The Mahasiddha and His Idiot Servant
by John Riley Perks
Crazy Heart Publishers
John Perks was Chogyam Tringpa Rinpoche's butler, attendant, and personal secretary for seven years. This is a book about their personal relationship --- a book Trungpa Rinpoche asked the author to write.
"Ven. Seonaidh Perks played a crucial role in the creation of many of the Vidyadhara's institutions and his story of their mutual dance is hilarious, wild, shocking and poignant.This book is a rare thing."
Douglas Pennick, author of Gesar of Ling, Wisdom Publications
"It is the first intimate and authoritative account of Chogyam Trungpa, arguably the most important spiritual teacher in America's last century..."
Kidder Smith, Professor of Asian Studies, Bowdoin College
"It has been a keen pleasure---indeed a privelege--- to read your story."
Jan Frazer, teacher and writer
The Mahasiddha and His Idiot Servant can be ordered through: Amazon.com
240 pages with photographs
Crazy Heart Publishers
PO Box 602
Saxtons River,VT 05154
COMPASSION COMES AND GOES IN MY MIND LIKE THE SUN ON A CLOUDY DAY. THEN IT RAINS AND I DISSOLVE INTO EMPTINESS WITH AN UNENDING YEARNING HEART.
News reached us in the late summer of 1981 that His Holiness, the Sixteenth Karmapa, the lineage holder, was leaving the monastery at Rumtek in Northern India. He was going to a hospital in Hong Kong for exploratory surgery. Liver cancer was suspected. Doctor Mike would go on ahead to the hospital. I was to travel with Rinpoche if, and when, Mike sent word that the situation was serious. Several days later Mike called from Hong Kong and I spoke to him briefly.
“Well, it looks like he’s dying, Johnny,” he said. Feeling uncomfortable discussing His Holiness’s death and keeping my British stiff upper lip, I asked about the weather.
“It’s damn hot and humid,” came the answer from Mike.
“I’ll pack summer stuff for Rinpoche and myself,” I said.
“Say, Johnny, there are some great-looking girls over here,” continued Mike.
“You get laid yet?”
“No, but I’m staying at this house with some beautiful Philippine and Chinese girls.”
“Right, right,” I said, enviously picturing Doctor Mike in a steaming house with Asian girls, all naked and fucking. You could send this guy to the Arctic and within twenty-four hours he’d end up with pussy in his bed.
“See you in a few days, then.” I finished and handed the phone to Rinpoche so he could hear the news firsthand himself.
“Let’s fly Japan Air first class,” Rinpoche said to me as I headed off to pack the uniforms, medals, and suits.
This is going to be a great trip, I thought to myself. There will be Japan Airlines first class, the best hotel rooms in Hong Kong, beautiful Asian women, and great food. Wow! I’ll be like a soldier on furlough from the frontline of Rinpoche’s unceasing barrages. This time Mike and I will escape from Rinpoche and have a glorious time.
It was decided that Carl, one of the ministers, and Bob, a Kusung at the Court, would also go along. I was glad to have Bob along. He had been with Rinpoche for a long time and he was a wonderful schemer, extremely bright, and a talented man of the world. I knew that I could depend on him, like Mike, to help manage Rinpoche.
We left Boulder in an atmosphere of tears and sadness over the impending death of His Holiness. I was sad and tearful too, but also excited about the exotic trip ahead. We stayed several days in San Francisco before boarding the Japan Air Boeing 747 for the ten-hour flight to Japan, followed by the flight to Hong Kong. Rinpoche and I were seated in first class. He wore one of his Savile Row suits and was traveling as the Prince of Bhutan. I was in the uniform of an army major, English style, but with the Shambhala insignia. Mike had given me Rinpoche’s medication and some sleeping pills to keep him quiet. As we winged over the Pacific we were served Japanese sushi and lots of saké.
