By Steve Utzig
For as long as I can remember, I had been exploring the “Dharma” in my own stumbling way – through Vedic traditions, Siddha Yoga, the teachings of Krishnamurti, even the teachings of the historical Jesus. Honestly, I came to Buddhism a bit late. Once exposed to it, however, I knew that I’d found a philosophy that most closely resonated with my lifelong search for meaning.
In the summer of 2011, recently relocated to New York City, I found myself adrift. I was floundering without a community in which I felt comfortable and confident enough to dig deeply into the life-changing potential I knew was possible.
So one evening I went to my bookshelf and picked out a book at random — Transforming the Heart, teachings on Togmey-zangpo’s Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices by Geshe Jampa Tegchok. He writes:
Our present life … is difficult to gain, but once we have, is extremely useful because with it we can attain liberation and enlightenment. If we neglect to use it or use it for some trifling purpose, it is a great pity and a great loss.
I’m sure I’d heard the teaching before, but that night it resonated with me deeply. It was probably the statement “or use it for some trifling purpose” that really got my attention. Just what the hell was I doing with this fragile and finite life?
I determined then that I needed to go on retreat, and as it turned out, Dagri Rinpoche was leading a weekend retreat at Milarepa Center in Vermont at the end of August. I had no idea who Dagri Rinpoche was, but he was teaching on Tsongkhapa’s In Praise of Dependent Origination, leading a refuge ceremony and offering both lay and bodhisattva vows. The idea of cementing my newfound commitment with a ceremony appealed to my latent Roman Catholic sense of ritual.
In wonderful Buddhist synchronicity, I met Tricia Clark at Milarepa, another New Yorker. It turned out we were staying at the same bed and breakfast. We had a chance to discuss the complex teachings and she also introduced me to the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) and Shantideva Meditation Center (SMC). At last, I had found a sangha.
Over the next few years with SMC, I had the opportunity to study, discuss and debate the wide-ranging topics covered in the Discovering Buddhism modules, and engage in more in-depth study of Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacharyavatara and the Buddhist tenet system. These opportunities provided both inspiration and direction for my continued exploration of Buddhist philosophy.
I also had the extraordinary opportunity to study with the amazing teachers SMC brought to New York: Geshes Sherab, Soepa, Tenley and Tharchin; Venerables Tenzin Chogkyi, Robina Courtin, Amy Miller and Fedor Stracke; Don Handrick; Drs. Paul Hackett and Andrew Quintman. Each of these weekend retreats and teachings provided the time and the inestimable expertise to experience new ideas, mull them over, and try to get a sense of deeper understanding.
It is futile, we are taught, to try to find a beginning or a first cause. Nonetheless, the significant moment that led me to SMC was meeting Tricia in Vermont. And the significant moment that led me to the next chapter of my life and study was meeting Venerable Robina. I had heard stories of the fiery Tibetan Buddhist nun from Australia, but nothing prepared me for the sheer force of meeting her. I was captivated by her unrelenting determination. I attended all of her teachings in New York in 2013 and signed up immediately to attend a retreat she led at Vajrapani Institute in Boulder Creek, California in the Spring of 2014.
From the first moment of arriving at Vajrapani, I knew I stood on holy ground. Many remarkable teachers, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have given teachings there. It’s also the site of Lama Yeshe’s “Enlightenment Stupa.” To the extent that I had found a sangha in SMC with which to begin my journey, I found a spiritual center, a home, in Vajrapani. Following Venerable Robina’s retreat in 2014, I returned for a 10-day retreat with the incomparable Venerable Rene Feusi in the Spring of 2015. Shortly after my return to New York, Vajrapani posted my dream job: Spiritual Program Coordinator, and I applied.
My time with Shantideva Meditation Center started quietly as a curious student. As time went on, I started volunteering, and took over the audio/visual responsibilities for the Center. In August 2015, my tenure with SMC culminated in the surprise and blessed arrival of Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche. It was during Rinpoche’s visit that I was offered and accepted the SPC position at Vajrapani.
What small knowledge I have of the Buddhadharma I owe in large part to Shantideva Meditation Center. In turn, I hope that I can bring that nascent understanding to my role as SPC at Vajrapani and continue to work toward actualizing the full potential of a rare and precious life for myself and others.
Having lived in Manhattan for the past several years, Steve Utzig is now Spiritual Program Coordinator at Vajrapani Institute in the redwood forest near Santa Cruz, California, where he is discovering the joy of mountains, rains and living without internet.