The Buddha from Brooklyn -- dinner with Jetsunma
It was a few weeks after the stupa blessing in December--and nearly Christmas--when I went to take Jetsunma to dinner. She lived in a converted barn that had been built for her by the students in 1993. It was tucked behind the temple in a place that seemed secluded although it really wasn't. Strangely enough, in all the months I'd been coming out to Poolesville, I had never noticed the building or even been too curious about it. Jetsunma had become such a mysterious figure to me--a phantom--that it didn't seem possible she lived anywhere but on some majestic hilltop, far from ordinary life.
I pulled up to her house and shut off the headlights. The large brownish building was decorated with white Christmas lights and two big stars on the roof. Some colored lights had been draped over the bushes.
Her older son, Ben, answered the door, and invited me in. Like his younger half brother, Christopher, he was tall and beautiful and had a confident air. He was in his mid twenties, and his hair was short and black and slicked down with some kind of shiny gel. He wore tight jeans and an earring in one of his ears. "Jetsunma is upstairs getting ready," he said. "She said to tell you she'd be down soon." As he disappeared around a corner, I took my coat off and dropped into an overstuffed sofa in the living room.
It was a cozy space, a comfortable cave of brown tones and soft velveteen and wall-to-wall carpeting. A large Christmas tree stood off to the side, with twinkling lights and wrapped presents underneath. In her students' homes the walls often displayed colorful mandalas, maps of Buddhas in their perfect universes, and on the tabletops there were little seated Sakyamunis and Amitabhas. But Jetsunma seemed to have created at least one Buddha- free zone.
I realized I was nervous. I had always prided myself on my ability to remain calm as a journalist, but I'd found myself a bit unhinged by Jetsunma lately. Since our lunch at Hunter's Run in the fall, she'd met me in the Dharma room a few times for interviews, and I'd seen her at ceremonies and teachings. Yet despite her continual warmth and friendliness to me, I'd noticed as the months had passed and I learned more about her, that, rather than feeling closer to her and more comfortable, I grew less so. For one thing, I always worried that I wasn't being respectful enough. Her students seemed so kind and thoughtful, and moved gracefully through the temple rooms, and when they began bowing before Jetsunma as she walked by, or prostrating themselves on the floor--even her children prostrated to her every morning--it felt strange to be the only one in the room who was not bowing, or prostrating, or offering her scarves. Others had revealed they felt awkward around her, too.
"We used to be friends and, like, went to dinner and stuff." Sherab had said to me about Jetsunma. "We really enjoyed each other's company. But once I became her student, I had trouble. I had terrible tulku trouble. I got neurotic, bitten by the protocol bug or something. How do I act? What do I do now? That can happen to you in this place. It's a mind thing. Your mind gets tight and reactive. Instead of being like, Ahhh, tulku, a wonderful presence of enlightenment in the world, enthroned in my heart, I was like a rabbit in the headlights."
Or a hall of mirrors. I felt increasingly lost in Jetsunma's company and unsure of myself. Sherab was right. It was a feeling of tightness and mental constriction. There was also a feeling of impotency. Talking to her students over the past months, and hearing their testimonials of devotion, had had a bizarre effect on me. Rather than seeming like some beneficent goddess of mercy--the woman who was leading Westerners out of the wilderness--Jetsunma was quickly becoming something of a monster in my eyes. She seemed to dwell like Count Dracula, or Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, in an eccentric kingdom of her own creation where the rules of conventional society didn't apply. She communicated with entities nobody else could see. She traveled to galaxies no telescope had yet found. She spoke in spirits' voices. She made predictions based on dreams. She looked up at the sky, at rainbows and mushroom-shaped clouds, and said they were messages from the universe. One could make a list of these things or put them to paper--as I would have to do one day--and nothing would add up, nothing could be proven. Perhaps it was all smoke and mirrors, hocus-pocus, the shenanigans of a great con.
But there were facts. and as they began emerging from the haze around Jetsunma-separating from the myths, past lives, dreams, and other uncertain ephemera--l remained just as fascinated by her. She had a lunatic determination, a sense of mission. What drove her? Why are some people born with the ability--or imagination and confidence--to invest themselves so completely in the unseen world? All of her channeling, psychic consultations, predictions, and spiritual exorcisms. Little by little she had built something tangible from the invisible. "A teacher calls her students to her," Alana had once told me--and indeed they had come, drawn to Jetsunma as though she had her own gravitational force. Once they were in her orbit, she pushed them, pressed them. She changed them. They paid more attention to their health, their conduct, their morals, their character. She had them praying in shifts that went on twenty-four hours a day. She had them building altars, cleaning offering bowls, pouring concrete, and prostrating one hundred thousand times to complete the first phase of Ngondro.
