By now many of you know that Colin Chase died on Saturday. Because it turns out that this man is extraordinary, this past week has been a surreal, heart-breaking, yet also curiously peaceful journey for many hundreds of people. I can’t begin to capture this collective experience, but I can share what I thought about it at the time it was happening.
Wednesday August 11th: A devoted disciple of Venerable Geshe Kelsang had a motorcycle accident last night, on August 10th, leaving him with catastrophic brain damage.
I can’t believe I am writing those words. Not least because Colin Chase is also one of my closest friends.
I am going to write stuff down now because I have been making non-stop prayers and I will be praying again soon, and in the meantime I don’t know where else to put myself. I am so very sorry for all of you close family and friends, I think I can guess at some of how you feel.
I just spoke to him via phone. I knew what to say. But it’s not enough time. There’s so much more that was supposed to happen. There were still so many more conversations to be had, so many more adventures in the mandala, so many more mountains to climb. I even want to tell him about the strangeness that is going on now.
Colin made me laugh and was kind enough to find me humorous too. He has been a very reassuring, loving presence in my life, and not just mine, of course. He was a great listener. He genuinely loved helping people. You could learn a lot from watching him interact with others even in difficult negotiations or tense situations – smart, worldly-wise, diplomatic, always thoughtful. His effortless kindness is the first thing I noticed about him many years ago, watching him in some interaction I’ve now forgotten at Manjushri KMC, before we’d even exchanged a word. There is nothing he would not do to help bring about Geshe-la’s wishes to establish a Pure Land for all living beings. “I’m a believer!” he joked with me recently, and this combination of devotion and love made his life amazing. He was kinda epic, to be honest.
All appearances in my dream teach me that all my appearances while awake do not exist. Thus for me all my dream appearances are the supreme instructions of my Guru. ~ Lord of all Lineages
Last week Colin reminded me of the vivid dream I had when he was visiting in June. He said he had been thinking about it all the time since then. This was the dream as I recorded it at the time:
I was standing on the edge of the virtual reality show of this life, but a vast abyss of empty space had opened up that I knew plunged to all my previous rebirths. I was tipping over – I could scramble back on to this life or I could let go. For some reason I decided to let go and fall to see what was there.
I fell fast and was seeing all my human rebirths, thousands of appearances and versions of me as a different human being in different places doing different things, sometimes male, sometimes female, etc.
I wanted to stop before I got to all my previous lower realm rebirths, starting with animal rebirths — that felt too scary, as if I may not be able to get out again. So I went for refuge to ask to return to the albeit even more obviously temporary appearances of this current life.
A special aircraft appeared and the pilot told me to buckle up while he flew me back up past all those lives. We stopped at one life where he introduced me to someone who I recognized, though he didn’t recognize me yet – I could tell he was a previous different-looking version of a someone I know in this life. In that life I was a woman with yellow hair and a round face.
I asked the pilot why I hadn’t gone all the way to the lower realms and why he was able to appear so I could get back up to my human life; and he said it was because I had purified a lot of the karma of killing, which was protecting me from lower rebirth. However, he also cautioned that I didn’t necessarily have enough good karma next time to come straight back up if I fell again. I had used some up and needed to create more.
Past and future lives exist, I have believed in them for as long as I can remember. I felt the need for all of us to go for very strong refuge because this life is entirely dreamlike, fragile, and impermanent. And where we go/what appears to us depends entirely on our karma.
Colin asked how if I, with all my merit, might not be able to get easily back into the human realm if I fell, what chance did he have? I replied that he had created astonishing merit, far more than me. He replied by generously listing all the things he thinks I’ve done. I replied by listing his good qualities and accomplishments. Anyway, you get the drift. He was always rejoicing in other people, never pulling them down.
Death on our minds
And in the last few months, death was on his mind. We had several conversations about it, and the fleeting nature of this life and our fragile silly bodies. Including his knees – he was due for double knee replacements next week (August 17), repayment for a lifetime of daredevil bodily risks. Talking of which, I said he’d be needing a wheelchair if he insisted on having both knees done at the same time. “No, I won’t. I’ll have crutches.” “You do know how crutches work, right?!”
