No Smoking

My husband smokes. For a long time I thought he’d grow out of it, but as he’s shown no sign of growing up, let alone growing out of anything, I asked Sogyal Rinpoche for help.

Rinpoche listened, smiling, as he doodled on a paper table cloth. Eventually he looked up and announced,  “Andreas, no smoking zone, Janine, love zone.” Then he got up and left.

I sighed. It wasn’t quite the vajra command I had been hoping for, but then I noticed Andreas reading the tablecloth. And crossed my fingers.

But…  my husband continues to smoke.

Rare Gift

Andreas, my husband (above, with his mother, Eva, who Dzogchen Rinpoche calls Mahamutter), has many excellent qualities. For a start, people love him on sight, which makes for comfortable and usually very pleasant social interactions. And he loves to laugh, which makes him a great audience. But best of all is his gift for being able to say just about anything to anyone, without causing offense. Not a quality I can boast of myself, sad to say.

One of my favourite examples took place at Lerab Ling just before the end of summer retreat bash. Most of us were doing very convincing impersonations of the walking dead by then, but were also keen to get ourselves together and enjoy the evening. So, an hour or so before the party was to begin, a gaggle of women gathered outside the door to the office to discuss how best to patch themselves up. They talked clothes, make-up, jewellery, hair (the ‘doing’ of and of course the removing of) and made plans to steal some cheese from the kitchen so they had something to line their stomachs before taking their first slug of the infamous local brew.

Enter Andreas, bouncing through the courtyard, smiling broadly at all and sundry, on his way to the garden.

“Andreas,” called one of the women, flirtatiously.

Andreas slowed a little. Encouraged, the woman went on, “New dress, French perfume, clean hair. Will I do? Or could do think I should add a little something?”

Without missing a beat, my beloved husband grinned, looked her directly in the eye and suggested, “Brown paper bag?”

The group gasped, checked the reaction of the potential offendee, and burst out laughing. All of them. In unison. Very loudly.

And Andreas? Well, he stopped walking long enough to be able to offer his own wit the generous guffaw it so richly deserved, then continued on his way, grinning and chuckling to himself as he went. And that was it. No retribution. No hysterics. Nothing. He got away with it!

The Little Red Book

In 2007 Khyentse Rinpoche opened some of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s trunks and found all sorts of things, including a copy of Chairman Mao’s little red book, in Chinese. I wonder if Chökyi Lodrö could read Chinese?

Tenby, Easter 1986

It was my first ever retreat and I was sharing a room with Philip Philippou, my new boyfriend. Or perhaps I should say I was Philip’s new girlfriend. He carried his grey plastic Samsonite case with him at all times, and I soon realized why. It was where he kept the entire budget for the retreat, including the cash payments, in neatly labelled envelopes.

Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche was a regular feature of the retreats I attended in the early days. And it was in Tenby that I first saw him sitting gazing out over the sea from the window of a caravan, a black cape draped about him. He looked like a raven.

Towards the end of those ten days, Sogyal Rinpoche agreed to give refuge to newbies, and at one point during the ceremony, Rinpoche spoke extremely eloquently about the what exactly we would be taking refuge in. The Buddha, of course, with whom I had no problems whatsoever. The Dharma, which was still a complete mystery to me, but one I was willing to delve into. And, the Sangha. Hmmnnn.

Looking around at the collection of sweet, naive, desperate, sincere but overwhelmingly bonkers people who had gathered in Tenby that Easter, I made a decision. Rinpoche went ahead with the ceremony, and I ran to the kitchen to do the washing-up.

My heart pounded and my hands shook as I filled the sink with steaming hot water. It’s nothing to do you with you, Rinpoche, I screamed in the confines of my panic-struck mind, as I manically squirted Palmolive into the sink full of water. What will he think of me? In went the plates with a loud splash. Would he ever forgive me? Followed by forks and spoons. God, what had I done. I looked at the pile of dirty knives, but left them where they were. Could I trust myself with knives…

Before long I felt Rinpoche enter the kitchen. I span round to make my excuses and he hugged me, laughing loudly, as if I’d just told him the best joke he’d ever heard. Words pushed their way to my lips, but failed to get through my clenched teeth, so I just let myself be hugged. I may even have hugged him back. Finally I blurted, “It’s nothing to do with you Rinpoche, but really, the Sangha business… they’re all potty!”  Rinpoche threw his head back and laughed even harder than before.

