In June 1968, I had been in India for one year. I do remember seeing a few Tibetans who were selling knitwear in the streets of old Delhi. I did not have time to get to know them like my friend Arthur Mandelbaum who was teaching English to refugee’s in India at that time. Among these people were monks that were educated in the Tibetan traditions probably far beyond our mere university level, but they were studying English. As we know, later that exercise became important for those of us who were fortunate to receive Buddhist teachings that were spoken in English by former students of Arthur.
I did have the opportunity in 1974 to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama, when he spoke to a small audience at the TROEPEN MUSEUM in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. His talk was ecumenical and to me much like a visit with a friend, needless to say, I was very impressed. A year later after returning to New York City thanks to my friend Loren, I followed his suggestion to take refuge as a Buddhist from a Tibetan lama named Kalu Rinpoche.
This happened in an apartment on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village a neighborhood of Manhattan. I found myself seated on the floor to receive this meditation practice from Lama Kalu and in front of me sat together Alan Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. These luminaries were among those bohemians, whom I had wished to emulate to realize my dream of becoming a ‘beatnik’ in New York. Thus after many years, I find myself reflecting on the realization of that dream, which for me did come true.
After some years of studying at various Tibetan Buddhist centers I had become accepted into the circle of practitioners. One summer on a trip to the Berkshire Mountains of New England, I was driving in the company of my wonderful friend Helena Hughes, who had invited me to attend the religious teachings at the meditation center of The Dodrup Chen Rinpoche, which is located near Hawley, Massachusetts. One could admire the expansive lawn with a tent that had been erected for the teachings and the great Stupa shrine that had been constructed by devotees of the Rinpoche (teacher).
Alas that Stupa was later destroyed by fire, when deluded ex-Vietnam commandos, assumed that any foreign Asian types were suspect enough that their beautiful place of worship could be attacked at will by these mercenaries. In any case, during my visit the Stupa was standing. Helena had arranged for a personal interview with His Holiness, The Dodrup Chen. The well-known scholar Tulku Thondrup was also there for the interview.
As I entered the room to sit at the feet of this guru, on my right a voice spoke, she said “I’m not surprised to see you” and there sat Marilyn Silverstone, who had befriended many seekers on the road, while she was living in India with her husband. I remember well visiting her with Arthur Mandelbaum in New Delhi. Marilyn was to be my translator for this interview. As we sat together I realized that after some 15 years both of us had recognized each other without a second look.
Already a bit unnerved, I bowed to His Holiness and then found myself quite at ease in his presence. Helena spoke and explained that I was scheduled to visit China the following week. During his subsequent discourse and questions, he revealed several details about embroidered brocade fabric that had traditionally originated in China, where specific designs had been created for the Tibetan Buddhist trade. Then the weaving of these speciality brocades moved to Varanasi, India, after the Chinese take-over and suppression of Buddhism in Tibet. Rinpoche asked me, if I had ever seen the like, while on my trade visits to China. He meant of course the type of brocades we see on valuable Thanka paintings. I said, no Rinpoche, I have looked at many fabrics there, but never had seen antique or new brocades in the specific symbols of Buddhist iconography. As the interview came to an end, I hoped to revisit the meditation center again later in the summer, after I returned from my business trip.
The trip to China was quite marvellous, because I was going not only for my own company to import merchandise, but I was acting as trade liaison on behalf of my American client Steve Aronoff and his wife Anita, who would both accompany me on the trip. Steve would be purchasing wonderful garments made from the finest Chinese silk with exquisite embroidery and cut work lace designs. Anita Aronoff was a professional singer with the Grand Opera Company of New York City. She had mentioned to me about her interest in the Chinese musicians and operatic singers, who were practising Western classical music. The Chinese Ministry of Culture responded to my inquiry in regard to the pending visit of this wonderful artist and they really rolled out the red carpet for her. She went on to perform two concerts in Shanghai and Beijing by singing beautiful selections from popular operas. She also gave master classes to students studying classical music.
We were staying at the PEACE HOTEL in Shanghai, which was still open to tourists or foreign business travellers. The original details of the hotel were intact to some extent revealing the wonders of the JUEGEN STILE of design decoration, which was I believe the predecessor of ART NOUVEAU with accent of the Orient. In addition to this, one could dine in the rooftop restaurant with fantastic mouldings and shapes done in crimson and gold paint. Shopping was our diversion, as it always is but don’t let me forget the living members of a traditional jazz band still alive in 1980 who had been playing Dixie land style music in the same hotel probably since the 1920’s, when jazz was hot even in Shanghai.
