Wednesday, March 07, 2007

My First Interview

At the Northwest Dharma Association annual meeting in February, several people complimented me on this 3-page article that I wrote for the Feb/Mar 2007 issue. This was my first interview. Well, I have interviewed before for a sangha news story, but that was a phone conversation with my Zen teacher about the American Zen Teachers Association and the Soto Zen Buddhist Association.

This may sound odd to some, but I realized when doing this that I am glad I volunteer for this gig. If I got paid, it wouldn't be enough. I spent an hour and a half talking to Clark, a delightful conversation. He has such an interesting life story. I spent about another 2 hours transcribing my recording of our conversation. I spent around another 5 1/2 hours mulling over my notes and other resources, finding my focus, and writing the article. Working at the library, I get paid around 16 dollars an hour. At 9 hours, that would be $144, not including benefits. Would I get paid that for a three page article? I doubt it, and certainly not from an organization with such a small budget. No, this is a labor of love. I reflected that if I did get paid, I would begin to worry about getting paid a decent wage. I may crank out more articles and get better and faster at writing them, but I think the quality and the love would suffer. If I were a journalist (are they paid by the hour?) I might not have the luxury of getting paid to transcribe notes. Flurried scans of digitalized voices, hunt and peck for good quotes, out flushes an article. As it is, I write to offer my best, a gift, not a job. Usually I do not count the hours. This just happened to be a first.

I couldn't come up with a good title, that is thanks to the editorial team.

Walking One Day on the Path

"Some people have told me that walking one day on the path of taking the vows is like seven in ordinary life. I don't know whether to believe that or not. I definitely take a lot of my inspiration from lay practitioners who are as much, or more, devoted to the path than I am. I know lay people who are totally focused on the path, on Dharma. They are much more sincere practitioners than I have ever been, and could only hope to follow. They're role models for me. You can do this and not necessarily be a monastic, for sure."

Clark Hansen took twenty years to become a monk, and when he did, it was somewhat accidental. He practices in the Nyingma tradition; he met his teacher Gyatrul Rinpoche in 1985, who is the founder of Tashi Chöling monastery in Ashland, Oregon. Clark's home has been host to the Portland Yeshe Nyingpo Center since 1988, and he has been a lay leader involved with the Portland Dharma Umbrella for years.

Clark traces his journey to Tibetan Buddhism back to his early childhood. As a baby on the floor of his living room with a Japanese landscape print on the wall, Clark said, "I would look up into that painting and I would become totally transfixed and drawn into that scene and all of a sudden I would be transported into that realm." He lived in Illinois and Wisconsin, "It was a land without Dharma." He remembers very vividly the invasion of Tibet in 1959 and feeling connected to that at the age of ten even though he didn't know how or why. He gravitated toward the mysticism of the Christian Gnostics.

Clark came of age facing the Vietnam War and the draft. His father, a newspaper publisher, took stands against the war, and draft board apparently were not always neutral. Studying international relations in school, Clark was again drawn to the religions. He said, "I stumbled upon an English translation of the Buddhist Pali text of the Dhammapada. I was transfixed! Just reading the words the first time seemed to change my life. But what path should I take or how would I make it my own?"

His first experience in meditation was in the Theravadin tradition, all he could find then in Washington, DC. Peace Corps? Yes…no. Graduate school? Yes…no. Interest in religion took over; he quit, and was promptly drafted. He evaded the call with a diagnosis from a sympathetic doctor. He rattled around the world…Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. He visited some Peace Corps friends, and "ended up in Nepal in a monastery in 1970." He contracted a deadly hepatitis. He landed back in the USA on the West Coast, was a wilderness ranger for a while. Rattled around various Buddhist traditions, took refuge with H.H. the 16th Karmapa in 1980, studied with Chogyam Rinpoche. Clark said, "By 1985 it was obvious I would get nowhere without the direction of an enlightened teacher and was drawn to Gyatrul Rinpoche while he was teaching in Berkeley. I asked him to accept me as his student, mentioning I was interested in becoming a monk. Perhaps later, he said, first do your Ngondro. I felt as though I had finally arrived home."

Clark's life settled down in his home bordering Forest Park in Portland. He finished his foundation practice, continued with more assigned practices from his teacher. His colorful life was picked up by Warner Brothers, screenplay by the writer of "Dangerous Liaisons" (still on the "back burner"). But then his life partner of 14 years died. His dogs died. His position as oral historian for the Oregon Historical Society was eliminated due to budget cuts. Clark said, "Right after that Gyatrul Rinpoche came to my home and said, "You've been living like a monk for the last couple of years. You've talked about being a monk. Maybe now is the time to think about being a monk." Almost 20 years later! I had sort of forgotten it as an option.

"Gyatrul Rinpoche has a very easy going attitude. "Just try it out. If it doesn't work out you can go back to your lay path." He recommended Penor Rinpoche to ordain me, the most highly recognized Lama in the Nyingma School. Last winter I went over to Namdroling monastery in southern India. I did a retreat there, and got on the list to become ordained. I was the only Westerner on the list of about 200."

