiences with Venerable Tharchin, various experiences confirming the importance of following one tradition purely without mixing, the answer to the question that answers all questions, some really funky dreams, and many others. But for now, what I have written is all I have time for now. Stay tuned to this space!