And now he lies in Newark hospital, the need for knee surgery gone.
In an astonishing coincidence, the main spiritual director of Newark Hospital happens to be a New York Sangha member, Helen, charged now with taking care of Colin and the family. Her assistant is called Tara.
Testament to his outsized role in our tradition, at very short notice hundreds of people attended Tara puja live at KMC New York City and at the upstate NY and Grand Canyon World Peace Temples or tuning in online. We could see KMC NYC’s beautiful city temple on one side of the screen and Colin on the other. All the way through puja his chest was exaggeratedly inflating and deflating with the life support machine. Seared into many minds now is the image of his beloved mother Marsha, same cheekbones and red hair, sitting by his bed and stealing glances at his poor damaged head. What a gift she gave us in Colin.
Colin’s vital signs improved during puja. That has to mean something, right?
Conversations on life and death
Like I said, over the last few months we were having conversations about the brevity of life, how quickly each decade had flown by, and how little time we had left. We are moreorless the same age and have both been caring for our mothers lately, in the front row seats to great old age. I hoped we’d grow old together, hanging out, building centers (the architects’ drawings just landed for KMC CO’s new building, and I would love nothing more right now than to hear what Colin has to say about them). At the same time I kinda figured that Colin might not stick around for the ravages of extreme old age.
I am still taken aback by how early he checked out and, if I’m honest, a trifle annoyed. When I sent a photo of him in Colorado in June to a mutual friend, he replied: “Should Colin really be climbing trees?!” Of course not, nor ignoring my protests to climb onto the roof of KMC Colorado’s new building (the views, though, turned out to be worth it.) Nor should he have been riding motorbikes between hip and knee surgeries, but I have to acknowledge that this was typical Colin. He was probably always set to go out in a blaze of glory (from his perspective, not so much ours). Sitting it out in an armchair for years wearing slippers was probably never going to happen.
Maybe his mother knew this too. I hope she did. I guess we all have to accept now that he was made to live fast and die too soon.
I just re-read the last text I had from Colin yesterday afternoon (August 10) on my way up this mountain for a week to look after four dogs and cats while attending the remainder of the Summer Festival:
“I am very happy that you’re getting away!! When you get settled, please let me know when we might connect again. Enjoy the mountains, and please say Hello for me. I miss them, and look forward to returning soon!”
He didn’t reply to the text I sent back at 7.39pm MST. Turns out he was climbing onto his motorbike. And it also turns out that I am not the one who is getting away.
A friend of mine is part of a healing energy group and they just spent time tuning into him. I don’t know if you believe in these things or not, but I am going to share this anyway because it honestly does sound just like Colin.
Curiously to their minds, because they are not Buddhists and don’t know Colin, they kept getting a strong message from him, “Be joyful!” After helping to clear out his chakras they normally infuse the person with a lot of energy, but they said that he was already completely full of positive energy and there was nothing to add. (They had no idea about the Tara pujas being held for him worldwide.) They also said that he was very determined. And the word “Rinpoche” kept coming to them, even though they didn’t know what it meant. (“Rinpoche” is the Tibetan word for “precious” and is applied to reincarnate Lamas.)
Today, Thursday Aug 12, I woke up today feeling hopeful that maybe Colin can be healed after all. I understand that quite a number of people dare share this optimism, quoting Colin’s lack of boundaries, how many crazy accidents he has pulled through before, and the power of the prayers. A lot of people are praying for his full recovery in today’s Tara prayers. Helen said today: “In general you do not come back from this and, if you do, you wish you hadn’t. But I’ve seen miracles. He is in the right hospital.”
Later on Thursday: But now, later this same day, we have heard the deeply sad news that the doctors could not stop the bleeding. Colin is brain dead. Again, I cannot believe I am writing these words, but Colin will be taken off life support tomorrow. Powa is planned for just after he dies.
The last time we spoke on the phone, Colin told me he had just spent a 14-hour day at KMC NYC making sure everyone could tune in online to the Vajrayogini empowerment and teachings. He was very happy and we talked for over an hour. Thousands of people received these empowerments, and to begin with he was doing all the tech himself. Then he handed it off to 3 people he’d trained — rejoicing in them when he saw them on CCTV (he loved his CCTV, lol) – and headed off to see his family.
