The person who went into retreat had died there. Someone else had come out – and that sense remained … ‘someone else’ had come out … . that was quite exciting. Fearful yet exhilarating. Fearful yet profoundly reassuring. ‘I’ had died in the retreat, but ‘I’ was still there – still alive, still with a sense of something … And yet … I knew ‘I’ was going to die again infinite times – and not just in retreat.
Ngakma Yeshé Rinpoche, can I ask you some questions specifically for people who may be interested in areas with which apprentices and disciples are familiar, but which are probably unknown to the wider public?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche Sure, whatever you feel would be useful.
Q You are an incarnate Lama who studied in India and Nepal, but who hails from England and lives in Wales. What led you to study Tibetan Buddhism? What was the attraction?
R Attraction? I see this is going to be an interesting interview [laughs]. Attraction is energy – the energy of communication. Natural communication is the energy of compassion – which is inseparable from … lust, desire, and attraction. The communication was one which spoke through colour and shape. Conventionally speaking, this means that I came across a book on Tibetan iconography in the school library. [laughs] I was nine or ten at the time. I looked at the pictures, and realised that they were unusually interesting. They were vivid and they were lyrical. The shapes danced in a way which spoke to me about my interest in them. [laughs] There’s not much more that I can say about that. [pause] Later, when I was thirteen, I sent letters to various people to find out more about the strange land from whence these images came. I ended up contacting the Buddhist Society in London; and from that source I found out about the Sam-yé Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre in Scotland that was founded by Rig’dzin Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I went to Sam-yé Ling on various occasions, and it was there that I discovered that it was possible to go and live in the Tibetan communities in the Himalayas of India and Nepal.
Q You were how old, Rinpoche?
R By that time I was eighteen. Making these contacts was a long process.
Q Do you remember what first got you ‘caught’ on what you saw when you looked at those images of the yidams?
R Yes. The energy … the fire … It was the sheer undiluted dynamism of the lines and the directness of what the colours and shapes were portraying – in emotional terms, you understand.
Q And – there are, or were no words for that, Rinpoche?
R No. There simply seemed to be more life in these images than I had ever seen anywhere before.
Q What would you say now though, Rinpoche – on recollection?
R I’d say you were persistent [laughs]. I’d say that they seemed to be speaking about everything that was possible and impossible at the same time. They seemed to say that anything and everything was impossibly possible. You see … I had been very interested in the Norse legends as a child. Up until then, Viking images were the only ones I’d seen that had any fire in them. The Vikings were people who lived amongst mountains and fjords – places of ferocious natural beauty! They wore horned or winged helmets, and that seemed very decent and respectable to me. There was a degree of vibrancy there which was lacking in the horribly English world I saw around me. There was imagery there, which I could possibly now see as connected with the imagery of the wrathful awareness beings. That could have been what ‘caught’ me, as you put it …
Q Would you explain the term ‘wrathful awareness beings’ for people?
R. In the Tibetan tradition there are three categories of awareness imagery, which are used for the practice of transformation. These categories are joyous, wrathful, and peaceful. These are methods that transform attraction, aversion and indifference. The peaceful practices transform indifference. The wrathful practices transform aversion. The joyous practices transform attraction. These are the three distracting tendencies we employ, as beings who continually manufacture the illusion of duality. The wrathful awareness beings are a method of transforming the most pernicious kinds of neuroses. They exemplify that whatever one’s state of mind, its intrinsic energy is the energy of the enlightened state. Whatever one is, however one manifests – one is never removed from the enlightened state.
Q Before we go any further, Rinpoche – and I know this is going to sound like a dumb question – but your answer is valuable in terms of definitions. What is Buddhism?
R Buddhism is a statement of our intrinsic goodness; and the possibility of discovering that intrinsic goodness. This is the simple answer, but complex questions can arise from that. Giving a simple answer is not always that simple. When I use the word goodness, I am not using it in the sense of nicey-nicey goodness, or piety, or sanctity, or holiness – ‘goodness’ here relates to complete value. This goodness is the goodness of freshly baked bread; the goodness of seeing a field of sunflowers; the goodness of birth and death; the goodness of being present. There is a basic goodness, a basic sanity with which we can connect. We have that – we simply need to allow ourselves the non-referential space to find it.
Q When was it that you first heard the word Buddhism in your life, Rinpoche?
R I guess when I was nine, and I looked at that book of Vajrayana art. Buddhism did not mean a lot to me at that point; it was the imagery which was so interesting. I was quite interested at the age of thirteen in being a clergyman. I was confirmed in my early adolescence [laughs] in some sort of naïve religious fervour. I thought I was a Christian … but maybe I was mistaken.
Q So, although you were interested in the imagery of Tantra, you got confirmed on your own volition?
R Yes. Somehow it didn’t occur to me at that time that I could be involved in a religion which existed in another part of the world. It was not my parents’ interest in particular which sent me in that direction – it simply seemed important to lead a religious life. My mother has always been a committed Christian, although not in terms of dogma or doctrinal conviction.
Q And your father?
R [laughs] My father was a lapsed agnostic. So there was no particular influence at work. I just had some concept that confirmation was going to be powerful in some way.
Q Was it?
R No. [laughs] It was rather disappointing actually – although I’m sure that was my fault. I thought that the Archbishop was going to come down and set me on fire or hot-wire me into some kind of turbo-drive reality. But I found the ceremony rather dull. Nothing happened that seemed even remotely interesting to me. I guess that must happen to people when I give empowerments [laughs]. Maybe those people go on to become Christians.
Q You lost interest?
Q Was that because of your experience of the organisation?
R Yes, I suppose so. I guess that it didn’t seem to have much to do with anything enormously or searingly radical in the spiritual sense …
Q Can you remember an example, Rinpoche?