He must have said something, but I can’t remember what, and it was clear that, as far as he was concerned, nothing bad had happened at all. On the contrary, my lack of gratitude and loyality (as I saw it then) appeared to have made his day.

One of the other kitchen dwellers (the kitchen is so often a refuge for the paranoid and the neurotic, don’t you find?) who was the only other person to witness the scene asked me what was going on. I explained that I’d ducked out of taking refuge and her eyebrows shot up. For the first time she surveyed me with interest and muttered a few words to herself in French (the French often mutter). “Not formally, I think…” she said, and went back to kneeding the dough.

Needless to say, I did eventually put my Sangha phobia behind me and formally take refuge. Loads of times, as a matter of fact, although it’s not something I’ve ever really come to terms with. But as the years melt away I realize it’s no biggy. After all, the world is bonkers; the people in it, bonkers; and I am most definitely bonkers. So from that point of view taking refuge in the Sangha makes perfect sense. Don’t you think?

Pap Snap

As I have been unable to squeeze anything remotely interesting, let alone amusing, out of my aging brain cells today, my offering is of the only paparazzi-style snap I’ve ever scooped.

It was taken at the enthronement of Khyentse Yangsi in Kathmandu. Inevitably, perhaps, my abiding memory of that time is not of rubbing shoulders with all manner of celebrity, but of being forced to wear men’s paper knickers (donated by a kind friend) because my luggage never arrived.

For Noa

Noa asked, or rather mused over how I must have looked to Sogyal Rinpoche when we first met in 1986. I’m not sure she really expected to find out, but this morning I dug out a snap from my first ever summer retreat in 1986.

It was a grueling affair. The organizers had done a cheap deal with a ski lodge in the French Pyrenees and we dined on tinned green beans and a tasteless sludge, the name of which I never learned to pronounce.

It was also my first experience of a multi-national shrineroom and the daily scrummage for front seats that invariably resulted in passonate and sometimes violent contratemps. What the hell had I got myself into?

I didn’t go the next year. Oh, balmy days of courageous rebellion…

Sogyal Rinpoche

This is Sogyal Rinpoche in 1982 and it’s pretty much how he looked when I first met him at a teaching on 1 March 1986 at the Rigpa Centre, St Paul’s Crescent, Camden Town in the days before The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

He must have spoken about Guru Rinpoche because back then he always did, but you already know about my appalling memory leak so you won’t be surprised to hear that I remember not one syllable of his talk.

After he’d finished teaching and left the room, the rest of us retired to the lower level for tea. As I stood sipping mine, bamboozled and delighted, the door to the office opened and Sogyal Rinpoche’s face appeared in the crack.

“Come in, come in,” he smiled.

Surprized and thrilled, I followed Rinpoche into the office and through to his tiny room at the back. We sat face to face, Rinpoche on the brocade and cushion covered futon, me directly in front. He then took both my hands and laughed and laughed and laughed. Being English and really quite polite in my own way, I too laughed, and laughed… and laughed.

“What star sign are you?” he asked.

I replied, truthfully, “Scorpio”.

He laughed again. And so did I. I think I must have been with him for all of three minutes.

As I regained the filthy Camden Town streets, unable to make head or tail of my experience, I fell back on old habits and burst into tears. Of relief. However confusing this Buddhist business seemed to be, I knew that I was finally on the right track.

Years later, I asked Sogyal Rinpoche, with whom I am still very close, why he had asked me about my star sign. Was it something to do with a prophecy? a curse? the signal of some momentous event? (I have a tendency towards the over-dramatic.) But he shook his head and replied, “I have no idea!”

The Hampshire

This dirty old photo is of Rinpoche when I first knew him in the late 80s. Back then he often took tea at the Hampshire Hotel on Leicester Square, and although it was relatively expensive, it was also ‘homey’ and comfortable, and all the best cinemas were on its doorstep. Often quite large groups of us would squash together on the plush sofas and cavernous wing-backed chairs, a little over-excited and bright with anticipation. I’ve often wondered what the waiting staff thought of us.

One time Rinpoche settled himself onto a sofa and launched into an extremely persuasive justification of the importance of study in Buddhadharma. Specifically, that the study of Dharma as a whole was being sidelined in favour Dzogchen, and how dangerous this development could become. It was one of his more intense Sakya moments.

