It was early morning in August 2011 when I woke.
I was sleeping in the back room of a friend’s house when I had the most extraordinary dream. A dream that felt so real, I do believe, it was not an ordinary dream. I dream most nights but mostly these dreams are, as my teacher would say, “just dream.”
He could sound like Yoda at times.
But when you have, what I like to call a blessed dream, you know there is something more to it. The quality. The tone. These just feel different, they feel different in a way that is more than “just a dream.” And there is always a message in there if you know how to look.
It’s important to understand, dreams have a large role in Tibetan Buddhism. We even have a practice called, Dream Yoga. But this was not that. This was a meeting with an old friend I’d never see again. One final meeting with an important message, and one which needed to be said face to face.
In Buddhism, we have a particular class of angels called “messenger being” and messages delivered in dreams have potential meaning that can inform waking life. Over the years I’ve had many of these blessed dreams. So many, in fact, I’ve gotten into the habit of looking back into sleep as I wake. It is such a habit now that it’s more of a reflex than anything conscious. But this one night, the night my teacher passed away was a special dream for more than one reason. It was profound and beautiful with lots of tears. It was his last teaching, a last goodbye, and a message of what he wanted me to do with the remainder of my life. There were not a lot of words spoken but what was said was deep.
To really understand the importance of this dream and why it means so much to me, you first need to see the degree to which this old Tibetan monk influenced every aspect of my life. So hold on as I go back in time more than twenty years to tell you a little of the story of how I got there. How I first met him and the kind of teacher-student relationship we had.
A little bit of history for context
It was 1995 and I’d just been through a messy breakup and was living with friends. I was in my first year at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). A prestigious art school of musicians, painters, and dancers—the Australian Ballet Company, for instance, had a school there. I was there studying music. Jazz specifically. Entry to the music school was highly competitive and thousands of students from around the country would audition yearly for the 30 or so spots. I felt proud of my achievement to be selected but not good enough to be there. I felt like I’d swindled my way in by being “arty” rather than talented.
For as long as I can remember I was inspired by the idea of leading a meaningful life through art. I was not one to ever feel the pull of being a father, a husband, or even a career despite the fact my own father assumed this was all a phase and I would take over the family business in time. These vocations all seemed like lost time to me. Not a waste of time, as I saw their value for some people, but not for me. I was a skinny kid with a big dream, and an even bigger obsession with avant-gard jazz and the American saxophonist, John Coltrane. Like “Trane” I played the tenor and soprano saxophone. Like him, I too saw friends die of heroin overdoses. And just like Coltrane I too saw music as a gateway to the transcendent—a means of touching something deeper inside ourselves and allowing it to come through into conscious waking life. Luckily for me, and unlike Coltrane, I had no real talent and this fact would allow me to eventually escape the lifestyle I was about to step into.
I’d moved into a share house with other students from the VCA. And there were lots of parties and late-night jam sessions. The father of one of the students owned a small winery in Tasmania and from time to time we’d be sent cases of wine, which we would consume with much gusto and a lot of noise. I was four months into the program at VCA and I was an emotional wreck. Laughing one minute and crying the next. Breakups are hard for young love and this one hurt the most because it also carried with it a rejection of the person I was trying to become. My self-esteem took a heavy hit because for three years I’d tried to be someone I wasn’t in order to be loved. It felt like something had slipped through my fingers and I was forced to face impermanence while desperately trying to hold on as I felt it fall away.
During the breakup, I’d called my small group of friends to find another place to live but no one had a spare room. Lots of couches but nothing to move my gear into. I rang my friend Dan. Dan was a tall lanky hippy-looking kid that never seemed to shower but the girls seemed to love him. He felt bad for me but said there was no room not even a couch. He even added that his housemates were stable and got along well. I felt stuck, unloved, and unwanted.
Two days later the phone rang in the late afternoon. I was sitting on the floor in the same place as three days before feeling like the world had turned against me. And the phone startled me because no one ever called. I picked it up after three rings. It was Dan. He greeted me with an unusual amount of enthusiasm in his voice. He was already quite an upbeat kind of guy so I knew something was up. “Hey man you won’t believe this…” he said almost jumping through the phone. “One of my housemates had to leave because she became allergic to the carpet.” The carpet? How weird. “I know right? She has been here for over a year now but came down with this rash in the last few days. Half her body is red raw with these tiny little blisters and apparently, it’s the carpet! So there is a room here for you after all.” He was right, I could hardly believe it. I moved in the next day.
