Friday, January 11, 2013

Leela Whitcomb-Hewitt on How I Met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu

How I Met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu
Leela Whitcomb-Hewitt

The following is reprinted from the MIrror, Issue #119
I had first started to come to Tsegyalgar East through my mom. She had been reading this book called the Tantric Quest and somehow related to that book, I think in the back of the book, the Dzogchen Community was listed and she was looking them up and she found out they were in Conway [very close to home]. At that time Tsegyalgar East was meeting at the Schoolhouse and my mom started to go there for practices. She would go to Ganapujas and they would be held in a small room that was the winter Gonpa, when the heat was off in the winter in the main Gonpa, which is now Dr. Phuntsog’s office. Then she started to bring me.
I had always felt drawn to spirituality from reading different things, especially Buddhist books; my mother had introduced me to them when I was younger, like Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh and Chögyam Trungpa. Also my mother raised me pagan, so we were always doing rituals for the holidays, there are eight holidays on the Pagan calendar, solstice, equinox and the cross quarter days, May day and others. So we always celebrated those holidays throughout my whole young life, those were like our main holidays. We also did Christmas as well, but the main holidays were the other. And the spiritual aspect was always really interesting to me and I always felt that was an important part.
I started coming to the Gar at a time in my life when I had just come back from traveling in India for 6 months on my own. I was 18 years old. I was conceived after both my parents had spent some time in the East and in India specifically, so I felt drawn to go there. They named me Leela after the Indian Goddess, which means the Cosmic Dance, and someone else explained to me that it is like the rolpa energy, the manifestation.
When I went to India I felt a strong connection with Hinduism and the gods and goddesses that were all around and really permeated the atmosphere, and that was something strong for me because that was all I had at that time, since I was on my own. I traveled all around India to different ashrams in the south and went north to Nepal where I stayed with one family and ended up supporting them and left with just enough money to get home. My family still makes fun of me because of the way I work with my money, because I am always giving it away.
So then coming back from India I felt more of a connection with the spiritual aspect of life and when I started coming to the practices, actually my mother started bringing me to the Ganapujas, and I really liked it, it felt really strong to me and at that point I hadn’t really learned what we were doing at the practices, I had not yet received teachings directly from Rinpoche and I didn’t know about the Dzogchen practices or specific types of Buddhist practice, so I just felt the energy and did what I understood as being present with sounds and the practice itself. During that year I met Rinpoche. I know I was at a retreat with him. That time was not so clear to me, I think it was because I was a little more passive and my mom had brought me and I had not decided that I wanted to participate.  I finally felt my own connection in either 2002 or 2004 when I attended a retreat with Rinpoche.
In between the time of the first retreat experience and when I felt I really entered the transmission in 2002 or 2004?, I had been doing things like deep ecology, with yourself as a being in the whole eco system, and I was living in a commune doing gardening and then I studied with a shamanic herbalist, and so I was always connecting spirituality with other things. 
Then after my first encounter with Rinpoche I returned to the Gar to do childcare during a retreat and was not able to participate in the retreat, but I connected with some people there and one of them, Malcolm Smith, told me it would be really important for me to receive transmission. I was either 22 or 24 at this point. Even though I was doing the childcare, I was taking part in all of the other activities around the actual teachings, so I was doing the Vajra Dance and Yantra Yoga classes, and going to the big Ganapujas with Rinpoche and going to the auctions. I was either staying on Khandroling or spending a lot of time there, I remember canoeing with someone on the pond in a full moon.
So these friends organized for someone to do childcare during the time of the transmission and I went in and I remember vividly the direct introduction and how it just brought everything completely clear to me, my own state, my whole karmic vision was just there but it was very much removed from being so caught up and the emotional piece was just kind of deflated.
So from that time is when I really caught fire, that is what it feels like, and since then the connection really came alive and after that time I started sounding the A every day and doing Guruyoga. After that I started to enter the teachings more deeply and looked into it and did some personal retreat, the teachings became the most important thing for me in my life. At that same point I also started to feel like I really needed a structure, so I became the Gekö, and that was only for a year and then I went on the Gakyil for some years, and all of this was a piece of life and I still wanted to be more immersed in something. What I thought was that if there was a Santi Maha College I would attend, that is what I would really want to do. I even thought about how I could start something like that, but the structure just was not there.
At the same time I was finishing up my Gekö time, the Tibetan Medical Program started and Dr Phuntsog had been living in the schoolhouse while I was the Gekö, so I got to know her. The experience with the medical school was similar to how my mom brought me to the teachings, it was like I didn’t feel at first, I didn’t notice, my own connection right away and it was the same thing with the Tibetan Medicine program. And then, once again, Malcolm advised me to study medicine and become a doctor. I did not think that was right for me.
So I transitioned out of being the Gekö, I was on the Gakyil, I was working doing personal care for disabled people, but was still feeling this desire for structure and already had the connection with spirituality and the teachings, and medicine through the shamanic herbalism and my parents - my father is an organic farmer and my mother a nurse mid wife and my grandfather on my mom’s side was a doctor, so there is this lineage of medicine being important, so I started to think that maybe I would do the Tibetan Medical training.
When I was considering studying the medicine I was noticing this really deep yearning, like an actual physical craving of my brain, to expand and really work and to work itself in ways it had not been working for a while. I had graduated from high school and done a couple of semesters of college, but I had been doing lots of hands on things and not much intellectual learning. I really desired that aspect. That was one aspect and the other was realizing the qualification of Dr. Phuntsog, realizing what a profound medicine it is, and then it shifted from should I do this program to wow, I have the opportunity to do this program right in my own backyard!  And then also connected with Rinpoche, it was like this is just amazing.
 That was a problem I always had going to school, that people were conditioning my mind in a way that I did not trust. I thought, “How do I know to trust your knowledge and condition my mind to your knowledge?” But where Rinpoche is involved there is no question, it is like, “Yeah, I want to condition my mind with your knowledge!”
The accuracy of my feelings was evident in that the Tibetan Medicine program really worked for me.  My mind worked well and I thought I did not have such a good memory. I think it is because I trust the source of the knowledge and I did not even have a slight resistance to learning it. It is a very rigorous study, learning Tibetan, on top of this whole body of knowledge. It is another way of considering medicine, like we have subtle ideas that we get from our culture, so this medicine gives a completely new way of thinking in that way. The training also requires a huge amount of memorization, a lot of lists, names of diseases, names of herbs, formulas, etc. So I spent a lot of the early morning just walking outside reading texts. Early morning is the best time to memorize.
Before we graduated we went to Tibet. The end of the program was a 3-month internship in Tibet and we stayed in the Xining city and went to sit with doctors at the hospital there.  That was an incredible culmination to the program. It was very fulfilling after a time of studying this medicine that is not really known in the West, and there are not that many people studying or practicing it, so sometimes we would question what we were doing, and how important is this, and can it really help people, and then going to Tibet and seeing the medicine fully in action, and so many doctors practicing and the doctors are so highly respected, revered, and the patients are having so much success with the treatments, so this experience was an essential part of the program for sure, to bring it full circle. And also to give a lot more credibility to the knowledge we were accumulating.  We had a small graduation ceremony in Tibet.