I listened closely and felt ashamed. Dharma, as far as I was concerned at that time, was Dzogchen, and in that moment I realized just how little I knew about the rest of the path to enlightenment. Of course, I did my utmost to promote the power of devotion and all the holy cows I’d been brought up to revere. But Rinpoche, the master debater and Manjushri in the flesh, consumed each argument in a blaze of incandescent logic.

Over the next few months, I read. I read a lot. And when Rinpoche next visited London I began to look for an opportunity to put my reading to use.

Funnily enough, we once again met at The Hampshire, and although I know this to be a complete fabrication, my memory insists that all the same people sat in exactly the same places as the time before.

To my surprise Rinpoche instantly returned to his previous theme: the preeminence of study. But this time he presented the opposite view. Study, he told us, is only useful for about 2% of the spiritual path and is therefore, by and large, a waste of time. What we should be doing is practising because, ultimately, only practice can open the door to liberation. My jaw dropped momentarily. I pointed out to Rinpoche that last time we had sat in that very room his message had been the diametric opposite of what he’d just said. And he laughed. I then made a pretty feeble attempt at defending the benefits of study, and as before, he pulverized each argument with industrial precision.

We had to leave quite soon after that to catch a movie and I was left wondering, had Rinpoche purposefully set out to present the arguments for and against study and practice? Or had his advice arisen spontaneously? Most of all, though, I wished I’d had a tape recorder with me…

Indian sign

We always see this sign when we drive to Bir from Chakki Bank train station having quit the night from Delhi. The drive across the Punjab and into HP takes more than four hours on pitted roads that are rarely straight. Rinpoche likes to breakfast at a small cafe near Tilopa’s Cave, where the Bhutanese eat and I suck desperately on a bottle of fizzy water. Rinpoche is made of far sterner stuff of course and regardless of the depth of his jetlag, this sign never fails to make him chuckle.

My First ‘Discussion Group’

Many moons ago I attended a beginners’ meditation class that also involved a discussion group. Now, discussion groups and I don’t really get on. I’ve only ever attended them under extreme duress, and have never been able to enter into the right spirit. I usually pick a fight and expend most of my energy on trying to make the others laugh. Basically, the discussion groups I attend usually turn out badly. Except this once.

It’s true, I was in a pretty depleted state. I may have had a hangover, slutty lush that I was, and definitely felt far less pugilistic than usual. For some reason, I’d created a fantasy for myself that I owed it to my singing teacher to learn to meditate as a way of calming the inhibiting nerves that made my performances so hit and miss. Where that came from I really don’t know, because when she found out she was so utterly appalled she slammed the phone down on me. Anyway, the point here is that I didn’t give my inner Valkyrie her head, and even experienced an unaccustomed wave of sympathy for the nervous, grey woman who was moderating the group.

What, then, did we talk about? Shamatha practice? Vipashyana? Something more exotic? Frankly, I have no clue. From the moment we sat down I became transfixed by a sight so unexpected that not one word of our discussion penetrated my mind. There’s no delicate way of putting this, so I won’t even try. We all made a stab at sitting cross-legged and once I’d settled myself, before me, in all its naked glory, gaped our moderators grey and white hairy bush. I swear I spied a labium too.

There were second, third and fourth glances, of course, but far more veiled and as a result details escaped me. The really big challenge was not to stare open-mouthed, or point, or nudge my neighbour and giggle. The effort sucked every ounce of concentration from my other senses. A bit like a black hole.

I do remember speculating about the mechanics of such a display. Was it an accident? Or some kind of bizarre vajrayana ritual? Whatever its cause, not one member of our group gave the smallest sign that they’d noticed. A bearded man asked if the seven-line prayer was the eight-lined stanza on the sheet he’d been given and a middle-aged woman droned on about her knees aching. But no one drew our moderator’s attention to her exposed state, or appeared to be in any way disturbed by it.

Eventually the discussion group was brought to a close by a jangling of indian bells and we rearranged ourselves for the final meditation. Later, over tea, everyone thanked our moderator for gently shepherding us through our first time, and pledged to return for lesson two the following week. Again, not a word or gesture gave the slightest inkling that anything had been amiss.

I didn’t return the following week—not for want of trying. Somehow I managed to put myself in the way of three angry youths in St John’s Wood, of all places, and turned back home to lick my wounds. I still chuckle over that group, though. I think I achieved a more acute state of one-pointedness during that session than I ever have since. But honestly, could it have happened anywhere other than England?