W. C. Cutler gave the following talk on Founder’s Day
February 3, 2008.
As Diana, Natalie and I remembered Bakshi’s death this past Wednesday, I was suddenly reminded that it had been 25 years since the day he lay on his deathbed in our house in West Palm Beach. Diana, Philip, and I were by his bedside reciting “om mani padme hum” as he smiled at me, turned to look at a painting of the Buddha, and took his last breath, at 4:30 p.m. How inspiring that death and his life remains for us—a virtuous life and peaceful death—something we can all aspire to.
Then it occurred to me that the math is quite unique this year. This is the only year that Bakshi and I will share the same measure of years as leader of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, Labsum Shedrub Ling. We have each served 25 years. This also means that the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center is 50 years old. Such an occurrence is like a celestial event. Like the comet that won’t return in our lifetime, I won’t see this mathematical symmetry again.
Over the past 25 years Bakshi’s life has come to seem like a celestial event to me. He seems like a force of nature around which the events of his life unfolded. In fact, from the time that I first came to live here and study with Bakshi in 1970 I always thought of him as being otherworldly, as if from another planet. I had never met someone who maintained a constant attitude of caring for others, never thinking of himself and his personal needs. Bakshi was an extraordinary human being. For instance he could clearly remember his life from infancy and recounted to us how from his birth in Kalmykia in 1901 he knew the prayer for taking refuge in the Three Jewels—the Buddha, his Teaching, and his Community of Followers. (Kalmykia is a Mongolian region of Russia located north of the Caspian Sea and west of the Volga River.) At age 4 he went on his own to the local monastery to ask if he could join but he was not allowed until he turned 6.
Even with this kind of a start to a life dedicated to the study and practice of the Buddha’s teaching there was no guarantee that he would proceed in a straight line. After excelling at his study of Buddhism, he decided at around age 15 that he wanted to concentrate on becoming a doctor because there was a very gifted Kalmyk doctor nearby who was willing to teach him. His life took a decisive turn when this medical teacher suddenly died after Bakshi had studied only 2 years. His root guru, Lama Dorjiev, then snatched him up to study in the new school of Buddhist philosophy that Lama Dorjiev had founded in Kalmykia.
Up to now Bakshi had been insulated from the great upheaval in Europe, though Kalmykia is really in Eastern Europe, for it is west of the Volga River. But with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1918 and the subsequent Russian Civil War Bakshi was swept up in the most powerful vehicle of change for the Buddhist world in the 20th century—the rise to power of Communism. The subsequent purges of religion and enforced atheism kept Bakshi on the move for the next 35 years until he finally arrived in this country. He would get comfortable in some new situation for a number of years, but then the forces of historical change would scoop him up, sweep him along, and then set him down in a new situation. In this process he lost all semblance of provinciality and became a citizen of the world, a cosmopolitan, or, as Bakshi would say, a “cosmos-politan.” He transcended the limitations that we usually consider to be characteristic of being human. Of course, this is my perspective. Bakshi would say that he just gained a lot of experience in his life.
But it was his experience during the Russian Civil War that really gave him a strong lesson in the uncertainty of life. He tried to maintain his studies in the school of philosophy amidst the chaos that had reached Kalmykia. I’ll never forget what he said about the times, “When it goes wrong, everything goes wrong. You couldn’t get even a cup of tea. We were using apple leaves to make tea!” Actually it’s the tragedies in our lives that bring the adversity that gives us the greatest opportunity to improve ourselves spiritually. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, “Buddhist practice is for the difficult times in our lives, not the easier ones.” We practice during the easier periods of our life so that we can better deal with the difficulties we encounter.
During this time his guru Lama Dorjiev chose him as a member of a group of monks to go to Tibet in order to deepen their studies. He traveled through Russia with a letter from Lenin himself, secured by Lama Dorjiev. After 9 years of study at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, in 1930 he attempted to return to Kalmykia via Beijing in order to obtain more financial support. He had to stay in Beijing when he determined that a visit to his home might cost his life due to the persecution of religion.
So he stayed in China and learned to speak English. Among many other activities in this general area of Asia he became an abbot of a monastery in Mongolia; winner of debates in the sacred residence of Manjushri and editor of the Tibetan Buddhist canon in China; translator for English diplomatic envoy Sir Charles Bell in Manchuria, and language instructor for a French envoy in Vietnam. He would have stayed in China if it were not for the Communist takeover after World War II.
So Communism again caused him to relocate, this time to India and Tibet, spending the summers in Tibet and the winters near Darjeeling in India. But the Chinese soon arrived on the border of Tibet and he again had to flee there in 1950, though at the time he had decided to settle down in Tibet and was about to purchase a retreat house. Now he determined to immigrate to America as a refugee coming to join a small community of Kalmyk refugees in New Jersey. In early February of 1955 the ship that carried him, La Liberté [the Liberty], arrived in New York harbor. He disembarked amidst publicity that proclaimed him as a refugee fleeing the Red Chinese. He never left until his death in 1983.
He was so grateful for the religious freedom here that he put the small American flag that he received when he became a citizen at the top of his mandala. A mandala in this case is the symbolic representation of the universe. Bakshi would offer it to the Three Jewels every morning, imagining the United States at the top of the universe. But it was the Tibetan Buddhism that Bakshi brought with him that made his arrival here so special. Just like the many European settlers in the early years of this country who fled religious persecution, Bakshi established a new type of religion for this country. You can see his life as one person making many decisions and living his life, moving from one place to the next because of the changes of political power. But if you instead reflect on his life from the broad perspective of historical change, it is as if he embodied the radical changes that Buddhism was going through, like a tree sucking up nourishment from the soil. And this tree was then transplanted from one continent to another and is slowly taking root in new soil. Isn’t it amazing what one person can do with their life?