Relate to things as they are

by Suzanne Duarte.

I was attracted to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche because I needed a teacher who spoke truth as I saw it – the raw truth of the world. I had a plethora of choices of teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Hindu and Sufi teachers, as well as the great Suzuki Roshi, were all available. But when I found Chögyam Trungpa, I stuck to him like glue.

I was already concerned about our collective future before I met Rinpoche in 1972, but when I found myself reciting the Sadhana of Mahamudra the first time I walked into a Dharmadhatu (aka Shambhala Center) in 1974, that clinched it for me. That shared concern for the future was the main reason I became his student and it fueled my devotion to him.

Trungpa Rinpoche spoke of the dharma as truth, as reality, as it manifests in our personal lives and in the world. He acknowledged the pain of coming to terms with the dharma – reality – both in oneself and the world. And his stories of the teachers of the lineage, which were my introduction to the dharma, illustrated the necessity to penetrate the illusions of society in order to become one with the dharma. The path of dharma, as he told us repeatedly, is a lonely path, and there are no guarantees of safety, security or comfort.

All of this immediately resonated with me, but Rinpoche’s ironic sense of humor was the clincher. His sense of irony is the reason I trusted him. And the deeper I have contemplated the path of dharma as the path of truth, the more ironic it seems.

In many ways, these pith instructions had been with me all my life. I was born into a family in which it was both possible and necessary to hear my inner voice and have an inner life if I was going to have any sanity. When I was three years old, I realized mine would be a unique and lonely path. At age eight, I received a public spanking for speaking a truth and refusing to go along with a charade. After that humiliation, I vowed not to forsake my inner knowing, even if I must sometimes keep it to myself. At age fifteen, I became aware that I have an ‘inner voice.’ It said very clearly (in reference to the small-town gossip that I was in the midst of), “These people don’t know they can be free. But I do, and I’m not going to get stuck in a small, little life. I’m going to be a citizen of the planet.”

These ‘awakenings’ taught me that I had to rely on my own inner voice, my own intelligence, be true to myself, and not depend on the approval of others or seek external validation from authority figures. I began to peel off from the herd – conventional society represented by my family – early in life. Although my family didn’t appreciate my ironic humor, it had become my signature by the time I hit junior high school.

Inevitably, however, in order to survive as a child, one must conform to society’s norms to some extent, even when they are absurd or unhealthy. And I did. I became ‘socialized’ by putting on the mask, or persona, of a well-behaved middle-class girl, while underneath I was a defiant seeker of truth. But there’s a price to pay for hiding the truth: one must pretend to be something one is not. This sows the seed of deception, which creates samsara, as the Vidyadhara said:

With tremendous deception, we create samsara – pain and misery for the whole world, including ourselves – but we still come off as if we were innocent. We call ourselves ladies and gentlemen, and we say, “I never commit any sins or create any problems. I’m just a regular old person, blah blah blah.” That snowballing of deception and the type of existence our deception creates are shocking. ~ Introduction to The Truth Of Suffering And The Path Of Liberation

He also said,

The most difficult discipline is to be what you are. Constantly trying to be what you are NOT is much easier, because we are trained to con either ourselves or others, to fit things into appropriate categories.” (From Crazy Wisdom.)

Moment of Truth

A big moment of truth for me occurred during a month-long Vajrayogini retreat in late 1981 or early 1982, while I was staffing Karme-Chöling (KCl). During that retreat I realized what I’d been hiding from Rinpoche: my inner life! I saw that I had a sense of ‘shame’ attached to it, and that the hiding and shame were inherited, not really mine – and that my true nature was stainless. As I came out of retreat, I supplicated for the opportunity to offer my root guru what I’d been hiding.

Rinpoche was scheduled to go on a ‘family retreat’ with Lady Diana and the children. As soon as I stepped into the dining room at KCl, I heard that Rinpoche had decided to bring the family to Bhumi Pali Bhavana (BPB), his house at KCl, instead of Charlemont. Since I was the household manager at BPB, that meant that I would set the house up for the family’s visit. It also meant that I would see him – soon!

I poured my heart into a letter exposing to him my inner life of visions, dreams and voices, and my fears. I also poured my heart into meticulously setting up BPB. My first shift as housekeeper, after the family had arrived, started while they were in town. When they returned, everyone came into the house through the kitchen. The older kids and the kusung went upstairs, and Rinpoche settled himself at the table while Lady Diana milled around the kitchen with Ashoka.

