Roughly 80 people stood waiting on the hillside just above Daisy Lake on Monday, Aug. 23, some time after noon. They lined either side of the road leading up to Sea to Sky Retreat Centre, each holding a kata, a traditional, long white silk scarf. Some spoke to those nearest them in line; some stood quietly. Many wore their best clothes - blue blazers, dresses - because they were awaiting the arrival of Ugyen Tenzin Jigme Lhundrup, or the Yangsi. An incarnate of one of the highest lamas in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, he is 17 years old and making his first tour of the Western world. The tour has taken him through Europe and America and will continue on to Mexico and Asia, but for the moment he was just south of Whistler, making a day trip to the Sea to Sky Retreat Centre.
It might have seemed an out-of-the-way place to visit. Sea to Sky comprises 12 structures - a main lodge, a pavilion, a variety of retreat accommodations - and functions entirely off-the-grid, with a staff of five. While it is a comfortable, pleasing modern environment, it does not outwardly appear to be the sort of place that a traveler would include on a 12-country, 10-month world tour.
On the retreat centre's rocky road, drawn in field chalk, were the auspicious symbols - a conch, a parasol, a lotus, and the five others of the traditional set of eight. The centre's cook, Blaire, had drawn each the day before. A beautiful 20-something with long blond hair and clear blue eyes, she has a modest demeanor. Asked if she was an artist, she said, "I'm a housekeeper." She's one of just a few live-in staff members at the retreat centre, which operates under the directorship of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, a high lama in the Rime, or non-sectarian, Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
"How long did it take you to do this?" I asked Blaire, pointing to the symbols; they were about eight feet in circumference and drawn with precision.
"About an hour each symbol."
"Had you ever done it before?"
"No, but we had a book with the outlines. I think they're the kind of drawing where you can get it wrong and it still looks good." I searched her drawings for imperfections and shook my head. She said, "I had done five of them on Saturday, but then it rained and washed them away, so I had to do them again."
It was close to 2 p.m. when a small floatplane landed on Daisy Lake. The guests, having stood on the roadside for a little under an hour, had sort of begun to think the Yangsi might never arrive, and so when he appeared at the bottom of the road, many of them didn't notice and continued to speak to each other. It was only when the Yangsi's mentor, Rabjam Rinpoche, came chugging up the hillside, mock-winded, that everyone turned.
Rabjam Rinpoche, a tall and handsome lama just turned 40, the abbot of Shechen monastery in Nepal, pretended to be out of breath. He made sort of a comic portrait of exhaustion, panting something like a TinTin character, and said to the Yangsi, "You're young!" Together, the two began to make their way up the road, followed by their small party, which included author and photographer Matthieu Ricard and Buddhist scholar Changling Rinpoche.
They were led to the main house, to a large-windowed, spacious living room overlooking the lake, furnished invitingly with broad couches, well-tended houseplants, cut lilies and bookshelves lined with books on philosophy, history, photography, and Buddhism. In the kitchen, divided from the main room by screens, several people prepared trays of quinoa and sautéed vegetables for the guests. After the trays were served the retreat centre's manager, Michiko, and her husband Ron, took seats and conversed with their honoured guests.
They talked about the local wildlife; they talked about nutrition. Rabjam Rinpoche told a story of a Buddhist painting being torn off a wall by a bear. The painting, marked by handprints of the Yangsi's predecessor, was also marked by the bear, who pressed its paws below the master's.
"Whose prints were bigger?" Ron asked.
The Yangsi's predecessor, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, is often affectionately remembered by those who met him for his extraordinary size. He was seven feet tall. His current incarnation, at something under 5 foot 6, has said, "Supposedly I was recognized as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, but I don't possess any of his qualities. This is not something I'm saying to impress you guys; it is just the truth. He was a giant, and I am very short. He was good looking, and I - well, you can just forget about it."
Actually, the Yangsi is quite good-looking, with the face and demeanor of an old-world Chinese emperor, broad shoulders, and an uncommonly open and curious gaze.
When the group had finished their lunch, the guests of the retreat centre entered and offered katas to the Yangsi one by one. They then turned to Rabjam. To each, he offered his right hand. The guests wore nametags, and Rabjam looked at each, saying the name aloud. At one point, he turned to someone behind him and said, "Six billion people in the world?"
"Six billion different faces."
After lunch, Rabjam got into the centre's side-by-side ATV and drove the Yangsi up the hill to the house of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. Khyentse, the centre's director and a world-renowned filmmaker, is a student of the Yangsi's predecessor and the head of Khyentse Foundation, a charity that recently endowed a chair of Buddhist studies at Berkeley. Although Khyentse was away in Europe, he had encouraged this visit to Sea to Sky Retreat Centre. The Yangsi and Rabjam toured the small Japanese-style house, said some brief aspirations and then they rejoined their small party for the walk back down the forest path to the dock.
On the plane, the Yangsi sat in the back. The hatch was open, and he attempted to close it from within.
"Watch your fingers," a woman called.
He withdrew his hand and then, perhaps impishly, put it out again, fingers splayed.
The aircraft's pilot emerged from the forest. He latched the hatch from without, got in, and steered the plane slowly down the lake, almost out of sight.
"Is he going to take off that way?" I asked.
Then the engine roared, and the plane turned into the wind and took flight to the south. We stood and watched it until it was just a dot crossing the white face of the Tantalus.