R [pause] Well … it was something reflected in terms of my father’s attitude. If someone showed up at the door begging for money, they would be sent away. I could not understand why we did not give them food or clothes and help. There was something self-protective going on. [laughs] I actually got into a lot of trouble with my father about actually wanting to be a Christian [laughs]. I remember a ‘wino’ turning up at our door and my giving him one of my father’s coats because he looked so cold and wet. My father got very upset about that – I think it was because I gave his coat away [laughs]. I would have given him mine but it would not have been his size. I thought I was being quite ‘orthodox’ in this act; but somehow my orthodoxy had nothing to do with the reality of how most people seemed to live their ‘Christian’ lives. However … [laughs] Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. [laughs] I have learnt since that there are equally as many Buddhists, particularly Western Buddhists, who would make those ‘lily-livered’ Christians look like sincerely good people. That is a sad statement for a Buddhist to make.
Q But that is the world of people, isn’t it?
R Sure. But my mother was, and is, very different. She would help anyone, and does. But then her brand of Christianity is hardly orthodox – her only creed is kindness. That is her concept of all religions; she sees them all as being different ways of encouraging kindness. I have met some wonderful Christians since then – the most excellent people. Khandro Déchen and I have dinner sometimes with a clergyman and his wife, and find more in common with them than with some Western Buddhist teachers we have met.
Q Really? Can you say anything about that?
R Well … I don’t want to be too hard on anyone, but Khandro Déchen and I have come across people who would seem to be quite psychologically dysfunctional – and these people present themselves as Western Buddhist teachers. We have noticed strong elements of narcissism in some of these people.
Q That’s a pity, isn’t it? I always thought it was ‘me’ when I ran into people who gave me a hard time for no clear reason [laughs]. Can I return to the fact that as a child you took the Christian teachings you heard quite literally?
R Yes. I’m a methodist [laughs] I try to follow the method of the religion to which I belong.
Q So you took the ‘Good Samaritan’ story as something you should follow?
R Sure. What else? But I realised that it was something you were supposed to hear at some other level [laughs] but what that was – and what use it could be, I was never able to establish.
Q You became disillusioned.
R Yes … I had contacted something devious in the way that life was being lived
around me … I entirely failed to be able to divide the duplicity of society from what
I could access of Christianity at that time. The local vicar simply told me:
charitable isn’t so simple. And I was too young to follow what that was
supposed to mean. It was rather confusing to say the least. I did try to make sense of the
discrepancies, but in the end I had to acknowledge that I had got it all wrong somehow.
One was not supposed to give away everything – one was merely supposed to
listen to teachings which explained what a good idea it was to give away everything …
Q You hear the sermon which instructs that you are supposed to give away everything; then you agree with it, but you do not do it, because … [laughs] …
R Quite – I could never understand the ‘because’. I could not understand the rationale of it. I guess I am a simpleton. I’m a working class lad who went to a low standard school because I was not bright enough to go to the ‘grammar school’.
Q The ‘grammar school’?
R The academically superior school, where the middle class children go.
Q And you were how old at that point?
R About thirteen or fourteen … Not exactly worldly wise or even street-wise. I hope that my naïve impressions of Christianity from that time in my life do not cause offence to anyone. I am merely talking about what I felt then.
Q Could you talk more about your taste for a deeper spiritual experience as you were growing up?
R My taste for deeper spiritual experience … Well I do not know about that … [laughs] I have a taste for pizza and Barolo, sure enough [laughs]. I was always getting into trouble for thinking I could fly …
Q Did you attempt it?
R Sure – on various occasions. [laughs] I’m a card-carrying idiot. I had all kinds of strange ideas when I was young, which didn’t endear me to other people . … like this obsession with flying which I never quite mastered. I would jump out of trees and hurt myself [laughs].
Q [laughs] As a ‘confirmed’ incarnation of a previous Tibetan Lama, how do you put this together for yourself; or for me?
R I’m not a great one for putting things together …
Q I mean … you have this obvious quality of being innocent, as if you are not particularly familiar with common concepts. It’s quite refreshing; it’s also quite disconcerting.
R Sorry to disconcert you. I had a fairly normal childhood actually, apart from the fact I was frequently beaten by my father.
Q What effect did that have? Did it drive you to look deeper, or question?
R Not particularly. [laughs uproariously] I think it did put me apart from other children … In a sense; the vast stammer with which it provided me, cut me off from other people. Other children got too bored waiting for me to say anything and would walk off; so I was quite isolated [laughs].
Q You had a stammer; but you don’t now … You speak in front of hundreds of people – and you speak eloquently, clearly, and melodiously. Your voice is very healing. Yet you say your stammer was isolating.
R D-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-damn r-r-r-r-r-r-right it w-w-w-was [laughs].
Q [laughs] Did you work on your stammer directly? How is it that now you don’t have it? Did you go to a speech therapist?
R Yes – when I was about fifteen or sixteen; but that didn’t achieve a great deal. I did find the therapist quite an alluring young woman though … so I did stick at it for a while, and read her a lot of my poetry.
Q When did the stammer start?
R When I was about six.
Q So what cured it?
R What really cured it was going into my first three month retreat in India in the early 1970’s. I had been to visit my pen friends, Yeshé Khandro and her husband Dr. Pema Dorje. He was interested in my speech impediment, and said I should go to visit the celebrated Tibetan lady doctor, Amji Amala Lobsang. She was a really marvellous doctor (who has since passed away). She put my tongue in a clamp–something like Bob Dylan used to use when he played guitar and harmonica at the same time. She tightened up its wing-nuts and rolled my tongue back. Then she stuck a knife down on either side of the root of my tongue, and squeezed out a half a cup of blood. It was fairly excruciating. [laughs] I remember gripping hold of my shamthab very hard to endure the pain! I was wearing a shamthab, the yogic skirt worn by ngakpas at the time, because I had received ordination into the gö-kar-chang-lo’i-dé. I actually made holes in the shamthab with my fingers. After she had done this, she put me on a course of herbal pills (rilbus) and directed me to do the awareness-spell (mantra) of Jampalyang (Manjushri): Om A Ra Patsa Na Dhi. The awareness-spell had to be concluded with the recitation of the syllable ‘Dhi’, repeated 108 times. There was also a special purification diet. I went into retreat for three months, and when I came out the stammer was gone.