The house was a hot spot for artists and musicians. The room I moved into was a wonderful space, of good size, with a bay window looking out into a quiet inner suburban street, to which I would immediately cut myself off by closing the drapes. There was an unused fireplace in the corner, which gave a nice homely feeling to the cave I’d set myself up in withdrawn from the world. There were always a lot of people coming and going at all times of the day and night. It was a place for me to recover. To grieve. To cry and eat and drink and be loud without being heard. Intuitively I felt I was in a good place even if I was a little untethered.
I mentioned to someone, at some point, over pasta and perhaps too much wine that I felt like the old Clarke was dying a slow painful death. But I was excited about this as all change comes from suffering—I had no idea if this was true or not but I liked its sound. A few days later, upon hearing this conversation, a different friend lent me a book called the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which I devoured within a day. I particularly enjoyed reading about the relationship the author had with his teachers. After this, I read Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nat Han, the Vietnamese Zen monk. And another book on the Life of the Buddha, which I cannot recall the title of now but remember being utterly transfixed by the story. I think I read it twice in fact. They do say that the teacher appears when the student is ready so I guess this all unfolded in the right order and at the right time.
One day, perhaps a week or two after arriving, I came out of my room as a former classmate, and drummer, who I had not seen in some time was walking in. I’d been crying and she could see this but was polite enough not to make a fuss. She said hello and continued on, carrying a bass drum in her arms. I’d come out of my room to find food. So I quickly did that. Before escaping back into the darkness to read and before the rehearsal began.
Several hours passed before the noise finally stopped and it was safe to emerge from my room again. This time the band was on a break and my drummer friend pulled me aside. “I heard what happened. Everyone is very worried because you lock yourself away in that dark room for hours and you don’t make any noise. Are you ok?” I was coping well, or so I thought but, looking back now I can see I was, in fact, a total mess. My friends were concerned that I might take my own life. But truth be told I was having a wonderful time. Reading, meditating, thinking, and imagining what it would be like to be the people in the books I’d been given. I was shocked that my behavior would be so misunderstood. Behavior, that to me at least, was natural and gentle, and kind. I was taking care of my inner life while rejecting the outer I guess. And this scares people. She ended the conversation by telling me about a Buddhist temple she had recently visited out near the airport with a Western monk. Saying, “I think it might do you some good to talk to him.” Little did I know the changes that were about to come.
Calling The Tibetan Temple
A few days later, with this information in hand, I decided to call the temple. But first I had to find the name as she’d forgotten to mention anything other than it was near the airport. Using the Yellow Pages I looked up the word Buddhist and ran my finger down the shortlist until I found the only listing near the airport. And full of nerves dialed the numbers of the old-school phone—184.108.40.206…and the others…and waited. The phone began to ring. And continued to ring for what seemed like too long. Then the ringing stopped and I heard a woman’s voice, “Tibetan Buddhist Society. How can I help”. She seemed friendly enough if not a little rushed. I found out later this was the Tibetan lama secretary and she was indeed always in a rush. I responded, “Um…oh…hi, um…I’m just looking for some information about Buddhism. Is there anyone I can speak with?” She said, we have two monks living here. A Tibetan lama and a Western monk, and that she could arrange for me to speak with the Western monk. I don’t recall if the time was set there on the phone but a time was set nevertheless for a one-to-one chat with the Western monk. I do recall my surprise reaction to the word, “lama.” That triggered something in me. And the fact there was a Tibetan lama living in the same city gave me a sense of confidence I was moving in the right direction.
First Contact with Buddhists
As I did not have a car and the monastery was a forty-minute drive out of the city, I asked my friend Dan if he would like to tag along. He agreed, of course, as Dan was always the kind of guy that was up for an adventure and also had a passing interest in meditation.
The meeting was on a cold and dark Tuesday night in July 1995. We arrived early and sat waiting to be shown where to go. I had a bunch of questions written down on a piece of paper, and I was nervously thumbing through them when the woman I had spoken to on the phone walked toward us with a polite smile and greeted us with a hello. We were then led through several sections of the monastery—around many corners, through a strange courtyard between sections of the monastery, and into a small office at the other end of the property. The place felt huge but the office was small. We were told to wait here.
We sat in uncomfortable office chairs and waited. But not for too long before a short, stout western monk with a broad smile and boyish enthusiasm burst through the door. We stood as he bounced into the room with a warm hello gesturing for us to sit. We did. And he followed us by launching himself into the chair opposite me. Leant in and said, “How are you.” He’d been a successful executive in one of Australia’s largest telecommunication companies but had given that up to become a Buddhist monk and help write books with the Tibetan lama.
