This is how I remember my meeting with Jack Niland.
The whole story is a fairy tail and as such, it took place in quite difficult circumstances for both of us. But first we need to roll up in time, because the story starts in 1977.
I was 16 years old and I was living in the streets of Paris. Not exactly sleeping in the streets because with my crazy and violent boyfriend, we were “buskers”, singing, dancing and playing guitar in the metro for our livelihood. We made each day just enough to pay for a cheap hotel room and for food. I used to be a professional dancer before that when I was 13 years old in a Russian dance company; but at some point, I left home with that bad guy much older than me.
One day, in our aimless wandering around the streets of Paris, I bought a book among many different pocket editions in promotion for only 1 franc on the table of a book shop. That choice changed my life forever: It was Cutting through spiritual materialism by Chogyam Trungpa.
As I entered the mandala of the Master, my mind was immediately fully linked to the Dharma as if I had found the very reason I was on earth. Because, I thought all of humanity was “out of our mind”, my life made not much sense at the time. Dancing seemed to be the only space of sanity inside of me.
I have read his book again and again and again. Then I entered into a full retreat program in a Buddhist monastery and completed my Ngön Drö in 1982.
But I did not meet Chogyam Trungpa. I did not have the idea of travelling to find him because Khyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was often there, such a great blessing for me already.
Many years later, late 2003, I felt even more connected to Trungpa Rinpoche when I finally understood that he was my genuine root Master. I had engaged fully into the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, but it took me a very long time to realize the connection my heart felt dramatically towards Trungpa Rinpoche himself. At that time, my life as an artist had fallen apart: I had a brain tumor shortly after suffering a natural miscarriage; my partner jumped from a tower and died of suicide; and my new wooden house in Portugal burnt with all of my belongings in a huge forest fire. I was broke, homeless … and free.
And then came another book: Dharma Art.
I had a shock when I saw the book. It was in Spanish because I was staying in Vitoria, a city of “País Vasco”. During that period, I was wandering around in my endless fever of passion, trying to explain my vision of a Path by the means of Dance to everybody, even to people who did not trust much that crazy intensity of mine. The Dancing Path was my Dharma but it was creative and deep and challenging and it was something that I had discovered on my own, all alone, on stage.
I did not know how to explain it, how to teach it.
Trungpa Rinpoche wrote in Dharma Art:
When you begin to abandon all possibilities of any kind of reference point that would comfort you, tell you to do something, help you to see through everything, make you a better and greater person—when you lose all those reference points, including your ambition, the strangest thing takes place.…It’s as if you were suspended in outer space without a space suit or rocket ship. You are just floating and circulating around the planets forever and ever.… That experience of suspension is the canvas or the blackboard where you paint your pictures, your symbolism. It is the basic ground. You can only begin from there. Trungpa refers to this state as a black hole of egolessness and no-discursive-thought.
It is surely no picnic getting there, but it is in this timeless, placeless state of non-thought that dharma art is born.
Suddenly, I had to meet Trungpa!
He was gone, dead, but I had to meet him. I decided to go to the U.S.A. And very soon, the universe conspired to help me, just as the same universe had fully succeeded in destroying my previous life set. Ele Juarez, a TV producer I met in an airplane, offered to help me. Lucia Loureiro, one of my Portuguese students, gave me contacts in Boulder of her friends Duncan, Anne Waldman and David Amram, and finally the Shambhala Mountain Center decided to open the first ever program about the life of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche exactly in the dates I was planning to travel. I applied online to that one and arrived in Denver on 21st of August 2004.
Boulder was balm to my soul. Marpa House felt like the Refuge on earth for me. I spent hours studying documents and seeing movies of the Naropa University Archives. When I left the library – after sitting there nonstop during seven hours – a danish man at the desk gave to me three manuals about Dharma Art. He told me:
“Take these, nobody ever reads them.”
And my heart grew stronger. I was on the right path. I dreamt of Chogyi talking to me with that thin voice of his.
I think that I got very close to a kind of genuine madness but that felt OK. The program, “Crazy Wisdom” was fantastic, mostly because we were only 14 people there, and half of those people used to be close students of Chogyam Trungpa during his time in U.S.A. I met Sam Bercholz and I made him dance during a ritual feast in the great Stupa. These unknown people, the old buddies of the old sangha felt like family to me, as if I was finally swimming in my own element. I met Barbara Dilley and Lee Worley had a real strong impact on my mind after the first session of Maitri Space Awareness with her in Naropa University. I met many extraordinary people in Colorado including Ray Ramirez from the Native American Rights Fund. Ray used to drive me to the mountains where we would mostly sit and not talk.
