Stories by Karin and Irene
Why I still love Jezus
About the meaning of religion and the blessings of the lineage
September 2015, by Irene Zwaan
Lama MichelA while ago I attended a lesson by Lama Michel Rinpoche in Milan. He taught a group of secondary school students about the basic aspects of Buddhism like the four noble truths and the three principle aspects of the path. I didn’t live in Italy yet and I knew zero Italian. But to my utter amazement I could comprehend everything Lama Michel said. And not only things that I had heard before. I also understood something that was completely new to me and that touched me deeply.
Lama Michel explained the difference between spirituality, religion and institutions. The spiritual path, he said, means inner growth. It is about developing ones qualities, like love, compassion, patience, stability, humility, generosity and wisdom. And at the same time it means to steadily diminish your negative aspects, like hatred, anger, jealousy, miserliness and arrogance. A religion is a method, transferred from generation to generation, from master to disciple, to fulfil this spiritual path. The institute is the organisation that supports and carries out the religion. The spiritual path, the inner process, is the essence; religion and institute are supportive to this goal. Whatever tradition; this personal learning process is the ultimate objective of any religion as well as the institution. If this is not the case, then they are useless.
This short but powerful message of Lama Michel made it so obvious for me what the similarities between religions are and at the same time it showed me crystal clear the differences. In an instant I realised why I have never stopped loving Jesus, though couldn’t find my way in church…
‘Have you understood any of the Italian?’ Lama Michel asked me afterwards. ‘Yes everything,’ I said. ‘But I hope you will give this lesson one day in English so I can write a blog about it.’ My confidence in my own level of understanding wasn’t so high that I dared put it in writing. He promised he would.
Today was the day, during a teaching in Albagnano. After the lesson I offered a khata and thanked him. ‘Did you understand the Italian?’ he asked. What an odd question, I thought. Why should I understand the Italian when he is also giving the teaching in English? It didn’t come to my mind that he referred to that time in Milan. However, immediately I remembered Lama Michel’s lecture in English that he gave in Amsterdam. I told him about the astonishment of my mother and another person who both speak little English but could understand every word Lama Michel had spoken.
‘That is the Dharma!’ he said happily. ‘Those are the blessings of the lineage.’ And in this way he reminded me of the commitment to write a blog about it, if he would give the lesson in English. Hereby!
November 2014, by Karin & Irene Zwaan
Rinpoche with elephant at BorobudurA year ago we started full of enthusiasm with our Borobudur project. Searching for magic, beautiful, impressive, modest, big and small experiences of people who had been to Borobudur with lama Gangchen. It is our wish to make an accessible and informative book, available in the regular bookstores. Lama Gangchen asked us to publish in English as well as in Dutch, and pay attention to the special relationship between Indonesia and the Netherlands.
We collected wonderful stories since then. We interviewed, wrote the stories down, translated from English to Dutch and from Dutch to English. What a privilege to be allowed to speak so intense with people about their experiences. Like the long-wished pregnancy of Florence that became truth, Roberto whose future as a cook was predicted, Peter who received great healing when he was hovering between life an death during the retreat and Bel who was led to her love by the lava-stone statues. The rational Maurice experienced love and compassion from the holy place. Kris was taught a lesson in karma and reincarnation through the elephants. Alan saw with his own eyes an emanation of Tara appearing in the sky. And like this, many more stories like jewels were told.
Writing for and about Buddhism is a pleasant and grateful job. At the same time it is a huge challenge and learning process by itself. What do we meet for example? We are in a rush! We have a feeling of urgency to publish as soon as possible. Underneath lies fear that is related much to the ego. What if someone else does it sooner or better? What if someone else uses ‘our’ title or ‘our’ cover idea? In the meantime all kinds of events are forcing us to slow down on our path. Karin’s partner Kiran being admitted to the hospital several times. The delay in Irene’s plans to move to Albagnano, due to the collapse of the housing market. Daily work and responsibilities that use up all our energy. Migraine. Inner processes of fear, anger and other ego stuff. All of this is bothering us from time to time.
Fortunately, our teachers’ lessons help us to put all this in perspective. We tell each other alternately (depending on which one of us is in ‘great suffering’ in that moment) that a quick result is not what matters. The process to get there is as important, if not more. Also, it doesn’t matter by whom, how, and where these stories are told. As long as they are told! Slowing down and sometimes even standing still is a lesson that we, with our strong habitual desire to ‘score’ quickly, get presented in this phase. Letting go and relax, while the ego wants something else. That is what we have to do, with joyfull effort and with confidence.
