It all began innocently enough yet, at the same time, it all seems now like some vast, old karma playing out. I had known Mike Borre since I was about five years old. We were on the same local YMCA swim team, when swimming became a national pastime and sport in the United States. Mike was always a little older and lot bigger than me. Everyone knew he would be a champ, even when he was six years old. Sure enough, he had a long career as a champion swimmer, locally, regionally, and nationally.
Nobody knew that he would be diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s Disease in his 30s; that his champion’s frame would become afflicted and his champion’s mind confronted with life’s great questions. Indeed, Mike lived a profound question. No one could have imagined that I would be conducting a dance research and documentation project in the Kingdom of Bhutan in the 2000s, or that I would be compelled to investigate the dances associated with traditional healers.
It was a coincidence that I met Mike again around this time, thanks to an encounter with his daughter—he had asked my help finding the best ballet school for her. It was a while before I understood about Mike’s situation with Parkinson’s. He’d been someone I’d admired since I was a kid. I remember telling him, when he told me about his years of living with Parkinson’s, that having lost so many friends to AIDS, his story would probably not blow my mind. He laughed and we embarked on a great friendship, marked by frank, fun conversations on difficult subjects.
When the idea of bringing him to Bhutan to encounter healers as part of a Core of Culture dance fieldwork project sprang up—of course not knowing how that could happen or what the results would be—Mike and I had already established an ongoing conversation about life and dealing with illness. He was ready for the complete unknown, for sincere action and robust adventure. He would be the ritual test subject, the lab rat, the sacrificial victim, the supplicant.
Mike was totally open to the complete unknown of it all, and it turned out to be quite exotic and magical. He was healed. Seems like a subplot, next to the parade of traditional healers, holy men, and ritual adepts. The upshot was that Mike himself was one of the holy men, now suffering in this world of samsara, brought to Bhutan as part of some karmic fulfillment, one that gave him healing.
Who could have guessed another of our friends would end up quite successful and wealthy? Well, everyone, actually. When he was five years old, we all knew Jeff Costello would be successful and wealthy.
But who could have guessed that, decades later, Jeff Costello would offer to underwrite all the expenses involved with bringing Mike to Bhutan with Core of Culture, for one month of fieldwork, meeting with, as it turned out, seven healers? This was just a handful of childhood friends reconnecting, looking after each other in a fraternal way.
Mike Borre went to Bhutan with Parkinson’s disease, beset with constant tremors, taking strong drugs for mind and body, using a pacemaker to stimulate dopamine production in his brain. A month later, he had no palsy, had shut off the pacemaker, and had stopped taking the pharmaceuticals. More than that, he’d met some of the highest spiritual figures in the Kingdom of Bhutan, several certain that he was the reincarnation of a former high Buddhist Lama. Go figure.
Of the seven healers, six of them diagnosed Mike as having offended the primordial deity Rahula, some with greater details, like “in the water” and “when he was a teen.” Three of them explicitly stated that Mike did not have Parkinson’s. Four of the healers stated explicitly that Mike was formerly a high Buddhist master. Five healers caused the tremors to stop during the healing rites. All of the healers said that if they had encountered Mike earlier in his illness, they could have healed him more completely.
I personally witnessed each healing session. My job was to observe and later record Mike’s behavior and reactions during the encounters. We also otherwise documented what we were allowed to document. Photography pollutes the vibratory atmosphere needed for ritual efficacy. Rhythm is a functional element of each rite. Our chief photographer, Gerard Houghton, field director Karma Tshering, production assistant Longchula Dorji and his son, Pema, also witnessed the healing sessions involving Mike.
Except one. A few days before we left, our good friend the reincarnated master Baba Tulku came to see us in the capital Thimphu. Tulku and his wife had been so accommodating of our dance research work; so helpful. Baba Tulku, who lived on a mountainside, offered to take Mike to see the mountain flowers in bloom. Bhutan is a botanical paradise, so this was a lovely offer for a foreign guest. Mike went alone with Baba Tulku.
They returned many hours later. Baba Tulku had one of Mike’s gold medals from a swimming championship pinned on his monk’s robe, while Mike was radiant. I don’t know what they talked about or what transpired during their excursion. It seems mythic to say, but that was how it appeared: as if Mike had actually realized some sort of answer to the question, “What is the meaning of my life?” in his encounters with Himalayan masters. Whatever form the answer took, it consoled and enlightened him; indeed healed and transformed him. Mike looked like a different man by the time he left Bhutan.
Baba Tulku had initiated Mike as a Buddhist, given him a name and a mantra, and offered his lifelong friendship and guidance. The tulku also gave Mike some kind of transmission from his lineage. Mike understood it as a kind of ordination and did not talk about it. This is a powerful energetic phenomena between two people and the very essence of the Vajrayana Buddhist practice: “whispered” knowledge or awareness personally transmitted by psychic transference from lineage holder to initiate. Transmitted realities are the materia prima of spiritual lineages, what distinguishes one from another, and one reason that transmissions and initiations possess profound supra-rational significance.
Mike’s month in Bhutan included many energetic transmissions, from Ayurvedic masseurs to high holy men on their death bed calling down subduing thunder with karmic lightening. Three spiritual and energetic transmissions: from the 67th Je Khenpo, from the great scholar and adept Lam Pemala, and from Baba Tulku, almost immediately transfigured Mike physically and mentally. He was visibly different in moments. Such was the case when Mike returned home that night with Baba Tulku. Baba Tulku not only gave Mike a transmission, he offered a lifelong connection with him as well. Indeed, opened his eyes to many lifetimes of connections.
So perhaps this is a story of the YMCA swim team and Parkinson’s and dance research and old friends, but perhaps it is a story of a former high Buddhist master making his way home in a present life marked with much suffering? In the end, a great deal of Mike’s suffering was lifted and a wholehearted happiness overcame him.
My parents were devout Catholics and attended Mass every day. My father liked to church-hop, visiting different churches in the area on different days. One day after Mass, an old man approached my father, also an old man:
“Are you Bill Houseal?”
“It depends,” my father responded.
“Are you Joe Houseal’s dad?”
“I’m Mike Borre’s father.”
“Yes, yes! How nice to meet you.”
“I don’t know if it’s mind over matter, or what, and I don’t care. We’ve never seen Mike this happy in his entire life, since he came back from Bhutan. He’s stopped drinking, he’s kind to everyone, he’s content. I can’t tell you how much it means for us to see him like this.”
“You know that Costello boy, Jeff, provided the funds for the whole thing?” my father observed.
“Yes, Mike told me. Mike used to crew on Tom Costello’s sailboat. He and Jeff go way back. I’m sure he did the Mackinaw race with them at least once. Some nice young men.”
My father pulled Mr. Borre closer, “Here we are in the back of a church, and we’re talking about ‘nice young men’ . . . and that includes our kids! Let’s take a moment and give thanks?”
They both laughed as only old fathers can.