The students said they were practicing Tibetan Buddhism, but how many times had they saved the planet from space invaders? How many negative entities had been pacified? Their endeavors seemed laughable--or insane--but when I spoke to Jetsunma or heard her give a teaching, there seemed to be no more reasonable, practical person alive.
Afraid that my judgment was skewed, I'd even dragged my skeptical boyfriend out to Poolesville one Sunday to hear Jetsunma teach. He sat rapt through a two-hour teaching. "Oh, there's no question about it," he said later. "All those Americans with shaved heads and robes running around trying to be Tibetan are annoying, but she's got it--whatever it is. She's incredible."
Tibetan Buddhists believe that everybody has a mandala or universe-- circles of activity and energy and perception. There is an outer mandala or display, which is one's appearance or apparent everyday reality. There is an inner mandala, one's quality of mind, one's energy and relative nature. And one's secret mandala relates to an ultimate reality or truth--it is very simple and direct but also the most difficult to comprehend. I wondered what Penor Rinpoche saw when he looked at Jetsunma. Does wisdom itself have an energy that could be seen when she walked into a room?
And what had drawn him to her little brick rambler in Kensington ten years before, on his first trip to America, and then caused him to proclaim her a tulku? It had been an unusual step for a conservative man like Penor Rinpoche to take, and a controversial one. Jetsunma was the first Western woman to become a tulku in the male-centered religion of Tibetan Buddhism. "His Holiness has said that he meets tulkus in India quite often," Alana had told me. "But he doesn't recognize them. They aren't ready yet." Wib had suggested something similar. "There are probably bodhisattvas all over, and we just don't know it. Some poets, rock musicians, philosophers ... who knows? They don't all become teachers and set up monasteries."
I heard footsteps and looked up. Jetsunma was standing by the door with her daughter, Atira. The girl was seven and had the same wavy dark hair as Jetsunma, but her skin was paler and dotted with light freckles. She seemed, as Alyce Zeoli must have at her age, precocious and self-assured. Jetsunma and I hugged hello, and we discussed the Christmas tree. "Were you surprised I had one?" Jetsunma asked. "As a Buddhist, it's just hard to know what to put on top."
"Doesn't really belong there anymore," she said.
"Nahhh ..." She scrunched up her nose and made a face. "That wouldn't work, either." She bent down, looked into Atira's eyes, and said good night, then walked over to a closet in the hall and pulled out a long black leather coat. It was then that I noticed she was wearing a blue- gray knit suit-with baggy trousers and a long jacket--which was strikingly similar to the one I was wearing. And when I looked down at her feet, I saw she had on the exact pair of thick-soled brown Doc Marten boots that I had worn. A perfect mirror.
"Hey! I knew we were sisters," she said. "We've got the same Docs!"
By the time we walked to my car, it had begun to rain lightly. And I wondered aloud if this was a good sign. "It could be," Jetsunma said, "and, according to my astrological chart, I have a very auspicious meeting with a woman today. That has to be you."
The dinner, like every encounter with Jetsunma, had been an enormous hassle to arrange. Her private phone number had remained private, and her calendar seemed crowded with mysterious events. For a woman who rarely left the temple grounds, except to visit the acupuncturist, the chiropractor, the homeopath or hairstylist, she was awfully busy. Wib still called regularly, to ask how things were going and brief me on new developments at the temple. As soon as the stupa had been blessed, Jetsunma had gotten her students into high gear again. There were so many changes, it was hard to keep up.
Lately Wib kept mentioning something called the Mandarava recognition, so I asked about it. The year before, 1994, a Tibetan terton named Kusum Lingpa had visited the temple and apparently been so impressed with Jetsunma that quite out of the blue he'd declared her a reincarnation of Mandarava, a consort of Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, the Indian saint responsible for bringing Buddhism to Tibet. Kusum Lingpa was a funny guy, unpredictable and intense, and something of a crazy yogi. Being a terton, or treasure revealer, meant that Kusum Ling pa was capable of uncovering the hidden wisdom of early masters--and the teachings came to him as revelations, often arising spontaneously into his mind. One of these revelations came in the form of a poem to Jetsunma, which Kusum Lingpa wrote upon arriving on the temple grounds in Poolesville. In the poem he referred to her as an emanation of Mandarava.