It is no wonder that there is an outpouring of people now, saying “he helped me”; he was always there to help. Within minutes of arriving at a Festival he knew everyone and everyone knew him. He has been instrumental in the success of KMC New York City, from the day he turned up and went off roller blading on the hunt for a new building. For Colin, nothing was a problem. No vision was too big. He found that beautiful space in a huge cooperative skyrise, and not only managed to acquire it for the Center but also became the most important board member in the whole building. Later Greg showed up and took on all the day to day volunteer projects, allowing him to be full-on visionary along with KMC NYC’s wonderful EPC Simone.
I’m also going to go right ahead here and call out the quiet heroine Laurie, assistant AD, who worked tirelessly by Colin’s side the whole time he was there — never one to steal any limelight, she was nonetheless the right-hand woman to the right-hand man.
The barefoot Bodhisattva
In his occasional day job, Colin was a fixer for the one-percenters, so he often had plenty of resources. (Sometimes he was broke, too). However, that wasn’t his lifestyle and he was usually just trying to give money away. Colin’s leased apartment wasn’t really his – and indeed it never looked very lived in to me. Instead it hosted everyone and anyone who came through town, if they needed a place to stay. Colin was always barefoot, unless the occasion demanded shoes, such as the opera, when he might wear flip flops. He only drank sparkly water, no tea, coffee, or any other beverages. He would often camp at Festivals despite being easily able to afford something more comfortable. He loved sailing on the open seas. He loved the freedom of his motorbike. A few years ago he wanted to go riding in the Rockies:
Colin: Maybe you will consider taking a ride with me, through the mountains, if I reschedule my visit. xx
Me: haha, i may consider it — but not sure about my precious human life 😃
Colin: You don’t trust me?!?!
Me: aha, i do.
Colin told me, and I witnessed several times, that he didn’t really mind physical pain. During a painful lung infection a few years back, for example, he replied to my text: “In truth, I am fine now. My body just has a few challenges. There are so many people out there, who are truly suffering.”
He was astonishingly successful and made everything fun at the same time. A friend told me that he reminded her of what Heruka would be like if you met him:
“He managed to make everyone feel happy and strong. When you were around him, that was the quality he had. He was heroic and gave you what you needed, whether that was a hug if you were cold or helping to negotiate a million-dollar building. And it wasn’t like there was anything in it for him.”
Within seven lifetimes
Last week Colin called me with a question about Vajrayogini practitioners definitely going to Keajra within seven lifetimes, asking if that was a rumor or was it true. I replied that it is in The New Guide to Dakini Land:
It is said that even those with the least fortune who do not attain Dakini Land in the intermediate state will be led by Vajrayogini to her Pure Land within seven lives.
He was very excited for some reason, and wanted to know which lifetime I thought he might be in. I said not the first, because it is unlikely that he could have all these unusually good conditions coming together in his life on a first encounter with Guru Vajrayogini, given that each of them needs a lot of good karma to create. “So, who knows, maybe your 4th or 5th, or perhaps even your 7th!” Turns out that might have been right.
When this picture was taken of Colin and Helen in front of Compassion Buddha Avalokiteshvara, no one had a clue that she would be able to orchestrate at his bedside not only all the Tara pujas but the transference of consciousness puja, when Avalokiteshvara could lead him to the Pure Land.
Helen is a force of nature herself. She trained hard for years to be a Buddhist Chaplain, the very first person in the Kadampa tradition to do so. She landed this job very quickly afterwards because she excelled in her training. I asked her yesterday how many people and families she had helped die, and she said hundreds. She tries to make the right situation for people to die peacefully, and I asked her how. One woman wanted so badly to go home to die in Puerto Rico, but could not be moved. Helen asked her what exactly about home she missed and, upon hearing that it was the scents and the plants and the food, she recreated that for her in the ICU.
She didn’t have time for attention to detail last year, however, when she had to help six or seven different people and their families every day during COVID. “That was a different world.”