I got my list of questions out. He smiled, “You came prepared I see.” I did and began the rattling off the questions one by one. By the end of the questions, an hour had gone by and while the western monk had answered every single one with ease, I now had more questions and the mental list was even longer than it was before we started. He made signs that it was time to end the meeting but I did not want it to end. So I asked one final question, “What do I do now?” and with that, he smiled the warmest smile I’d ever seen, and placed his hand on a book sitting between us, “Read this.”
My First Dharma Lesson
The following Sunday afternoon, there I was along with 50 others jammed into a small space used as the meditation room. People talked quietly amongst themselves and I stood alone holding the book the Western monk had mentioned. It was a 1000-page tome. A book he and the lama had written. The book was heavy and dense. And I’d just purchased it not fifteen minutes earlier. It still had that fresh new book smell. The feeling of holding something precious felt strange as I flipped through the pages with a gleeful hope the answers to all the many questions swimming inside my head would be found. The room fell silent. The lama was coming. I closed the book. Took a breath. And stood there in silence, waiting.
We did not have to wait long before the lama together with the western monk following behind appeared. The hush felt natural if not a little unusual. He climbed a few steps onto the teacher’s throne and sat. With that everyone around me started prostrating themselves. I was so startled by this immediate, and for me at the time, bizarre act, I too fell to the floor trying to mimic those around me, which only made the whole thing worst. I knocked the person in front of me with my head as he was standing. “Oh sorry,” I politely said quietly. But got no reply. As everyone was going down I was coming up; as everyone was coming up I was going down. It was a total mess. I finished and sat feeling just a wee bit embarrassed.
After all the initial bowing and prayers were out of the way, we finally got down to business. I’ve always been impatient and I was certainly being impatient that day as I wanted to hear the secrets of life directly from the lama. I was there for wisdom, not ritual. Then the lama began to speak and I could not make out a word. Was he speaking in Tibetan or English? I could not make it out. After a while, I caught a word or two of English. “Oh, it is English,” I said to myself and began to listen more closely. His accent and style were so foreign I had to listen with great effort and I loved it. I loved how it made me lean in just to catch a word, a phrase, the gist. It was like a sport, bobbing and weaving through my own misunderstanding to grok what he was saying and the hidden meaning behind it all. But, I must admit I was losing. I was missing more than I was getting on that first day until towards the end of the class, he paused, looked me directly in the eye, and said, “Big ego cause of all problems in this world.” Then nodded at me as if to say, did you understand what I am saying to you? I did, and this was the moment I knew, I was in the right place. He cut through all my crap and right to the heart of the problem, and it made me uncomfortable. I love that feeling. It is the feeling of growth. Of being shaken from the inside. This was my first class and it was exactly what I had been searching for. And I was home. After a long journey to get here, I was home.
Move into the monastery and my relationship with the teacher
In the article, How to Bend Like a Piece of Wood, I mention the skills and patience with which my teacher (we called him Geshe-la) taught me about my path ahead. That I needed to be wise and patient, particularly with myself. He saw in me from the very start an eagerness that could quickly lead to burnout. So he told me to learn computers and get a job in IT. But all I wanted to do was study and meditate, and most lamas would have agreed to this but he was not like most lamas. Even other Tibetan lamas would agree with this. So I took his advice seriously and have reminded myself of this lesson ever since.
Now you might get from that article that Geshe-la was kind and gentle. And he was kind and gentle but he was no pushover. He was known to be very tough with his close students. And of course, my ego would point that out when I was being scolded. He would find ways to get around this but scolding in public. For example, I recall one time walking into the main kitchen after a rather difficult phone call with my father. My father was not happy with something and I was a little too short with him. Geshe-la was there sitting with about ten students. I could see them as I approached the glass door to the kitchen, and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. Then, as I opened the door Geshe-la turned to me with a look of disapproval, stood, and walked out of the room mid-sentence. Everyone turned to see what made Geshe-la leave the room in such a rush. I knew, but could only stand there feeling humiliated. There was no hiding from him. His wisdom was deep and his lessons forceful at times but if you stepped inside his compassionate sphere you were choosing to be there. I knew what I was signing up for and why, and I was very happy to be there.