As I was washing dishes, Rinpoche sat directly behind me with his back to me. He was reading letters from students. Each time he opened a letter, he said the name of the student out loud: “Oh! So-and so!” I stood at the sink praying that I might have a chance to talk to him alone, not knowing whether my letter was in the batch he was reading. He didn’t say, “Oh, Suzanne Head!”

When I had finished washing and drying the dishes, there was nothing left to do but put them into the cupboard. My shift was almost over. Lady Diana was standing in front of the cupboard, where I needed to go, so I simply stood to Rinpoche’s left with a pile of dishes in my hands, waiting for her to move.

Then Rinpoche turned and looked at me. He looked and he looked and he looked. I stood at attention, meeting his eyes, and let him look all the way through me. My heart said, ‘I’m all yours – no more hiding.’

Then, magically, everything shifted. Diana moved, I put the dishes away, and without a word, I was left alone with Rinpoche. He had read my letter and assured me that what I was seeing as my next move was the right one. “You’ll find your strength,” he said. “I trust you. You’ll be fine.”

After that pithy moment, a whole new chapter in my relationship with him unfolded, in which our conversations were very open and transparent. I was totally his, totally at his service. I had no ‘personal life’ that was not geared to responsibilities within the sangha for several years after that.

Idealism and Truth

In retrospect, I believe Rinpoche guided my path to becoming a ‘citizen of the planet’ even before that moment at Karme-Chöling. There was a great deal I needed to learn, for I was extremely, naïvely idealistic. First, I was invited to write specific articles for the Vajradhatu Sun. This began the development of my writing talent, which later served me well in many ways. After the KCl moment, I was asked to play a role, with others, in reporting to Rinpoche about corruption within the sangha, which sensitized me to issues of power and politics within the sangha.

Later, after innocently telling Rinpoche’s secretary that I was interested in environmental politics, I was invited to an interview with the Vidyadhara. After I told him some of my dreams, which he interpreted, I was given a position as a Vajradhatu representative in a United Nations project. This educated me further about deception and corruption in the world.

These experiences also taught me a great deal about my own naïveté and personal blind spots, while preparing me to step out of the sangha into the larger world. Ironically, although I was not particularly successful in those positions, I received a “Planetary Citizen” lapel pin from James George, an advisor on the UN project, after I told him of my concern about environmental destruction.

After Rinpoche died, my path expanded further into international environmental politics, which exposed me to corruption on a global scale. But world work also exposed my shortcomings and vulnerabilities, which compelled me to work on myself. I doubt I would have learned so much about myself if I had spent the rest of my life as a ‘professional Buddhist.’ Twelve years of that was enough.

As Trungpa Rinpoche said in Just the Facts:

Dharma literally means “truth” or “norm.” It is a particular way of thinking, a way of viewing the world, which is not a concept but experience. This particular truth is very painful truth – usually truths are…. The truth is about you, your existence, your experience. It’s about you…. If we don’t face what we are experiencing then there’s no path.

One of the ironies of the path of truth, for me, is how often I have been deceived by my own visionary idealism, and have gotten in over my head due to ignorance of my own limitations and needs. Some of my international adventures have resulted in personal crisis. Thus, my path as a ‘planetary citizen’ has been as much about accepting the truth of my personal situation, such as my vulnerabilities and boundaries, as about the truth of the world.

I still don’t know what the Dorje Dradül meant about implying the truth rather than spelling it out, even though I’ve been puzzling over this for decades. However, while I definitely have not mastered inscrutability, I am certain that speaking the truth openly is often truly not welcome or skillful, and that prajna without upaya can cause unnecessary trouble and embarrassment for oneself and others. The path of truth has required me to develop compassionate skillful means. This has meant refining my perceptions and insights by listening to feedback and constantly questioning my own assumptions.

Being mission-driven, as I continue to be at age 66, I still find myself asking, ‘What am I willing to surrender in order to be true to myself and my vision? What am I willing to die for?’ The path of dharma, the path of truth, always entails risks of blunders, mishaps and losses. But it also enables one to get back on one’s horse and keep going. In the rubble of failure one finds nuggets of gold – humbling truths that enable one to remain in integrity, true to oneself, connected with reality, one with the dharma – and also the inspiration to propagate the truth, the dharma, fearlessly and even more skillfully.