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A Reluctant Buddhist: How it Took Me Eight Years to Start Practicing in This Life

I didn’t want to go visit my dear friends, Lisa Leghorn and Wyn Fischel, in 1989 because they were living in a newly formed Buddhist community with their Nyingma lineage Tibetan teacher, His Eminence Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, and his American second wife, Jane. I had met Rinpoche and Jane under pressure from another friend, Marina S., the previous year, when she (a new student of his) had brought them to New Hampshire to give some teachings, but I hadn’t felt much of a connection, to say the least.

Embarrassed as I am now to admit it, in a private meeting at Marina’s home, I actually had accused Rinpoche, via Jane (since most couldn’t understand his backwards-syntax, accented English, she translated), of leading a kind of cult and driving my friends away from me by luring them into it. He/she explained that I was mistaken, but I didn’t believe them.

Sally Ember

Lisa and Wyn had left New Hampshire, where we all lived, in 1986 to travel around the western USA in a camping truck on a year-long search for an “authentic spiritual teacher” and a “positive” spiritual community to join. In 1987, they returned only to sell their properties and possessions, pack up, and leave to be with Rinpoche and his sangha.

By early 1989, I sorely missed them and wanted to see for myself how they were doing, in person. When a mutual friend who had already been there said he’d “sponsor” my going to the Bodhisattva (an awakened one who returns after dying to help others awaken) Peace Training, that sounded appropriately innocuous and non-Buddhist enough for me to say I’d go.

The ten-day training was held at the community’s new retreat center, Rigdzin Ling, outside of the tiny Trinity Alps town of Junction City, California, about a four-hour drive north of San Francisco. Despite its remote location, only accessible by driving through twisting mountain roads for over an hour, over two dozen people attended this retreat.

At Rigdzin Ling, 1989, during the Bodhisattva Peace Training led by HE Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, with Tsering Everest translating. From Sally Ember

In the middle of the session, Rinpoche offered the Red Tara Empowerment. I barely knew what it was, but it involved dressing up in red clothes and listening to a lot of Tibetan; not for me! Even though everyone else went, I didn’t attend. (I can now barely believe that I skipped it.)

An American student of Rinpoche’s who also lived at Rigdzin Ling, Tsering Everest, was translating Rinpoche’s impossible-for-most-to-comprehend English into standard English. This meant, as in New Hampshire, we had to listen to every portion of the teachings twice. I started falling asleep every time Rinpoche started talking, waking up to hear the translator, whom I could understand. Since I was mostly there to visit Lisa and Wyn, I went off in search of them every chance I got. However, they were extremely busy and hardly had any time to “socialize.”

There were “refugees” at this retreat, about a dozen of them, from Chögyam Trungpa’s Boulder, Colorado, center. Trungpa Rinpoche had died in 1987 of complications from alcoholism, but the Vajra Regent, known as Narayana, whom he had appointed in the 1970s and who did take over from Trungpa when he moved to Nova Scotia in 1986, turned out to be quite a disaster. Also known as Ösel Tendzin (né Thomas F. Rich, Jr.), Trungpa’s designated lineage holder had been a despot and behaved despicably, reportedly seducing or sexually assaulting many of the male students, forcing them to break their marriage or fidelity vows and all the while knowing but lying about the fact that he was HIV positive. He infected many people, broke up several relationships/marriages, and caused the entire sangha to implode before he was finally deposed. (In 1990, Rich, unapologetic to the end, died of AIDS.) Hearing these betrayed students’ stories and seeing their pain alienated me further from Buddhism, Buddhist teachers, the sangha, and the Dharma.

Near the end of the training period, I argued with Rinpoche again, via Tsering, demanding to know how he could be serious about “the fairy stories” he was telling (later put into a book about his mother’s journeys through the Hell Realms and her returning from a seeming death-coma to tell about them, Delog) and why he thought we should believe “all that nonsense.” (After I read the book, I was quite chagrined, to say the least.) Rinpoche was outstandingly patient with me, as was Tsering, even though I was horribly disrespectful and clueless, a disgrace of a student.

I did make a few new friends, however, and spent a little time with Lisa, but when I left, I felt dissatisfied and sad, and not very peaceful, either. Nevertheless, I found that I remembered the Tara mantra tune and words, and was moved by the simplicity of the teachings on compassion, inner and outer peace, and making ourselves a conduit for peace. 

