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Welcoming His Eminence
A Tibetan Buddhist high lama brings a message of positive thinking and respect for human life.
St. Petersburg Times, September 4, 2001


CLEARWATER -- Never stomp on an ant, even if it is about to bite your big toe. If you spot a roach on the kitchen counter, stop for a moment and consider not pressing the button of death on your can of Raid.

Instead, why not contemplate escorting your unwelcome guests out of the house or away from the picnic area in a kindly fashion?

After all, according to Buddhist teachings, any one of them could be the reborn soul of someone you knew and maybe loved in a previous lifetime, someone who obviously -- because of their current station in life -- was not particularly good and kind toward others.

Still, they deserve love and compassion just like everyone else.

That was just part of the message followers were taught at a Tibetan Buddhist workshop Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Clearwater, headed by an individual followers believe is a true holy man: His Eminence Garchen Rinpoche.

Most of those in attendance already knew all human, insect and animal life is sacred; Rinpoche simply re-enforced the message.

It was just before 2 p.m. when Rinpoche -- a baldheaded, barefoot man clothed in flowing red robes with a yellow Nike tank top peeking out from underneath -- walked into the all-purpose room. When they saw him, his followers instantly fell silent and turned toward him.

Bowing their heads and closing their eyes, they cupped their hands in front of them in prayerlike fashion.

Even two pet dogs in the room, a black Airedale and a tan German shepherd mix (yes, they, too, were invited and treated with the utmost respect), stopped sniffing around and lay down next to their masters as though something important was about to happen.

Meanwhile, Rinpoche knelt down and kissed the floor several times.

It seemed as though his followers, some of whom also had red robes and shaved heads, were surprised by the sudden appearance of Rinpoche even though they expected him. He had breezed in so silently and without fanfare, some of the them did not realize he was there until they spotted him near the makeshift throne on which he would sit.

But through their actions, they showed respect to the Tibetan Buddhist high lama, or priest, a man who they are taught has lived many important lives and is enlightened. They believe he has chosen to be reborn, coming back to earth repeatedly to help others gain wisdom.

But he made a shorter trek this time, by plane, coming back to Clearwater from his Arizona compound for five days to give a series of talks and workshops.

At Sunday's seminar, several of those sitting cross-legged on purple pillows were new to Buddhism and were there to take refuge during a special ceremony.

Taking refuge is equivalent to a confirmation, a ritual to become a Buddhist. They must try to be kind and gentle, do no harm to any living beings, hold all religions with respect and teach others to live well. They must also try not to take drugs or drink alcohol.

"It's a beginning of one's path," said Michael Retchless, a Unitarian Universalist Church director, of the refuge ceremony during which Rinpoche snipped a lock of hair. "You are giving up your past and progressing on a spiritual path. When a high lama comes to town, they can do that."

Followers of Tibetan Buddhism say they are honored and feel fortunate to have Rinpoche pay a visit to the Tampa Bay area.

"His Eminence is in my opinion the living embodiment of the dharma," said Retchless, who took refuge in 1995. "This is the best turnout we've had. The public talk had over 200 people."

During the workshop, Rinpoche sat on his throne in front of colorful Tanka paintings. In the air was the exotic scent of red crystal incense made in Nepal by monks.

Sitting close to the throne was Ani Trinlay, a Tibetan Buddhist nun who traveled from her home in Maryland to see him.

"They (the workshops) never get boring even if they are exactly the same," she said. "It reinforces you can go through the rituals many, many times and they have a renewing effect."

Like Rinpoche, Trinlay wore red robes and had a shaved head. She said she wears her robes at all times except when she is at work. It would be difficult to wear her robes on the job because she is a an analyst for the Interior Department, a job with a dress code.

She laughed and said she gets enough comments about her shaved head.

Smiling warmly, she watched as Rinpoche climbed up on the throne, began to spin a prayer wheel and talk, his Tibetan words translated by an assistant who sat on the floor to his right.

The teachings went on for hours and included several themes. Among them was that all suffering comes from harboring poisons such as anger, aggression, attachment (a longing for worldly goods) and ignorance. Negative thoughts, Rinpoche said, are your worst enemy.

"Negative emotions are the driving force (in) doing nonvirtuous deeds," he said. "Try to get rid of negative emotions. (You) want to reach enlightenment as soon as possible to help other beings, not for yourself. That is very important. "The most precious thing is a human life," he said.

Near the end of the workshop and after the refuge ceremony, Rinpoche tried to sum up his teachings, which he says are really very simple.

"The true nature of the mind is the ocean. The negative emotion is the waves," he said and smiled. "Kindness is better than all the riches on the planet."

And if you unintentionally step on and kill a bug, Rinpoche has a bit of advice: Say a prayer for it.


Updated: 5-9-2001

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