As I said, I was in a fever. I was obsessed by Trungpa Rinpoche and by Dharma Art, crying every day because He was gone, He was not alive any more even though He was present. I started to have intuitions; geometric forms appeared in my mind. Actually, I suddenly understood how to teach and how to create the Danza Duende Network thanks to geometric visions. I heard voices saying:
No Date, No Death,
Shoot the Shadows.
Before I travelled to USA, I bought in May 2004 the return flight passing by New York where I decided to remain for 3 days for no specific reason. I had no relatives there, almost no money at all, no place to stay and no idea why I should go to New York. That return journey was scheduled in advance from 20th to the 23rd of September 2004. Later, these dates made a lot of sense but when I reserved them it was in a state of not knowing.
The last days before leaving Marpa House, Walter Fordham was there. He was gathering testimonies about the life of Chogyam Trungpa for the creation of the Chronicle Project. I used to ask him to talk as much as possible about Trungpa Rinpoche for hours. It was difficult for me to get the Dharma Art teachings because at the time, nobody was even mentioning them. Nobody really knew, what the hell was Dharma Art? Naropa University was evolving in a different direction and I felt that I needed an initiation, an abhisheka. So, Walter Fordham told me:
– Go to New York and meet Jack Niland.
– Well, I must pass by New York actually.
– I told Jack Niland about you, he holds the lineage of Dharma Art, he is the one. You must meet him. He is nuts, but he has a great heart.
I called Jack from Boulder. He was really very nervous on the phone. He wanted so much to meet me that I got scared. He told me catch a cab and drive to the apartment of Kilian Ganly, a friend of his. I could spend three days there in a cute tiny room decorated with Mexican fabrics.
I arrived at the end of the day on 20th of September 2004 on my way back to Europe. I had very little belongings since my house had burned and I used to gather part of my hair on the top of my head with a little stick like a martial art lady. Kilian received me warmly and told me we would have dinner with his friend Georges in a restaurant. I was invited. Jack was not present but he would come and pick me up in the next morning. I had the feeling these men were treating me as a goddess, it was so weird and also very pleasant. But I had no idea what Jack told them about me.
The day after, Jack arrived. He was in a good mood, quite emotional and his breathe was really noisy. Even though he suffered of much asthma, he was smoking cigarettes and obviously drinking alcohol. We walked all the way to his little studio. The place was full of his amazing drawings of a contemporary Tara in her 21 manifestations, stylish as in a Manga cartoon, above a great shrine.
Jack told me:
– I made a promise to Tara: I will come back to social life and open the gate of Dharma Art, precisely on the day of the equinox, 23rd of September 2004. All these years I have been sad, very sad. So, I asked Tara for help, I asked her to send to me a messenger, a Dancer, a Gipsy Dancer. Please, take this with you since you are Tara. And your hair… look! Your hair dress is the same as my Tara on the painting!
And he grabbed a figurine of Esmeralda as in the Walt Disney movie of Notre Dame de Paris on his shrine. It was so strange; Jack gave her to me. I entered into the sensation that all of this was an illusion, a super illusion. In the same time, never before had life felt more real. My specialty as a soloist in the Russian Ballet was the Gipsy dance. Of course, if Walter Fordham told Jack that I was a Gipsy dancer… and that I came asking for Dharma Art, just around the solstice of September
Jack was expecting me.
Jack Niland was a treasury of kindness and a genius of his Art. His passion for Chogyi (as he called him) and the Lady Sara Kapp, whom he loved forever, were overwhelmingly touching. He was very eloquent; he spoke nonstop all day long and the next day more. I showed to him my own drawings of the geometrical forms which appeared in my mind while I was in the Rocky Mountains Center. Jack stood up to reach in the closet an old paper with notes written by Chogyam Trungpa:
– Chogyi told me: who understands these, understands Dharma Art.
My geometric forms were very similar, only one dot was not at the right place. The dot between earth and sky needed to lower little bit. Jack went on:
– Once I asked Chogyi, what is the most important thing? Is it Vajradhatu, or is it Shambhala, is it Dharma Art, is it Dorje Kasung? He looks at me smiling and says: What do you think Jack? I said: Well, it must be Vajradatu because that is the pure foundation of Dharma teaching. And Chogyi told me: Come on Jack… what is it that I do all the time, all day long?
