Meet the Sangha interview with Christine Ho

January 1, 2014

Interview with CHRISTINE HO by NINA SHILLING

Christine flanked by her daughter, Mika, and her husband, Tshering

N – How did you meet Rinpoche?

C – I saw his picture in the Tara Mandala newsletter featuring a story written by Anne Klein about how she had met this great lama while on pilgrimage in Tibet. I knew I needed to meet him but didn’t know how, since I didn’t have the time or finances to afford the retreats with him that were advertised. As it was, he wasn’t able to get a visa to come to the US. Then I heard that he was in the Bay Area, but that the retreat in West Marin was already sold out. The only way to meet him was to go for a personal interview. I’ll go for an interview, I thought. I had never done an interview with a lama before, so I tried to think of a good question to ask him. I would sit and come up with a good question to ask him, and then the answer would just come to me. I thought of several more questions, with the same result. I realized that the answer must be coming from him, and decided that I didn’t need a question for the interview.

Finally, I went at my appointed time for the interview. After waiting awhile with a few other people, it was my turn. I went into the room and sat on the floor in front of him. Anne had just left to go to the bathroom, so he and I just stared at each other. Then he began to pick his nose. (Christine laughs.) I didn’t care; I already knew he was a very high lama. It was actually quite a while before Anne came back. When she did he asked me, “Why are you here?” I answered, “I’m here because I saw your picture.” “You are my student,” he immediately stated. Then he asked me if I would do the Longchen Nyingthig ngondro and complete it and I said I would. That was how I met him.

N – What is it like to have so much responsibility for projects that affect so many people and are so dear to Rinpoche’s heart? (Christine is the president of THP, the Tibet Humanitarian Project.)

C – I never actually think like that. I never think about holding so much responsibility or screwing up. I just think about “what can we do?” to help. If I come up with an idea, or someone else gets a good idea, I just get excited. If it looks like something we are actually going to do, I just focus on what the steps are, and how to get each one done. I get carried by the energy of Rinpoche. It’s not actually me doing it. It’s actually Rinpoche doing it.

N – You’re just providing the body for him to do it?

C – It was clear from the very beginning that it was not me doing it, and that he is with me when I am doing anything to help him or the Dharma. If something goes well, then it gives me confidence for the next thing to do, and this bolstering of confidence actually has spilled over into my professional life as well. There have been some projects or meetings where I have to pull something off that is kind of crazy, and I think “well, this is not as hard as pulling together a retreat,” for example.

N – Being as busy as you are, as a wife, mother, physician, medical epidemiologist and someone who oversees research projects at the Center for Disease Control, when do you find time to practice?

C- Before I took refuge, I went through a period in my life where I lost everything that I thought defined me, I was ground-less so to speak. I was lucky enough to go to a medical conference on death and dying where Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche spoke. He said “most people ask what the big deal is about dying, but then look at how upset they get if they get something stolen, or lose their house to a fire or lose someone they love. When you die, you lose all of your possessions and loved ones, AND your body, all at once.”

That made a big impact on me, because I knew that the hard time I was having just a small taste of how hard it would be to die if I wasn’t prepared. So practice is the most important part of my life. If I don’t do it, everything doesn’t feel good, and I get grumpy. I know myself and what I have to do to make time for it. I set the intention to do it and let my body figure it out. I’m not good with an alarm clock. For me, it doesn’t work if I try to force myself to do anything, like wake up to an alarm clock. If I don’t wake up in time to practice in the morning, I figure it’s okay, and I usually find a way to fit more practice in later in the day. I do hold myself very accountable for that. At some point, the benefits of practice are so wonderful, that this becomes positive reinforcement to just keep on practicing. So, for example, I feel so great in the practice, and this great feeling continues throughout the day, which supports the habit of practicing in the beginning of the day. The other thing to remember is that the benefits from practice are cumulative, practicing every day yields a different result than practicing once in a while.