I have always tended to resist any kind of possessive affection on the part of any other human being—there has always been this profound instinct to keep clear, to keep free. And only with truly supernatural people have I ever felt really at ease. And although it felt like he could see right through me, I felt a deep sense of peace being near him. I saw him most days. On weekends I would make afternoon tea and the two of us would spend time chatting. Over the years we had so many wonderful conversations about life, people, and the politics of the day. Sometimes there were long gaps of comfortable silence. Sometimes debates about philosophy. His impression of George W. Bush made me laugh on more than one occasion. But the greatest kindness he ever showed me was his presence in my life. A guiding light in an ocean of suffering. A wise old grandfather from another place and another time.
And when I say a guiding force, I truly mean that because many of the lessons I received were spoken without words. For instance, I recall many years after the humiliating experience of him fleeing as I entered the kitchen filled with students all having a grand old time, I had been meditating strongly in a personal retreat on compassion. And I had an experience where a feeling of connection to every single living being came up very strongly, to the point that I wept tears of joy. Not tears of joy at their suffering but rather that I was going to do something about their suffering—it was a spontaneous eruption of loving-kindness like I had never experienced before. And the feeling of warmth and of bliss that washed through my mind and body was a little overwhelming so I stopped after a while and went to the kitchen for a cup of tea. As I approached the door, I could see Geshe-la inside talking to a Western nun. When I opened the door he turned to me, and smiled the warmest and most loving smile ever. Then walked off, again. The nun then turned to me and said, “What have you been doing!” “Oh, nothing” I replied coyly. This was not like him and she knew it as much as I did. Interestingly her attitude toward me changed that day.
To me, he was an enlightened being. Someone with deep wisdom and deep compassion whose every interaction with every single person I ever saw came from a place of concern for that person, not himself. But speaking for myself, I can say hand-over-heart he had unconditional love for me, in the Buddhist sense of that word. A genuine wish for my happiness, and my happiness alone, without anything in return. He was always there whenever I needed him to be.
Moving out of the monastery
But I was still searching. I wanted more. I wanted to spend my time reading and meditating, not working in IT. That same old urge to dive headfirst into what I was passionate about was still in me. Where every waking moment would be dedicated to the thing I loved most of all, and that thing was the life of a contemplative. So I began to look into teaching Buddhism at university in order to earn my living from the thing I loved the most. But I quickly found that I would need a Ph.D. to do so. And even then jobs were scarce.
I decided to try and get into a Ph.D. program and see what came of it. After a lot of research, naysaying from some at the monastery, I found a program that would let me in if I could write a Masters thesis within six weeks and it passed the required level for entry into their program. I was under the pump and I felt alive!
Many people thought I was crazy. Indeed many people thought I had no chance of getting into the program at all. But it felt like the right course of action for me, and for that time. And it was something I wanted to try my hand at. So I never consulted Geshe-la for his thoughts. But I did get an indication on several occasions that it was up to me. For instance, one time while I was cleaning the upstairs balcony area of our temple he appeared out of nowhere. I had been assigned this area, and in the two years I’d been cleaning it every Saturday morning, he had never come upstairs. But as I was cleaning and ruminating on whether or not I should attempt the Ph.D., he appeared out of nowhere and offered me chocolate, then left. Ok, I told myself, I guess that’s that.
I wrote the piece. Got accepted into the program. But now I had a decision to make. A decision that would mean moving to a different state. It was not a difficult decision to make but it was difficult to leave the monastery. I’d lived with him for 14 years. I had grown up spiritually with him at my side. If I had problems or needed his advice all I had to do was go and see him. But leaving meant more than leaving this. It meant a new phase in my life and this was both exciting and scary. And it wasn’t without politics either. Many of my fellow Dharma brothers and sisters thought I was wrong to leave. That somehow I was abandoning the teacher. And some people were quite happy to tell me I would fail. I ignored it mostly as it was nothing more than petty jealousy, ignorance, or both. And I reminded myself that even if I failed I would have succeeded for simply trying. By the time I left the monastery Geshe-la was 83, and as it turned out would pass away three years later.
The Politics of Death
The politics of passing away is something unique to Tibetan Buddhism. For often high lamas will meditate for days, even weeks as they die, and after all vital signs have stopped. Because of this, many of those around the lama at the time close shop so to speak, and this is exactly what happened. I had gone off to do my Ph.D. I traveled to India. Lived in another state and much had changed in that time. Before I’d left Geshe-la had arranged to be written two official letters for me to present to the Tibetan government on his behalf. These were letters stating I was his student, and to look after me. And I was well looked after indeed. But given I had left the monastery I was no longer a part of the inner circle, and now I could not even see him as he was passing away. Death is a messy business. The death of a lama is not that, but not without its politics.