Rinpoche wanted to go to the bathroom and as always I went with him. We both squeezed inside the small aircraft bathroom so I could help him take down his trousers and raise them again after he was done. On returning to our seats Rinpoche loudly demanded my aisle seat and more saké. I became a bit alarmed. I knew it was essential to get him to sleep before he began sending me to the pilots with messages about meeting with heads of government in Hong Kong. It had happened to me before! “Time for pills, Sir,” I said smoothly, and handed him two sleeping pills. Rinpoche took them easily and swallowed them with a big glass of saké.
“More,” he said.
“More saké, Sir?” I asked.
“No. More sleeping pills.”
“Well, Sir, Mike said . . .”
“More,” he commanded.
I gave him two more, twice the prescribed dose. He flushed them down with the last of the saké.
“Wheee!” exclaimed Rinpoche, and he took the empty saké bottle and threw it down the floor toward the front of the aircraft. It bounced off the feet of the formally attired Japanese stewardess. She came over and I half stood up in the seat.
“Sorry,” I said. “The Prince would like some more saké.”
The stewardess politely did a half-bow and went to get another bottle. As she left, Rinpoche moved past me with remarkable swiftness and out into the aisle to the main exit door of the aircraft. I reached him just as he had grabbed hold of the door-handle and was beginning to turn it.
“Sir,” I hissed under my breath.
“What do you want?” He looked at me like I was crazy. “Let’s go for a walk,” he said, brightly.
“Sir, Sir!” I exclaimed near panic. “We are at thirty thousand feet over the ocean in an airplane!”
“Oh,” he said innocently. “I thought we were at the Court.”
As I steered him back to our seats, he spotted the stairs leading to the top deck of the aircraft. “Let’s go to bed, then,” he suggested and he started up the steps.
“Sir,” I explained quietly. “Those beds have been reserved for other passengers.” I finally got him back to the seat and sat him next to the window to block further escapes.
“More saké,” he said.
I rationed out another glassful and tried to get him settled down, praying that the sleeping pills would finally kick in. He seemed to nod off. For the first time in hours I relaxed in my seat and stretched my legs.
“Major,” he said suddenly, startling me, “tell the pilots to radio ahead and let the Emperor know that I will be one hour late for our meeting.”
There I was, back on the front line in an instant. I got up reluctantly and walked toward the pilot’s cabin, as if on my way to the electric chair. I hated having to do this. A stewardess intercepted me at the entrance.
“Can I help you, sir?”
I thought quickly. “Could I have a pillow?”
She found one and I returned with it to Rinpoche, who seemed to be sleeping. I had only just sat down when he asked, “Did you send the message, Johnny?” “Yes,” I lied.
“Good. Then go ahead and also tell them to notify the High Commissioner in Hong Kong that we will meet on Wednesday.”
Up I got again. I went over to the stewardess and told her that the Prince of Bhutan would appreciate it if the pilot would radio the British High Commissioner and let him know that the Prince would be unable to meet with him next week. To my surprise, she just said, “Of course, sir.”
When I returned to my seat, Rinpoche was banging his head against the wall next to the window. Bang, bang, bang! He would hit his head and then grind his teeth. “Sir, Sir. Can I put a pillow under your head?”
He growled as I stuffed the pillow between his head and the wall. The gentleman in the seat behind us leaned over and asked, “Is the Prince all right?”
“Fine, fine,” I answered testily.
I was suddenly aware of the other first class passengers looking over at me, looking like they thought I was crazy. I felt totally paranoid in my uniform. An elderly woman was eyeing me suspiciously. Did they think Rinpoche was a real Prince? Ugly thoughts entered my mind. Has Rinpoche been talking to them while I was up front with the stewardess? He could have told them anything! Perhaps he intimated I was planning to hijack the plane or even said that I was planning to overthrow the Bhutanese government! I was outraged. Why do these people think I am crazy? He’s the crazy one!
I stabbed a look at him in the seat next to me. There he was, sleeping like an innocent child. Or more like a well-fed tiger, I thought sarcastically. At least things seemed finally to have settled down. The pills were working and he was at last sleeping with a soft rhythmic snore. Relieved, I switched off the overhead lights and waited a few more minutes before heading to the back of the aircraft to take a break with the boys.
