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Lives Lived: Remembering Lisa Hilliard

Eve Rosenthal remembers the late Lisa Hilliard, a practitioner from the Shambhala sangha of Halifax.

By Eve Rosenthal

Photo by Aaron Burden

Eve Rosenthal remembers the late Lisa Hilliard, a practitioner from the Shambhala sangha of Halifax.

Over the years, Lisa Hilliard had pared down her possessions to fit comfortably into the Halifax studio apartment she considered her city retreat cabin. The room was spacious and elegant, but there came a time when she was too sick from lung cancer to stay there any longer.

On her last night in the apartment, Lisa and I talked about what to do when she died, and what I should say to her after she stopped breathing. She settled on these words: “Relax. Relax your mind into the guru’s mind. Don’t be afraid. Let go. Your mind and the guru’s mind are not separate.”

Although her friends were emotional as Lisa left home for the last time, she didn’t look back, simply saying, “This place doesn’t work anymore.” Her lack of attachment was inspiring. She moved in with her friends Susan and Steve Peters, who provided hospice care for her in their home until she died in August, 2008.

Lisa loved to party and dance. So I had wondered whether something was wrong at the end of 2007 when she skipped the parties at the holiday practice retreat at Dorje Denma Ling, a Shambhala program center in Nova Scotia, because she was too tired. She developed a persistent cough that winter, and found out in spring that it was late-stage lung cancer.

Lisa was a gentle, genuine person, and a true friend. She could be counted on to hold the view of dharma, bringing all circumstances to the path. It is wonderful to have someone you can count on to see things that way. When a friend had lost her job and was distressed about it, she said, “Just practice, ask the lineage for help, and trust the unfolding of auspicious coincidence. It’s worked so far, hasn’t it?”

Born Lisa Kipnis in October, 1949, she grew up in Massachusetts and studied biology at Oberlin College in Ohio. In the mid-seventies she became a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She met her longtime dharma companion, Brian, when they were both Buddhist practitioners in Boulder, Colorado, and they were eventually married in a Buddhist ceremony in the early eighties. They lived in Boston and then Karme Chöling, a residential retreat center founded by Chögyam Trungpa in Vermont. After Trungpa Rinpoche’s death, they joined other students who had moved to Halifax at his request.

In the early nineties Lisa and Brian entered a three-year retreat at Gampo Abbey, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. A few months after it ended, so did their marriage, leaving Lisa heartbroken. A little later she went to Kathmandu and worked for Naropa Abroad.

In the last several years of her life she flourished, teaching buddhadharma and Shambhala programs. I was a participant at a one-month Mahamudra program that she led at Karme Chöling in 2004. Mahamudra was the practice that she connected with most, and she was able to inspire realization in students with her devotion and clear instruction.

Her illness and imminent death came as a shock. It seemed completely random among our set of friends that she would be the first to go.

When the Seventeenth Karmapa came to North America, Lisa wrote to him. This is an excerpt from his reply: “Birth and dying are part of the way things are. When we understand that dying is just a part of the way things are, we will not be afraid of death… ‘Death’ is what we call the mere cessation of the present grouping of our five skandhas. Actually, however, it is the stream of consciousness that we may call the ‘I’ or ‘self.’ The stream of consciousness does not cease at the time of death; it continues. Therefore, from this perspective, we may say to ourselves, ‘I will not die.’”

During her last few weeks she spoke by phone with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the head of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, who said later that he was struck by her clarity and devotion. She also talked on the phone with her teacher Thrangu Rinpoche, whom Lisa said seemed “a little bored” and gave the impression that her dying was “no big deal.” She found it quite amusing.

She maintained that sense of humor to the end. Susan Peters recalls a conversation with Lisa about the messages people were leaving on her apartment phone. Lisa suggested changing the greeting to: “This is Lisa. I am dying. Good luck!”

Eve Rosenthal

Eve Rosenthal is a Shambhala acharya, or senior teacher, who became a close friend and dharma sister to Lisa Hilliard after moving to Nova Scotia in 1990.