Meet My Teacher
When I first met Tulku Sangak Rinpoche, I wasn’t expecting to. In fact, I wasn’t expecting to meet anyone.
It was my first solitary retreat, for ten days in the desert outside Santa Fe. I was working on the first two sections of the Preliminary Practices—the Ngöndro—a set of very foundational Vajrayana practices. I’d made great progress on the second one in particular, which mainly focuses on expanding our capacity for compassion. I would soon be ready for the third section, which focuses on clearing away our faults and karma.
Just as I was finishing retreat, about thirty people gathered, to be with a Rinpoche—a high lama—who appeared at this house in the middle of the desert. The high lama was going to give an “empowerment,” an initiation which would open their minds to the practice that was to be taught, and connect them to it in a deep way. What practice might that be? The very next one I was going to do! Who was this lama? Gochen Tulku Sangak (formerly spelled Sang-ngag) Rinpoche, whom I’d never heard of. I thought, “Oh, I might as well go to it—I’m already here and my retreat just finished, so I have the time.”
After the empowerment, I came for a personal interview with Rinpoche. Since he didn’t know a word of English, and at the time I didn’t know a word of Tibetan, we needed a translator. It just happened to be Sangye Khandro, a leading translator in the West, who had almost never translated for Rinpoche.
Rinpoche was medium height and wiry, with dark, weathered skin. Somehow the patterns of his wrinkles made beautiful designs. He seemed middle-aged, but it was impossible to tell how old he really was. When he smiled, he showed big white teeth, and the weathered skin crinkled around his eyes in the most appealing shapes. His smiles were infectious. Luckily they came almost constantly, in waves, sometimes tiny, sometimes huge, accompanied by a surprisingly high-pitched laugh that tickled me from the inside so that I had to laugh too. And this was before the translation of what he said.
Contrary to many Western notions about enlightened Asian masters, Rinpoche hardly stayed still. Sometimes he doodled with a pencil and paper while waiting for the translations back and forth. Sometimes he lightly jumped up and paced around the room. Wherever he went, he left trails of graceful line drawings of lotuses, clouds, calligraphy, and other images. His fine-boned hands made the most lovely gestures that had a grace about them that wasn’t at all like Western men’s, yet wasn’t in the least effeminate. His voice was low and kind of froggy, occasionally leaping into falsetto to emphasize a word here or there. I’ve since noticed that the Dalai Lama and many other Tibetan men use this falsetto for emphasis as well.
In all of this pondering the most obvious, striking point never occurred to me. This lama, who had just dropped in from nowhere to this out-of-the-way place, happened to be giving a lineage transmission and introduction to the very next practice I was about to start doing…and I didn’t get that he was the teacher I’d been praying for!