Joanna Estelle

The two months I spent studying with Namgyal Rinpoche were brief, but dramatic. It was the spring of 1971, he was known as Bhikkhu Ananda Bodhi, and he lived in a house on Palmerston Boulevard in Toronto. I was 20 then and had moved to Toronto for my third year of university. I lived downtown and eventually found my way to a flat two doors down from his house, where I lived until the end of that summer. Shortly after moving into this flat, I was intrigued by the frequent comings and goings of young people wearing red strings around their necks from a big house with green trim a couple of doors down.

This was a confusing time for me and many other ex-hippies: the heady joy of the 1960s was waning and being replaced by the shadow of lives full of drugs, sex, and rock 'n roll. Janis Joplin had overdosed in the fall of 1970 and Jim Morrison died early the following summer. Shaken by the first realizations of my generation's mortality, I and many others were starting to look for deeper meaning in life. Spirituality beckoned, offering new and exciting possibilities of experience to explore.

One early spring day, I saw a poster in the Fifth Kingdom Bookshop advertising a public talk by Ananda Bodhi on Palmerston. I realized that this was the house with the green trim and I knew that I had to attend. It was amazing to see this impressive figure of a man sitting in a large chair on a raised platform, wearing saffron and maroon robes, alternately dispensing profound spiritual truths and telling jokes to a room full of devoted young listeners sitting cross-legged on the floor. Like everyone else present, I was immediately transfixed.

I spent most of the next two months attending frequent lectures there on Dharma, participating in empowerments, taking Bhodisatva vows, and learning to meditate. Soon, I too was wearing a red string around my neck, much to the chagrin of my Ukrainian Catholic parents. I was so impressed with this teacher that I invited a close friend from university to come to Toronto to hear and meet him. Fortunately for many, David Berry accepted my invitation.

The climactic moment for me came during a particularly intense empowerment. When it was my turn to approach Ananda Bodhi, trembling, white cloth in hand, he peered down at me over his glasses with 'those eyes' and made a brief but very clear pronouncement in a booming voice that shook me to the very core of my being: "You will be saved by sound."

Although I had played the piano as a child, I had no idea of what he was talking about and thought "Right. Sure thing," but I was shaken and quite disturbed at his certainty about something in my life that I still did not know. Shortly thereafter (May 1971), he and many of his students left Toronto to sail around Africa and visit India. During that hot summer in the city, other dramatic events took place in my life and by September, I had left Toronto, the Dharma Centre, and Ananda Bodhi behind.

I completely forgot about this incident for almost thirty years. My life had been very challenging and I had explored many spiritual paths before finding one to which I could commit long term. I had also studied music part-time over the years with many excellent teachers as a hobby while building a career in management accounting in the federal public service. It was not until my mid-forties that I realized musical composition was my true purpose in life. I returned to university to study music part-time when I was 51. Music was and has been the great healer in my life for many years. I now share the inner peace that I find in composing with others through the music that I write.

One day in the fall of 2003, just before Namgyal Rinpoche passed away, I was having dinner with David Berry in Ottawa. We were reminiscing about the "good old days" and David reminded me that I had been the one who had invited him to the Dharma house on Palmerston so many years before to meet the great man we had known then as Ananda Bodhi. I was excited to tell David that I had just started studying composition with his friend Steven Gellman, another longtime student of Rinpoche, at the University of Ottawa. Suddenly, I remembered that long forgotten pronouncement and I gasped audibly.

I then told David this story and he, of course, laughed knowingly and smiled happily from ear to ear, as did I. More important, my heart smiled in deep gratitude to Namgyal Rinpoche for shining the Light on my lifestream at a time when I had not even known that I needed it.

Joanna Estelle
Composer, lyricist, arranger
Ottawa, Canada

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