Storytelling at Work
January 04, 2023

CTR Earth stroke.jpg

Storytelling at Work is honored to publish the following first-person story by Barbara Bash about an extraordinary moment she experienced in the company of her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa.

In 1980 I was 32 years old living in Boulder Colorado, teaching calligraphy and book arts at Naropa University and working as a freelance calligraphic designer.

I was also deeply involved in the world of Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who had arrived in North America ten years earlier and gathered a lively and diverse community around him.

During the spring of that year, I traveled to the Bay Area to assist in a Dharma Art seminar that Trungpa was offering in San Francisco. There would be a number of creative events happening -- poetry readings, art and music performances and environmental installations. Since I had lived in Berkeley during the 1970's, I had old friends in the area and it felt like a kind of return.

At one of the large public talks I had been asked to assist Trungpa with a demonstration of calligraphy. He would create spontaneous brush strokes during the talk to illustrate his teachings and these strokes would be shown with an overhead projector onto the large screen on the stage.

The hall where this was taking place was in downtown San Francisco. It had been built around the turn of the century and was decorated with antique sconces, patterned walls and carpet and held over 800 people. I had invited some of my friends from Berkeley to attend. This would be their first experience of the man who had become my spiritual teacher.

During the afternoon of the event I went out to gather the supplies for the calligraphy session. I had been told that Rinpoche (an honorific title) would be bringing his own brushes. I needed to buy a bottle of Japanese sumi ink (made from the soot of pinewood, animal glue and perfume) and a number of clear acetate sheets that would take the ink well.

I had received no instruction as to how many sheets would be needed. I decided to buy 25. That seemed like more than enough.

In the late afternoon I returned to the place I was staying and got dressed for the evening, putting on a simple blue dress with a few colorful images of parrots embedded in the deep tone of the fabric. The man I was staying with, an inventive letterpress printer I had recently become enamored with, decided at the last minute not to accompany me to the event, so I headed out on my own.

When I arrived at the hall the large room was empty and I went back stage to set up. When my preparations were complete I sat down in the back to wait.

I had been told that Rinpoche had arrived and was in a private room somewhere in the building. At one point his personal attendant came over
to me and said quietly, "He's in a very unusual state this evening."

I nodded, but had no idea what that meant.

I did know that Rinpoche was an unpredictable person, sometimes arriving hours late for a talk, sitting down in front of an audience and saying nothing, or engaging people in spontaneous exchanges of poetry and song that sometimes took wild turns.

Taking in this current report, I decided all I could do was hold steady and watch for cues of what was needed. Staying precise and contained seemed like the safest approach.

As the hall began to fill up I moved to the front of the stage, placing the bowl of ink on the table to the right of Rinpoche's chair. This table also held the overhead projector. His attendant brought out the Japanese brushes and brush holder and I arranged it all so he could reach them easily. I put a large flat cushion on the floor to the right of the table. This is where I would sit. I placed the stack of acetate sheets close to me on the floor.

By this time the hall had filled up and people were chatting and anticipating Rinpoche's arrival. Everything was ready.

CTR projector.jpg I knelt on the cushion, Japanese style, with my legs folded under me. I looked out at the audience and noted that the friends I had invited were sitting in the front row. I smiled at them and they smiled back.

I waited, my eyes cast down, listening. And then I heard the sound of footsteps approaching. There was an uneven and recognizable rhythm to those steps. Rinpoche walked with a strong limp because of an auto accident 15 years earlier that had left one side of his body paralyzed. He always had an attendant walking along side supporting his weight and holding his arm firmly.

They crossed the stage together and he sat down slowly in the chair.

He carried a Japanese fan in one hand which he put on the table. A glass of sake and a napkin was also added to the table. Rinpoche studied the whole arrangement and then slowly turned and looked out. There was something dense, immovable and quiet about his presence, his body, the space around him. The audience was silent. He turned his head towards me slightly. I made a small bow.

The evening began.

I don't remember what he spoke about at the beginning. My attention was so focused on when I would need to move into action. Eventually that happened. Rinpoche turned to me and indicated that he was ready and I placed an acetate sheet on the projector's flat surface.

He picked up a brush, dipped it in the ink, gently wiping the excess off on the edge of the bowl, and slowly lifted it over the acetate, pausing for a moment and then landing, sliding, making a smooth elegant mark on the slippery surface. He turned his head to see the image projected on the big screen and smiled. After some moments he indicated for me to remove it and I carried the wet glistening sheet to an open space on the floor and placed a new sheet on the projector surface. Things were underway.

