The year is 2005. The future Acharya Daniel (Dan) Hessey leads the way into his two-room suite in Marpa House. Inside the doorway, I notice a calligraphy that says Outrageous Thunder in English and Tibetan script. It is mounted on a green and gold Japanese mat.
“This is you?” I say.
“A shrinking violet – not,” Hessey says. Outrageous Thunder is the Shambhala Warrior Name that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche gave him. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is head of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. His title, Sakyong, means “earth-holder” and Rinpoche is a Tibetan respectful form of address for teachers. It means “precious one.”
Hessey turns to close the door. I walk into a bright living room. It has a high ceiling, at least nine feet. Windows line the north wall of the room. An electric- lit bathroom opens to my right. To my left, behind a black-framed shoji screen, a door opens to a small bedroom where the afternoon light comes in. A Tibetan religious painting framed with silk brocades (tangka) hangs above a dark sofa. A glass-doored bookcase sits below the Outrageous Thunder calligraphy. Larger, gold-framed calligraphies hang from the walls. A guitar case lies on the floor. The full effect is of simplicity.
We sit down. I notice my mind is scattered. I ask that we begin with a bow. Hessey sits straight. He is ready without further ado. We share a moment of silence, meet eyes in a look, and bow.
Rising from the bow, I express thanks to Hessey for granting the interview.
This article is for Basic Good News, the Shambhala Training supplement in the Mirror, the Boulder Shambhala Center newsletter. This interview explores the experience of warriorship in daily life.
My first question begins at the beginning. How did Hessey first connect with the Shambhala teachings?
Hessey, 54, says he first met Vidyadhara the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, 31 years ago in 1973 at Karme Choling. Hessey was 23 years old. In 1973, the Vermont Dharma Center was called “Tail of the Tiger.” It was “…just a farmhouse, really,” says Hessey.
Why connect with this particular teacher and teachings? “It was a chemical reaction for me,” he says. “The minute I saw Meditation in Action in a bookstore, it was almost as if I knew what I was going to do with my life. Not vague at all. Everything was a bad choice until I connected with him,” Hessey says, “a tremendous sense of searching for something and not finding it.”
Trungpa, a high-ranking, reincarnate teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, left Tibet in 1959. He came to the US in 1970. In 1976, Trungpa founded Shambhala Training. Shambhala Training is the study and practice of Shambhala warriorship – the tradition of human bravery and leadership. For more information, see http://www.shambhala.org
When Hessey met Trungpa, what was his experience?
He says he felt an immediate visceral connection. “It short-circuited my conceptual mind, my ideas of what was going to be.”
Say more. What was that like?
“I was at a seminar in a tent,” Hessey says. “I had been there a couple of days. I figured he would want to meet me. I certainly wanted to meet him. I had a young man’s sense of self-importance. I figured it would be important to him. I went up to the front of the tent and said, ‘Hi! I’m Dan Hessey.’ He held out his hand. When I took it, it was as if I was shaking a dead groundhog.
Why a dead groundhog? Hessey is saying more than that Trungpa’s hand was flaccid. What was shocking about this experience?
“It was completely unconfirming, not what you expected. His presence was immovable.”
Rinpoche looked at him, says Hessey, “the same way the sun looks at a deer in a field – extremely bright and present – warm, but not pals-y.”
“I felt like Wiley E. Coyote, having just run off the edge of the cliff. It was – that moment was not manufactured by him or by me. And that’s hard to find. It’s hard to put into words the sense of nowness and presence – and contrast to the conceptual manipulative world I had come from.”
Hessey sits in front of me. His back is turned to a table. The table is broad, deep. It dwarfs his laptop computer. He swivels in a stylish, black, mesh-back desk chair. Hessey presents a trim picture of comfort, like Santa after two months on Atkins. He radiates Santa Claus with an edge; his white hair curls around his ears. His blue eyes spark rather than sparkle. They pick up soft green and blue tones in his plaid flannel shirt. He wears bluejeans. His bare feet wear leather moccasins. He is at home.