Carl saw me coming down the aisle. He must have noticed my haggard look because right away he asked how things had been going up front.
“Jesus, I need a break. He’s acting crazy again.” And I detailed all the things that had happened since the flight began.
“Here, have some coffee,” said Carl.
“Here, have a drink,” Bob offered. I took both and we sat chatting for about ten minutes. Then Carl volunteered to sit with Rinpoche for a while, which I readily accepted. I walked him up the aisle to the first class section and pulled back the dividing curtain. There was Rinpoche, upright in the aisle, smiling broadly, supported on either side by a passenger and from the rear by a stewardess.
“The Prince wants to make a speech to the passengers,” declared the man on his left.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I said hurriedly. “We’ll take him now.”
They looked at Carl and me suspiciously. Yeah, I thought, let them think we’re going to assassinate the gentle Prince. “It’s not a bad idea at that,” I muttered to myself.
“That’s it,” I said to Carl in a peeved tone, as we dragged Rinpoche to the back of the aircraft. “That’s it for his tricks.” I was now taking charge of this situation!
We reached a row of empty seats, where I pushed up the arms to make a bed for Rinpoche. Bob got a blanket and pillows. The gentle Prince settled down and snuggled into the makeshift bed, delighted by all the attention he was getting. He seemed to be dropping off to sleep right away this time, which satisfied me immensely. I’d done it. It had been six hours of this stuff and now he would sleep. Bob, Carl, and I would be able to stand in the aisle and talk, drink, and enjoy the rest of the flight. I congratulated myself on my fortitude and my prowess in handling a difficult situation.
I glanced over to check on Rinpoche one last time. Something was not right. His stomach was bouncing up and down like Jell-O. I realized he was laughing! I looked more closely and saw he was winding a small ball of yarn. With disbelief, my eyes followed the trail of yarn from Rinpoche’s hand to the sweater of the sleeping passenger in the seat in front of him. I made a clumsy dive to snatch the ball away from Rinpoche, waking up the passenger with all the commotion. He looked blearily down at the ball of wool in my hand and then at his partially dismantled sweater, slowly recognizing the connection.
“Sorry,” I said lamely. “I found this on the floor.”
I dropped the small ball of yarn into his hand. He looked at my uniform and said nothing, but he did move to another seat farther away.
“Let’s have breakfast,” piped up Rinpoche, cheerily. Wondering about the time, I looked at my watch, but couldn’t see the hands. I looked again, but it seemed like a foreign object. I peered out the aircraft window to assess the position of the sun and it took me a full minute to realize the window shade was closed. Finally, I raised the shade, only to find it was pitch black.
“Is it breakfast time?” asked Rinpoche, with a touch of sarcasm.
I flushed with anger. “Yes, Sir, perhaps we could get the Emperor to serve it.”
Bob ran off to fetch breakfast and Rinpoche called Carl over to him.
“I want you to get the first class stewardess back here so I can fuck her,”
Rinpoche said to him. Poor Carl began to protest, but Rinpoche wouldn’t stand for it and so off Carl went on his mission. I was delighted to be off the hook at last and have Carl take my place. I was almost joyful. Rinpoche looked at me sharply.
“Get some saké,” he growled, grinding his teeth.
I brought Rinpoche a full bottle and he drank it down as if it were water.
Down the aisle toward us came Carl with the demure stewardess in tow. Another helpless victim, I was thinking.
Carl drew himself up formally and said, “Your Royal Highness, may I present Ms Yamomuch. Ms Yamomuch, his Royal Highness, the Prince of Bhutan.” During this gracious introduction, the Prince sat on the edge of his seat like Quasimodo about to leap from the bell-tower of Notre Dame. He was swinging his arm back and forth, saké was dripping from his mouth, and his red eyes were rolling like a Mahākāla. He ground his teeth and gave a primordial growl. We were all frozen in fear, including Ms Yamomuch. I noticed his swinging hand was moving ever closer to Ms Yamomuch’s kimono. The next instant, Rinpoche turned his head and looked at me with the piercing eye of a hawk. I was so bewildered by the look, I could not even be sure he had turned his head.
