Who’s the White Guy? (part 1)
About eighteen months ago, Rinpoche and I were giving a Radically Happy talk in San Francisco. Joshua, Rinpoche’s talented and capable assistant, worked with our hosts to arrange a worldwide stream of our talk. Lots of people made on-line comments and raised important questions which we tried our best to answer. One or two people asked “Who’s the white guy?” and one or two more echoed the concern. It seems most likely they weren’t asking about Rinpoche, who is obviously ethnically Tibetan. I guess they were asking about me, an American guy of mostly eastern European descent. It’s an understandable question, seeing as most people probably tuned in because they already knew who Phakchok Rinpoche was. The folks at Samye Institute also asked me to do this blog, in part, as a way for Rinpoche’s students to know a bit more about me and the back story of how our Radically Happy book came into being.
Of course you can read the nice, and slightly too braggy, bio a friend of mine put together for the book here. As we used to hear on late night infomercials selling useless kitchen gadgets: “But wait there’s more!” As a child and into my teens I was influenced by the emerging field of computer science, especially artificial intelligence, and the inevitable questions about the nature of intelligence and consciousness. Combining this exploration of AI with my precocious interest in all the books on eastern philosophy that were laying around the house and at the local library it inevitably led me to Buddhism. In my twenties I started studying with Tibetan meditation masters, inspired by this I resolved myself to meet and study with a master who came to spiritual maturity in old Tibet. And that’s what brought me to the feet of Kyabjé Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche ( Phakchok Rinpoche’s grandfather), the wisest and most unusual person I have ever met. But that is another story.
In between yearly trips to Nepal, I was in Silicon Valley, working as a programmer, sometimes involved in starting companies and doing the same sorts of things that we all do to have a life. Basically, I worked my ass off. It was a thrilling time to be in California, the rise of the personal computer, the internet, all the technical innovation and so forth. Yet as much as Silicon Valley was filled with technological wonder it was also filled with a huge amount of envy and dissatisfaction. We all hear about the tremendous amounts of money that people are making, but that is still a relatively small part of the community, and it drives up prices on almost everything, increases traffic and makes it very hard to find school teachers etc. Most people know someone, usually someone they don’t think is all that smart or talented, that made 200 million dollars. No matter how much you have, there was always some else doing better in one way or another. It is challenging in that environment for people to enjoy basic contentment and life satisfaction. I suppose that dissatisfaction also led to some great innovative tech, but that was happening before things became so crazy too.
After his father (Kyabjé Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche) passed away, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche came to California almost every year. He began to stay in my home on those trips. Then so did Phakchok Rinpoche’s parents, Tsikey Chokling Rinpoche and his wife. And finally on one of those trips Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche brought his nephew along— a 22 year old Phakchok Rinpoche.
I first met Phakchok Rinpoche when he was a teenager running around Ka-nying Gompa in Nepal. Like most teenagers, he didn’t seem interested in adults all that much, especially I suppose one of the seemingly endless line of people coming with eyes filled with devotion for his uncle and parents. But here he was, now a fully grown young man, brimming with energy and, quite honestly, love. We hit it off immediately, bonded over a love for the dharma, American junk food, and old Kurosawa films.
Rinpoche stayed with me a couple of more times after that. I was present at his first teaching in the US, an informal affair in someone’s living room that Erik Pema Kunsang generously translated. He was quite shy, mostly reading from notes he took when he received teachings from Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche. In spite of his reluctant style, you could see that this was going to be someone quite special.
In the meantime, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche advised me to do a long retreat at a monastery in France. This was something I always wanted to do, I felt like I owed it to Kyabjé Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and the teachings I received from him. So with Rinpoche’s encouragement, my wife Eva and I disappeared for a few years.
(to be continued…)
Phakchok Rinpoche and Erric Solomon have collaborated on Radically Happy: A User’s Guide to the Mind. The book will be released on October 16, 2018! Many people have questions–what does the book discuss? What does the title mean? In this regular blog feature, co-creator, Erric Solomon shares more about how to be Radically Happy