Ashes and obstacles
March 2014, by Irene Zwaan
There were twelve of us: eleven Dutch and one German, on our way to the yearly retreat with Lama Gangchen at Borobudur. We were excited when we met at Schiphol Airport. Some of us went for the first time, others had been before. But we all knew: The only thing Lama Gangchen asks when you choose him to be your teacher is to visit Borobudur at least once in your lifetime. For our lineage Borobudur is the most sacred of all sacred places, the place of birth of NgalSo Self-Healing practice, the Vajrayana mandala comprising everything, where all comes together, and which in itself is a manifestation of the path to enlightenment. Being at Borobudur with Lama Gangchen is an experience in which you can feel that something like enlightenment does actually exist: it seems to be within reach.
But a retreat doesn’t only mean to relax and enjoy. Most of the time it is hard work, facing your own magnified shortcomings and constantly looking in a mirror, which is not always pleasurable. And this year the retreat began miles before we reached the stupa…
We were walking through Jakarta airport to get our transfer to Yogyakarta when we suddenly saw our luggage rolling in. Something was wrong. Soon we discovered the reason: All flights to Yogya had been cancelled due to a volcanic eruption in the region… What to do. Can we get to Borobudur in another way? Is it safe there? Will the retreat still be on? Will Lama Gangchen come? It took us some time and effort and in that process each of us was confronted with his or her own issues, like anxiety, fear, impatience, disappointment, tension and sadness. But eventually we came to a united decision to continue our journey by car. Lama Gangchen himself called us to ask how we were doing and to give us his blessings for our trip the following day.
Something that first seemed to be a big obstacle changed into a beautiful adventure. We got the chance to see all of Java Island and only one day later than scheduled we arrived at our destination. It became a special retreat around a Borobudur that was covered with a thick layer of grey ashes, the top being wrapped in plastic to avoid it from getting worse. The stupa was closed, there were no tourists and yet we got the permission to climb all the way to the top pretty soon.
Lama Michel explained how this experience illustrates that we – if we really and deeply want it – often are able to achieve our goals despite apparent great obstacles. ‘Have high objectives, low expectations and constant effort’, was his advice. It’s a motto that I gladly take with me to all aspects of my life.
Heal the past in the present
February 2014, by Karin Zwaan
On repeat… This term comes closest to a concept in Dutch that I know from the first half of my life: Men who had fulfilled their military service could be called any time to go on repeat. Their kit bag with army equipment was stored in a dusty lumber-room or on the attic, in case of war, but even more to be prepared for the call to go on repeat. In my parents’ wardrobe hung a green uniform for my father to be ready for his duty any time…
In daily life it also happens that one goes on repeat. And then it can be that you take your old luggage from the dusty cupboards and you use the same old defense or attack techniques as before. Or maybe you’ve learnt that there are other ways as well.
Twelve years ago, my husband Hans died very sudden after a brain stroke. The shock was big and the sadness intense. He passed away on the Intensive Care of the Academic Hospital in Groningen, a day after he had been brought in there on the Emergency Room.
A few weeks ago, suddenly my current husband Kiran got a brain stroke. Though we live over 100 kilometers away from the city, he was brought by ambulance to the Emergency Room of the Academic Hospital in Groningen… One day later, after surgery, he was lying on the Intensive Care unit.
That night, like twelve years ago, I drove home with my sister Irene, following the same route, but this time to her place. At home, like then, we read the information brochures about brain strokes, given in the hospital. That night we slept in the same bed, as we did twelve years ago. Cellphone within reach. We were aware of the bizarreness of the situation. And also the tension was almost tangible.
‘So now you’re going to ask me whether this is the worst thing that ever happened to you…’, Irene said to me.
However, this is the point where the story takes another turn. Thanks to the lessons I learnt from Tibetan Buddhism, I am more able to deal with difficult situations. I have more acceptance towards illness and death. I am aware of the role that karma plays in the things that happen in my life. And I know that karma can be purified or neutralized if I approach the difficulties in a different way. But my goodness, were we happy that the telephone hadn’t rung this time when it was six in the morning!
Some days after the operation, our Tibetan Buddhist teacher Lama Michel Rinpoche came to visit Kiran on the IC in the hospital. Kiran – completely clearheaded and happily surprised – said out loud: ‘Tashi Delek, Rinpoche-la!’ For him, the presence, advices and prayers of his spiritual guide were salutary.
