Namgyal Rinpoche
Student Memories

Pilgrimage - Part I

Pilgrimage - Part II

Pilgrimage - Part III

First Meeting

How I Met and Recognized
My Root Teacher The Venenerable Namgyal Rinpoche

then known as Bhikkhu Ananda Bodhi

Henri van Bentum

By the 1960's, seeking, questioning and adversity were no strangers to me. The unwholesome arts and culture realm of Toronto did not help much either, (or maybe it did). "Basta!", I said. Enough is enough. My cup runneth over. So even though I'd recently had a solo exhibition in Paris, which had been written up in TIME magazine along with two photos of my work, and even though I was in the midst of preparing for my second show at Roberts Gallery - something was amiss.

When I returned to Canada from Paris in May of 1966, I learned that several of my paintings had gone astray following the closing of the exhibition. My experience altogether had been a lesson and a let down. I only had a three week excursion air ticket and since my show was on for a month, had to leave a week before it closed. All my requests to the Canadian Consulate in Paris and to the Dept. of Foreign Affairs to trace the lost paintings were in vain. Thus more disappointment.

During one of the dark moments of those days, a friend mentioned to me there was a Buddhist monk in Toronto, a Canadian, who seemed a somewhat understanding and compassionate man. This was the era of flower power, Beatlemania, the Maharishi and Scientology. So I just made a mental note of this pointer from my friend. Not until I'd again been hit with another setback and disappointment, did I decide to learn more about the Buddhist monk.

It was an early Spring day in 1967 when we first met. He was giving a discourse in the basement of a church for seamen and "down and outers" on Queen Street East. Upon entering the room, I noticed a wooden bowl on the table with a note saying, "Help the draft dodgers of Vietnam". A few curious stray onlookers and the Bhikkhu's followers were there. Seated in a chair at the front was a young man with shaven head, saffron and burgundy-robed. I was sitting at the back. His voice was clear, not loud, but I could understand each word.

He touched on the subject of coping with city life, then read from "The Secret of the Golden Flower", upon which he elaborated. It was all new to me. I knew his Canadian name was Leslie George Dawson, but he was called the 'Bhikkhu' (which means 'wanderer'), and his ordained name was Ananda Bodhi. There was something in his voice, in his presence and self-confidence, which told me that I was facing someone who was for real. Measured against all my life experiences, and the charlatans I had encountered, Ananda Bodhi stood out as being genuine.

Someone introduced me to him at the end of the discourse, and we 'clicked' then and there. Lifetimes bridged in one moment. I knew nothing of Buddhism, or lamas, or eastern philosophy - except from literature. Ananda Bodhi lived in a humble apartment on Triller Avenue in west Toronto with Tony Olbrecht from England. In the evenings the Bhikkhu held classes there, with an average of six to eight students present.

In the same spring of 1967, the group planned to travel to the Yukon by car. I could not drive, so I was not allowed to go. As well, the art scene still held my attention somewhat, be it less firm. At that time I was scheduled to present illustrated lectures at several cities in Ontario, and was about to give three of these, one in each of Waterloo, Stratford and London.

These talks were sponsored by the Toronto Art Gallery (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) and the Toronto Board of Education, in exchange for a meager honorarium. A friend drove me to Waterloo in a snowstorm! Stratford and London I reached by train. However, since my meeting with the Bhikkhu, my desire to paint and attraction to the art scene had faded considerably.

The core group returned from the Yukon. Ananda Bodhi had formed the Dharma Centre of Canada. More discourses and classes were held, now at the home of Pauline Fediow on Gerrard Street West.

Pauline Fediow - circa 1969

Later on some were held in my apartment at 579 Jarvis Street and other students' homes. Land was purchased near Kinmount, to start a meditation centre. Meanwhile the Bhikkhu and Tony had moved to 171 Harbord St. Beatrice Raff from Europe was housekeeper and cook.