What a meaningful job! Venerable Geshe-la has said that helping people die well is the kindest thing we can do. And helping their families find some measure of peace at one of the very worst times of their life is also no small feat. If any of you are looking for a career path … but I do believe this is not for the faint-hearted.
Helen said that she hopes that Colin’s death will also spark conversations about the end of our own lives and whether or not we want DNR and so on. (I did my Living Will a couple of months ago, it only took about 15 minutes, FYI.)
“Nothing gets in the way of that!”
It is thanks to Helen that I was able to talk to Colin in his last two days. I asked if I could say a few words into his ear and she did one better, organizing a WebEx between the end of visiting hours at 6 p.m. and the nighttime shift at 7 p.m. Talking to him for what turned out to be well over an hour was surprisingly not difficult. Here is the jist of some of what I said.
“Hello my beloved friend, and farewell for now, just for a short while though, I will see you on the other side. I know you’re going to enjoy being in Keajra so much sending emanations to help us all and everyone else — it’s what you’ve been practicing for the whole time I’ve known you, you were made for the Pure Land! You will so enjoy helping Geshe-la help everyone now on a grand scale. I do believe this was your seventh and final lifetime in samsara, just like we were speculating the other day.
Thousands of people have been praying for you because it turns out that you helped too many people to count. People are wondering when you had the time?!
Your family were very happy to discover about your life, and the powa we are doing tomorrow will bring your birth family and your Sangha family together in a way that you would love. The mother of all sendoffs awaits you, you created the cause for hundreds of people to send you the Pure Land. We insist you go. You are going anyway, but we’re going to make sure of it.”
I did make him promise us two things because he always liked to keep his promises: (1) he needed to visit us all with his emanations, including KMC NYC and KMC CO to finish those projects he started; (2) if he insisted on leaving early, he needed to set things up for me and everyone else to join him in the Pure Land. After all, that’s what he did. As he texted himself the other day:
This is Geshe la’s work, and NOTHING gets in the way of that!!!
Before I left, I asked the nurse to touch his heart to indicate we are all going with him, and then to touch his crown.
I thought that was it, but the following morning one of Helen’s assistants called again unsolicited to see if I’d like to talk to him. Of course I wanted to. Then again in the afternoon, I got this rather wonderful call:
Hello L, this is Tara. I have Colin here. Will you talk to him?
So that was lucky for me.
I also talked to him a lot about what the Pure Land is like from things I’ve read, “without even the name of mistaken impure appearance”, where even stepping on the ground gives rise to bliss. How it is full of all the things he loves, but all completely pure and known to be illusory, like dream oceans and dream mountains. How he will send emanations. It was me doing all the talking, of course, but a conversation nonetheless, because, along with Helen, I believe that people in this situation can hear “beyond words and sounds” as she put it. This is not least because I had this experience with Bob — his brain was also gone when Cheryl and I talked him into the Pure Land, yet “it worked”. That story is here.
I also shared with him several beautiful messages, such as from Sara Wendt, his “little red-headed childhood friend”, who did us all the big favor of introducing him to our tradition. And this one from Gen Samten:
“Please tell him that a life lived with kindness is a life lived without regrets. Please tell him that he has brought happiness to so many people in so many places. And please tell him that it is time for him to leave now, to let go of this life and to move on to a pure world where he can work with Geshe-la to bring happiness to many people.”
August 14th: I dreamt vividly of Colin last night, he was very youthful and joyful, it was blissful to see him, and it felt like he was on his way to the Pure Land.
In a dream, a girl meets a boy and sees that he is dying. She is happy to meet him but unhappy to see him dying. We should understand that all phenomena are like this. ~ Buddha
I have been contemplating how Colin is mere name not other than emptiness and therefore can be Heruka. It is worth pointing out that all this has been going on during the retreat section of the Summer Festival, (good timing Colin!), where Gen Rabten has been giving profound instructions, including on what Buddhas experience. The suffering hallucinations of Colin’s gross mind are about to be all over for him, and indeed could be for us too, if we really want them to be.
Accepting the sorrow
Talking to myself … There are a million ways to transform this sadness, but I have to accept that it is there first, not paper over the cracks. Use the heartbreak to allow my heart to grow. Practice the yoga of equalizing samsara and nirvana. Not be attached to my sorrow, nor the ordinary narrative of our friendship.