I sit on a soft sofa that has a black background. I didn’t notice the pattern when I sat down. My pencils and second notebook lie on a low coffee table. Mug-rings show against the faded wood. My tea mug sits without a coaster. Looking down, I see the Navaho motif on the sofa cushions: serrated diamonds of blue-green and crimson. The crimson shows up vivid against the black.
I ask about livelihood. This is the question that meditators struggle with most. How do we practice warriorship while living in the world?
Hessey is a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddist community. He served many years in the Shambhala Buddhist organization. He has taught Buddhism since 1978 and Shambhala Training since 1981. He worked at Karme Choling for two years in the 70s. He was Director of Shambhala Mountain Center (SMC) from 1985 to 1991. He headed the SMC expansion project in Boulder for two years after that. Today, he is a mortgage banker with Colonial Savings and he travels in the US to direct Shambhala Training levels.
Hessey is grateful for the opportunities his life has given him. “I’ve always designed my life around my connection to Shambhala,” he says. “I feel fortunate to have spent a lot of time working in dharma centers. One of the contributions of Mipham Rinpoche is to acknowledge how challenging it is to integrate genuine meditation practice into a householder lifestyle. I find it as challenging as the next guy.”
I had called Hessey on his cell, to request this interview. “You’re not in the office, then,” I said. “No, I’m with the Bear. I’m driving my daughter. Isn’t that right?” I heard him smiling at his daughter in the car.
Wanting to explore the practical experience of being a householder in more detail, I ask Hessey to speak of his daughter, of being a parent. I ask her name, and is she the bear?
Hessey, together with Nancy Nunes Hessey, adopted Emma Hessey in 1998. “She is the Bear,” says Hessey. “It’s one of my nicknames for her.”
What part has being a parent played in Hessey’s life? He does not mince words:
“For me, she has been a karmic prybar; [she] has opened up parts of my life that I would never have accessed. Both on a heart level, a special kind of opening, and in your personal karma.”
Could he say more?
“For one thing, I’m sure I would never have become a mortgage banker,” Hessey says. “There is the tremendous heart opening and this tremendous need to engage things practically. You are served this karmic sandwich and you have to eat it. It’s not a bad sandwich; but you have to eat it.”
So, he has learned to care. Is Hessey talking about choice-less-ness now, what Pema Chodron has calls The Wisdom of No Escape?
“No. I have lots of choices,” he says. “The one choice that becomes less avoidable is not engaging. But there are lots of ways to work with the situation. For me it has not been that smooth an experience. It’s challenging and I’m learning as I go.”
In terms of the Shambhala teachings, the teachings of fruition, how does that look?
Hessey says, “I found the fruitional aspect of this long path not [how] to be adroit, or be skilled. It’s how to be stuck properly. One’s own karma comes to fruition in the present situation. To recognize that it’s not separate from the heart of your path or from your teacher’s mind. It’s always gnarly like that. There’s a gumbo in your life of the momentum of how things are going and then there are punctuations that pierce the momentum.”
He gives an example: “I remember the day that we realized she [Emma] was deaf. It was very ordinary. …At the same time, our world pivoted, changed in that moment. When you have a deaf kid, things change. …. At the same time, the ordinary details are not ordinary. They are full of magic. … It’s not much to tell about, but it’s quite something to be there. Picking clothes to wear the next day with her. – She insists on it. – just seeing her strong ideas and clear vision of who she is becoming.”
My next question is a quote from Things Fall Apart, one of Pema Chodron: “This moment is the perfect teacher and it is always with us.”* How does Hessey experience the Shambhala teachings now?
Hessey pulls himself up to this moment. “Today, the Shambhala teachings seem more poignant and more precious than they ever have, to me. We are all challenged by bringing warriorship into the cocoon-like aspects of your life, your habitual ways of handling things.”
