Joshua W. C. Cutler gave the following talk on Founder’s Day February 7, 2010.
The first deep teaching that I received from Bakshi was about two weeks after I arrived at his retreat house here in Washington. I say “deep” because it struck a cord within me and has stayed with me ever since..
His residence, which we call the Retreat House and is where Diana and I now live, has two floors. Bakshi resided on the second, main floor and we students stayed downstairs (there were three of us then). So Bakshi called me, the new student, to come up to his room and have a talk. In other words, it was my turn to be in the hot seat.
Of course, I was immediately quite nervous. Up to this point, I had found Bakshi warm and welcoming—the self-professed “Jewish grandmother”—as well as very intimidating. For instance, Bakshi did not call me by my name, but simply used the generic, “boy.” (I was therefore not really sure whether he knew my name.) So it was “Boy, come up to my room. We have to talk.” This brought on an amused response from my fellow students, who burst into laughter, making the summons all the more ominous to me, the quiet and reserved beginning student. Everything was so new and strange compared to my family and college life near Boston. I really did not know what was going to happen to me now.
What ensued was a questioning about why I had come and what I wanted to do. I do not remember the details of what we discussed. I basically said that I wanted to learn Buddhism and study the Tibetan language. Certainly, I had already expressed this to Bakshi. I had written two letters before being told to come to meet him at the temple in Freewood Acres on the first Sunday in April of 1970. But this was a very different venue: a one-on-one exchange, after two weeks of living with him on a day-to-day basis. I also said that I wanted to help him.
His response was two-fold. One was that, unlike others who had come to study with him, he believed me. This, of course, gave me a boost in confidence. But the second response struck me. It was one of the Bakshi conundrums that I have always carried with me, rolling them over and over in my mind from time to time and coming up with a new level of meaning. He told me, “I am like Midas. Everything I touch turns to gold.”
The most remarkable thing about this statement is that he never used this analogy again. I never heard the word “Midas” from him after this. It was as if he had pulled it out of the air for that one moment, and then never had any use for it again.
After Bakshi died in 1983, we invited Loseling Kensur Yeshe Tupden to stay here and teach. He once explained that Bakshi was not like us; he had an unusual amount of merit. Therefore, he was successful in whatever he undertook. So the words that immediately popped into my head were “everything he touched turned to gold.”
Now, when I remember myself as 22 years old in that moment in Bakshi’s room, I think of how he appeared as a mountain of self-confidence. I believed him. He said it, not with pride or conceit, but with a sense of care, a sense of compassion. He was telling me that I could depend upon him to help me, and he would indeed help me. But, as his student, I have to ask, “Where does such confidence come from?”
One possible explanation is that indeed he was a very unusual kind of person. He had the ability to remember his entire life, right from birth. For instance, his father died when he was less than one, so the only memory he had was of a male presence once entering his home, and he figured it must have been his father. He also remembered that right after he was born, he could recite the entire refuge prayer in Tibetan, bringing the ability with him from his former life.
Bakshi once shared with us who he was in one of his former lives. One evening while Diana, Natalie, and I were sitting with him in the Retreat House, about two years before his death, he casually mentioned that he was the reincarnation of Söbon Lama, a legendary figure in the history of Buddhism in Kalmykia. (For those of you who don’t know, Bakshi was a Kalmyk Mongolian.) He further mentioned that he had told this to the Kalmyks before he left for Tibet and to the famous Kalmyk teacher Geshe Jinpa in Tibet. I was quite surprised because his guru, Lama Dorjiev, had forbidden the recognition of reincarnate lamas in Kalmykia. So, after Bakshi had passed away, I told his Kalmyk disciple Dorje Purview what Bakshi had said. He replied that it seemed very likely that he was Sobön Lama, because he was just as successful as his teacher Lama Dorjiev in his activities of preserving the Buddha’s teachings (Dorje did not say that Bakshi had a golden touch but he could have). Furthermore, Dorje said that there was a Kalmyk belief that Söbon Lama always returned from life to life to Bakshi’s monastery in Bakshin Shebnar (the monastery there no longer exists…it seems that Bakshi has reestablished it here). He noted that Bakshi was the only monk to survive the destruction of his monastery.
Certainly being an extraordinary person contributed to his sense of confidence, but Bakshi was also an ordinary human being and was much like us. His self-confidence was not somehow innately with him at birth. He worked for it. Like us, he too had to battle with his destructive emotions and develop his constructive mental states. He once shared with us that he had had a problem with pride when he was young. You can see this in some of the pictures that were taken of him when he was in his thirties. Pride is an obstacle to spiritual development, because you feel that you already have the qualities that you need, so it’s hard to develop them further. Bakshi said that he deeply regretted it. It was gone by the time that I met him. In fact, I was often surprised at the depth of his humility.
You could also see how he developed steadfastness when he made an effort to accomplish something. He was always careful to assess the situation before he undertook anything. He did not try many things and leave many of them unfinished. He would put great energy into whatever he started and then very carefully see it through to the end. This was most apparent when he was doing construction. He loved to build. When I arrived here in 1970, he was 69 years old. But when we built the addition to the Retreat House the following year, it was very difficult for the 23-year-old “boy” to keep up with the 70-year-old man. He would start early in the morning and often work late into the evening. He was so intent that we had to remind him about mealtimes.
We students learned from his example and grew confident in his abilities and our own. But it was hard to see that this is what was happening to us. Our conventional education had not included how to develop our inner life. The only time that this was easier to see was when Bakshi undertook seemingly illogical things. Thinking that it was good for character building was the only way to make sense out of this kind of undertaking because it made no sense when looked at from the outside. For instance, why would you try to bring water to the garden by digging a well by hand downhill from the garden and then building an aqueduct to bring it uphill? It was much easier to simply run a hose downhill from the house. But this is what Bakshi set out to do. “Turning everything into gold” does not mean that everything he created was beautiful from the outside. To construct the aqueduct we used all sorts of discarded building supplies: metal fencing, aluminum gutters, etc. It looked absolutely ridiculous. But we actually did manage to get a trickle into the garden before the structure collapsed…again.
Everything Bakshi did looked good from the inside. He was a spiritual teacher, and he told us that he knew that he had something to teach from a very young age. He also said that he learned how to teach from the Buddha, the Awakened One. The Buddha was a pluralistic teacher, giving instructions suitable to the disposition and capacity of each person receiving them. Therefore, he employed whatever seemed suitable in order to wake his students up. It seems that when a teacher sees a student asleep with a lack of awareness, he or she must help that person to become aware. Watching Bakshi work with each new student was a lesson in spontaneity as he adjusted to each student’s individual needs and capacity. This is called skill in method or compassionate technique. This was Bakshi’s golden touch, his compassion.
So how is it that a 69-year-old spiritual teacher can lean over into the face of a 22-year-old student that he has known for only two weeks and say, “I am like Midas. Everything I touch turns to gold?” Where does such confidence to say that come from? It comes from his compassion. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama repeatedly tells us, confidence comes from compassion. Bakshi’s words emerged from his compassion. He had an ocean of confidence that was fed by a broad river of compassion. And we here still benefit from it today.