The buzz of a thousand flies fills the space around me. I see all of us frozen in place and Rinpoche is running around us in a counterclockwise direction. His hair is long and streaming out behind him as he runs. There we are, standing in the middle of a desert. I can see the sky, the sand, and the rocks quite clearly. Rinpoche is running around, yelling crazily.
He made a move to reach up Ms Yamomuch’s kimono. I snapped out of it and the others jumped to pull him back. Carl stopped Ms Yamomuch from falling backward into the aisle.
“Very nice to meet you,” she said in a high, meek voice and retreated back to her station. I flopped down in a seat, totally exhausted. This had been going on nonstop for several hours. I had had enough, and I just passed out into sleep.
Carl woke me about half an hour before we were to land in Japan.
“Where is he?” I asked, a bit anxiously.
“He’s asleep,” Carl reassured me. “He went to sleep right away after he met the stewardess. Is it always like this?”
“Most of the time,” I answered.
“God help us.”
We all walked off the plane in Japan like zombies, except the Prince. He was delighted by the prospect of having some real Japanese saké. We were at at Tokyo airport only a few hours until our flight left for Hong Kong. Mercifully, Rinpoche slept the entire second leg of the trip and I began to relax and look forward to seeing Mike in Hong Kong.
I was physically exhausted, but elated also as I thought back to the vision I had seen during the flight. We were all frozen motionless and Rinpoche was running around in this desert landscape trying to pull us out of that. What had it felt like? He had a different body, younger, athletic, and with no sign of his paralyzed left side. He was naked and was running in a clockwise direction, or was it counterclockwise? (My dyslexia was causing me to become more confused as I thought about it longer, so I dropped the inquiry.) We were all in the center of Rinpoche’s circle. At least, I could see myself clearly. Carl, Bob, and the others I only sensed as shadows or transformations. I thought about that: If I "saw" myself, then something (myself?) must have been observing me. That thought confused me even more.
I switched my attention back to the desert landscape. It was flat with rocks scattered about. We were facing toward the horizon. On the left was a range of mountains. There were no plants. The sky was very blue. It looked like early dawn. I had a feeling that someone was watching me. I looked over to Rinpoche, but he was still sleeping. That’s what started it! His look of piercing emptiness. The whole thing could have lasted for only a second of time. I would have to ask him about it. I began to feel jumpy and decided I needed some coffee or saké. I chose saké.
We flew into Hong Kong down between the mountains and through the night mist and fog. Where the hell did the day go? It must have been day at some time. I tried to figure out the time sequence but could not. I had a feeling only that America was somewhere behind me.
The Hong Kong airport was like a movie set in its sense of unreality. I just walked with Rinpoche. His right hand was holding on to my left hand. It was like I was supporting a moving rock. I was supposed to be helping him, the cripple, but everything seemed too weird and crazy. People were crowding around, moving about in unknown directions, and making sounds that didn’t fully mesh with the movement of their mouths. I was happy to be holding his hand, as I was freaking out again. I saw Mike standing in front of us, wearing his military uniform, stained with sweat. I was really delighted to see him. While the others retrieved the bags, Mike and I stuffed Rinpoche into a waiting taxi. He had dozed off and I asked Mike about His Holiness, the Karmapa.
“We’ll see him tomorrow. It’s not looking good, Johnny,” he said. “How was the trip?”
I started to answer, to try and get my thoughts organized into words that could describe the last (what was it?) days? Finally, I just shook my head and answered, “Crazy.”
“Ha, one of those!” exclaimed Mike.
“Yes, one of those,” I replied.
We pulled into the hotel and hauled the sleeping Rinpoche out of the cab. As we crossed the lobby I had an image of how we looked to the other guests: two military officers wearing English tropical uniforms and Sam Browne belts carrying between them a drunk or drugged . . . what does Rinpoche look like to the people standing by? Maybe they think we are taking him up to a room to interrogate him.
