I last saw Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey at this year's Tibetan New Year, in March, at his centre in Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand. Though frail of body Gen Rinpoche was still alert mentally, and for the benefit of his students he attended Guru Puja on the full moon day.
Monday July 31, celebration of the day, six weeks after his enlightenment, that Shakyamuni Buddha, first turned the Wheel of Dharma, teaching the Four Noble Truths. At our centre, Mahamudra, at the far end of the North Island, we'd just completed eight Nyung-nays. It was also the fifteenth anniversary of my taking refuge with Gen Rinpoche in Dharamsala, and as was my custom I wrote to him, sending offerings and expressing appreciation; and I wrote again a few days later requesting relics for a small stupa we are erecting.
Friday August 11: A little r & r - a low key dance at the local hall. Just before I left, a friend rang with the shocking news of Ashley Walker's accidental death in Hawaii. Ashley, a resident of Vajrapani Institute in California had been at my first course years ago at Lawudo, where Lama Zopa Rinpoche's cave is in the Solu Khumbu region of the Nepalese Himalayas. Afterwards, we had gone on a trek together, during which he first met Shasta, his wife.
After arranging to do a puja for Ashley next day, I headed out to the dance. At about midnight I was leaning against the back wall watching the show when Layla walked up to me. "This might be a bit hard," she said. "Gen Rinpoche passed away this afternoon." Suddenly the show stopped. In a daze I walked the short distance home, then collapsed in a sobbing heap. At last I had a realization - I realized what it meant to cry my heart out. All the warmth had left my body and I was stuck in fetal position trying to hold on to something that had gone.
The next two days were a haze. At the Guru Puja, which was now for Gen Rinpoche as well as Ashley, I was strong in feeling but unable to mouth words totally drained and empty, my heart ripped out.
I first got involved with the Dharma in 1980. As a complete novice Buddhist wishing to study Zen, I somehow ended up at Lawudo doing a Chenrezig initiation and a Nyung-nay fasting retreat with Lama Zopa Rinpoche. After a couple of days of teachings, everyone was talking about the initiation. I had no idea what this meant or implied but somehow I'd developed faith in Lama Zopa and wanted in. But one of the prerequisites was that one should have taken refuge in the Triple Gem. What's that? Out of his great kindness and with skilful means Rinpoche allowed me to participate on condition that I take formal refuge at the first possible opportunity.
I went to the initiation and did the retreat, but I had absolutely no idea what was going on: when everyone else stood up I did, when they prostrated I did, when they sat I did, when they did manis I did. I was like a well trained performing animal with my mind mostly in Kathmandu. When I left though, I had the determination to fulfill my commitment to take formal refuge.
Several months later, after wandering around India and Ladakh, I ended up in Dharamsala where I heard about the teachings of Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. I nervously went along and there first set eyes on Gen Rinpoche. I also met up with John Wright, whom I had first met at Kopan Monastery, near Kathmandu, on my way to Lawudo. We shared a room, and John gave me my first introduction to Tibetan Buddhism answering my questions: "What's a puja?" and offering advice: "You should get a mala." "A what?"
I explained my need to take refuge and he advised me to request Gen Rinpoche, advice for which I will be eternally grateful. Gen Rinpoche accepted my request and said to come to his room two days later, the celebration of Buddha's first turning of the wheel.
Many people took precepts with Gen Rinpoche in the early morning of that day. Just after lunch I was escorted to his rooms. His attendant Khedrup was in the kitchen cleaning up and Gen Rinpoche had guests, but he called us in to his room anyway. After making prostrations and an offering (thanks again to John's advice), I explained my story to Gen Rinpoche. There followed a serious exchange with the other two Tibetans in the room, which was not translated but which I imagined was about these hopeless Westerners doing things around the wrong way.
Gen Rinpoche agreed to my request. During the ceremony he asked me to repeat what he was saying. I had several tries before he was at all satisfied with my words by which time I was very embarrassed and flustered. After giving me a refuge name and a small commitment, Gen Rinpoche asked me my Western name. "Roy Fraser," he repeated - but it sounded nothing like Roy Fraser which caused general mirth, and so I left on a lighter note.
In 1983 during Gen Rinpoche's world tour some of us in New Zealand hosted a three-day course at what was then the seed of the present Mahamudra Centre. My wife Sally and I were living in an old boat shed, and we rented a big country house for the course.
Later, by some stroke of unbelievable good fortune, Gen Rinpoche came to live in New Zealand. We bought the current Mahamudra Centre mid 1985 and immediately launched into a one-year Vajrasattva retreat after the passing away of Lama Yeshe. At the end of that it was Gen Rinpoche who guided us through the fire puja; he also gave teachings. He told us that Lama Zopa Rinpoche had asked him to help by teaching and guiding Rinpoche's New Zealand centres, because now that Lama was no longer there Rinpoche was so busy. Gen Rinpoche said he was very happy to do so, and since then has returned most years, giving teachings and offering advice like a benevolent father.
One year Gen Rinpoche gave extensive teachings on the Yamantaka long sadhana, and at another time he gave a commentary on the Yamantaka self-initiation. There was no doubt that one was hearing teachings from a master who had fully realized all aspects of these practices.
Gen Rinpoche last visited Mahamudra Centre in 1992 after the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to New Zealand. Since then he had been taking on the aspect of aging, and we no longer had the merit to receive his Holy Speech.
Sunday August 13: Two days after hearing of Gen Rinpoche's passing away, Cathi Graham from the Dunedin centre rang to tell us that he was still meditating in the clear light. Knowing that I must be there, I immediately booked a seat on the first flight next morning.
