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Buddhadharma : Spring 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly SPRING 2 0 09 58 I know you. What do you do?” As before, Skarda explained: “You do not know me. We’ve never met. You wouldn’t know what I do.” She turned to flee. But this time he sent a mes- senger to catch her before she got to the door. “Sakya Trizin rinpoche wants to see you,” the messenger said. “Can you come by tomorrow?” “What could I do?” says Skarda, shrugging. She met with Sakya Trizin, and during the meeting she explained her intel- lectual work and the insight it had led her to. At the end of the meeting, he said, “Now I know why I know you.” And then he told her to go to India to meet the Dalai Lama, the one person who could advise her. So following Sakya Trizin’s advice, in early 1992 Skarda flew to India. After trying for three months to get an appoint- ment with the Dalai Lama, she was finally able to meet him privately. She relayed the story of the events that had led her to Dharamsala. He listened carefully and then gave her a formi- dable challenge: Go into retreat and study the entire Buddhist path—and in particular, study and practice the Buddhist doc- trine of emptiness. “Focus on wisdom—you have really strong karma for this,” he told her. During their entire meeting, the Dalai Lama stood gazing out the window. “He wouldn’t look at me,” Skarda recalls. “He kept turning his back.” Skarda left in tears. “Here was Mister Lovey-Huggy and I got Mister Cold-Shoulder. I really didn’t understand that at all.” On the plane ride home to Berkeley from Dharamsala, Skarda set her resolve. “This is it,” she told herself. “I have no idea how, but I am going to do it.” That May she hung the Do Not Disturb sign on her door. Skarda recalls her first years in retreat as the most intense work she has ever done. “My mind hurt at night,” she says. “I was sore from thinking and unthinking and rethinking through things. I was taking apart everything.” Two years into her Berkeley retreat, Skarda wanted to ordain. Her friend who had been delivering groceries men- tioned that her own teacher, Chetsang rinpoche, head of the Drikung kagyu order, was visiting and she suggested that Skarda contact him. In September, 1994, Skarda took novice vows from Chetsang rinpoche. After three years in retreat, there was no turning back for Skarda. She couldn’t go back to science. She couldn’t go back to philosophy. And she couldn’t go back to living an ordinary life. By that point she knew, “There wasn’t any answer behind me. The answer was in front.” She returned to India in the summer of 1995 to once again consult with the Dalai Lama. This time, His Holiness looked her in the eye, took her face in his hands, and patted her cheeks. “He was so pleased,” says Skarda. “He just kept saying, ‘She’s done it! She really did what I told her!’” Skarda told him that Chetsang rinpoche had invited her to practice at a new retreat compound up the road from his monastery, Drikung kagyud Institute, in Dehra Dun, India. “That’s good,” the Dalai Lama said, “because you need to sit and that is a tradition that sits. They do it, they don’t just think about it.” He encouraged her to go there. Skarda returned to Berkeley and packed up her apartment. She found homes for her four much-loved pet birds who had kept her company during retreat. Then once again she boarded a plane to India. Her new hut in Dehra Dun was tiny and basic: one long, narrow room—just big enough for a bed and a board she used for prostration practice—attached to a small low-ceilinged hallway and bath. She cooked in the hall crouching over a single-burner stove. As monsoon neared, the daytime tem- peratures climbed into the hundred and twenties. Skarda’s unshaded cabin baked. The compound consisted of several retreat huts, adjoined in pairs. Up to ten retreatants came and went. Some were doing a three-year retreat, so their only contact with the outside world was a hole in the wall where food was delivered. Skarda was the only Westerner in residence and the first woman. “That was awkward,” says Skarda. “There was a lot of resentment.” For example, whenever Chetsang rinpoche left town, her food deliveries slowed down, became intermittent, then stopped. When food did come, the vegetables were rotten. One summer, no food came for three months. With no other choice but to break the boundaries of her retreat, she took a bus to town and did her own shopping. Skarda did what needed to be done, and she still does. She’s not one to care about what others might think. The nun’s shirt she wears today is a cast-off from a monk who lives in Dharamsala. He couldn’t wear it in public, because it wasn’t the proper shade of yellow. The other Western sangha mem- bers were giving him a hard time. “Give it to me, I’ll wear it,” she said. “I don’t see anybody.” Skarda with Chetsang Rinpoche in Dehra Dun, India, 1996 coreykohn ➤ continued page 61 lindaheuman