Geshe-la meditated for ten days in the clear light of death. This was a sign he was indeed a high lama. But I needed no signs to know this. News of his last meditation made it back to his monastery in India and monks from monasteries in India, Tibet, and Australia all gathered to recite traditional prayers. It’s a celebration of sorts. But now, as he was meditating into the face of death itself, those around him refused me access. I was confused and alone, and that was my state at this time.
The Dream of Dreams
It was important to get the historical context and a little bit about the relationship with my teacher before going into the dream. For while I spent most of this article setting up the dream, the dream itself is rather short, and to the point, but the message of the dream could easily fill an entire book. By doing so the significance of the dream will be felt more deeply, and the impact of its will be better understood. Let’s now turn to the dream itself.
Geshe-la lived on the second floor. He had a very modest area, almost like a one-bedroom apartment with a bedroom, bathroom, and an open living area for everything else. It was in this open living area where he would receive visitors and where he and I spent hours on hours talking over cups of tea for the 14 years I was with him. The area itself was a nice size with an ornate timber bookcase at one end that kept his personal copies of ancient Buddhist text that he had taken with him on his escape from Tibet in 1949. Opposite to that were four bays of French windows looking out over the gardens of the monastery, and on either side walls hung Tibetan thankas of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and a lounge setting with an armchair and a three seater lounge against one wall.
The dream begins as I walk into his living room. I noticed that the lounge that normally sat against the side wall was now in the middle of the room and facing the light as it flooded into the room from the direction of the French windows. I saw what I thought to be Geshe-la sitting in the lounge chair, but how could that be, I thought to myself. So I walked quietly towards the lounge and slowly peeked around the corner to see who was sitting there. I was wearing an oversized cowboy hat, and as I stretched my neck around the corner to see who it was, he looked up at me with a smile.
I took the hat off and thought to myself, he is still alive. I was in shock as it seemed the idea that he had died was all a bad dream. I moved around to the side of the lounge, still in shock, so he could see me, “Geshe-la.” I said out loud without speaking. He smiled at me like a loving grandfather. And held out his hand as if to say, “Come here.” I should have known it was not real as he spoke without words. But at the time I was convinced he was really alive and I was really with him.
To this day, what happened next floored me. With the gentleness of pure love and affection, he reached out slowly with both arms and gently held my head and face in his hands. Then pulled me closer so that our foreheads touched. Then he spoke for the first time, with one simple word—Bodhichitta. And he repeated this word again and again and again and again—like a mantra. With every repetition the significance of what he was saying to me began to dawn. And I now knew this was his final teaching. His final message. And his final goodbye. Tears swelled as the mantra continued. Before long I could not hold them back any longer. I began to cry tears of joy and profound sadness because I knew, as he held me in his hands, these were our final moments together. It was a sweet moment I did not want to end. And with that thought, as if to give me another teaching on impermanence, I woke from the dream with my eyes full of tears and my pillow soaked. At that point, I knew the truth. I knew he had just left us. And that despite all the discipline and tough love over the years, this is how he really felt. It was a message of love, of warmth, of affection. Grandfatherly advice given as a last goodbye. I got a text message from a monk still at the monastery a few hours later to say he was gone.
The sorrow has faded but the joy remains. So it is difficult to find the words to describe the feeling I have remembering his passing. To have such a beautiful moment with our foreheads touching as his final goodbye is a priceless gift. It has been difficult to find the words to describe the impact he had on my life. But I have tried. For instance, when I left the monastery for the Ph.D., I wrote him a letter and I wrote it by hand. In the letter, I mentioned several things and also said this, “You have been more than a father, more than a mother, more than a best friend. You put a roof over my head, fed me, and helped me find work. You have taught me everything from philosophy to politics, from meditation to the benefits of eating well…There is simply no way I could ever repay your kindness.“
In typical Geshe-la fashion, the Western monk mentioned above told me later that Geshe-la accused him of writing the letter for me. They wrote nine books together, so this was Geshe-la’s way of saying to me that he liked my letter and thought it was well-written. And I was happy to hear that but, there is no greater gift than that of his presence. He continues to shape me in ways that I cannot see or even begin to imagine. He made a deep and bright mark on my heart. And that is the point of the teacher.