Accepting the suffering means not repressing it, but at some point we know it is empty and we let it go, to be replaced by compassion and joy. I did this this morning, which is the day of his powa.
It is our joy, compassion, love, wisdom, and pure view that will help Colin get to the Pure Land, not dragging him with our sadness. But this is a process for everyone, it has to be natural, not forced nor pretended. We can’t tell people who are grieving: “Think like this and you’ll stop being sad”, and assume that’ll work. We cannot be disconnected from our sadness; it is the sadness which gives us the realization that suffering is unbearable. From there we can develop authentic renunciation and compassion, hence “Suffering had good qualities.” Then we can also view it as mere name. It is mere mistaken appearance blocking us from seeing the truth of bliss and emptiness.
The powa, 2.25pm EST, August 14th
Nearly 1,000 people attended Colin’s powa, joining in from all over the world. And it was very powerful. This has got to be a first. Who were you, Colin Chase?! As a friend said:
“Colin really did get a Powa Express, not too many have 500+ people on stand-by for your last moment in this life to send you off to the Pure Land. His kindness & bodhisattvaness touched countless beings ”
I think many people now feel deeply supported to know that we are united not only in our grief but also now in the knowledge that we can do this for each other – we can send our friends, Sangha, and family to the Pure Land. It is inspiring to see how our Sangha is open-ended because everyone is welcome, and that none of us has a monopoly over anyone else’s affection or memory, we are all learning to love one another.
At my deathtime may the Protectors, Heroes, Heroines and so forth,
Bearing flowers, parasols, and victory banners,
And offering the sweet music of cymbals and so forth,
Lead me to the Land of the Dakinis. ~ The New Guide to Dakini Land
During his death and for about an hour after I had an unexpected and good experience that I won’t share here, but that was in keeping with everything else that has been happening these last few months and days. It convinced me that Colin is now in the Pure Land of the Dakinis.
For such practitioners, death is just mere name – they are simply moved from the prison of samsara to the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka. ~ Heruka Root Tantra
I will just say that we are usually so dualistic about samsara vs nirvana, for the Pure Land is mere name away at all times. We go where our mind goes. How many different ways has Guru Heruka explained this to us?!? He couldn’t have made it clearer.
Enlightenment is reality, it is right here. So of course the Pure Land is right here.
Living meaningfully, dying joyfully
I feel that Colin’s life and death have had a large impact on our Kadampa tradition, that something has shifted for a lot of people. It was a meditation on death par excellence, our own life of approx 4,000 weeks not to be taken for granted, not even a day of it. Of course we all die – we don’t all die on a stage, though, in a five-day drama watched by hundreds of practitioners. It revealed what happens if you do spend your whole life being kind — living meaningfully does mean you’re going to die joyfully. We have seen the power of the Guru and the power of the Sangha. We can do this for each other.
When someone I love and respect dies, I try to honor them by adopting some of their good qualities; and that may merit another article. Colin would read this blog from time to time and generously told me: “Your writing draws people into their heart, and leaves them yearning for more. That, my dear lady, is an unparalleled talent.” So perhaps he will be reading this along with all the comments I hope you will leave below. Please leave comments! Tell your stories. Let us be encouraged by this man’s life and works.
(Since I posted this, a lot of you have kindly sent inspiring comments below, thank you! This includes people (and good writers!) who knew Colin well such as Greg and Michelle — very well worth reading if you get the chance.)
Colin, if you are reading this … you may not fully appreciate how much you are loved and by how many. That, and riding a motorbike, might be the worst faults you had. But it doesn’t matter now because the Guru and Dakinis have you. I know we’re going to be hanging out again in the mountains of Keajra one way or another. We’re all going to be having endless fun with the Heroes and Heroines of Geshe-la’s mandala, a mandala that you’ve already been a huge part of creating. It is your home, where you belong, where we and our families all belong. Indeed, where else could you be now but there already, inseparable from your beloved Spiritual Father — paving the way, as ever, for us all to see through the illusion and join you.