N – What, for you, is the hardest thing about practice?

C – I think there is a part of my logical mind where I can get goal driven. When I did my ngondro, I would get goal driven with the accumulations, so I would have to be aware of that, so that I could actually stay in the present moment. I think the same thing could actually be said about time and feeling pressured about having enough time. It has to do with having a lot of plates in the air. That is a particular challenge for me—I need to let go of time and tasks that compete for my time. For instance, I’m practicing and then I start thinking about Shayla (her dog) and wondering if she’s going to make a mess if I don’t attend to her, and then I go to check on her and she’s fine. So that’s a lesson that I can just practice and she’ll wait for me.

N – Do you have any advice for those of us who are less experienced?

C – I think it’s like that story where a musician asked the Buddha how to meditate and the Buddha asked the musician how he tuned his lute. You know, the musician answered that the strings needed to strung neither too tight nor too loose. This is the same way that we have to hold ourselves in terms of practice, not too tight and not too loose. Ideally, the best way to practice is when it comes out of your heart and you’re just excited about it. I think you have to nurture that feeling to keep it there.

N – How do you nurture that?

C – I don’t go down the road of shame and blame, but also I don’t go into the place of denial, where I choose not to look at things that need to be looked at. It’s how you would treat a small child, if there’s something that they need to do. You don’t just let them get away with not doing it, but you shouldn’t yell at them. You gently encourage them to do it, and just remain very positive about it.

N – What’s been up for you lately?

C- It’s all good. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. What’s been up for me lately? I’ve been thinking about impermanence, the impermanence of all of us, how we are here for a really a very short time, we just flit in and out of existence, but we don’t think like that. It’s been coming up for me in several ways these past few months.

Shayla (her beloved dog) almost died this summer. My reaction was just how attached I am to her. She had not been doing well, walking more slowly, and one day just refused to eat. Tshering carried her back inside and she started doing this deep rapid breathing. We see it in our medical patients too, it’s called agonal breathing. I called Tshering to come right away. He looked at her and said, “she’s dying.” I started crying and felt how deeply I was attached to her. “Where is the blessed water and the special mendrup?” he asked me. The blessed medicine was from a very high Lama. I got it and gave it to him and he quickly put some in her mouth. She immediately began to calm down and started breathing normally. We kept vigil by her for the day, but it became clear she was improving.

The next morning she had an abscess in her front leg joint burst with lots of pus coming out. The infection was probably spreading into her blood when she was breathing like that, which was why she was so sick. It took many months for her to recover, and while nursing her back to health, I got to ponder how she has been my mother before, how we all will die one day. The good news is that she is so much better now! One recent morning she ran across the house in her wheel chair, down the front steps and half way down the street. All the kids in the neighborhood love her and always want to see her. She regularly has a parade of girls following her.

The next blast of recognizing impermanence was visiting Tara Mandala. David, Lama Tsultrim’s husband had died a few years ago. I hadn’t been there for more than a few day for years. A part of me kept looking for him but of course he wasn’t there. got it, and the fact that we would all one day not be here. I looked at the stupa and realized that it would be there in two hundred years, but none of us would be.

It’s like a dream or a movie. We get some stuff, we hold onto our lives so much. I really got it.

Then I went to a concert with the phenomonal Cuban band, the Buena Vista Social Club. I love that band. I know all their music. I really love it. The band members are in their seventies and eighties. When they came out to play, three of the members had died, with younger performers replacing them, and I could really hear and feel the difference. I wanted to re-live the sound the way that I remembered it in the recordings, but that’s not reality. Again, impermanence.

N – Does seeing this change the way you relate to your life?

C – It’s more like it’s a reminder. Before I came to the Dharma, I had gone through a death of sorts. Everything that I had worked hard for died. It was a karmic ripening. I had been on a certain track before that—family, career and a strange spiritual encounter—not a good one, and then all hell broke loose. My marriage fell apart, and other things, too. I realized that none of these things in my life was solid for me.