We got Rinpoche upstairs to our room, which was actually two rooms with a pullout bed for me. He woke up for a few minutes to ask for a glass of saké. Carl asked him what name he would like the hotel to print on his matches; apparently, this hotel offered the courtesy of printing your name in gold on their red matchbooks. Without hesitation he answered, “Lord Mukpo.” Thank God, the Prince of Bhutan is dead, I thought. I tucked Rinpoche into bed. He giggled and I tensed up. Now what is he laughing about? Who is kidding whom here?
Carl and Bob were all excited about being in Hong Kong and Mike volunteered to take them out to some hot spots. I was glad to remain with Rinpoche, most of all because he was sleeping and I desperately needed to sleep, too. But I no sooner got my tattered body into bed and was drifting off than I heard a thump in the next room. I knew what it was. Rinpoche had fallen out of bed. I ran in and found him sitting on the floor next to his bed.
“Where are we, Johnny?” he asked, sleepily.
“Hong Kong,” I said. He did not believe me, so I opened the curtain to show him. It was dawn, and in the park across the way hundreds of people were standing and doing windmill-type motions with their arms. It took me a few seconds to realize they were practicing Tai Chi or one of those Asian martial arts.
“See, Sir, it’s Hong Kong,” I said in triumph.
Rinpoche peeked out, looking frail. He was completely naked and he stood bent over, with his hands clasped modestly in front of him; it seemed slightly strange because we were way up on the twenty-first floor.
“Oh,” he said, “look at all the people. I thought we were still at the Court and you
had changed all the furniture around to play a trick on me.”
I was totally amazed by this remark. Shocked, I began to protest, “Sir, me play a trick on you?” Then I looked at his innocent round face and started to laugh at getting caught yet again.
“Are you okay, Johnny?” he asked, looking at me in a queer way.
“Yes, Sir, yes, Sir,” I replied.
“Then let’s have some breakfast,” he sang out joyfully.
Dip me in boiling blood, I mentally despaired. Whenever am I going to get some rest? I ordered room service for Lord Mukpo and Major Perks. Rinpoche switched from saké to Chinese beer—four bottles. As we ate and drank, I asked him about my vision on the plane.
“Just think of it as gap,” he said.
Later that day, we drove up the hill to the hospital where His Holiness, the Karmapa, was staying. It was a steaming hot day and hotter still in the hospital, which was like the movie set of Back to Bataan. There were slow-moving ceiling fans that shifted the hot air ineffectively around. In the halls, there were rickety old beds holding all shapes and sizes of bodies. The rooms were jammed with patients. It all smelled like disinfectant and death.
When I was a surgical technician at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York, we had to cut the leg off an old man because it had turned gangrenous. The leg was a mass of pus, blood, and oozing green stuff. The smell of rotting human flesh was so strong we had to spray our surgical masks with perfume so as not to throw up. After the operation we could not find the rotten leg anywhere. Eventually, we got a panicked call from the laundry to say that one of the women had fainted. It seemed our orderly had unwittingly picked up the leg with the surgical sheets and bloody gowns and the bundle had been thrown down the chute into the laundry carts where the poor woman had picked up the rotten leg. I was sent down to retrieve it and take it to the morgue.
This hospital in Hong Kong was like that leg in its blatant assault on the senses. Not much was hidden from view, and it had none of the comforts of American hospitals. Mike explained that His Holiness had had exploratory surgery about two hours earlier. The surgeon had felt around the liver, found it covered with cancerous nodules, and had simply sewn him back up again. Nothing could be done for him.
As I entered his room I prepared myself for the sight of His Holiness’s near-dead body. From where I was, positioned behind Mike, I could see the Tibetan thangkas on the walls. There was the pungent smell of incense and the usual chanting monks. And there was His Holiness, sitting up in bed, smiling at us. This was decidedly more shocking than seeing his dead body. I stood in the corner of the room, trying to keep out of the way while His Holiness and Rinpoche conversed in Tibetan. I took up my reverent stance with hands held together in front of me and head slightly bowed. I looked up and Rinpoche and His Holiness were laughing at me. I flushed red with embarrassment. They both smiled and His Holiness beckoned me over. I walked over in front of him and bowed my head in the usual manner. Then as His Holiness’s hand gently touched my head, I started to sob uncontrollably.
