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Geshe Wangyal taught this yoga to me with chess, when he would stalk, tempt and taunt me until I was cornered and humiliated. When trapped time and again, that ambitious, fiercely competitive, self-cherishing part of me would manifest and explode. At those moments Geshe-la appeared to me to be more like Kang Sheng, Mao's murderous secret police director, than like Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
With a contented chuckle at having conjured up my ugliest emotions, he would note that the fuming devil across the board from him was in fact the very object of play in Buddhist philosophy—it was the "object of negation" I had so antiseptically been studying. He would then ask, with mockingly compassionate tone, if my current incarnation felt impermanent, interdependent, empty, and blissful. And of course it did not. It wanted to kill, smash, and humiliate this Kalmuk trickster.
Now, without my old friend's laughs and taunts, the game can often seem hopeless, and retreat so enticing. But I also the core teaching of this old shaman: effort, which is the fourth of the six paramitas or perfections. He taught this paramita with his the game. Never give up. Be determined to play game after game—infinitely. As soon as one meets defeat, no matter how total, rise up and challenge the" yet another game, for enlightenment is the playing. He taught this lesson to his death.
Ten days before Geshe Wangyal died of liver cancer in 1986, I awoke mysteriously in Palm Beach, Florida, after a delirious night of drinking with my cohorts in New York's 21 Club. On waking I vaguely remembered that my old friend was staying the winter as a small house nearby.
To my surprise I found him ill and near death. I had lost touch with him over the last year or two. His eyes were yellow. He could hardly move. Preparing for his death with total concentration, he was chanting the same morning prayers he had recited for over three-quarters of a century.
Geshe-la and I sat alone in silence. He grabbed my hand and I wept. I tried to cheer him up and awkwardly suggested a game of chess, thinking that I would throw this last contest to bolster the spirits of a sick, feeble friend. He immediately livened up.
After being helped to the edge of the battlefield, Geshe Wangyal took up his position and began the pushing his king's pawn to K4. We played deliberately at first, but the pace soon quickened, and he pushed his pawns without mercy.
He surprised me. I fought back, quickly dropping any compassionate interest in cheering him up. We were in the fight of our lives, our final game. And I in trouble.
He crushed me, totally humiliated me. My wounded ego erupted. I was angry, disgusted at having been tricked again by this fool. He rose up in his chair and with clenched fists roared his lion's roar: "Do you see? Do you see now who I am?"
For the first time, I kissed his feet. Jumping up, I said my farewells and rushed out the door. Weeping, I drove back over the bridge to the other shore, to the glitter of Palm Beach—and to the next game.
Joel McCleary was treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, Deputy Assistant for Political Affairs to President Jimmy Carter, and head of the international division of the Sawyer-Miller Group, which ran political campaigns in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America.