Q When did you notice it was gone, Rinpoche?
R I don’t think I did. It was not an excruciatingly vital issue with me at that point. I simply came out of retreat and got on with my life outside the bounds of solitary retreat.
Q Other things were much more important.
Q Like the retreat.
R Yes. The retreat was quite traumatic in the first couple of weeks. [laughs] I had been very lonely indeed. I had always been a person who needed company – a person who never liked to be alone. I think that is because I was very isolated at school. The boys did not like me very much.
Q For what reason …?
R I think it was probably because I had no interest in competitive sport, and they found me be a bit peculiar.
Q Why … ?
R I wrote poetry [laughs]. I spent most of my time in the company of the girls. They liked reading my poetry. I liked them too – they seemed more intelligent and inquisitive. I liked the girls. I always have liked women – although that doesn’t mean I don’t like men [laughs] especially the male apprentices [laughs]. I came to terms with men later on in my life.
Q Could you tell me a little more about your first retreat? What was it like?
R The first two weeks were the worst. Then the second two weeks – they were the worst, too [laughs]. After that, there were the third two weeks [laughs] they were also the worst [laughs]. After that it got better.
Q Why …?
R Because I decided to allow myself to die. That is when I decided that the only way I could stay in retreat was to imagine that this was the way it would be for the rest of my life. I had to act and feel as if I were never coming out again. The retreat improved radically from that point on.
Q At that time were you studying with a teacher?
R Of course; yes – it would not have been possible without a teacher. I was studying with Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche. He was my Dzogchen men-ngak-dé teacher. I was also studying with Khamtrül Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche who was my Mahayoga teacher. It was Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche who prescribed the retreat and the schedule for it. Sadly he has now passed away.
Q What was the schedule for the retreat?
R Mainly ngöndro: the hundred thousand prostrations; the Dorsem recitation (the hundred syllable mantra of Dorje Sempa); the mandala offering; and, the hundred thousand practices of Lama’i naljor. I went through a lot of retreats like that because I had to complete four ngöndros.
Q Why four ngöndros?
R Because that is what was required, before I could enter properly into the practice of Tröma Nakmo.
Q Was this the first retreat you had ever done in your life?
Q Completing a three month retreat and the first you’ve ever done says quite a bit about your motivation, Rinpoche. What motivated you?
R Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche was very kind to me. My father, poor man, had not been very kind
to me [laughs]. So I guess, it was like having the kind and gentle father I had never had. He was not
critical with me. Whatever I did, he appreciated my effort and congratulated me. Because he did this,
I worked hard. It’s my nature I guess. I’ve always been like that. I’ve never
adapted well to the critical approach, especially at school. When treated with kindness, trust, and
appreciation I always worked very hard. In my initial training with him, he used to shew me how to do
all manner of things: how to perform mudras; and, how to make gTormas (three dimensional focuses for
connection with visionary practices). It was marvellous to be able to do anything, and to receive
approval. This was empowering and exciting – simply to have this rather extraordinary, kind old
man giving me such encouragement. So, when I was presented with the idea of a three month retreat I
Sure, fine! When do I start? Then, of course, I got into it [laughs] … and it was
hell. But I could not come out of it after having received such immense support and encouragement. I
had a colossal loyalty to Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche, and it would have been impossible to have
‘let him down’ after all his kindness – I simply had to complete the retreat
whatever it cost me in emotional pain and tears.
Q Do you think that he knew what he was doing with you?
R I have never assumed otherwise.
Q This is a presumption of my part, but have you ever considered that he just fitted with what made you tick at that time?
R Yes … I guess it may well have been fortuitous. I had had the ‘up side’ of the relationship and what it entailed, and then came the ‘other side’ – the side in which I had to confront my own ‘stuff’.
Q How were your other retreats Rinpoche – the ones which made up the four years or more of solitary retreat you undertook as part of your training?
R The others were relatively easy after that first experience.
Q What ignited in you during that first three month retreat to make you do another one?
R Yes. The realisation that death is birth – and that birth is death. I can only be born as a new and more dynamic being if the old ‘me’ is allowed to die. In order to die, I had to enter the referencelessness of retreat or some other kind of venue for a personality crisis [laughs]. But practically speaking, it was the fact that I had a lot more work to accomplish. It was not exactly that I was enthusiastic to do another one; well, not at first. But the fear of retreat was gone. The person who went into retreat had died there. Someone else had come out – and that sense remained … . ‘someone else’ had come out … that was quite exciting – fearful yet exhilarating. Fearful yet profoundly reassuring. ‘I’ had died in the retreat, but ‘I’ was still there – still alive, still with a sense of something … And yet … I knew ‘I’ was going to die again infinite times – and not just in retreat.
Q During that retreat, were you seeing Lama Yeshé Dorje?
R No, I was too far away up the mountain – I guess he would have come if I’d been closer and hadn’t been at the far end of a precipitous track [laughs].
Q Your motivation had to be fantastic, Rinpoche.
R [laughs] Why? What on earth makes you say that?
Q Well … [interrupted]
R Hang on … I think I can guess … and, there ought to be some example lurking here. [pause] Yes, take this one for instance: I used to think similarly about the prospect of nursing somebody – having to wipe somebody’s posterior. I used to think that that would be foul [laughter]. Then I had to look after my father. He’d had several strokes … he was quite incapacitated. My mother needed a holiday after a long time of looking after him, so I took over for a while. It was then that I discovered that posterior-wiping was not such a problem. It is just what happens when you look after someone who has had a stroke. When anyone finds themselves in this sort of situation, it is not so extravagantly revolting. Whatever you have to do is whatever you have to do. Whenever you start following a line of action through apparent necessity; you just follow it. I guess you can back out; sure, but if you just follow the direction you’re facing, then one thing leads to another. Things always look extraordinary from the perspective of somewhere different. If you go out to a job every day and you have a social life, then the concept of a retreat probably looks a little extreme. But from the perspective of living in the Himalayas – three months, a year, or even three years in retreat simply becomes your life. It becomes ordinary in one sense. It was part of the religious norm of the culture in which I found myself.