In Shambhala, the Sacred Path of the Warrior, Trungpa uses the image of a butterfly’s cocoon. He describes how we insulate ourselves from life by perpetuating degraded and self-defeating habits. I look around this room. The tangka painting of Guru Rinpoche hangs on the wall above my head. A gold-framed calligraphy of the letter ashe hangs on the wall to my right. Silk drapes frame a window that reveals a cloudy sky. Juniper branches break up the small panes of light. I see an uncluttered floor. Items on the surfaces of dressers and tables seem placed rather than thrown down.
I point out that I don’t see signs of cocoon here. I don’t see a closed-off, cosy, messy, dark nest. I see an elegant environment. What can he mean?
“For everyone who is not a Buddha or a Sakyong, there is a constant sense of relying on habitual responses to avoid the poignancy of being on the spot with the elements of your life,” Hessey says. “It can be anything. It could be something quite subtle; some of them are really gross.”
“The practice as we’ve been taught,” he continues, “is to engage your life, not by criticizing yourself, but by rousing a sense of nowness: through practice – seeing clearly the relationship between relying on the cocoon and creating suffering for others and oneself.”
This is great stuff. Hessey has taught this material many times. I want to know more: What does this practice look like for Hessey in that perfect moment? What is the challenge of his cocoon?
When I interview, I take handwritten notes. I get better quotes when I write longhand. I recall the picture of the interview. This writing things down creates space for my subjects. They can compose a thoughtful answer. I’m not out for drama, but I do want to get to the guts of each person’s experience. Hessey’s example, when it comes, is down to earth:
“One of the most seductive things for me is my passionate intellectual engagement with things,” he says, “manifesting with my nose in a book or a computer and not being present in the space I am in. One of my practices is raising my gaze and looking into the same space that I looked into when I met Rinpoche 31 years ago.”
Hessey smiles. I smile. I close my notebook. He says, “I thought that would be a great way to tie things up.” I agree. “It is. That’s great,” I say.
It is indeed a rap. We are done. I thank Hessey. He thanks me. I reach for my snow boots and my pink coat. We begin the closing pleasantries.
Stepping away from the sofa, I notice the guitar case on the floor. “Oh, you play the guitar,” I say. “Yes,” he says. Out comes the guitar.
“Oh my,” I think. “He’s going to play the guitar.” I love music. I always feel embarrassed and pleased when people play right in front of me. Hessey plucks the strings. Clear notes pierce the air, punctuating my momentum. I sit down in my pink coat and snow boots on a chair below the Outrageous Thunder calligraphy.
I pull out my notebook. Hessey picks out a tune and plays for a few minutes. “That’s a nice tune,” he says. “What is it?” I ask. “It’s an old jazz standard: How High the Moon,” he says. “I also play bluegrass.” “I love bluegrass,” I say.
The notes ripple like water drops falling. I look around the room. I see bronze drapes that hang by the room-long window. Two carved masks seem to jump out of the wall above the window. Are they Balinese? Hessey says they are. He visited Bali to import stone sculptures. He bought them from the mask-maker. He says this with warmth.
I ask about a low, wooden chest of drawers. It has brass hoops for drawer pulls. A deep-green velvet cloth covers it. I ask, is it a shrine? What is that picture of water falling into a pool?
“It’s a picture I took out front,” Hessey says, still playing. He describes the objects that sit on the velvet. “There are some things of the Bear’s, things that she made.” I see red, green, and yellow towers, four inches high. “…. A brass pot that I bought in the town where it was made, San Miguel de Cobre,” Hessey continues. He takes a moment to recall the exact name of the town. For Hessey, life – is interesting.
He has played guitar for 20 years, he says. Hessey plays a mean guitar. His voice picks out another old standard Ain’t Misbehavin’. I write down phrases. “Ain’t misbehavin’ .…by myself … happy being on the shelf. …your kisses are worth waiting for…” I smile at how the rhymes fall into place, like water falling into a pool.
Standing at the door, ready to leave, I pause. Hessey holds out his hand. I take it. It is warm, but not pals-y.
“Thank you,” I say. “That was a good interview.”