N – Like a rock?

C – More like a tree trunk for me. I couldn’t find real refuge in any of it. Then I found the Dharma. Now, my family members from that time, including my ex-husband, have all become Buddhists.

So, I see that we really are here a short time. It’s another reminder. A part of me is willing to step up to the plate, to do what I’m supposed to do in this life. Then there’s a part of me that is very scared. It’s from my culture, in part. You know, in Chinese culture, you’re supposed to be part of the group, the culture. This is where I need to encourage myself to be myself, no matter what. There’s a part of me that wants everything to be harmonious, so that makes it hard.

N – What would it mean to be yourself?

C – I don’t know yet, I’m still trying to answer that question. But I am afraid that it might require me to step away from the group altogether— and I feel the need for support. It touches the lack of support I felt in my early years when I was little. But the truth is, even if you think you’re letting go, there’s always interdependence, so the support is still there. It’s always there. So, really, it’s the mind—it’s always finding ways to cling. It’s so slippery, a crying clinging child. Like the Golem thing. To be with that takes a lot of patience, and I can be pretty impatient. So this is my personal demon.  I think we’re all human. As parents we have these fears and demons and in a feeling way we pass them along to our children and they pick them up and that’s how they get passed along. Of course, all of this means that I’m not recognizing the emptiness of all of this.

N – When this is happening, then what helps?

C – Thinking of the Lama. That is the answer to every question. I can get caught up in my things. Then feeling Rinpoche, all of it goes away. If there are times when I can’t find that, then I remember the blue sky, and that brings me back to remembering him. It’s the sky-like mind, because once I’m inside the tangled mind, all thoughts about how to deal with it are just part of the tangle. They are a part of ignorance logic. There’s no space. With sky-like mind, there is space within the tangle. One of the nice things about living here is having a pool. The sky is always reflected in it. One morning I saw the moon reflected in it, and thought of our beautiful Bodhicitta verse from the Ngondro, “Like moons in water sights deceive us.”

N – This is a question I always like to ask people—how or where do you feel Rinpoche?

C – In my heart. Like Arja Rinpoche says, wisdom is in the heart. Not the mind. The mind is just discursive thoughts. (She pauses.) And I feel him behind my eyes.

N – It’s as though he’s looking through you?

C – (She pauses again.) Yes, exactly. He was with me all the time. We all have that same nature. That part of me that has Buddha nature is him.

Lately I’ve been feeling very grateful to all my teachers. I think about each of them and I cry. You know how teenagers can be ungrateful? I wasn’t that grateful. I was actually given a lot of things as a teenager, but I didn’t appreciate this really. It’s a little like that. Well, now I’m realizing how much I’ve been given by each one of my teachers, everything that they’ve done, and I cry.

N – Tears of gratitude?

C – Oh my god (Buddha☺), yes!

N – Is it like joy and sorrow at the same time? Like gratitude for realizing the true state, and sorrow in recognizing the suffering of samsara? Someone I respect recently said in observing that I was mysteriously having digestive problems, that I was in part in the process of digesting the suffering of beings.

C – Yes. Something similar has been going on for me. One of the things that Arja Rinpoche once said in teaching about Chenresig’s mantra, Om mani padme hum, is that Chenresig actually sees the suffering. His eyes do not turn away. He will see it, witness it. I think that is the key to healing, validating that these things are actually happening to everyone, ourselves and others. We are all connected.

N – Well, Christine, I thought this interview was going to be more newsy, but given the way we have always communicated, I guess it’s not surprising that this is what we’ve ending up talking about.

C – Yeah. There is a lot that I could talk about that is good—a nice home, meaningful work, other things, but really, those are all ornaments. If I didn’t have them, that would be okay. Having Rinpoche in my life—that is what matters. To not have Rinpoche in my life, that really wouldn’t be okay.