An emanation is a bit different from a strict reincarnation of a person. There are actually several ways of being a tulku, and various methods of being reborn. A great lama sometimes returns to earth with exactly the same personality intact--with similar tastes and attitudes and talents. Other times a great lama simply lends "blessings" to a person--and passes along a few traits or qualities--this was the kind of tulku Jetsunma was, Penor Rinpoche eventually told me in an interview. To be blessed in such a way makes you a blessing tulku. And then there are emanations. Wib explained to me that it is possible for tulkus to spread out their qualities and become reborn as several people at once: each one of these is considered an emanation.
Even though it had been a year since Kusum Lingpa's visit, his revelation was only now having an impact on Jetsunma, according to Wib. She had just gotten used to the idea of being Ahkon Lhamo, and now the news of this second recognition--even though it had not come from as revered a source as Penor Rinpoche, and it hadn't been roundly accepted or confirmed within Tibetan Buddhist circles--was just beginning to sink in. She felt it held an important clue to her identity. "She's been considering this recognition a great deal, lately," he told me, "just sitting with this news a bit more deeply."
I looked up Mandarava in my reference books and found her easily. She was a very glamorous figure on the Tibetan Buddhist stage and loomed much larger than Ahkon Lhamo, who didn't seem to be mentioned in any of the books I'd found. Mandarava was "a peerless princess" from the kingdom of Zahor, "who could find no partner worthy of her beauty and intellect," according to one nineteenth-century scholar.* She was sixteen when she met the great Padmasambhava and became determined to become his disciple. In protest the king of Zahor had his daughter thrown into a pit of thorns and had Padmasambhava burned alive on a pyre of sandalwood. When the king came to inspect the damage, he found that the fire had become a clear lake. And in the middle of the lake, sitting on an open lotus flower, were Padmasambhava and his consort, looking "cool and fresh."
The couple moved to a cave in Nepal called Maratika, practiced the yoga of longevity and achieved immortality. Later in her life Mandarava became renowned as a single mother, the queen of siddhas, or saints, and had numerous followers.
In light of her meditations on the meaning of the Mandarava recognition, Jetsunma was now considering a second trip to India in the spring of 1996. Wib told me that she wanted to visit with His Holiness, of course, but, more important, she planned to make a pilgrimage to the pit where Mandarava's father had thrown her. She wanted to visit Maratika Cave, too--even though it was in a remote location that required a three- day backpacking trip with sherpa guides. Wib explained that by returning to these places where she had dwelt in a past life, Jetsunma would be able to "connect with Mandarava's mindstream," as he put it, and feel Mandarava's spirit much more alive inside her. He added that Jetsunma hoped I'd join her--a prospect that both excited me and filled me with a strange dread.
"We're already beginning to do a little fund-raising for the trip," Wib said, and I sighed inwardly. I wondered how the temple stayed afloat. When I expressed sympathy to Wib--assuming he'd be pushed to find the donors--I was surprised to discover that he wasn't worried about how to pay for the India trip, or even how to pay the mortgage.
"Ladyworks is the thing I'm focusing on now."
Ladyworks was the other subject that Wib had tended to bring up in recent weeks. Sometimes I found the conversational shift from Mandarava's pit to Jetsunma's invention of a hair-conditioning gel cap a bit dizzying, but I had grown used to--and looked forward to--just this sort of wild twist in our talks. Wib and I had become friends over the months, and he knew that I counted on him to keep me informed. The Ladyworks business needed a boost of two to three hundred thousand dollars in order to "get it off the ground," he confessed. I found this amount staggering. Where on earth would it come from? I was fascinated by how the students at KPC, with Jetsunma's guidance and blessing, were always expanding beyond their means and getting further into debt. Meanwhile, the stupa was still in need of landscaping, benches, and an asphalt road. Not to mention the gold leaf.
I suspected that Eleanor Rowe would be hit up for capital, but there had to be others on the sidelines willing to hand over their extra cash. Wasn't it one thing to give money to support a Buddhist temple and another thing entirely to give it to a fledging hair care business? The hair- conditioning cap was already for sale in the Sharper Image catalog for one hundred dollars--I'd sent one to my mother for Christmas--but Wib said if the temple were going to make any money on the invention, it needed to be selling them directly by mail order. He sounded a bit beleaguered, and tired, when he talked about it, despite his efforts to seem upbeat.