Upon arrival at the centre on Monday even before the obligatory tea, Sonam Tenzin invited us to be with Gen Rinpoche. Into the familiar rooms we went and there he was on his bed in meditation posture, propped up with pillows: the Holy Body appearing dead but somehow still there. As a farmer I'm very familiar with death - I don't need to feel for a heart beat to know if something's dead; it has a certain look. Gen Rinpoche's Holy Body had a look of death but strangely not dead like life in a dead body. I managed to conjure up a few heartfelt prayers and make prostrations.
Over tea with my vajra brothers and sisters I heard the frightening news that I was in charge of building Gen Rinpoche's cremation stupa, to be ready Thursday morning - it was now Monday afternoon.
I had seen pictures of Lama Yeshe's cremation, but apart from that had absolutely no idea what was involved, and nor it seemed did anyone else. I went with Lhagön Rinpoche, a close student of Gen Rinpoche, and a few others to the proposed site, a windswept hilltop on the Otago Peninsula with sea on both sides and vehicle access to within a couple of hundred yards. In the bitter wind and sleety rain we consecrated the site. We had two days to turn this into a cremation site - no materials, no tools, I didn't even have work clothes. I work best under pressure, but this?
So with some Tibetan measurements elbow to finger tip; four finger widths, an arm's span - a fax from Thubten Donyo the Gyuto monk in charge of rituals at Melbourne's Tara Institute, and a picture of Lama's cremation at Vajrapani, I came up with a drawing before going to bed that night of what was to be built and how. And I managed to round up some tools and a change of clothes.
Tuesday August 15: A group of us met that morning at Paul and Kaari's restaurant Ruby in the Dust to agree on tasks. We each went off in different directions to round up materials and people, arranging to be at the site at one o'clock, the plan being to get all materials on site and the foundation slab poured by dark. And it happened!
I arrived at 12.30 - a barren hilltop, no water, couldn't even drive to it. But by dark the slab was poured and everything was in place: bricks, water, sand, builders' mix literally tons of material had all be lugged up the hill. A superhuman effort carried out in good humour and harmony: I think that Gen Rinpoche would have been very pleased with the way his students worked to make the final offering.
Some time that afternoon, according to Geshe Doga (a student of Gen Rinpoche and the resident lame at Tara Institute in Melbourne) signs indicated that Gen Rinpoche had finished his clear light meditation and the consciousness had left the Holy Body.
Wednesday August 16: Now it was confirmed: tomorrow was the day for the cremation, so we had one day to build the structure. We worked all day. The weather forecast was not good: high winds and rain - we even constructed a large wind break fence - but somehow the bad weather never got to us, always just on the horizon. By dark I was satisfied the stupa would be ready for the Holy Body by nine in the morning.
Thursday August 17: I arrived before the first peep of light, and indeed by the time the sun had risen it was ready. Just enough time for a clean up before a yellow van appeared, and coming up the hill the knot of Sangha carrying the Holy Body sitting upright in a hardbacked chair. Once placed inside the base of the stupa, we continued to build the upper part to enclose it - with some urgency as once again rain seemed imminent. But as soon as the fire was lit, the clouds directly above opened - not haphazardly but in a square like a door or window.
Sixty people were in attendance. Lhagön Rinpoche presided over the Yamantaka fire puja, assisted by Kechog Rinpoche from Sydney. With Geshe Doga were Geshe Pal Tsering from Dorje Chang Institute in Auckland, thirteen monks and nuns from Dunedin and lay people from throughout New Zealand and some from Australia.
As the offerings began, three white birds came in from the east, circumambulated the stupa and flew off to the west. Geshe Doga later said that they were manifestations of dakinis. When the puja was finished and the fire had died down we were able to view Gen Rinpoche's last teaching on impermanence. The Holy Body had been placed facing east but we could see that the backbone was now pointing directly west; and the Holy Skull had ended up right beside the west door of the stupa base. All pretty moving stuff.
I have no experience or knowledge about divination of signs, but I would like to think the flight of the dakinis, the Holy Backbone and the Holy Skull, all indicate the possibility of Gen Rinpoche once again returning to the southern continent to help Westerners. Or perhaps they indicate that Gen Rinpoche had ascended to the pure realm, hand in hand with the Queen of Kacho. Or maybe both.
Now that the physical manifestation of the guru has gone, there's still a big void, a hollow feeling, and many regrets about the times I let my guru down in my laziness to practice. But it's not too late - as long as I have this human body.
After fifteen years as a close disciple of a fully realized master, what have I learnt? At one point during my time as chairperson of the Trust for the Visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to New Zealand in 1992 things were pretty tough, lots of disharmony. I thought "I don't need all this," and wrote to Gen Rinpoche saying I wanted to resign. Gen Rinpoche wrote a very stern reply asking if I thought that following the guru's wishes was supposed to be easy. In this way Gen Rinpoche taught me enthusiastic perseverance.
On another occasion I asked if Gen Rinpoche had any special advice for me in this role that I felt so hopelessly unqualified to do. The reply was to keep harmony - everything else would happen of its own accord. In this way Gen Rinpoche taught me the importance of harmony among vajra brothers and sisters. Enthusiastic perseverance and harmony: a great lesson for us in the FPMT.
There is very little in my Dharma practice that I feel good about. But I have great pride in being able to say I took sincere refuge with and was a close disciple of one of the great Holy Beings of our time, Gen Rinpoche, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey.