Some of the greatest influences in my life have been my teachers. I have listed the following people in the order in which I met them.
The Dalai Lama is my ongoing and immense inspiration of compassion. I first met him in India in 1970 and have attended his teachings around the world ever since. He once gave weeklong teachings in Tucson on patience. Over twelve hundred people attended the event at a desert resort. One day, as the translator translated his commentary on the text, Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, His Holiness interrupted with, “That’s not what I said.” The translator responded, “Your Holiness, it is what you said.” The Dalai Lama again disagreed. They debated in Tibetan, and then the Dalai Lama located the disputed section in the text. He looked at it, and then burst into loud laughter, “Ha, ha, hah. Oh, I made a mistake.”
There the Dalai Lama was, caught in an error in front of twelve hundred people, laughing uproariously about it. He is a wonderful role model of a non-constricted heart that comes when we are not defending a certain image of who we are. When we relax our heart without trying to ‘be’ special, we can be who we truly are, with honesty and compassion.
One summer I attended a Buddhist-Christian conference at the Gethsemani Trappist Monastery. The Dalai Lama opened the event with a tree-planting ceremony. I happened to stand next to him as the ceremony was about to begin. Suddenly across the courtyard he spotted an extremely elderly brother in a wheelchair. The Dalai Lama cried out, “Oh, he’s old!” and raced across the courtyard to embrace the old monk, trailed by security people and camera crews. What struck me was the pleasure with which the Dalai Lama cried out. It was delight, not pity. His Holiness was celebrating the joy he felt at having this venerable old monk among us.
S.N. Goenka is an Indian, a former businessman, drawn to meditation to cure his ferocious migraine headaches. He studied Buddhism in Burma and then began leading ten-day intensives in India. Participants lived like monastics: two meals a day and a structured schedule of meditation and instruction.
Outwardly Goenka seemed like an ordinary businessman; inwardly he radiated something extraordinary. Centered, unruffled, he appeared completely comfortable in his own skin. He was rigorous and demanding in his approach. Yet his kindness and compassion charged the air around him with warmth and light. He laughed a lot, spoke in simple English and was quite approachable.
From Goenka, I learned about pure, impersonal love. It was very clear that he wanted nothing from me. He accepted no money and was clearly not teaching for ego reasons or power.
Munindra was an Indian teacher who lived in Bodh Gaya after many years in Burma. Whimsical and elfin, he dressed all in white and resembled Gandhi. His relaxed teaching reflected his favorite saying, “Just be simple and easy about things.” He taught that every action in our lives can be meditation. Children gathered around him spontaneously, especially when he stopped to rejoice at the sight of a tree or a flower or an animal.
Early on in my practice, Munindra said to me, “The Buddha’s enlightenment solved the Buddha’s problem, now you solve yours.” This was very important for me…it felt like the first time someone looked me in the eye and basically said, “You can do it. You can solve your problem.”
Dipa Ma was a little bundle of a woman wrapped in a white sari with a psychic space that was huge, radiating light and peace. She had been a student of Munindra. To visit her in Calcutta, one walked through the filth of a slum alley and climbed four flights of steps up to the tiny room Dipa Ma shared with her daughter. The room was nearly bare, with only a wooden bed and some clothes hung behind a curtain.
Dipa Ma greeted us lovingly and quietly. Sometimes she would answer questions, or offer us food. We would always leave her presence filled with a transcendent sense of wellbeing.
I often found her sitting cross-legged on the wooden bed in the corner of her room. The calm she radiated was a total contrast to the shrieks of neighboring metal-grinding shops and the frantic streets below. Greeting me, Dipa Ma would take my head in her hands, stroke my hair, and whisper, “May you be happy, may you be peaceful.” Over tea, as we discussed my meditation practice, she would gently push me beyond my self-imposed limits. "You can do it.” “Sit longer.” “Be more diligent.”
Kalu Rinpoche was near Darjeeling, India when I first studied with him. My home was a shack on a top of a hill with no solid roof or walls. I received only one meal a day. My water source was a stream at the bottom of the hill. During the monsoon, I had to wrap my hut in sheets of plastic. Kalu Rinpoche inspired me to try to bring teachings on generosity, patience and renunciation into every day.
Kalu Rinpoche taught, “If a hundred people sleep and dream, each of them will experience a different world in their dream. Everyone’s dream might be said to be true, but it would be meaningless to ascertain that only one’s person’s dream was the true world and all others were fallacies. There’s truth for each perceiver, according to the karmic patterns conditioning their perceptions.”
Sayadaw U Pandita came to Barre to teach a three-month retreat when I first met him. As a student, I diligently wrote down brief notes af