"You can't sit around worrying about money," he said. "Money has always been our problem--not our problem, our challenge." Buddhists like to be positive. "And it looks like we have to make a second infomercial. "
"You've made an infomercial?" I asked.
"Yeah, and it had some incredible testimonials in it, but it hasn't tested well."
"And you're making another?"
"We're still deciding whether Jetsunma will be in this one or not."
"Jetsunma? She's in the infomercial?"
"That hasn't been decided yet."
"Not a good idea, if you ask me," I blurted, unable to contain myself.
We wrangled about this for several minutes. This phenomenon of making a connection seemed to be a Tibetan Buddhist favorite, but it was something I had never fully appreciated. Wherever Jetsunma went, whatever Jetsunma did--even the most routine errands and banal encounters--was thought to bring benefit to the world. If people saw her on TV, they might make a connection with her that would allow them, somehow, to meet her in a future life and step onto "the path." Frankly, just proselytizing seemed simpler. But Buddhists don't believe in applications of direct pressure.
Connection or not, it seemed a low bow to marketing and commercialism for a spiritual leader to be selling a hair care product in an infomercial on TV. But this point of view didn't get anywhere with Wib. He kept raising the benefits of her appearance--and how the infomercial guy at a production company in Northern Virginia seemed to think Jetsunma was telegenic--until I got the distinct feeling that Jetsunma herself was pushing for it.
Wib was full of good intentions, but I began to suspect one could be too full of them. He seemed foggy, and lacking in critical judgment. There are a number of places where Tibetan Buddhism and conventional wisdom will never meet, and, when forced to choose between the two, Wib stuck with the Tibetan Buddhist perspective until the bitter end. To Wib's way of thinking, every single action of Jetsunma was a manifestation of goodness. All her ideas and intentions were above reproach. She was a pure being, a living Buddha. Whatever decisions she made were unassailable.
"Well," I said, finally. "if she wants to be in the infomercial, you can't really argue with her, can you?"
"It's not a matter of whether she wants to be in it," he explained. "It's what she decides will be of the most benefit. Selling the hair-conditioning caps may have nothing to do with it."
As for dinner with Jetsunma, it continued to hang in the air for another week or so. The date was moved twice, because of her health. And deciding on the location required more phone calls. "She likes sushi, Thai, and Italian food," Wib told me. "And sometimes she likes to sit in the bar and have a drink before dinner." It was finally decided that we would go to the Normandy Farm Inn, a large country French restaurant in Potomac.
"Pick her up at her house at seven," Wib called to remind me, the day before. "And be on time."
The atmosphere inside Normandy Farm Inn seemed flat next to the presence of Jetsunma herself. It was a comfortable old shoe of a restaurant, the kind of spot that Potomac families went to on the night the country club didn't serve dinner. I was pretty sure that Jetsunma's long black leather coat was the only one that had been checked at the door. And that she was the only tulku in the room.
We sat down at a table and ordered a couple of glasses of Merlot. We chitchatted a bit, about the book, how my interviews were going, and which of her students I'd talked to. I was entirely free to talk to any of them--if the student was willing--and Jetsunma always seemed to enjoy hearing about which ones I'd chosen to see and what I thought. When some names came up, she was critical. It always felt a little like gossiping.
When I said I'd liked talking to Sangye Dorje about the stupa, she beamed proudly. When I mentioned that I'd enjoyed getting to know Alana--and observed that the students seemed afraid of her--Jetsunma smiled again. "And they should be!" And when I said that I'd really come to like Sherab most of all, Jetsunma almost couldn't contain her joy. "She's great, isn't she? We used to be really good friends. Did you know that?"
I nodded that I did.
"How we got together is a pretty incredible story."
I wasn't sure I knew the details, I said. But I was going to be seeing Sherab in a couple days and I'd ask.
"I miss her company so much," Jetsunma said. "You know, I can't really hang out with the nuns. For one thing, there's all these things they can't do ..." She lifted her wineglass and shrugged. "And it wouldn't be fair for me to talk personally with them, like girlfriends."
After we ordered the same thing for dinner--filet mignon--Jetsunma produced an envelope from her purse. She had brought old family pictures for me to look over. There was a picture of her in Brooklyn as a very young girl, sitting on Santa's lap. In another snapshot she was wearing a funny Easter hat and her dress had a tiny bow tie. There were pictures of her mother, Geraldine. "I always thought she looked like Loretta Young," Jetsunma said.
