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Earl Davis

Though some of the dates are fuzzy, I first met Lama Norlha the evening that he arrived in NYC in 1976. At some point over the next few days I took him up to the top of the World Trade Center to show him the lay of the land and followed it with a walking tour of lower Manhattan. My first impression of him was of some surprise that he didn’t seem remotely impressed by the sight of NYC from the top of the tallest building in the world. Rather, I watched his mala going full speed and imagined he that he was primarily focused on sending compassion.

Gradually, over the days and months that followed, after initial attempts to teach him better English, I and most of the folks associated with the early 19St. KTC loft learned to speak Norlha-ish.

After immediately taking charge of leading our small group in Kalu Rinpoche’s prescribed introductory practices, Lama Norlha began to initiate a gradual upgrading of the rustic accommodations - from funky bare bones - to the next low-cost step of putting up walls and furnishings and a suitable throne room with alter.

earl davis 1Although Lama Norlha commanded immediate respect and reverence as a teacher, I found myself increasingly comfortable with him as a ‘normal’ person who liked to joke around and who I eventually came to feel was my friend. One of my earliest memories of actually having just plain Fun with him was going out on the deserted streets and a couple of friends from the Center at night and introducing Lama Norlha to the wonderful world of dumpster diving in the neighborhood! He Loved It! We spent many a night dragging free building materials, furniture and treasures back to the loft - sometimes in the undependable elevator but, often as not, up the stairs.

Other early memories include how this same elevator could be counted upon to quite predictably break down whenever an important Rinpoche came to the loft. I still recall last minute panics surrounding such visits by Kalu Rinpoche, Dezhung Rinpoche and Karmapa, and having to watch with chagrin and some embarrassment as they each had to climb five flights of stairs along with their retinues. During one of those visits, Lama Norlha had been operating the elevator by himself and missed the fifth-floor landing on his way up and the car got stuck at the very top of the shaft. We suddenly had to drop our last-minute preparations for whichever Rinpoche was imminently expected and direct our attention to rescuing Lama Norlha from the elevator car by unscrewing or somehow breaking the bars at the top of the shaft and pulling him up and out onto the roof. Much fun was had by all!

Another time, I was called upon by Lama to take Kalu Rinpoche and his nephew to Ringling Bros Circus at Madison Square Garden, along with the older and much heavier Dezhung Rinpoche and his trickster brother, Kunsog Nyima. Everything seemed to be going fine, until I watched in horror as Lama Norla and Kalu Rinpoche and Dezhung’s brother all started trying to assist Dezhung Rinpoche to step onto a down escalator with his bad leg. For a second, it looked like they were all going to tumble down together in a tangled ball of Tibetans, but Lama somehow summoned super-human strength to keep them all erect. It was the source of much merriment and laughter for all and it was delightful to see these high Rinpoche’s laughing like children.

Other memories surround Lama’s extended summer residency in Woodstock and a visit there by Kalu Rinpoche. At that time Lama discovered that the hotel on top of the road up Overlook Mountain was for sale and discussions began about buying it for Karmapa to build a monastery.

earl davis 2During this period, I had moved up near Woodstock to be out of the city and closer to the action and had taken a job working as the clean-up man and goat milker at Magic Mommy Brownie bakery. For some reason, Lama found this lowly job particularly funny and over the years that followed he was fond of reminding and teasing me about my Magic Mommy association. As I still had my hippie pony tail in those days, Lama also loved to make fun of me by making the motions of ‘smoking pot’ with an Indian chillum - even though by then I was pretty much on the straight and narrow.

Lama’s jests were always done with loving affection and, though I felt that I was a failure as a Buddhist practitioner, his jokes at my expense always gave me a feeling of deep connection.

Once, while at his mother’s house in Sonada, he began pressing me to try to better understand why I didn’t like to meditate or be a ‘practitioner'. I told him, in all honesty, that I was never able to visualize myself as Chenrezig and that, in comparison to that perfect ideal, I felt like a piece of shit! Lama laughed so hard he almost fell off the balcony. While I don’t recall when he may have first invoked the phrase, it may as well have been this time that he began to tell me that I was “So Stupid!” Indeed, it became one of his fondest terms of endearment for me, and whenever such occasions were elicited for him to tell me - it always felt like the warmest and most intimate of expressions of his affection.

At some point along the way, I finally came to realize and decide that I just wasn’t cut out to be a hard-core practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. For whatever the reasons, I found that it was more important for me to learn to accept myself as I was than to strive to be Enlightened and, as a result, feel like a constant failure. Even so, while many of the original members of KTC dropped away and new, more serious, students arrived and took things to another level, I was somehow able to maintain my friendship with Lama Norlha.