Q After this first three month retreat you had more work to do. Then what happened?
R Occasionally I would go back to Britain. I would work in a factory to earn more money to go back to the Himalayas. In those days, if you were British, it was easy to go and stay in India; you could stay as long as you liked. Now you need a visa… life is like that. You can get an extension for six months but to engage in a year’s retreat would be difficult now.
However … when I say I’m
traditional, that’s simply to say I am not ‘innovative’. Khandro Déchen
and I do not syncretise Buddhism with psychotherapy or with anything else. We just try to
communicate without getting in the way of what we are communicating. We’re probably
not ‘conventional’ according to some; and maybe not exactly according to
traditional Tibetan culture – we’re not cultural traditionalists – we try
to be dharma traditionalists – according to the essential tradition of the
Vajrayana Dharma. What we want to do, is to preserve the lived meaning of the teaching.
We want to preserve the dynamic structure of a system whereby people can realise their
liberated nature. That is much more important to us than maintaining every aspect of the
Q Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche recognised you as the incarnation of ’a-Shul Pema Legden; and, Kyabjé Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche recognised you as the incarnation of Aro Yeshé?
R And ’a-Shul was the previous incarnation of Aro Yeshé. Yes …
Q So Lama Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche did not recognise you?
R No. He often said we had been together before. But never anything more than that.
Q You didn’t ask him about that Rinpoche?
R No. It is not uncommon for Lamas to say such things. It doesn’t mean there is always some precise person they have in mind. Some Western people get a bit too excited by that perhaps. It is taken for granted that one must have had a previous-life connection if one is highly involved and committed. This is just a statement of the obvious from the Tibetan cultural point of view. A Lama might say that of all his or her students – all the ones who were serious and continued to be serious that is. [laughs] I may have been Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche’s dog or something – or maybe a bug he once saved from being squashed. Maybe the connection was one which was made many lives before … I really only spent three years in connection with Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche as a student of Mahayoga [interrupted]
Q … he was not your primary teacher then?
R No, my primary root teacher is Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche. I have five root teachers.
Q Rinpoche … I thought one only had one root teacher?
R Only one principle master, yes. But from amongst a group of Lamas there would be one with whom you really felt an affinity and a closeness – and who shewed you the nature of Mind. For me Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche was and is the main one. He is the one who really directly showed me the nature of Mind. That is not to say that the other Lamas were not important … or in the case of Kyabjé Dud’jom Rinpoche or Kyabjé Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche – hierarchically more important; it’s just that Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche was the closest.
Q So who were all five root teachers?
R His Holiness Dud’jom Rinpoche, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche, Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche, Kyabjé Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche, and Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche. Sadly now both Dud’jom Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche have passed on. Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche has also passed on. He was a student of Dud’jom Rinpoche and Kyabjé Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche. It was from Dud’jom Rinpoche that I received the full empowerment of Tröma Nakmo. At the time, that empowerment was only available from Dud’jom Rinpoche. So I studied with Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche because Tröma Nakmo was his main practice – and he was an expert of Mahayoga ritual. I was extremely interested in learning as much as I could about the ritual practices at that time and Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche was an excellent teacher of all those things. He had received the empowerment of Tröma Nakmo from Kyabjé Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche, and then later from Dud’jom Rinpoche.
Q Where did you meet Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche?
R In Cornwall, Britain. He visited there once on his European teaching travels back in 1976.
Q And what was that meeting like?
R Terrifying [laughs]. Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche was very friendly. Not that Kyabjé Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche is not friendly, but he is also terrifying.
Q How does that terrifying quality manifest?
R The word ‘terrifying’, you understand … is just the word I use to describe my experience of him. I would not presume to define him, apart from acknowledging his realisation. But, to speak from my limited capacity, I would say I got peeled like a grape! There was nothing I could hide from him. He was aware of me. It was like being under a powerful magnifying glass immediately I entered his presence. It was a terrifying …
Q Why did you find that terrifying?
R Wouldn’t that terrify you? Maybe it wouldn’t. I cannot really answer your question … or maybe I could qualify it slightly – I was terrified and elated at the same time. Fear and exhilaration oscillated at the speed of sound, perhaps. Like the silent roar of a dragon. This was no longer a teacher at the level of spiritual friend, a guide and advisor who is a disseminator of information. This was a vajra master – a teacher at the level of Tantra. The vajra master is somebody who overrides your rationale. Rig’dzin Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche used the term ‘The Dangerous Friend’. The vajra master overrides your rationale simply through being alive.
Q Why does he do that?
R In order to allow you to override your own rationale.
Q It must take great faith to enter such a relationship, to make such a commitment?
R Great faith … possibly … maybe ‘Great Wendy’ and ‘Great
Megerman’ too [laughs]. Faith in Buddhist terms is described as either ‘blind
faith’ or ‘learning faith’. Blind faith is romanticism. It is, however,
also rather powerful. One can go a very long way with blind faith – one could even
achieve enlightenment through blind faith – but, and this is an enormous
‘but’ – if you have faith in the wrong person; it could be a huge disaster.
Having faith in the wrong person is a problem for obvious reasons – I don’t
think we need to tire anyone’s patience with a description of cult atrocities. But if you
have blind faith in a truly wonderful being – that is also a problem in terms
of Buddhism. The reason for that may need some clarification though. Blind faith in the
perfect teacher is a problem because one doesn’t see who the teacher actually is. One
is not experiencing the reality of the teacher. That level of faith can therefore become
an obstacle. Because of this, Buddhism in general advocates ‘learning faith’
– in which one’s confidence is based on experience. For example: you have
approached a lama; you get to know him or her; he or she gives you advice; you take the
advice; you have further experience; they give you further advice on the experience. If
everything holds true for you, then you are possibly in touch with something tremendously
real. If more and more advice holds good, you become capable of taking advice that is
further and further from the norm. This continues until you become able to accept advice
which lies outside your rationale. You are prepared, in those terms, to go further and
further. You are prepared to go out on a limb, so to speak. You are able to say:
I’ll do whatever I’m instructed to do. That is the extent of my
confidence. Because I know it’s not worth being doubtful any more. Doubt is holding
me back. I know what it’s like to obey my own rationale as the final yardstick as to
what I’ll do and I won’t do. I have tested that time and time again. Every time
I fall back on my own rationale I end up in the same dreary place. I have pushed my
rationale to the limits and found it to be severely wanting.