I thought of Brooklyn and the other stories she had told me about: the cigarette burns and bruises, the way she had described how skin turns spongy after a beating, and the red turns to black, then green, and finally yellow. I looked down at the pictures scattered next to my elbow. I looked at the little girl on Santa's lap. Her wide-set, dark eyes had the same twinkle, the same wisdom. and the same sadness as the eyes of the woman across the table from me. It was impossible to imagine how someone could hit her.
"You look like Atira here," I said, tapping on one photo.
"People always say that," she said--then paused. "But you knew that Atira isn't my natural daughter?"
"No," I said, a bit embarrassed.
"Do you know who Ani Catharine Anastasia is?"
Catharine Anastasia was one of the nuns I'd met that night at Tara Studios, working on the stupa garlands. I remembered she was a quiet woman with a plump face and watery blue-green eyes. I suddenly recalled the story I'd heard about her.
"Former drug addict? Homeless? Lived under a bridge?'
Jetsunma nodded and began to explain that before Catharine Anastasia became a nun her name was Jalee. She was single, had been off drugs for a while, and had been coming to Poolesville for nearly two years for teachings. In the fall of 1987 she came to see Jetsunma privately to say that she was pregnant. Her former boyfriend was the father, but they had no plans to marry.
Jetsunma was very happy for Jalee at first, she said. "Oh that's wonderful, just wonderful." Jetsunma told her.
But Jalee didn't seem too excited. "No, it's not," she said. Jetsunma thought she could understand why Jalee might be hesitant to become a mother. "She'd come so far--really, it was unbelievable how well she was doing," Jetsunma said to me. "Maybe being a mother was one thing too much." She told Jalee that she should make arrangements to give the baby up for adoption. Again, Jalee didn't seem too excited. She felt if she gave birth to a baby, Jetsunma said, "she'd have to keep it.
"I told her," Jetsunma recalled, " 'Maybe you should keep it then."
"But Jalee shook her head, according to Jetsunma. "'I'd rather have an abortion,' she said.
"So I told her," Jetsunma continued, " 'Look, I don't favor abortion. I could never kill something that grew in my body. To quote a comedian I heard on Comedy Central, If a shoe came out it would still be mine. I could literally never do that.'"
Jalee still seemed unconvinced, Jetsunma said. "Look," Jetsunma told her, "to a Buddhist a human rebirth is very precious. And this child may have used up all its merit just for a chance to be born. Don't you think this child needs a chance? If not with you, then a chance with someone else? It earned this."
Jalee remained quiet. "She couldn't give up a baby," Jetsunma said to me at dinner, "but she was able to have an abortion. This just didn't make sense to me. So finally, I had to get kind of heavy with her. I said, 'Look, it's like this: Terminate this child's life--kill this unborn child--and I cannot be your teacher anymore.'"
This had some impact. Her choice, as Jetsunma put it to me, "was now between what was convenient for her and me being her teacher. Well, she chose me. And she went ahead and arranged for the baby to be adopted through an agency."
As Jetsunma remembered it, in March 1988, when Jalee gave birth to a girl, Jetsunma went to the hospital to bless the infant before she was given up to the new parents. "So I went to bless this baby," she said, "thinking that was my lamalike duty--and I take the baby, hold her up, and I get ready to bless her. She was ten pounds and two ounces. She had these beautiful round cheeks, this little apple head. She was beautiful, just beautiful. And the minute I saw her, I knew she was a Buddhist."
"So I said to Jalee, 'Look, I don't know how to tell you this, but we can't let her go.'"
Jalee was stunned, "What? You're kidding," she said.
While Jalee tried to wangle out of her adoption deal, Jetsunma went back to the temple and called a sangha meeting to ask if any of the students would be willing to take the baby. Several parents came forward--Wib and Jane, Ted and Linda Kurkowski, Bob and Carol Colacurcio. "I also put my name on the list," said Jetsunma, "I thought, Well, I could afford another child, and I could raise her in the Dharma. I'm motherly, and I'd take in very lonely baby if I could. I'm just like that. But, frankly, I wasn't all that excited about it."
The next day Jetsunma went back to the hospital with the list of names. "You would take her?" Jalee said, shocked.
"Yeah, I think so," Jetsunma said, "But it's your decision."