“I hope so,” His Holiness said in broken English.
I continued weeping and backed away to my corner. I wanted more than anything to get out of that unbearable realm of death and it was only the dignity of my military uniform that kept me from running away.
We were all crying in the taxi on the way back to the hotel. Rinpoche was crying harder than any of us. He was so loud that he was drowning out the rest of us. Suddenly he stopped short and we looked at him.
“Well, it is traditional to cry, you know,” he said, grinding his teeth.
Peter, a rich actor we knew from New York, was also in Hong Kong at this same time. He was a student of Rinpoche, although I was not really sure what kind of student because Peter was always buying his way into things he wanted. I, being very critical of his behavior, decided he couldn’t really be Rinpoche’s student at all. I once asked him what kind of skull-cup he would buy if he ever took the Vajrayogini Abhisheka. His response was “chocolate,” which I had to admit was a great answer. I remember once at Seminary we were all eating mush but Peter had a stash of frozen steaks for himself. I asked him if I could have the bones to chew on but he wouldn’t give me any. He might have thought I was kidding, but the fucker was so cheap he wouldn’t even give me a bone. Rinpoche said that in order to get money out of Peter you would have to be enlightened. For some reason, Rinpoche took pride in the fact that nobody could get bucks out of this guy. Even when Rinpoche was sick and we needed to get him a hospital bed, Peter wanted to sell us one.
Anyway, he was here in Hong Kong with his father, where they had a business enterprise. Peter had invited Rinpoche to a party to meet his dad. He really only wanted to invite Rinpoche, but he knew the rest of us would come tagging along. The party was in Kowloon, on the other side of the bay from where we were staying.
Rinpoche wanted us all to wear our uniforms for this occasion. It took me about two hours to dress him properly and get all his medals pinned on straight. All the while he was drinking some sort of Chinese liquor and saying “fucking Chinese” between each sip. I knew he was thinking of how they forced him out of Tibet. Mike came in, dressed in a crisp clean uniform. I don’t think I had taken mine off since leaving America, and it must have looked like I had been hauled through the trenches of World War I.
Mike and I had to carry Rinpoche down the stairs because he was quite drunk and seemed to be unconscious. We piled into the waiting cab and set off for Kowloon. We were somewhere in the tunnel under the river when Rinpoche yelled out abruptly, “Turn back!”
“Sir, we are in a one-way tunnel. We can’t.”
“Turn back!” he hollered at me.
Mike spoke up. “We’ll turn back at the next exit.”
That seemed to calm him down and eventually we turned around and made our way back to the hotel. As we carried his prone body in through the lobby, Rinpoche came to, looked at us, and said, “How did this happen?” Mike and I just shrugged at each other and took him up to his room where we put him to bed. Mike and Bob headed out to see the sights again while I stayed behind to watch over the sleeping Rinpoche.
Some time later, there was a loud knocking on the door. Bob and Mike were back, quite drunk, with two Chinese whores in tow. The girls were really rough-looking and I was not at all sure about letting them in. Nonetheless, the whole group came in and woke up Rinpoche with their loud talk. He was delightful and sweet, like a great welcoming host. He gave meditation instruction to both the girls and they soon lost interest in Bob and Mike. They were in love with Rinpoche! He gave them money, all he had in his pockets, and eventually sent them off again with Bob and Mike.
Later that night I received a call from Peter.
“Sorry we weren’t able to get to your party,” I apologized.
“Well, it was called off at the last minute,” said Peter. “We had to cancel because my father had a heart attack at eight p.m.”
That was just about the time we were in the tunnel, I realized with a jolt. I looked in wonderment at Rinpoche, who was snoring peacefully in bed.
We returned to America several days later. It was decided that I would fly alone with Rinpoche on the leg from Seattle, Washington, to Halifax, Nova Scotia. In my paranoia, I felt the others were being nice to me deliberately, treating me like this because it was my last journey. They knew the I in me wouldn’t survive. I was freaked out, but grateful that the end was near at last. I romantically saw myself being carried off, like Hamlet on his shield to the ramparts, with solemn background music of muffled drums and the booming guns.