Q My rationale sucks. [laughs]
R [laughs] That is what learning faith is built upon.
Q How quickly did you let go of your own rationale?
R [roars with laughter] I am no example! I let go of it immediately; but that’s not exactly what I advise other people to do.
Q What possessed you to do that immediately?
R I’m a lunatic. [laughs in a deliberately insane manner] I lay myself down on the line for everything that comes along – as long as it shines brightly … that’s just my personality. It has not made my life very easy at times though. I do not advise that for other people. Khandro Déchen and I advise other people to be a bit more sensible than that. I am not sensible. If you are sensible you take it a step at a time, and you build up your level of confidence. That is what Khandro Déchen and I suggest.
Q And then what happened, once you entered vajra commitment with Künzang Dorje Rinpoche?
R I studied intensively. I spent as much time with him as I could
Q You seem to be defining study as spending time in the presence of your teacher?
R Yes. Spending time with your Tsa-wa’i Lama is definitely study. It is also practice. It can be practice of the most profound kind. This is not study at the level of mere information. One can proceed with that sort of study without the need of a teacher’s presence. In fact there was sometimes very little information beyond the sporadic discussion of everyday circumstances. But, there was a great deal of energy – always. There was vast energy just in terms of being together – energy in which I could not exist as the disgusting schlimazel who crept off to India in search of a pompous little adventure. Künzang Dorje Rinpoche is extraordinary. He has a way of not being anything that you might want him to be. Whatever you feel you need him to be, he is not. He is utterly unreliable according to anything that could sustain you at the samsaric level.
Q What do you mean by samsaric?
R Dualistic comfort orientation. If you do not need to be comfortable, he will make you feel comfortable. If you need to be comforted, you will not get any comfort at all.
Q He seems to have had an effect on you that was very different from the effect which Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche had on you.
R Yes. He was totally electrifying. He was also a father figure, but in a very different way.
Q Would you say that Kyabjé Rinpoche was also a father figure to you?
R Yes and no. In a way, he became both more and less of a father figure as time went on.
Q Ralzhig Pema Legden said that Kyabjé Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche announced that your relationship was that of friends … How does that fit in with his being one of your root teachers?
R I don’t think that there is an answer to that question. He did say that … yes … but … as to giving commentary of the meaning of what he said – I don’t think that I even want to think about trying to attempt that.
Q Why is that, Rinpoche?
R Because I consider him to be one of my root teachers – and also … because the things he says and does, often take effect or have effect that can only be seen through the course of years or lifetimes. He always has vast purpose in whatever he says or does.
Q Would you say that Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche was also a father figure to you?
R Yes. He is the father who encouraged his son to take wing on his own – to face what ever he needs to face with dramatic independence. His only wish is to project people into the vastness of their own intrinsic freedom. He is very ancient and very present at the same time; which is extraordinary. He is beyond all definitions in his being, yet exhibits the spectrum of human personality with radiant transparence.
Q Can you give me an example of that?
R Like anything you or I might feel – he also manifests that; but, in a different way.
R Different in terms of the fact that it is not coming from confusion. The emotions he manifests look similar to the ones that you and I might have, but they are intangible – they leave no trace; and are always consummately skilful. He presents you with a variety of human emotional display; but they are always a teaching. The whole of his life is a teaching. He teaches through the three kayas of his Being as the lama; as the Vajra Master. These three spheres of being are dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya; or in Tibetan, chö-ku, long-ku and tulku. Chö-ku is presence, long-ku is personality display, and tulku is life circumstances display. His presence is always a teaching, because you cannot manipulate or appropriate the sheer power of his Being. His personality display is always a teaching because you cannot find any habit formation or pattern in how he is. His life circumstances display is always a teaching, because he always undermines the creation of samasaric structures around him – even at the expense of his life and health. He is prepared to be utterly precarious in his life situation. It is really astonishing! Whatever happens around him is a teaching. That is what is so magnificently intriguing about him. That is what makes him such a remarkable teacher. There is nothing about him that is not a teaching. That is what is so utterly compelling.
Q What would you say was the difference if any between what you learnt from Kyabjé Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche and Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche?
R Well … that is hard to answer. All I can do really is describe the areas of teaching we covered. I would say that Kyabjé Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche was my Tantric teacher and Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche was my Dzogchen teacher. Having said this though … it makes it a little compartmentalised. I received Dzogchen teachings from Kyabjé Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche and Tantric teachings from Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche. It’s a question of emphasis. Also, I should say that describing Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche as my Tantric teacher does not mean that I learnt Tantric ritual from him in the same way as I learnt it from Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche. The Tantra I studied with Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche was more concerned with essential view. He simply is Tantra.
Q You described him once as the ‘Doctor of Tantra’.
R Yes. I was using the word ‘doctor’ there in the way that ‘professor’ or ‘doctor’ used to be used with regard to the pianist in Blues music. It has the meaning of ‘he who really does it with that thing’. I think I was expressing a sense of joyful devotion and trying to put that into a form of modern vernacular … [interrupted]
Q You wrote a song with that title didn’t you?
R [laughs] Yes. One of the only two songs I have ever written.
Q Why is that, Rinpoche – I mean, why don’t you write more songs?
R Because I am a genuinely lousy musician [laughs]. It’s all I can do to play a small selection of Bob Dylan on my Dobro. And anyway … this ‘Doctor of Tantra’ song was strange … it’s not really as if I composed it … it composed itself on waking from a dream … [interrupted]
Q Can you talk about that, Rinpoche?