Shortly after, I walked with Lama Michel through the hall of the hospital, telling him about my first husband and the repetition of history. ‘Now you have better resources to deal with it,’ he said. ‘And it is possible to heal the past in the present.’
That is exactly the beauty of Buddhism. You can heal or transform anything really: the present, but also the past. When my first husband died I didn’t have the tools, but I went looking for them and that is how I got in touch with Tibetan Buddhism. Not much later I met Lama Gangchen and Lama Michel. From the bottom of my heart I can say now: That is the most beautiful thing that happened in my life.
December 2013, by Irene Zwaan
‘This is the temple of Moses and Aaron,’ I said to my father when we entered the imposing church on Waterlooplein in the heart of Amsterdam. My father was laughing; it couldn’t be denied that it was simply a church, not a temple. But I was happily surprised with Kitlyn’s choice for this location to celebrate the launch of our book The Family Soul. An inspired place full of symbolism and spirituality. I felt at home immediately.
The high walls of the church are adorned with huge bas-reliefs depicting Jesus’ Way of the Cross. Accompanied by my father, I walked along the walls while he was elaborating on Jesus’ last journey. It reminded me of the images on Borobudur temple, which narrate the path to enlightenment.
In the centre of the immense church, beside a long table, I saw Toet de Best standing, dividing food over trays, arranging napkins nicely, stepping back, then looking critically and nodding approvingly about the result. Toet de Best, one of the right hands of Lama Gangchen; I couldn’t help comparing the scene with the preparations of the Guru Puja, the Buddhist ritual that reminds me often of the holy communion in the protestant church of my childhood.
The presentation of The Familiy Soul was not the only reason for Toet de Best to travel from Lama Gangchen’s centre in Italy to Holland. Two days later, her own book would see the light: The Magic of Tibetan Buddhism, about a Lama Healer and the search of a girl from Limburg. This book tells about her life, about the power of spirituality, about insight in human behaviour and how to cope with pain and suffering. My sister Karin was the one who wrote this book with her.
Two sisters, two book presentations, only one day in between: a greater coincidence is hardly possible. But the coincidence – if that is what it is – goes further than that. Both books are honoured with a foreword by Lama Gangchen Rinpoche. In both cases Lama Gangchen offered to write this spontaneously in the last minute; the first proofs were already prepared.
Cause and effect, interdependence and emptiness of inherent existence manifested through these course of events. To me this validates the way in which everything is interconnected. It makes one feel humble and astonished, its greatness is difficult to grasp, while at the same time it is so simple how it unfolds. For sure, it gives me the confidence to move on.
November 2013, by Karin Zwaan
This month it is exactly three years ago that I started with Toet de Best to work on my first book: The magic of Tibetan Buddhism. This title didn’t exist by then yet, of course. We hadn’t written a single word, but we had found each other and from that moment on the ideas started to flow. It would be a biography about her life with a large share for Buddhism. There was no other option; she already lives, works and travels since more than twenty years now together with Lama Gangchen Rinpoche.
One year later a friend with psychic qualities came to visit. She knew I was writing a book, but I didn’t tell her anything about how far we were. We were quite far: we had finished the interviews, and I had already written some chapters. I could see the whole picture, I had caught the right style, I was satisfied. Actually, the book was writing itself… Therefore I didn’t take much notice of my friends’ words, while she was staring at the ceiling: ‘It will take another two years.’ I was thinking we would finish six months later.
Practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism sometimes choose to do a long retreat of three years. Meanwhile, I think the book is such a retreat for me. We are working on it now since three years. There have been periods of time where nothing happened, and I could do a great deal of practising patience. There was a whole range of causes for this, but not the search for a publisher, that was found soon enough.
Looking back, I ask myself what the meaning of this experience is in my life. What is the function of waiting? It seems like a contradiction to my work as a journalist where year after year I had to produce articles under the pressure of a daily newspaper. Working with deadlines has its charm and can be fulfilling, but it also brings a lot of stress and tension along. You might think it feels kind of great as long as you’re part of it. But once I was out of the system I realised the impact of this bizarre reality. I literally had to de-stress for quite a long time, and I regularly dreamed about tabloids that had to be filled.
Now, the manuscript has been finished completely and is handed in to the publisher. But when will it be ready for printing? When will it be on the shelves in the bookstore? I try not to fill in but the thought of the three-year retreat comes to my mind. Because, reality proves that those retreats always last for three years and three months…