This past November in Tenerife I was authorized as a Vajra Dance instructor. I first became seriously interested in the Vajra Dance in 2002 or 2004 when I was learning the Dance at the retreats, and then Prima Mai and Adriana were offering a Teacher Training course and I asked if I could participate. They said I could if I only just watched. So I just took part but I had no idea of protocol. I was really eager and into and open so when I saw a space on the Mandala, if people were just hanging out, I would jump in, and Kyu took me aside and said,  “You should not really be entering the Mandala.”

All along the Dance felt really strong to me, Yantra Yoga also felt strong to me, all the practices do, but the Dance just seemed to flow pretty easily in my body in a certain way. I would go on the land [Khandroling] and dance and what I wanted to do on my birthday, for example, was to camp on the land and dance. So the idea that I could become an instructor started to develop and I went to Teacher Training at Merigar in between my third and fourth year of medical school. That is when Prima Mai, who was also supportive of me doing both, thought we could ahead for supervision for me. I was a little concerned even about going to the teacher training in the middle of medical school so I did check in with Dr. Phuntsog and she was very supportive.
So then in the last year of my medical training where I had to memorize everything, I was also memorizing the steps and training in the Vajra Dance so I would be able to teach the steps, the foot points and the principle of the Vajra Dance at my supervision. Both the medicine and the Vajra Dance really compliment each other. The actual study of each in tandem worked together and one helped me focus on the other, but also we are working on a concrete level in the Dance with the chakras and our channels, and the base of the medicine is channels, that is where our body originates from and the health and disease of our body has to do with our channels working correctly so the correlation between Yantra Yoga and Tibetan Medicine that is being addressed right now, there is also some activity to find the same correlations with the Dance, and how we could use that as therapy in the future as well.

Then when we came back from Tibet we had a graduation ceremony at Amherst College and Rinpoche was present. He gave a beautiful talk on the value of Tibetan Culture and it was beyond words to have our Master present at our graduation. Then right after the graduation I went into my supervision on the land of Khandroling during Rinpoche’s retreat. And then not long after that I traveled to Tenerife for the Vajra Dance authorization. Now I have many diplomas and before I only had my high school diploma. Also we had the Instructors Meeting with Rinpoche in Tenerife and that meeting was very helpful. It gave juice to what we are doing, It gave more clarity and also inspired energy, like I see we are holding the teachings and we are teaching as authentically as we can to honor Rinpoche’s vision of carrying on the teachings.
So now I am helping to manage our small clinic of Tibetan Medicine in Northampton, a town near by, where we are mainly doing Ku Nye massage, with the goal of eventually getting enough training and clinic time to practice the medicine more fully. I also have another job doing personal care work with a mentally ill person. With the Vajra Dance I am looking into teaching more publically and would like to contact younger people, maybe going into colleges and universities, festivals, etc.

Top Photo Credit: Paula Barry

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