R Well … I dreamed that I was sitting with Kyabjé Chhi-’mèd
Rig’dzin Rinpoche. This was about 1988 … Yes … I think it was about 1988 or
1989. Rinpoche looked at me, with one of those long and awesome sideways looks, and said:
You should compose verses of guru devotion. I replied:
Rinpoche – if you wish that this is what I should do. But aren’t there many such
verses in the Nyingma tradition – what could I add that would be worth
anything? Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche replied:
No, not like that
– like the modern songs people write in your country. That was it. That was the
dream. And then I woke up and started writing immediately. I wrote it all out and it
seemed to flow quite well – rhymes and assonance. It rhymed AA, BB and followed a
vaguely Dylanesque pattern – probably from his ‘Hard Rain’ period. Then I
tried to find someone to help me with a tune, but everyone with any talent was away, and
so I sat down with my Dobro and suddenly I had the tune … mind you … I had the
assistance of a book of 500 jazz chords.
Q So what happened after that, did you play it for Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche?
R No. He has never asked me to do that. I just recorded it and sent Rinpoche a copy.
Q Did he like it?
R [laughs] He didn’t say – and I was really quite nervous about what he would think of it. Then … a week later he called me on the telephone and said that he’d received it.
Q What did he say?
R [laughs] He said:
You think I crazy-man? I said:
No Rinpoche, I
think you’re a very interesting man. Then he laughed uproariously – we
both did. And then he said:
Yah … good – anything more coming? to
which I replied:
I don’t think so Rinpoche, but then I didn’t think this
was coming either. [laughs].
Q And that was it?
R And that was it.
R You must realise that I have never been riddled with angst about what things
mean. Everything is simply transmission. I leave it as that. You see … to ferret
around is not wise with Kyabjé Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche [laughs]. He would
Why you want to do CIA work on Dharma? He would say that to anyone
who asked too many questions on subjects which were evidently outside the realm of
Q If … now let me phrase this properly … If Chhi-’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche is the ‘Doctor of Tantra’, how would you describe Künzang Dorje Rinpoche?
R Good try [laughs]. I wouldn’t. The ‘Doctor of Tantra’ name was just a spontaneous assemblage of words which came up in that song.
Q What was your other song?
R Oh … that was called ‘Duty-free Yogi’. It was a ballad-like piece … It was about ’a-Shul Pema Legden and his meeting with Khyungchen Aro Lingma. It was also about Aro Yeshé and his relationship with A-yé Khandro and A-shé Khandro. It was written from the perspective of ’a-Shul Pema and Aro Yeshé, but it also had a lot to do with … ‘me’ I suppose, and also … very obviously with Khandro Déchen. It’s a romantic song. It weaves in and out of lives.
Q Did that come out of a dream?
R No. I just wrote that. I have tried to write songs since then – but nothing ever worked again. So I have come to feel that I had two songs in me and – these were they.
Q But there could be others?
R Possibly, but I hardly have time these days – there are too many books to write.
Q So … can I ask you about Dud’jom Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche and what your relationship was with them? How would you describe them in terms of Tantra and Dzogchen?
R I wouldn’t. They were the whole nine yanas. I did not see so much of them, because they had enormous commitments to many disciples. Kyabjé Dud’jom Rinpoche encouraged me to teach, and to establish the gö-kar-chang-lo’i-dé in the West. It was he who gave the name ‘Sang-ngak-chö-dzong’ to our organisation in Britain. The charities in the various countries which belong to the ‘Confederate Sanghas of Aro’ are usually called ‘Aro something-or-other’ but the registered charity in Britain is called ‘Sang-ngak-chö-dzong’ because that is the name that Kyabjé Dud’jom Rinpoche gave us. We would not change that name merely to fit in with the other Aro names. Dud’jom Rinpoche cared a great deal about the gö-kar-chang-lo’i-dé – the ngak’phang sangha, and his encouragement was the moving force behind everything which Khandro Déchen and I have done with regard to establishing this ordination tradition in the West.
Q And, if I’m right … was it Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche who recognised you as the incarnation of Aro Yeshé?
R Yes. Kyabjé Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche was an enormous inspiration. He said that
he had met Khyungchen Aro Lingma once, but I was not able to find out much more from him.
Sadly Kyabjé Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche passed away before I was able to follow that up
with him. I related dreams to him and he encouraged me to remember as much as I could of
the Aro gTér through dreams and to pass on whatever I fully remembered. He said that he
could give me no guidance in that respect though. He said that I should follow whatever
knowledge I received, with kindness. I always remember his words:
Always be kind
– this is the most important thing. Then it does not matter what people do or say
– just be natural. Be simple and be kind. That was our last meeting. I was very
sad when he passed on. I would have liked to have met him just one more time … but
then … I would probably say that no matter how many times I would have been able to
have see him again. I would say that of Kyabjé Dud’jom Rinpoche too. I could never
see enough of them. They were both so very kind and generous to me.
Q Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche gave you an ivory teng-’ar and an ivory damaru didn’t he?
R Yes, and Kyabjé Dud’jom Rinpoche gave me a ngak’phang shawl. These are so precious to me … they carry the memory of the power of their unbroken lineage
Q Can I ask how you set about maintaining the unbroken continuation of the lineage?
R It depends on how you define ‘lineage’ in my case. I just give talks to people. [laughs] I am merely an inconsequential eccentric yogi …
Q But I see you very much as being traditional in passing on the lineage. I feel you are highly responsible in maintaining the teachings as you have been taught, and for passing them on.
R Well … to the limits of my ability. I do feel responsible for maintaining the essence of the tradition. Khandro Déchen and I are traditional inasmuch as we’re not ‘innovative’. Khandro Déchen and I do not syncretise Buddhism with psychotherapy – we’re not part of the ‘Reich of Political Correctness’. We just try to communicate without getting in the way of what we are communicating. We’re not cultural traditionalists – we simple maintain our integrity as Dharma traditionalists – according to the essential tradition of the Vajrayana Dharma. What we want to do, is to preserve the lived meaning of the teaching. We want to preserve the dynamic structure of a system whereby people can realise their liberated nature.
Q How are you seeding this in the West?
R We have developed certain ideas and ways of doing things that are based on the ‘default problems’ we’ve seen.
Q ‘default problems’?