The baby was brought in again, to be fed, and Jalee told the nurses to hand her to Jetsunma. "And it was something out of a movie. I mean, they hand her to me, and this baby just opens her eyes and looks right dead up at me, which newborns never do. She looks up at me, and I am locked into her eyes. I'm locked into her. And it's like nothing could have broken that bond. I don't know how to really explain it to you ...
"But I looked into her eyes and I immediately start crying," Jetsunma said. "And I said to Jalee, 'My God! This is my daughter! This is my daughter!' I was so happy, and I couldn't believe it, and I said to Jalee, 'Forget that list--I'm taking her!' I'm like, This is an executive decision! She's mine! And I told Jalee that she would always be a part of this baby's life. She could watch over her. She could see for herself that she was happy and well fed and well cared for. 'She won't want for anything, I promise you,' I told her. She will be raised as I would raise a child. ... And Jalee was just crying and crying, beside herself with happiness."
After Jetsunma finished her story, I sat quietly for a moment, eating my dinner. They left their husbands, left their homes. They asked her where to live, whom to marry. They gave her their children to bless, and name. They gave her money, their time, their devotion. Once they turned toward her, nothing was ever the same. Jalee gave her a baby and then became a nun the next summer, shaved her head and took the vows and changed her name ... the way the others did, scores of them. And never looked back. At the time it never seemed like Buddhism was pulling them, or Dharma, the teachings. It was her, all her. But what was the difference?
Did they worship her? Worship is not really a word that Buddhists use. They talk instead about devotion and Correct View. Wib had told me a story about himself once that spelled this out pretty clearly. In 1988 he had sent Jetsunma a letter--a routine self-appraisal that students did several times a year. In the letter he confessed that he hadn't been a good student lately. He felt that he'd been screwing up. He'd had some anger in his heart--and felt he had broken samaya. His pledge of loyalty to her, several times. He was stunned when Jetsunma responded with a note saying that Wib was "very tough to teach" and she didn't feel up to the job--that maybe he should "consider" studying with Gyaltrul Rinpoche in Oregon.
"She put it so kindly," Wib said, "but I was devastated. Really. And I immediately took her letter and went to the temple. And I remember that Jetsunma was sitting on a swing and holding Atira, and I was so devastated, my knees buckled. I just begged her and begged her. Please, please, tell me what I can do. Please be my teacher.'" Distraught, he began crawling toward her on the grass and sobbing. To spare her the intensity of his emotion, Wib said he finally went away to compose himself.
Wib told me that Jetsunma was very kind to him afterward and took him back as a student. There was a proper way to treat one's teacher, she told him, a way to hold a lama in one's heart. And it led to enlightenment. Wib's response had been appropriate, she told him, and he shouldn't feel ashamed or humiliated. "She said it was such a good sign, such a good response--a sign of deep devotion to her," said Wib. Through the years Jetsunma had often told rooms of students the story about Wib crawling on the grass and begging her to be his teacher. "I'm glad, " said Wib, "that other students have learned from it."
It was hard to know what to think when I heard that story. And it was hard to know what to think when I had lunch with Ani Catharine Anastasia one day, to ask for her account of giving up Atira to her lama. Huge tears began dropping from her eyes as she revealed how hard it had been, and how much, still, she ached about what she had lost when she lost her daughter.
Even more painful, it seemed, was the fact that Jetsunma's version of what transpired between them is not how Catharine Anastasia remembers it. The nun wanted to explain, very carefully, that she was thrilled to give her baby to Jetsunma to raise-- it was a great blessing to make this kind of offering to your guru--but she would have been happy to raise Atira herself, "It's true that I didn't want a baby at the time. I didn't think I could provide financially for it--and I mistakenly believed it would prevent me from pursuing the path. Little did I know it was my path."
When Catharine Anastasia met with Jetsunma to tell her she was pregnant, she sought only guidance. She does not remember insisting on having an abortion. She remembers asking, "Should I keep this baby or put it up for adoption?" She also wondered if Jetsunma could "somehow magically pray the baby to its next life and make it okay to have an abortion."
I asked Catharine Anastasia how she reconciles herself with this misunderstanding, "I just do," she said. "There is really only one version of this story. Whatever Jetsunma told you is the real version. It's the only one that matters. Whatever I remember is just my experience, and only my experience."
People outside the temple had often asked me what I thought of Jetsunma. My friends and family and colleagues in journalism all seemed very interested, "Do you think she's the real thing?" a newspaper editor once pointedly asked.
