A Buddhist Mentor, Departed

Love & Sleep
11" x 14" mixed media
on canvas panel
In early November, I saw a hawk die.

In the Native American and Tibetan traditions I've studied among, hawks are powerful symbols. To witness a death like this signifies the passing of a great teacher on one's path. Days later, I was notified as next of kin that my mentor, Deyan, passed away.

For the last decade, I have been involved with comparative research in Buddhism, Zen and Taoism. The journey began in 2007 by attending classes led by Tibetan Buddhists monks at The Nechung Foundation & Monastery. I arrived both anxious and a bit scared. Most of the adherents were Tibetan, Eastern European or Korean, cultures I had not been exposed to much in my life. But everyone was kind, open and compassionate from the start. And so my lessons began.

Deyan was the only adherent sitting in a chair instead of a mat that first day. He had a cane and a scowl, a dusky laugh and a dark sense of humor that won me over after his first joke. Concerned for his condition, I asked to accompany him on his walk home. That walk set the tone for my mentorship.

Deyan often told jokes about the oddities of Samsara, which is the veil of sensory perception cloaking the world from our full understanding. Spliced between these were lessons he'd acquired from his harsh Eastern European upbringing and his experiences as a doctor. He said my journey would not be an easy one, but that it would be worth it in the end. He was right.

In the following months, Deyan made the recommendation enabling me to volunteer at the Tibetan Refugee Health Clinic in Chelsea run by the former doctor to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Dr. Yeshi Dhonden. I helped with administrative tasks and cleaning under Dr. Marsha Woolf while seeing an endless stream of ill patients walk through the door seeking answers no medical doctor could provide. Some of the most dire patients would recover miraculously from deathbeds. Others would succumb to their illnesses. Through it all, I faced my internal fear and anxiety using devotion of Buddhist mantras, meditation and compassion.

Later, Deyan had me volunteer on behalf of Nechung when various monks arrived from Tibet and India. This enabled me to meet a stunning variety of spiritual adepts endowed with wisdom I can only describe as transcendent. Deyan and these enlightened teachers taught Buddhism as a philosophy compatible with any theological or secular worldview. They weren't converting people to Buddhism. They were instead enabling people to see the world as it is without the various illusions we apply to it.

Ven. Pema Dorjee was the Tibetan monk who led the majority of the classes I attended, answered all questions with humor and ease. We all call him "Lama Pema." Upon the suggestion of both Deyan and Lama Pema, I created a part-time business where I cleaned apartments and homes in New York City as a lesson in humility. They told me that I needed to understand certain preconceptions I had about my worth, society, and the ego's need for projection. Stripped of my former titles of "journalist" and "writer," I had to find out what existed beneath these veneers.

During my two years of this work, I found how truly little society values the workers in the service industry. My first job was as a youth editor for a newspaper at 17. I'd always been a writer. Now friends who'd known me for years balked at the idea of my cleaning business, saying it was "beneath me." I competed for work among Chinese and Russian illegals in Manhattan and Bay Ridge, fully aware neither group is ever mentioned in the national tirades about illegal immigration. I encountered racist and demeaning clients shocked into uneasy silence after I calmly corrected them that I actually spoke English, had an education, grew up in rural Georgia in a house and drank Pellegrino. I did so knowing I had the freedom to drop them from my client list without hesitation, a luxury other workers I knew could not afford.

I also spent time studying among Tibetan and Eastern European refugees. At one meeting, every single one of them raised a hand when the speaker asked who among them had witnessed the murder of a loved one. The vast majority of refugees come here fleeing war, famine or oppression. The United States is, after all, a nation of immigrants. Without our compassionate immigration policies, I would never have met my mentor in the first place. Deyan was originally from Yugoslavia.

Sometimes my mentorship resulted in the unexpected. Deyan asked me to volunteer at Tibet House one weekend without warning and I agreed. When I arrived, I ended up being one of the greeters for the Tibetan Oracle and receiving a blessing from him. With his recommendation and my best friend as a sponsor, I was allowed to take a full week of classes among 400 other students with His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama when he visited in 2010, studying the effects of meditation on the Western mind and the text "The Ways of a Bodhisattva." I took Bodhisattva vows with the other students in the presence of His Holiness at the end of the week.

As such, I have been devoted to nonprofit initiatives like PoweringPotential.org for years. It is not enough to cultivate compassion within ourselves if we do not have an adequate outlet for its jewels to flourish. By spreading our compassion and blessings forward, we heal our world.

And this is the crux of what Deyan's mentorship was about. He taught me that enlightenment is not about being elevated above the struggles of life in seclusion. It was about living in the everyday struggle with your eyes wide open, healing ourselves and helping others as we do.

By the end of it, Deyan became something resembling less like a mentor and more like a father. His tireless dedication was awe-inspiring. In the ten years that I knew him, he managed to show me what it is to "walk your talk." I am forever blessed for having known him.

In closing, I hope you will take my words as an opportunity to you think on the mentors currently lighting the path for you at this time. Whoever they are, these individuals are instrumental in shaping your potential.

So be generous with your gratitude for your spiritual guides 
for as long as they are beside you on your journey. 
Be well. 

Light and Love,

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