Journal for November 9, 2010
For four months in 2007 I lived in the Colorado mountains, most of that time in a spacious green Army tent on the side of a steep hill amidst the ponderosas. I was working at Shambhala Mountain Center. I had a little office in the maintenance shop, near the sewage lagoon. It was stuffed full of files, maps, and plans, almost eaten up by a large drafting table, but it had an east facing window from which I could see the ducks and a bold chipmunk who would come in to visit me. I was usually on in it half of any given day. The other half, I could be anywhere in the valley, marking down the location of utility poles, transformers, tent platforms, water valves, and new buildings.
When I first arrived, there was snow on the ground, even though it was already May. It snowed the night we were to move into our tents. They had to be collapsed and re-raised the next day. My hair was long and the wind would often howl through the valley, so I wore it stuffed up beneath a tan wool newsboy-cap, but as the summer moved in to stay and I became accustomed to the warm high-altitude sun, that wouldn’t do. I bought two hats, one nice to wear to teachings and events, another for everyday to keep the sun out of my eyes.
The second hat turned out to be more important than I could have guessed. It was a simple straw cowboy hat, made in Mexico, one size fits all. I wore it with a kind of familial pride, pulled low over my eyes. I dressed in jeans and sandals, my feet soon acquiring a brown layer of permadirt. I was never without my rosewood mala and often also wore a denim, cowgirl-cut jacket, complete with rhinestones and silver snaps. So they called me dharma cowgirl.
It wasn’t a title I’d earned, of course, but I didn’t discourage the nickname. I didn’t identify with it precisely, but something about it pricked at me. I didn’t know much about the dharma and I never was a cowgirl, not like other women in my family were and had been. But it was an idea, like ‘warrior’ or ‘bodhisattva’ or ‘stream-enterer,’ that just wouldn’t go away. It was different though, somehow the wisdom of the East conflated with the West. Here, by West, I don’t mean the Western hemisphere, the United States and Europe. I mean the Western half of North America, the rugged country settled by pioneers and outlaws around a hundred-fifty years ago. That kind of West is a horse of an entirely different color, but it has a wisdom of its own.
I wrote about it, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, but I stumbled on what I was looking for by accident. Seems rather poetic, when you think about it. This idea, this ‘dharma cowgirl,’ isn’t about courage or compassion or wisdom, though those are in there too. It’s about will, about being willing, and about comprehending one crucial thing – it’s up to you. No one else can do it for you.
This should not be confused with the classic fantasy of solitude or ultimate independence. Even in the middle of a crowd, surrounded by family, friends, and teachers, this truth remains. It does not violate emptiness or interdependence or inter-being. But as much as those things are true, so is this. There’s even an appropriately cliché Western saying, something about a horse and water. We need others to help lead us to the water, but only we can drink. To do that, we must be willing.
It’s not a new idea, of course. It’s all over Buddhist teaching, Western (i.e. Greek) philosophy, Abrahamic religion, and common wisdom. The idea of dharma cowgirl (or cowboy) simply reframes it in light of new myths.
For a little while, in the mountains of Colorado, I lived those myths. I wandered the valleys and ridge lines, listening to the wind, soaking up the sun. I rode a strong black horse through the trees and beneath the full moon, searching for empty country. It was no rugged tale of survival, but a quiet journey that took place within the mind and perhaps the soul, if such a thing exists. I did a lot of thinking that summer and a lot of simply paying attention.
But the time I valued most was not sitting in meditation with the others, vision curtailed by the white walls of the shrine tent, facing the image of the Rigden King. No, I much preferred the bench in the courtyard, beneath the ponderosa trees, near the rock garden, where I could watch the changing sky, the chipmunks and the magpies. Or the stone in the aspen grove along the trail, where I could hear the water. Or high on the bouldered peaks where I could see the snowy mountains to the south. It took me a long time and a lot of attention to realize I was seeking exactly what those sitters in the shrine tent were seeking three times a day.
We are all willing to seek it knowing we might never find it because no one else can ever show it to us – that’s a dharma cowgirl (that, and a hat).