At Rigdzin Ling, 1989. Clockwise, from bottom left: sangha friends, Donna G., Nancy B., Lisa Leghorn (in 1996, Lama Shenphen), Stacy, Sally, and the late P’nina, center. From Sally Ember

The Training didn’t “take,” though, despite my humming the tune and thinking occasionally about the teachings. I was mostly unchanged and unwilling to study further.

Lisa made many trips to the northeast area of the USA with Rinpoche over the next several years, as his translator. I would go to Boston or New York to visit with her whenever they came, but I wouldn’t go in or listen to the teachings. At several events, I sat outside and helped with registration, then graded papers or did reading for my graduate school classes while the teachings occurred. At breaks, I would socialize with Marina, Lisa, or others I had come to know. When the teachings resumed, the students and Lisa would all go in and I would work in the hallway or anteroom.

In 1995, on his only USA teaching tour, the newly made Lama Drimed (Wyn) came to Cambridge to teach. Even though Marina was going and offered to drive me, I declined to go. I was still angry with him for apparently avoiding me when I had come to visit in 1989, and not being in touch since then didn’t help. Plus, what was this becoming-a-lama thing? He, like me, was a secular Jewish American, my age. How could Rinpoche have made him a teacher and how could Wyn have accepted that mantle? I was disgusted.

For the next three years, I deliberately avoided direct contact with Buddhist teachers almost completely. I did get dragged into attending a few talks, but unmoved by them all, I remained estranged from Buddhist practice and Buddhists.

My friends became more and more involved in Rigdzin Ling, however. Lisa tried to persuade me many times to come in when she was translating, but I couldn’t do it. I intensely disliked that she sat at Rinpoche’s feet, on the floor on a cushion, while he sat on a chair or a throne, high above her. Seeing her in the draped red shawls (zens) they wore and the other “oddities” I observed bothered me enormously. 

At Rigdzin Ling, 1991. Wyn Fischel, dressed for a Drubchen (in 1995, he became Lama Padma Drimed Norbu). From Sally Ember

Between 1983 and 1996, I experimented with different types of meditation, having already begun Transcendental Meditation in 1972. I also read many Buddhist books on living a spiritual life, the Dharma, and meditation. I guess you could say I stayed in touch just enough to be connected, but not enough to be practicing.

During these same years, whenever Marina or Nancy or anyone who knew me would go to California and later, Brazil, to be with Rinpoche privately, they reported back to me that he always asked: “How is Sally?” Each of them grumbled that he seemed more interested in how I was doing than in whatever questions they brought to him. I thought it was odd that Rinpoche did that and odd that they minded, both.

But, secretly, I was a little bit flattered. Why would Rinpoche even remember me, I wondered? I thought it must be because I was such an outstandingly horrible non-student. Through 1996, I stayed absolutely out of Buddhist practice and outside the doors of the teachings, despite seeing Rinpoche and Lisa almost every year. . . .

So how, I imagine you’re wondering, did I end up becoming a devoted, long-term student of Nyingma-lineage Tibetan Buddhism, studying, practicing, and completing my Ngöndro (foundation practices) in two-and-a-half years (“as if my hair were on fire”) while in full-time graduate school, working full time, and raising my son?

How did I go from being unwilling even to enter the teaching venue or shrine room to being eager and willing to help start and/or expand and also, sometimes, live in and be a cook, coordinator, board member, bookkeeper, umze (chant leader), stupa mantra roller/packer, and more for—not one, but three Dharma centers (in Maine, New Mexico, and California)?

How did I transition from not even talking to Wyn for ten years to having Lama Drimed as my root lama and main, then sole, Dzogchen meditation teacher and practice and retreat guide? How did I come to learn Tibetan well enough to be able to read, write, speak, and translate?

Stay tuned for Part Two on Buddhistdoor to find out the answers to all this and more . . .

Sally Ember, Ed.D., has been passionate about writing since she was nine, winning prizes for her poetry, stories, songs, and plays from a young age. Currently, she meditates, writes, swims, reads, and hosts her Google+ Hangout On Air (HOA) also on YouTube, *CHANGES*, LIVE conversations between authors, almost every Wednesday, 10–11 a.m. Eastern time, USA. She especially welcomes Buddhist writers and bloggers on her show! You can contact Sally on [email protected] or visit

This article is one of a series on how Buddhism has impacted the lives of practitioners. We welcome you to send us your story as well. Write to [email protected].

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