I was getting Rinpoche ready to go to the airport for this last flight. While he washed and combed his hair, I picked up the newspaper and saw the headline “Sadat Assassinated.”
“Sir,” I blurted out. “Anwar Sadat has been killed!”
I looked at Rinpoche in the mirror. “I’ll be next,” he said, grinding his teeth.
“You’re not going to die, Sir,” I said, my panic rising.
“Oh, yes, I am.” He smiled at me.
On this trip back to Halifax, Rinpoche behaved like a normal person. I was able to talk to him and ask him all sorts of dumb questions about Buddhism, which he answered with great patience. We chatted for hours, just like regular people. He discussed everything I brought up: politics, sex, women, Vajradhatu, Tibet, hunting, war, Celts, Druids, movies, America, the military, saké, Japan, England, the Court, horses . . . anything! I was radiating in the full bloom of simply chatting with Rinpoche. Some of the time, we just sat silently and held hands. I had never done this before with him and I was in love with Rinpoche.
“Take me,” said Rinpoche. “I’m yours.”
“I love you, Rinpoche.”
“Could not care less,” came the reply.
It was bleak, wintry, and cold in Halifax upon our arrivals. We were expecting every day to hear of the death of His Holiness, the Karmapa. Rinpoche was drinking almost continuously. In fact, it became difficult to obtain saké in Halifax because we had drunk most of it. Rinpoche got up one night and vomited blood in the sink. I called Dr. Jim, who was also the Vajradhatu ambassador in Halifax, to come over right away and I saved some of the vomit, which he took to have tested at the hospital. Then we got a phone call from Hong Kong.
“This is it,” I thought.
Rinpoche spoke in Tibetan, hung up the phone, and turned to me.
“We had better get packed, Johnny. His Holiness is being moved to a hospital in a place called Zion. It’s in Illinois, near Chicago.”
On our arrival in Chicago, we drove directly to Zion. Mike was already there with His Holiness. I entered the room and took my customary position in the corner. Mike helped the nurse change His Holiness’s sheets. His body was frail and his back was covered with bedsores. He winced in pain as he was moved and then smiled at the nurse. His Holiness pointed to me and I thought maybe he wanted me to leave the room. But he smiled again and one of the monks pushed me toward him. I couldn’t help myself as I began to cry. His Holiness touched my hand and radiated warmth. He smiled at me as our eyes met.
“Kusung Dapön,” he said gently, then added in his broken English, “Nothing is happening.” As I left the room, I looked back at him. I was crying because he was so magnificent.
We stayed in Chicago only a few days. It was not clear how long His Holiness would live. The Tibetans talked as if he would not die. Mike just shrugged his shoulders in disbelief. Rinpoche was not well as we traveled back to Halifax and I was in a pretty freaked-out, disoriented state. A few weeks later, Mike called to tell us the end was near. Rinpoche asked me to pack for the trip.
“Sir,” I said despondently, “I can’t go through this all again.”
He looked at me and smiled.
“Okay, Johnny,” he said. “I’ll give His Holiness your love.”
I turned away and choked, tears streaming down my face. Barnstone, another of the Kusungs, went in my place with Rinpoche. Several days later, we heard that His Holiness had died.
“The mala is broken and the beads scattered,” pronounced Rinpoche. I walked down the city street in the rain. I felt myself dissolving into emptiness with a broken heart.
I asked Rinpoche, “Why did His Holiness get cancer?”
And he said, “Once, while the monks were setting up His Holiness’s tent, someone trod on it.” I did not understand his explanation at that time.
But later, one night at the Court, I was out at dinner, and when I returned, I learned that Rinpoche had been taken to the hospital in Denver. I rushed down there to be with him and slept with him in his hospital room.I asked the Kusung on duty what had happened. He explained that Rinpoche hadthrown himself headlong down a flight of stairs. When I asked for further details, I foundthat the Kusung, rather than following the established procedure of walking behind Rinpoche up the stairs in order to catch him if he fell, had instead taken Rinpoche’s arm and pulled him up the stairs. At the top of the stairs, Rinpoche twisted himself out of the Kusung’s grasp and threw himself back down the stairs. I then had some realization of why treading on His Holiness’s tent could cause irreparable damage. It seemed as if in enlightened society, there is little room for mindlessness.