Dharma Art was the core of all.
It is the core of all.
Jack showed to me unedited theatre pieces written by Chogyi. I wanted copies so we decided to meet the day after, on 23rd of September, the morning just before my return flight to Portugal.
I prepared my luggage, thinking about Jack, I decided to assume my play as Tara. I would tell him to teach and to take care of his health. Maybe as Tara’s messenger I was supposed to do that?
A few hours before my departure we went in a shop to make copies. Actually, I don’t really remember what happened when I spoke to him, I entered in a kind of trance, so I forgot. I only remember that I wanted him to cure his sadness and to teach Dharma Art.
Years after, Kilian Ganly became the best friend of all the Danza Duende Network. Many of my students would travel to New York and Kilian received all of them, Alessandra Centonze, Victoria Ivanova, Layale, Carolina Fonseca.
Once Carolina Fonseca had to perform in the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. I told her to meet Jack Niland because he is Holds the Dharma Art transmission. Carolina told me that he recounted to her during that meeting what I did on the 23rd of September just before I left NewYork and that I still don’t remember:
– “She asked me for my cigarettes, she took all of them in the package and destroyed them with all of her fingers while looking into my eyes and she said: Quit smoking, and teach!”
But I do remember his face when I did that, Jack became very pale, almost greenish and I, myself, felt a great deal of fear! Maybe I acted too strongly? Anyway, trance is like that.
A few weeks later, Kilian told me that Jack was in the hospital, that he had almost died, but that he recovered. He quit smoking and drinking and he was teaching Dharma Art. Jack Niland sent to me later by post mail a wonderful commentary of the Sadhana of Mahamudra by Chogyam Trungpa and a picture of himself young painting Vajra Yogini with a very beautiful poem.
I remember Jack telling me the first moment of this amazing love story, his meeting with Chogyam Trungpa in a farm in the middle of nowhere in Vermont. The Tail of the Tiger was being born, a few hippies were living around Chogyam Trungpa and his family building the center. On that day, Chogyi asked a girl to find someone good at drawing and at that precise moment, Jack arrived with Sara Kapp in a car. They were looking for the Dalai Lama. When Jack alone entered the room, Chogyi told him that he was waiting for him because he was going to paint the A. And after he would paint a door. So, the two of them remained talking together all day long and the day after and every day for many years. Jack designed the Victory Flags, the Logo, the Mandalas, the Mantras, the Tiger, the Lion, the Garuda, the Dragon. He literally gave birth to the Mandala of his Vajra Master.
It seems that Chogyam Trungpa opened his tremendous and unbelievable task in U.S.A by designing the A and by decorating the Door. Jack Niland was the one who painted these with his heart full of wonder, of joy, of crazy devotion. All his life he was like that, Jack was in love, he was dizzy with the intoxication of love, as Vajra Yogini dances. That is what made him such a special presence inside of me, forever.
I met Chogyam Trungpa through the memories of brothers and sisters of the Sangha, the old disciples, all of them, they were literally dizzy with love. Chogyam Trungpa made them fall in love, forever. That is so obvious. It is not intellectual, it is not technical, it is energy, Bodhicitta in people’s heart.
Jack Niland transmitted to me the radiance of this love shining like happiness through his eyes. It is one of the most important events in my life.
Now, when I think of him, memory fills my eyes with tears of beauty, my heart beats within with a delightful pain, a feeling that something mysterious, raw and true is alive inside of me. Jack gave it to everybody in the name of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the great Mahasiddha. And he gave to me the last pin badge of the Dharma Art transmission.
Later I sent to Jack my project of a logo for the Danza Duende Network. He said it was good but that he could make it better. And so, he did. Our magnificent logo was offered by Jack Niland. Nowadays, Lady Monica Zas in Spain fabricates handmade talisman with this logo.
I wrote this story in my weird English language just as I remember it in my own confused mind, with gratefulness. I wish that many people will tell us more about how Jack Niland has been special, precisely because he was authentic, crazy, innocent and genuinely devoted to his Master. I am impressed by him who remained low profile all along the years doing his part fully with a broken heart.
Jack Niland was the lineage Holder of the Dharma Art. May we honor this treasure for the benefit of future generations.
Yumma Mudra on the 17th of September 2021.