Clark shared this with his sangha in their newsletter: "Everyone at Namdroling emanated joy and devotion…. The transparency of all activity and accessibility was both wonderful to experience and somewhat distressing. During a wrathful wong in the Golden Temple, filled with thousands of nuns and monks, tourists just walked right in, wandered up to the front and had group photos taken. A few monks rushed up to usher them out but older monks restrained them.

"Another sight that amazed me was that every time Penor Rinpoche would begin teachings, after the mandala offering, all the monks and nuns would make their khatags into a ball and throw it towards Rinpoche’s throne. Thousands of khatags would go soaring into the air, hitting monks and lamas in the front, who would throw them further, until they ended up on the floor before Penor Rinpoche’s throne. Mischievous monks would tie their khatags into tight balls and aim for the heads of specific monks in front of them. No one seemed to care though. What a contrast to the formal offering of the khatags I had witnessed in the West. I wondered to myself, "What would others think if I threw my khatag at Rinpoche in Tashi Chöling's temple?"

It took weeks to conduct the ordinations, three at a time. In the middle of Clark's ceremony, Rinpoche stopped and asked him, "Do you understand what you are saying?" Clark doesn't remember if he spoke to him in English. Clark responded, "I don’t understand Tibetan, but I understand the process I am going through." Clark said, "He assigned a Khenpo to poke me in the back whenever I was to say the name I had just been given. All of this takes hours and hours. At the end of the day I go back to the hospital where I was living and I show this certificate to the other lamas. They said to me, "This isn't for Getsol, a novice monk, this says Gelong! This says fully ordained!" …I wasn't expecting that!"

Clark returned to the US this summer. "While on a retreat in Cascade Mountains, I slipped on a boulder and fell down a basalt field, split my head open. I was bleeding badly, in a life-threatening situation. I gave myself first aid, was tracked by a mountain lion. I did a twelve mile forced hike while doing mantra recitation and focusing on the teacher. I drove one hundred miles. They immediately put me in surgery, three hours. I felt that was a point where I knew I was committed to doing whatever I needed to do to achieve the objective of the path even if it meant my own life. I was back up there two weeks later. That was a time when I knew for sure what I did was the right decision."

Gyatrul Rinpoche was in retreat due to illness. Once they finally connected, Rinpoche told him, "Take it slowly, don't jump into it. Just take it a step at a time." Now, Clark said, "I look at this process of becoming a monk as not an act that you do but a process in which you become. And I am becoming a monk. It's a long slow process where I learn how to adapt these rules which seem so anachronistic to our Western society. I carry these rules around with me and every day I learn something new. Just the act of sitting in a room here with you by ourselves is breaking one of the vows that I've taken."

Did it bother him to be in a position of breaking the rules? "I'm somewhat split. I try to follow the vows as closely as I can, especially when there is real meaning to it. Even the Buddha said not to just follow the rules, but to follow them when you understand them." Most of the Sojong (Confession) is in his daily practice. "I know it's inevitable that I'll break vows, but I'll do my best to keep the spirit of them."

Clark wears his robes, sometimes. "After I started wearing the robes I knew I wanted to be comfortable wearing them anywhere. I knew there were some places that would not be practical. I've intentionally worn them everywhere I go. I've only worn them to the gym a couple times. I'll have to admit I get a few looks." Wearing the robes gets him noticed. Willamette Week's Night Cabbie picked him up and wrote this December: "I finally get him home, which is an extraordinary place, up in the hills, with the grounds cultivated in just the right way to make them lovely and overgrown but not impossibly wild. Prayer flags hang overhead; wind chimes softly ring. The smile he gives me is worth more than the fare. Jesus and Mohammed probably had smiles like that." About his practice Clark said, "By the time I do the first part, the main part of daily recitation book that they do at Namdroling, that's the end of the morning. I do other things in the afternoon. Finish up the day with more practice. I do a lot of practice in the woods. I live next to Forest Park. I have a trail that leads from my back yard and I do a lot of walking practice."

Clark finds support with his connections with other ordained people. "I've been fortunate to be involved with the Dharma Umbrella all these years. I can see how they have adapted practically to being ordained in the West. It relieves the guilt. That's not what it's about." Clark would say to young people thinking about ordination, "Talk to western monks, or people who have been western monks. People who have returned to lay life have a lot to teach monastics in the way of avoiding pitfalls and understanding what you're getting into.

"People--like myself--take the vows and don't really know what we're getting into until we're there. We try to do the best with it. If I were to go to back to lay life, I would feel all the richer for having gone through this experience. Some people may go back with a certain feeling of regret. I don't think I would feel that way." Did he regret not taking the vows sooner? "There's a part of me that wishes I could have done it sooner. People who did it when younger, they didn't have the opportunity to go through certain processes of emotional maturation. When I wanted to do it originally, when I was 21, I was really naïve. It would be more difficult to be a monastic if I had children. I wish I had studied harder, earlier, so I would have more skills to offer people. It happened the way it did for a reason, and probably the timing was just right."

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