The Prince of Bhutan and his aide, Major Perks, made many journeys together. Most often the prince was dressed in an expensive three-piece suit and his aide in a military uniform tailored in the English tradition, although sometimes the Prince would wear a military uniform with the insignias of a field-marshal. And, then again, we might be seen in naval uniforms, that of Admiral of the Fleet and his aide, a commodore.
It is rather puzzling to me that over all those years nobody once questioned our authenticity or even asked for documentation; it was certainly true in a country like India that a uniform created an air of authority, for as we walked through an airport the crowds of people would part before us. Other, genuine, military or naval officers would salute. I remember an instance in a plush Delhi hotel where we entered an elevator which was full of Russian naval officers. There was a moment’s hesitation on both sides. Then they stood to attention and saluted our apparent superior rank and said in broken English, “Ah, British navy,” even though the Admiral was clearly of Asian extraction.
There was something about wearing a uniform that inspired in me a sense of confidence and purpose, and I took great care in making sure that everything was polished and ship-shape. Many times, while traveling in America, people asked to what military we belonged. Rinpoche always replied, “Guess.” Whatever answer they gave, that is what we’d be, and so we claimed to be everything from Israeli army to Taiwanese navy. This became such an ordinary happening that I began to believe the whole thing myself. It was somewhat like being an actor in a very large play with a totally intuitive script.
What I really got hung up on was having to go to the cockpit and ask the pilots or senior stewardesses to radio ahead to some person like the queen or the prime Minister or the emperor to cancel a tea or arrange a dinner party for the Prince. These tasks caught me between the illusion and the reality of the situation. It was not until much later that I realized the illusion not only of our game but of the whole game. From that point of view, one could see the actors working with a very predictable script.
Rinpoche talked often about the energy that a uniform created, not only in the human realm, but also in the realm of Drala energy, which became attracted to the quality of the uniform. (Drala is the god of war and patron of warlords and warriors in the Bön tradition, the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet.) I began to see many mythologies entering the reality of what I thought was my existence. It created a very groundless situation in which I could be walking somewhat normally down a street and find myself within seconds engulfed in this groundlessness, so much so that I was not sure how to move my legs or even how to walk.
The same kind of groundless situation manifested in circumstances where Rinpoche created what seemed to be a field of energy around himself, in which one was suddenly engulfed. It felt rather like being caught in a whirlwind of unexplained origin and then all of a sudden it would stop and leave you dazed and reeling in space. On occasions like this, I would always look around and be surprised that no one but our immediate party seemed aware that anything had happened.
On this particular journey that play of energy continued almost without a break other than when I would fall asleep from total exhaustion. There was no place of refuge. I could not even take refuge in my confusion, because the energy created seemed to spread beyond anything that Rinpoche himself had organized. It seemed an immutable natural force, rather like he was stirring a pot which continued to move under its own energy. I knew I was being shown something that I could not explain. And certainly, by this time, I had almost stopped panicking at every situation.
The hospital in Hong Kong was like a charnel ground. It had all the smells, sounds, and sights of the suffering of pain and death. The most shocking thing was to see His Holiness sitting in the middle of all of this, himself in the throes of pain and death, smiling and being concerned for those around him. That was completely shocking. It was like entering a realm that I had never experienced before and did not believe could exist on this planet. And yet, it was more real than any of those illusions of reality that I carried around with me.
With the death of His Holiness, I began to feel that I had to do something to perpetuate his and Rinpoche’s world. I had no idea what to do or how to organize anything. I just had an overpowering feeling that I must do something to repay the enormous amount of love and compassion that had been given to me so generously and that I, out of ignorance and confusion, had almost taken for granted. Now there grew in my heart the determination never to give up on the visions, messages, experiences and love that I had received.