I met Lama Norlha Rinpoche in New York City in October 1980. He had come to New York at the request of his root Lama, Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche, in 1976, to direct Kalu Rinpoche’s Dharma center there, Kagyu Dzamling Kunchab. I had some theoretical interest in Tibetan Buddhism but was a Zen practitioner—I wasn’t attracted to all the bells and whistles of the Tibetan practice. My friend Carolyn invited me one evening to come and meet the Lama she had recently started studying with; I ended up taking refuge with him that very week (October 29, 1980).
In 1978, Rinpoche and a handful of mostly impoverished students had managed to acquire an old factory site overlooking the Hudson River in Wappingers Falls, New York, and they were in the early stages of gearing up to establish what would be the first traditional Kagyu three-year, three-month retreat program in North America. Though I lived in Brooklyn with my boyfriend, Arlo/Orlan (later to be husband), I took the train to KTC most weekends and helped with whatever work was happening—clearing land, building the retreat houses, cooking, pulling out underbrush and poison ivy, etc. Rinpoche often gave teachings and Tibetan spelling and reading lessons, but most of the time he was in the field working hardest of all of us. I was present when the first three-year retreat at KTC began in June 1982, and I aspired to enter the second retreat in 1986—though my life took a different path at that time, with the birth of my beautiful and talented daughter, Zoe just two months before the retreat began.
In 1991, when Zoe was four, we had the chance to move to New Hamburg, New York, to live in a house two miles from KTC Monastery while its owners participated in the third three-year retreat cycle. When they came out of retreat, we bought a house down the street. We lived in New Hamburg for nine years, and I spent as much of my free time as possible participating in work, study and practice at KTC, until Arlo’s company transferred him to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 2000.
When I told Rinpoche about the transfer, he very kindly said that if I wanted to start a Dharma center in New Hampshire, he would help me. I thought, yes, I will definitely do that…someday. A few days later I encountered him on the KTC grounds as he was returning from one of the retreat houses. He gave me a stern look and said, “You must start a Dharma center right away, because people are waiting.”
It turned out to be true. Kagyu Samten Chöling began meeting in December 2000. We had a close-knit sangha from the first week, and continued to grow as a community and develop our practice together, meeting at the Barrington Dharma Center and the Pontine Theatre in Portsmouth, for the next seven years. I served as resident teacher under Lama Norlha Rinpoche’s guidance, and Rinpoche visited once or twice a year to give public talks, seminars, and empowerments.
In September 2007, I had the opportunity to finally realize my dream of moving to KTC in order to enter the three-year retreat, which began January 5, 2008. I asked Rinpoche for permission to keep in touch with the New Hampshire sangha during my retreat by sending a letter every month or so to be posted to their website, and he granted it. Since email, internet and phone are prohibited in three-year retreat, I sent the letters to Arlo, who posted them in the form of a blog and maintained the site in my absence.
Retreat is very structured and there was little time for meals or showers, let alone personal projects, but I did send a letter about once a month in Year 1, and even managed a couple of posts in Years 2 and 3.
I wasn’t allowed to say much about the content of the retreat program, my fellow retreatants, or anything that happened in retreat (“the first-ever tell-nothing blog about three-year retreat!”), so I wrote “Dharma pep talks” (advice and encouragement about practice) and some of my personal experiences during the retreat years. As I wrote here at that time, “These are just my own thoughts, informally presented. To really learn about the Dharma, visit KTC monastery, read books by authentic teachers, and/or find a qualified teacher locally to study with.”
I never saw my “blog” until I finished my retreat in April 2011. I’ve had several requests to reactivate it and write about my experiences after retreat, and now, in August 2012, I’ve finally gotten around to updating the format and starting to add some new posts and topics.
Thanks to Arlo/Orlan for maintaining the blog during retreat, and to Arlo and Zoe for supporting my retreat dream despite the inconvenience to themselves; to Jeffrey and Anne for accepting the role of KSC-NH center leaders and being the best friends one could hope for in this whirlpool of confusion, and to the KSC sangha for being such an enthusiastic, committed and mutually supportive group of Dharma practitioners.
Most of all, thanks to Lama Norlha Rinpoche. He has now spent more than 35 years in this strange land of America, trying to make a home for the traditional Kagyu Dharma where it can survive intact and flourish anew. May he enjoy a very long life and excellent health, and may his every wish be instantly fulfilled.
Best wishes in the Dharma,
Lama Yeshe Chödron (aka Linda Jordan)