At some point Rinpoche began to speak about not trusting one's innate worth, of being embarrassed by who we are. He made a dense overlapping stroke that nearly blackened the entire sheet. Laying down the brush he turned back to the mark and said "Looking at what I've done, I feel so ashamed."

As he spoke these words he reached out and wiped his hand in the wet ink, then softly slapped his cheek, drawing his hand across his mouth and leaving a large swath of blackness behind. There was an intake of shock and then laughter in the room. But I froze. I had not seen this coming.

I didn't know what to do. Should I get up, find a paper towel, wipe his face, clean him up? Should I pretend it hadn't happened, just carry on? A long moment passed. My precision, my carefulness became solidified. I sat there, eyes down, doing nothing, in front of everyone.

Then I heard footsteps. Osel Tendzin (Thomas Rich, Rinpoche's successor and dharma heir) arrived with a paper towel, bent down and gently wiped his teacher's face clean.

The evening continued.

Rinpoche engaged the audience that night in ways I'd never seen before, entering into lively dialogue with individuals, calling them out with intensity and delight. The energy was alive, compelling, confusing, wild. He was playing with the space and everyone in it.

At one point he invited people to come up on the stage and make a brushstroke and I remember one fierce young Italian women who brushed out a huge NO! as her personal expression to the world. I was moving quickly, catching and laying out more and more inked sheets on the floor. At one point I glanced out at my friends in the front row. They looked to be in shock.

Eventually the evening began to move towards a close and Rinpoche announced that we would end by singing the Shambhala Anthem together. The singing began -- In heaven the turquoise dragon thunders -- his high voice leading the chorus.

As the song rolled along, he speeded up his brushstrokes, creating a calligraphic expression for each line. At one moment he was moving so quickly I didn't get the new sheet of acetate down before his brush landed and the ink went onto the plastic surface. I jumped up, grabbed the napkin from the table, wiped the panel clean and placed a new sheet. There was no hesitation. I was riding the energy and knew what to do.

But now I'm watching the stack of acetate sheets dropping lower and lower. The singing went on and the brushstrokes continued, fast and wet and bright. As the last line was sung I placed the last sheet on the projector surface. The final stroke was made. The song was done.

Much later that evening I returned to the apartment where my companion was waiting.

"How did it go?" he asked.

I looked at him and said, "It was unusual, hard to describe."

I realized at that moment we had nothing in common anymore. And as I got undressed I saw that my blue dress had been sprayed with delicate black stars.

Barbara's website
Barbara's blog

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at January 4, 2023 08:29 AM


Ms. Bash, you have drawn me out of myself, directly onto the stage, with you, the teacher and the students, swirled in the cosmic ink, filled with the living energy of powerful emotions and images. Shocking indeed!

Posted by: David W Daub [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 17, 2023 08:51 AM

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Storytelling at Work is a blog about the power of personal storytelling – why it matters and what you can do to more effectively communicate your stories – on or off the job. Inspired by the book of the same name, the blog features "moment of truth" stories by the author, Mitch Ditkoff, plus inspired rants, quotes, and guest submissions by readers.

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Storytelling for the Revolution
Storytelling for the Revolution is Mitch Ditkoff's newly published book about the power of personal storytelling to elevate the conversation on planet Earth. Provocative. Evocative. And fun. YOU have stories to tell. This book will help you tell them.
Storytelling at Work
"The world is not made of atoms," wrote the poet, Muriel Rukeyser. "It's made of stories." Learn how to discover, honor, and unpack the stories of yours that show up "on the job" in Mitch Ditkoff's award-winning 2015 book, Storytelling at Work.
Do you want to know more about the book before buying it? Click here for Mitch's response to frequently asked questions about Storytelling at Work – the perfect book for people who think they have no time to read.
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Storytelling is an "unconscious competency" – an ability we all have that all too often remains inaccessible to us. Enter the Storytelling at Work workshop – a simple way to activate this powerful, innate skill.
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Want to establish a culture of storytelling in your organization or community? Looking for a simple way to help people to share their meaningful, memorable stories with each other? Here's how.
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Click here to view and listen to a series of interviews with the author of this blog. Go beyond the written word. Listen. Feel. Elevate the conversation. Understand what the big deal is about personal storytelling.
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