Harold Talbott died peacefully at his home in Marion, Massachusetts, on February 7, shortly before his 80th birthday from complications of Parkinson’s disease.
In his just-published memoir, Tendrel, Harold wrote, “although my ancestors were rather distinguished, I was always out of step with the rest of my family. Instead I preferred to go my own way, which may explain how, from my beginnings in the sophisticated worlds of New York and Europe, I ended up as a student of Tibetan lamas in both India and America.”
Harold and his twin brother, John Talbott, were born in New York City on February 21, 1939, to Margaret “Peggy” Thayer and Harold E. Talbott, Jr. Their parents lived at the apex of high society in New York, and briefly in Washington, DC, during the mid-1950s when Mr. Talbott was Secretary of the Air Force. Celebrated for her beauty and charm, Harold’s mother counted among her many friends not only such social luminaries as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, but numerous singers, writers, and actors. (Noel Coward, Truman Capote, and Gary Cooper among them).
Harold’s decision to go his own way required courage. At St. Paul’s School (he graduated in the class of 1958 where he developed his passion for French literature) and later at Harvard (1962) he readily admitted he was gay at a time when homosexuality was neither discussed nor tolerated. Yet thanks to his humor, charm and intelligence, Harold was accepted by his classmates, teachers, and numerous friends. While in college Harold converted to Catholicism. Later he befriended Alan Watts, who, knowing of his developing interest in Buddhism, introduced him to the Benedictine monk Dom Aelred Graham, an authority on Thomist philosophy and Zen Buddhism, who became his close friend and mentor. During this time, Harold twice traveled to the Abbey of Gesthemene in Kentucky to meet Thomas Merton, through whose writings he “fell in love with the monastic life.”
After his mother committed suicide in 1962, Harold lived a reclusive life in New York, rarely going out and socializing until two years later he met and befriended the famous piano duo, Bobby Fizdale and Arthur Gold. They took Harold into “the hub of a vast circle of talented people,” including among others Tanny and George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Samuel Barber, Betty and John Cage, Stella Adler, who became friends.
Three years after entering Gold and Fizdale’s enchanted circle, Harold’s life changed even more dramatically when Dom Aelred Graham invited him to be his assistant and secretary on a year-long trip to Asia to meet leading figures of the world’s non-Christian religions. During the trip they met the Dalai Lama. After their audience, Harold asked His Holiness if he might return to India to study with him. In 1968 he spent the winter at Dharamsala as a private student of the Dalai Lama, who told him he would become his “monk in America.” However, Harold eventually became a follower of the Nyingma, or “Old School” tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, to which he committed himself for the rest of his life.
In November 1968 Harold served as Thomas Merton’s guide to Tibetan lamas in India’s Himalayan region during Merton’s travels to Asia that year. Harold introduced the great Christian monk to many Tibetan Buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama and Chatral Rinpoche, the man Merton pledged to return to India to study and understand the essence of Tibetan Buddhism—Dzogchen. About Chatral Rinpoche, considered a supreme master of Dzogchen meditation by Nyinmapas, Merton confided to Harold, “That is the greatest man I have ever met.” During their time together in India Merton urged his young guide to find a lama to teach him Dzogchen.
Shortly after Merton’s departure from India, and his sudden death a few days later in Thailand, Harold found his own lama near Darjeeling, the Tibetan yogi Lama Gyurdala. Lama Gyurdala guided him onto the path of Dzogchen. Harold’s study with Lama Gyurdala, and with His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, titular head of the Nyingma lineage, was made possible in large part due to Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, then a professor of Tibetan at Lucknow University, who knew English and acted as Harold’s mentor, translator, and friend. Seven years later when Lama Gyurdala lay on his deathbed in an impoverished Delhi neighborhood, Harold was at his bedside day and night. After Lama Gyurdala died in early 1975, Harold’s close friend Michael Baldwin persuaded him to return to America and settle in Marion, Massachusetts, near where the Baldwin family was living.
Shortly after his arrival in Marion, Harold and Michael established the Buddhayana Foundation to translate, edit, and publish important works about Tibetan Buddhism.
Dodrup Chen Rinpoche, an eminent Nyingma lama living in Sikkim, visited the US to attend to his students at the Maha Siddha Nyingmapa Center in western Massachusetts in the mid-1970s. Tulku Thondup introduced Harold to the great lama, who decided to stay with Harold for several months, giving teachings to his students in Harold’s Marion home, a custom that prevailed over the ensuing decades during Dodrup Chen’s periodic visits to the U.S.
In 1980 Tulku Thondup began his residence in the U.S. as a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions, eventually becoming a permanent resident and citizen of the U.S. From the 1970s until his death Harold worked with Tulku Thondup as editor of many books on Tibetan Buddhism that Tulku Thondup himself wrote and translated, all published under the auspices of the Buddhayana Foundation.
It is thanks to Harold’s and Tulku Thondup’s tireless work over decades that many Americans have been introduced to the profound wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism.
The title of Harold’s memoir Tendrel, released this month, fittingly refers to the ‘auspicious connections’ that marked and shaped his life as a private monk in a secular age, a life that testified to the supreme importance of the spiritual dimension of human existence.
Everyone who knew him will remember Harold for his humor, his intelligence, his generosity, and most of all for his gift of friendship. He is survived by his twin brother John, 11 nieces and nephews and an army of cousins.
In lieu of flowers, in gratitude for Harold’s life, a tax-deductible donation may be made to the Buddhayana Foundation, 204 Spring Street, Marion, MA 02738.