In January 1983, I had the karma to be struck by car as a pedestrian crossing a residential road in Cambridge, MA. The resulting near death experience entirely changed my life. While physically healing, I pursued the images of the visions I received while lying on the road. I became passionate about Buddhist art and naturally, wanted to know more about what these images represented. I had tried meditation (TM, Yogi Bhajan, etc) but none of it rang true until I sat with my first teacher, Ven Thupten Khalsang Rinpoche who happened to be staying in a studio within walking distance of my own home during my convalescence. Rinpoche taught me the refuge prayer and samatha meditation, simple Tibetan language and phrases, and informed me about every visiting Lama who came to the area, encouraging me to seek more teachings.
Within a year Rinpoche moved to Malden, Mass and held Sunday meditations where I met Tim McNeill who told me about his Lama and about Milarepa Center in Vermont. My first visit to Milarepa Center was with Tim when we brought Thupten Khalsang Rinpoche to teach. Tim and I traveled to many teachings in New England, including those at Milarepa Center (Ven Geshe Khenrab Gajam of Montreal, Ven Zasep Rinpoche of Toronto, Ven Lati Rinpoche, Ven Geshe Gyelsten of Los Angeles), and finally Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche came to visit Milarepa Center in late fall, 1986 where he gave the wang for Milarepa practice and suggested Peter Baker schedule retreats.
I read as many dharma books as were available at that time. Indeed, I would not have survived the car accident were it not for my memory of what Evans Wentz had written about the moment of death (let go!). Of course that wasn’t what he said but it was what I remembered and the doctors said it worked! Now I was reading the Lhalungpa translation of the life of Milarepa and the teachings Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave along with the story made a deep impression. My most memorable early experience of Milarepa Center was those teachings in the upstairs of the big barn and later the excitement of doing a whole week’s retreat in Vermont during Christmas break.
The retreat was led by a western monk, Ven. Thupten Pende, and attended by maybe a dozen other people who had followed this monk after receiving teachings in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston on his tour to the nascent FPMT centers. I had never sat in a group retreat and chose to be in silence (wearing a little tag which said “SILENT”) which I felt enhanced my experience. Over the six days of retreat I was surprised to learn how strong a simple retreat experience can be and how much could be learned in so short a time. Returning home I was even more amazed to notice the impact on my life.