And later, when I learned there was a debate within the Tibetan Buddhist community about whether tulkus are divine beings, and incapable of corruption, I continued to feel the same way. It wasn't up to me, a journalist, to decide if Alyce Zeoli was really the reincarnation of Ahkon Lhamo or Mandarava. It wasn't up to me to decide if she had truly been at Christ's side when he died or once ruled civilizations on distant galaxies. Nor did it matter to me then whether she could, as she claimed, follow students into the bardo at the time of death and help them to transfer their consciousness to an auspicious rebirth--or directly to Amitabha's Pure Land and enlightenment. These matters were solely the concern of her students and the venerable elders of Tibetan Buddhism, I decided. It was Penor Rinpoche who protected her from criticism--and kept her in her job. And, presumably, if something went awry it was Penor Rinpoche she'd have to answer to. He'd elbow her along in the proper way. He'd be tough on her, wrathful and gruff--the way he was during the summer of her enthronement.
But what if she just decided to stop listening to him? Who would she answer to then?
On our ride back to the temple, the rain clouds sat so low in the sky, and it was so dark, that I could barely see the road. I drove slowly and carefully. There is nothing quite like driving Jetsunma around on a dark road at night. I wondered what kind of horrible rebirth awaited me if I accidentally killed her.
As lightning flashed, the pavement ahead was suddenly illuminated. The only thing visible was the carcass of a dead deer by the side of the road, its neck twisted backward. When Jetsunma saw it she began murmuring prayers.
Dinner had gone on for three hours--each story more amazing than the next--until the large room at the Normandy Farm Inn had emptied out and Jetsunma and I were the only ones left, huddled like two shipwreck survivors clutching a tiny floating dinner table. The time alone with her, as Wib had predicted, was intense--as though five weeks had been crammed into one sitting. Exhausted, we asked for one more pour of coffee and stumbled toward the door. She was less scary when she got tired--sweeter and more human.
"I feel like I've been a chatterbox, " she said on the way home.
"That's what you were supposed to do," I said.
"Before coming, I was thinking a lot about my family," she said. Normally she didn't like talking about her life too much, she said. It made her sad. She and her mother hadn't spoken in several years. Every time she had felt like calling her, she'd concluded that it was better not to. "I have never stopped missing my mother--or missing having a mother," she said. "That's a hole that just never gets filled up, probably in all of us. " She paused for a long time. "I may not have a mother anymore," she said, "or a father, or my old family, but I have the stupa and I have Gyaltrul Rinpoche, who is the reincarnation of Kunzang Sherab, my brother when I was Ahkon Lhamo. My old brother. He's like my family. He took me into his house for days when I wasn't well, and he cooked for me and we ate together and laughed together, like a family. And I've got His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, who gave me the Migyur Dorje relics. He's like my family. ... And while, in one way, it looks like I have nothing," she said, "from another perspective I am the richest woman on earth, surrounded by family at the deepest place where I live."
We were quiet for a while. There were sounds of thunder, and the rain became an impenetrable wall of dancing water. It seemed as though the world had closed down around us, as it had at the restaurant. As though Jetsunma and I were the only people alive. "I've heard you might be coming to India with us," she said, "and that makes me very happy." She asked if I'd been told of the Mandarava recognition. I said that I had.
"Lately I've been having the most incredible memories of Guru Rinpoche's cave," she said. "It's very dark, and I have a memory of standing behind him and I am combing his hair with my nails. And there's dirt and twigs in his hair--and I remember cupping my hands to my face afterward and smelling him, smelling this wonderful smell of Guru Rinpoche."
I smiled and nodded. It was hard to know what to say.
When we pulled into the temple compound and I saw the white columns of the main building, I felt tremendous relief. The night was over. Soon I'd be alone in my own car again. But then I realized something--which seemed quite dire at the time: Jetsunma had no umbrella. How was she going to get inside her house? Was it my responsibility to keep her dry? What would Wib do? What would Alana do? One of the Buddhist books I'd read said that if one stepped unknowingly on even the shadow of a realized lama one would be sent to Vajra Hell. I had been surprised to learn there was such a place.
At the end of her driveway we said goodbye. "It's raining pretty hard," I said. "Can I walk you to the door with my umbrella?"
"Oh, that's not necessary," she replied, opening the car door. "My students are always treating me like that. Like if I get a little rain on me, I'll melt." And then she vanished in the dark.