Accordingly, in 1986, he invited me to accompany him when he took the first group of 3-year retreatants to India on pilgrimage. I agreed to go as a non-practicing “tourist”. This was the trip where we went to visit Kalu Rinpoche’s monastery in Sonada and stayed at Lama’s Amala’s house. On our way up into the mountains, Lama spontaneously stopped the van we were, leaped out and disappeared. Before we knew it, Lama returned with a goat in tow that he had seen about to be slaughtered and had bought as a gift to present to Amala. Someone asked, what are we going to name it? Without hesitation, he said “Earl” or, as he pronounced my name, “Or-al”. I was honored.

Traveling with Lama during this pilgrimage was a source of constant pleasure and amusement, no matter how good or bad things were going. I became increasingly aware and in awe of his adaptability to whatever the situation called for. From being a deadly serious and hard-nosed negotiator, like the time he was waiting against a brick wall to change thousands of American dollars into Indian rupees on the Kathmandu black market where he could get a better exchange rate, to humbly and almost reverentially treating any police, border guards or customs officials that we encountered as if they were the embodiment of highest authority! One moment he was a teacher and tour guide, the next he was a selfless servant and devotee around high Rinpoches.

At some point in the winter of 1987 Lama Norlha brought Amala to visit NYC. He asked me if he could bring her up to my recently rebuilt, off the grid, country cottage in the middle of the woods. I said of course. Having recently installed solar panels, with batteries and back-up generator, I was unpleasantly surprised, however, to discover that the batteries were completely dead and that the back-up generator wouldn’t charge them. No lights! No water! "No Problem”! was Lama’s response. Amala treated Suzanne like a daughter, as we spent the evening making momos by oil lamps and candles in front of the fireplace. The next morning it snowed! and Lama enthusiastically went out and down through the woods to my old spring to fetch water with big buckets. He came back with water splashing, smiling like a little boy and reported to me that he hadn’t felt like that since he left Tibet. He was full of joy.

Soon after that, as Lama was preparing to take the second? group of 3-year retreatants to India, he asked if I would like to go with him again. I said I would if he might be able to arrange for Kalu Rinpoche to perform a Tibetan wedding for me and Suzanne. “No Problem”. On our way there, however, the crowded airplane that we were taking to Patna landed in Benares at night and we found ourselves stranded on the runway for a long time. Finally, the pilot announced that it was too foggy to land in Patna and so we would be flying to Calcutta instead. I pointed out that this extra flight might cause us a big delay and Lama agreed and we somehow managed to get the pilot to agree to allow all twenty of us to disembark and unload our baggage in the middle of the runway. There we found ourselves, stranded in the night at this tiny airport with nobody around and suddenly this Luxury bus from Indian Airlines appeared without notice and took us all to stay at a luxury hotel in Benares - free of charge. "No Problem”! Of course, the next day's 18-hour bus ride from hell, from Benares to Bodhgaya, along a pot hole infested road, in 100+ degree heat, without air-conditioning, more than compensated for our night of pleasure.

Upon finally arriving, however, it actually came to pass that Lama somehow arranged for Kalu Rinpoche to agree to marry us in front of the Bodhi tree, with both Lama and Amala overseeing the off-the-cuff ceremonies that included being covered with katas, handing out money to the longest line of beggars I had ever seen, and a great feast of momos at the end. In the days following our wedding, Suzanne and I and our friend Annie had made plans to take a little honeymoon trip to Kathmandu, where neither of them had ever been. Lama Norlha escorted us to the Patna train station in the very early morning. As we waited for the train, I asked him whether he would rather live in America or India. He responded that, if it was up to him, he would prefer India. I asked him why? He responded that “In America, everyone is coming hungry ghost!” In surprise, I asked “Even me, Lama Norlha”? He replied “Maybe, possible”. Half in jest, I asked if he would come get me? Without hesitation he looked me in the eyes and said, “I will Go With You”!

earl davis 3At some point during the next year, Lama turned to me one day and asked “what you do? you no monk, you no have children, what you do?” It was the first time the thought of having a child ever entered my mind. In 1990, a few weeks after our baby boy, Joshua Wyatt, was born, Lama Norlha arranged to bring a couple of car loads of nuns and monks to my country place to dig up some young tree saplings to re-plant at KTC. I handed a sleeping Joshua over to him and asked if he would give him a Tibetan name. He held him for a moment in silence and pronounced him “Karma Phuntsok.”

Since he loved my place so much, I offered Lama Norlha to use it any time he might want to take a personal retreat for himself. Although such occasion never did arrive, a few years later, Lama asked if he could bring Situ Rinpoche there to take a little vacation/break from being on the road. I said sure. When I arrived at KTC to pick up Lama and Rinpoche and his retinue of four other lamas, Lama Norlha began filling my trunk with four coolers of frozen meat! I remarked that it seemed like an awful lot of meat for just five days. He paused to consider and said, “No Problem” and left one of the coolers behind. I never did find out if they actually managed to go through all three.

The last time I went to visit Lama Norlha was a few months before his passing. I was told he was tired and in discomfort and it would need to be short. He brightened up when I came in and as he pulled my head to his he said, “Magic Mommy”!

He will always be my friend...

-Earl Davis