This being my fourth year of travelling to China, I was acting a bit over the top, playing ‘the old China hand’ to the fullest extent. While shopping one afternoon with Steve, who certainly knew about fabric, I asked the attendant at the tourist souvenir shop in the hotel lobby, if I could see a piece of material, perhaps one meter that had been rolled up and placed on a shelf behind some other goods. Something about it had caught my eye, but looking at it I was dumbstruck. I realized what it was, but when told that it would cost about $100 dollars, I passed on buying it. This scene repeated at least two more times on subsequent days, there I would be with Steve at my side and asking to look at this fabric. Finally the last day of our trip, I asked to see it again. I was aware of a lady hovering by my shoulder, who looked longingly at the brocade as I finally produced the cash to purchase it. Later, she told me … if I had refused it, she would have bought it immediately. Her tour had visited several factories where they produced brocade, the commercial type you always see on Chinese stuff, but she assured me there had never been anything remotely like this material. I knew it was an antique piece of brocade in Tibetan motif, but I just could not wrap my mind around it. And yet, I knew that I would return with it to America and present it to His Holiness The Dodrup Chen.
So it was that at the end of the summer, as autumn colors had already begun to touch the foliage, I found myself standing on the beautiful grounds of the meditation center. A ceremony was about to begin. There across the lawn approached both His Holiness the Dodrup Chen and the scholar Tulku Thondrup. They paused to speak with me as they made their way to the ceremony.
I unrolled the textile and presented it to the Rinpoche. He smiled and said through the translation by the scholar, Oh yes, a very nice brocade fabric and see there all the Buddhist iconographic symbols depicted in the design. He pointed out, the traditional chrysanthemum floral design that had the auspicious number of petals, etc., and accepted the offering, which he then placed on the altar prepared for the ceremony under the tent on the great lawn with the Stupa in the near distance.
You may well ask, what happened? I submit the obvious it was a fabric no doubt antique and probably looted from a Tibetan temple then sold as a souvenir to a tourist. But coincidence begs the question; did the Rinpoche have a little fun and see into the future that I might encounter such a fabric? By describing it during his discourse that had happened a few weeks before did the Rinpoche prepare me to bring the fabric to him as a demonstration of his prescience? I know what I believe, because it happened to me and you are welcome to your interpretation, too!
Funny how karma seems to ripen, all this time I was travelling for business and visiting whenever possible sites of interest like the Temple of the Jade Buddha in Shanghai and circumambulating the great Stupa in Peihei Park in Beijing. The Tibetan monks I spoke with about these holy places smiled when I told them it was possible for a tourist to visit. They explained the buildings might be there but the important scrolls and written sutra teachings most likely would have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
Then, in the 1988 I received a call from the office of an American businessman, who with his wife had been among the first to travel to China for business, after the détente initiated by Nixon and Kissinger with Zhou EnLai. Mr. Julian Sobin of SOBIN CHEMICALS, Boston, MA had asked me to visit his Hong Kong office.
I was pleased to have received the call, because I could thank him in person for the favor years earlier, when his wife had arranged an invitation for my first wife Arleen and me to begin doing business in China directly in 1976. I could not have been more surprised during the meeting, when he and his son in law explained that they had plans to visit Tibet. Mr. Sobin knew more about me than I had realized. He seemed to know that I was a student of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, he asked me to initiate a contact between himself and the office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Although, I protested that I was not connected in any way with this office, I did have in the back of my mind a possibility, which I assured him that I would pursue on his behalf. My friend Arthur Mandelbaum, whom I have previously mentioned knew Robert A.F.Thurman, a tenured Amherst university professor, who is a contact person for the office of His Holiness, whenever he would be in America. The result of this series of coincidences: Julian Sobin did have a personal appointment with the Dalai Lama. I later heard from Mr. Sobin that the visit had gone quite well. The topics included the possibility that Mr. Sobin would be able to discuss the conditions that he would encounter during his trip to Tibet, not only with his connections in the Chinese government, but with his contemporaries in the American government, too! So approximately ten years after sitting in a small audience, where the Dalai Lama had spoken informally to a group of interested people, I found myself in the position of furthering his ecumenical message for humanity by opening opportunities of discourse between senior representatives of respective governments. Well, Tibetan Buddhists do speak about the relationship between the Buddha, the Dharma (Teachings) and the Sangha (those who practice the teachings of the Buddha), as well as Samayas, which are the vows that bind everything together. May I offer the merit from these life experiences to benefit and further the enlightenment of all sentient beings.
Copyright: Brice Bowman 2008
Dodrup Chen (Rigpawiki)
Kalu Rinpoche (Wikipedia)
Kalu Rinpoche photos (Flower Raj)
Dudjom Rinpoche (Wikipedia)
Dudjom Rinpoche photos (Flower Raj)
Marilyn Silverstone (Wikipedia)
Brice Bowman photos (Flower Raj)
Peace Hotel Shanghai (Wikipedia)