R Yes … We would not like to say that there was a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ with what we’ve seen. The problems we have seen are all default problems – the things which happen by default, and for which no one is to be blamed. Only time will change some aspects of how Buddhism functions in the West. I have had a chance to look at how the introduction of Buddhism has manifested in terms of Western people in the West over twenty-five years. I don’t mean to present that as some sort of qualification, but it ought to be worth something in terms of having been able to build fragments of a picture. I have had the advantage of learning from other people’s experiences. I have seen examples of numerous issues which have to be addressed in terms of how Buddhism is integrated – and I’ve tried to learn as much as I can from what I have observed.
Q Could you give an example, Rinpoche?
R Many things … how one addresses conventional Western norms for example. I think this is one of the issues. If people see Buddhism as unconventional, counter-cultural, or ‘alternative’, that is a problem.
Q Why is that, Rinpoche?
R Because in its own culture Vajrayana Buddhism is conventional behaviour. It’s not hip. It’s not a deviation. It’s not avant garde. It is a problem if Vajrayana Buddhism is seen as some kind of alternative – along with macro-neurotic food, getting your aura Rolphed, or having your toilet paper re-cycled.
Q [laughs] Yes – a lot of people who want to be ‘alternative’ seem trapped in some sort of neurosis.
R It’s not that I think that conventional society is so wonderful; but to reject conventional society because one cannot measure up to its standards, is not the answer.
Q Right – you can’t make use of Buddhism for yourself or for all sentient beings with that concept in mind.
R Sure – you have to be interested in Buddhism because you have become suspicious of all the things that are supposed to gain you pleasure and satisfaction. You should be able to gain that and to have found it a trifle insubstantial.
Q I see, so if you approach it from that prospective – that is very different from wanting to drop out of society because you are a failure at it.
Q How is it possible for a Lama to work with that – with students, I mean?
R I think the Lama has to be a little more involved in the interpersonal dynamics
of his or her students. In Eastern culture, people were not so concerned with their minor
interpersonal disagreements; in the West these issues provide much more of a backdrop to
people’s lives. This has to be a serious consideration for the Lama. Although this
backdrop of interpersonal issues is highly neurotic – it could very easily be the stuff
of real practice. It’s a valid field of teacher-student interaction –
there’s no alternative as far as I see it, because interpersonal meschegas is not
going to go away [laughs]. It’s not going to disappear simply because the Lama
recommends that everybody has to perceive their vajra brothers and sisters with pure
vision … even though that is perfect advice for any Lama to give. Khandro Déchen and
I believe something more is required. A question has to be asked …
people are actually taking this advice to heart?
Q So, Rinpoche … what is the answer?
R [laughs] each individual sangha member knows the answer to that in terms of their own behaviour and attitude. But … if sangha members seem unsure, then Khandro Déchen and I have to roll up our sleeves and climb in. We have to have ‘little chats’ with y’all. [laughs].
Q You and Khandro Déchen fulfil the role of spiritual friends with some of your students, but you are the Tantric vajra masters with others. The rôle of the vajra master would appear to be highly challenged at the moment by Western Buddhist teachers.
R Some people don’t like West Point either. [laughs]. We would recommend those who are unhappy with the vajra master paradigm to stay away from Vajrayana. There are many forms of Buddhism and it is not compulsory to practice Vajrayana.
Q Some people appear to be on some sort of crusade about it … which seems problematic.
R It is. There are always people who want to make politics. These people seem to be caught up in some sort of wave of neo-puritan hysteria. It is true though that some people enter vajra commitment far too readily, and far too early. It can be a highly charged situation, unless you are radically certain – radically confident. It is a critical, pivotal decision to make. It is the most momentous decision a person could ever make in their life. This is why Khandro Déchen and I make people wait at least five years before they take vajra commitment. His Holiness The Dala’i Lama said that you should check out your Tantric teacher for at least five years – and for as long as thirteen years. So, between five and thirteen – we think it is a useful policy.
Q What happens in that five-year minimum period?
R Students check us out. Without thorough checking out it’s nonsense to enter into vajra commitment.
Q What do you mean by checking out?
R Packing your bags and leaving ‘Hotel California’ [laughs]. Actually … just being with us. Making sure I am not a psychopath [laughs]. That is basic. How can you tell that Khandro Déchen or I are ‘vajra masters’ and not psychopaths? How do you know that we’re not charlatans who have read a few books on Tantra? How do you know that we’re not just a pair of harmless schlemiels who make it all up as they go along? There are people like this you know …
Q How can one tell?
R How indeed … One way, is by spending five years with us, and attempting to relate to us as if we were vajra masters … But what do you think?
Q [laughs] You’re asking me, Rinpoche?
R Yes, I would appear to be.
Q You also find out by applying the practice?
R Yes – and?
Q You find out by asking questions on the practice; and, by taking advice and building up a level of trust that is founded on your own experience?
R So you know how to proceed. But it’s also important that there are other people who have taken vajra commitment. I would say it is pretty tricky for the first one who takes this step with a teacher – that has to be a special kind of person.
Q Like Ngakma Nor’dzin.
Q What do you expect from a student who makes this vajra commitment to you?
R We expect him or her to study, practice, and fulfil retreats.
Q What does practice mean in that sense Rinpoche?
R It means to engage in a requisite level of formal practice. But more than that,
it means to Live the View. It means that one can say:
I really am a practitioner of
Vajrayana Buddhism. I am a practitioner of the Nyingma School, and will be until I die.
I’m not going to change tack. That is what is expected and that is what is
really useful to people – not just in Buddhism, but in anything.
Q Right – people have to make a decision at some point in their lives, that they are going to follow something through. You cannot keep changing tack all the time… or else…
R … when you come to die; what have you got?
Q Yes … nothing.
R Nothing. Nothing but a collection of books of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Sufism, crystal healing [laughs]. It’s important to belong to a lineage.
Q What do you mean by lineage, Rinpoche?