I dropped my painting activities, effectively abandoning my so-called career - and began attending all the Bhikkhu's classes, which were then held in the mornings and evenings. Not much later Ananda Bodhi and Tony moved to a rented house on Palmerston Avenue, just north of College Street. Then I became the 'day student' at Palmerston. My task was to run various errands, answer the door to students, shop and cook.

Weekends we traveled by Land Rover to the newly-purchased land near Kinmount, which had formerly been a mink farm. There was a lot of work to be done, clearing bushes, etc., for what was to become the future Dharma Centre grounds, while plans were in the making to build a few meditation cabins.

One of my first assignments for the Bhikkhu was to co-ordinate the travel plans. Ananda Bodhi became a legendary traveler, a 'Hero of a Thousand Places'. My part began by establishing contact with a shipping company in Europe, to book passage on a freighter to India. The Bhikkhu had decided to travel to the East (Sri Lanka, Burma and India, with some of his students.)

Meanwhile, my last illustrated art lecture, in London, took place on October 11, 1967, Ananda Bodhi's birthday. Less than five weeks later, ten of us were off by ship to Europe, eventually sailing onward by freighter to India on a pilgrimage. (I later called it the "ship of fools with one Wise Man".) Our stopover in Europe included touring by car in England, France and Spain (where we visited the caves of Lascaux and Altamira), and Portugal.

Ananda Bodhi had been ordained in the Theravadan order by his teacher U Thila Wunta. He also studied in Sri Lanka, Thailand and in India. It was only four years later, on a subsequent trip to India in 1971 in the company of over 100 students, that the Bhikkhu was recognized by His Holiness the XVI Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage and named him Karma Tenzing Namgyal Dorje Rinpoche.

After his ordination, Ananda Bodhi returned to England, where he had spent a few years, and in Scotland. Following his teaching in Scotland, the Teacher arrived back in Canada with some core students from England. With this nucleus, along with the new students in Toronto, the foundation of his teachings in Canada, and later around the world, was formed.

Since my contact with the Bhikkhu, a noticeable change took place in me. I knew my weakness was being overly emotional, having too much enthusiasm, not enough sober insight and too trusting for today's world. The lucid awareness and direct teaching of Ananda Bodhi made me aware of this imbalance. The Teacher is a master of meditation and insight teaching in the Kagyu lineage of compassion and wisdom. Ananda Bodhi gave me a more balanced insight between my reason and emotion, by strengthening the former. This needs to be brought into harmony and equilibrium.

Too often in our society, grown-ups and even children or teenagers who are overly emotional or enthusiastic are labeled abnormal. Let me point out, however, that the Teacher never removed our enthusiasm - only the excess of emotions - by guiding the enthusiasm into mindfulness of both expressing and doing (action), or knowing and being. Being a healer, he always encourages his students to be creative. As for myself, I was told "Art is your vehicle to unfolding".

In the end, the quality of a Teacher can be measured by the students. In the early years of the Dharma Centre, during the hippie times, many of us were ignorant. I was one of the few older students 'who had seen the bombs drop' in WWII during my teens.

Ananda Bodhi, now known as Namgyal Rinpoche, was more than capable of handling our bewildered and confused minds. He rose to the occasion and beyond, with skill and means in the constructive 'handling' of his students from the outset. Once you connect with your root Lama, the old image of 'self' has to wither away before Awakening can take place. And once awakened, it is very defeating to slumber again. Like the breaking of a New Year's resolution, but deeper.

We need to be mindful of our actions, thoughts and speech. For no matter what we think, say or do - a mind is at work behind it (or not!). Compassion is intrinsic to human nature. However it needs to be cultivated and cannot be taken for granted, including being conscientious and compassionate for our spaceship Earth. From personal experience, the cause of suffering has to be recognized within. Seeing suffering and ignorance in others, we realize we're all in the same boat. "Except ye be troubled, ye shall not marvel." Speaking of boats, now we can go on to the 1967-68 pilgrimage from Europe to Sri Lanka, Burma and India by freighter - the "Ship of 'Ignorants' and one Wise Man."

Vancouver, Canada, July 2002

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