R Lineage, in the Tibetan context, means a body of teachings which comes down through a particular succession of accomplished Lamas. Lineage has a visionary origin and there would generally (but not always) be a set of texts which describe the practices which belong to the lineage. There will be a series of transmissions, a series of visionary practices and a body of teaching which would have been handed down through various masters to their students. That is what constitutes a lineage. All the lineages are the same in that sense. Their essence is the same but their outer forms are slightly different. So a lineage is one particular line. Like a family lineage. Every family will have its particular style – how they celebrate whatever they celebrate according to their culture. In every family it’s a slightly different way, and maybe that gets passed on. That is how it exists in a mundane sense. In a spiritual sense, it is a particular colour or texture of approaching realisation which is passed on. There will be a body of methods and teachings which share that particular colour and texture.
Q Could you say something about Mind to Mind transmission, Rinpoche?
R That is the very heart of Dzogchen. Mind transmission is difficult to receive. One has to be prepared – to be utterly receptive, utterly open.
Q There are many stories in the Tibetan tradition, but none of them actually tell you what happens.
R [laughs] Yes. That is because Mind transmission can happen through any series of events – it is impossible to specify what it is through what happens externally. Mind transmission is something which can happen at a certain stage of practice or relationship with the vajra master. There is also Symbolic transmission – both ‘formal’ and ‘informal’. There is ‘aural transmission’ as well. Mind transmission is sometimes called ‘Direct Transmission’. Direct means ‘Mind to Mind’. Formal Symbolic transmission means that transmission occurs through the use of a symbol – like a crystal. Or Symbolic transmission can be given using a mé-long (a circular mirror) and giving a cryptic indication. In this case, not only is there a symbol, but symbolic words. These are sometimes called the ‘pointing-out instructions’. Informal Symbolic transmission can involve any sort of activity … The Lama could enact any kind of movement, speech, or atmosphere … He or she could spontaneously mime something quite oblique.
Q It could be leg shaving …
R Unlikely now that you’ve mentioned it [laughs]. There are no end to the possibilities inherent within informal Symbolic transmission.
Q And Oral transmission?
R This form of transmission is the explanation of the state of realisation and the state of confusion – of how one moves from one to the other. How one realises that the duality of confusion and realisation is illusory.
Q There are also the Tantric levels of transmission, what about those, Rinpoche?
R Wang, lung and tri – yes. Wang is empowerment – transmission through empowerment; lung is transmission through sound; tri is transmission through explanation. There are quite a variety of means of transmission.
Q You said you had to be prepared for Mind to Mind transmission, Rinpoche – what is that preparation?
R Well, if you are going to have a bath you have to take your clothes off. You do not have to, of course.
Q But if you are going to get the most out the bath, taking your clothes off is advisable. [laughs]
R Quite so.
Q Also making love.
R I really recommend people taking their clothes off for that. With a deep-sea diving suit on, making love would not be easy.
Q [laughs] Now there’s a thought. [pause] Are there qualitative differences between Oral, Symbolic and Mind to Mind transmission?
Q So – with symbolic transmission – you have to be naked in the bath?
Q And Oral transmission?
R The same.
Q And empowerment?
R The same.
Q They are all the same.
R All the same. Although … the approach could be said to be different in terms of gradation.
Q Like perhaps a matter of how the clothes come off?
R Yes – you could say that.
Q So with something like Tantric transmission, the wang, the clothes come off gradually. Is it more of a striptease that goes on?
R You could say that too.
Q So … the Lama teases you into taking off the clothes of illusion in gradual stages. And with Direct Transmission?
R The clothes have already been divested.
Q You’ve taken them off yourself, as you would at a nudist camp?
R Strange analogy – but, yes. There is no seduction involved with direct transmission.
Q And … the whole aspect of Tantric seduction, in this sense, is symbolic – like a belly dance?
R Yes … you could say something like that. [laughs] Even at the human level, seduction is symbolic, because it is not instantaneous. There is potently symbolic language … gestures, movements, and eye contact. There’s a dance, a little shimmy that goes on.
Q And little shimmies of this or any other kind do not go on with Mind to Mind transmission; but then … one could miss it completely for that very reason.
Q Is transmission something that goes on all the time?
(At this point Ngak’chang Rinpoche raises a stick in the air and points meaningfully at Nothing.)
Q Case in point.
R Possibly (laughter).
Q Do you see your rôle as to go out and entice people in some way in terms of Mind transmission?
R I’m just here, really. I do not really see myself as anything in
particular – apart from an inconsequential eccentric yogi. I get invited from place
to place. People come see Khandro Déchen and myself. If they want to study with us, we
ask them why? We generally try to put people off a little. We tell people:
This is a
religion – and we’re simply teachers of Nyingma religion.
R Because some people want realisation or something … They want to ‘get
enlightened’, so we say:
All we can do is introduce you to the Nyingma
religion. If’n you want enlightenment, y’all will have to go and find a real
Lama [laughter]. Khandro Déchen and I never used to use the word
‘religion’; we didn’t like the word very much. But now we have realised
that people have to get involved with something that is bigger than themselves – if
the want to get anywhere with practice. You see … the heart of the matter
isn’t about ‘my’ realisation. It is not about what ‘I’ could get.
It’s about being part of something …
Q Which … is probably the quickest way of getting realisation.
R Yes – that may well be true. But we are happy simply to be Nyingma practitioners. People who are desperate for ‘self understanding’ and ‘realisation’ or ‘enlightenment’ do not get very far, not with us at least.
Q So … you and Khandro Déchen are here for people who are interested in exploring Tantra, and in feeling themselves to be part of a tradition, part of a lineage. You don’t particularly try to entice people, do you?
R [laughs] No. Who’d be enticed by us anyway? [laughs] We do not see much value in that. We have no desire to entice people; because once you entice them you have to keep on enticing them, and then you sell the lineage down the river. It is also completely and utterly boring [laughs]. In terms of enticement, I suppose that I may be entertaining in some ways – I am aware that I can amuse people … but I don’t amuse people to generate their interest. That is just Ngakpa Chögyam being Ngakpa Chögyam. I see the espresso machine has just delivered the goods!