Last Week’s Potatoes

Richard Feynmann (1918-88) was an interesting man. Ambitious, inevitably, but he had the kind of mind that looked for the unimaginable, ‘left the door open’ to the impossible, and when the unthinkable poked its head above the parapet he had the courage to relax into the ‘beauty and majesty’ of it. All of which could be a description of how to approach the spiritual, don’t you think?

He was a physicist and a romantic. Perhaps the two always go together and I’ve never noticed before… Anyway, he fell in love with a beautiful girl who had tuberculosis, a death sentence in the late 40s, and married her so he could take care of her. I like this man.

In ‘What do You Care What Other People Think?’ Further Adventures of a Curious Character, he wrote:
“Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers: you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.
“Perhaps one of the reasons for this silence is that you have to know how to read music. For instance, the scientific article may say, ‘The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two weeks.’ Now what does that mean?
“It means that phosphorus that is in the brain of a rat—and also in mine, and yours—is not the same phosphorus as it was two weeks ago. It means the atoms that are in the brain are being replaced: the ones that were there before have gone away.
“So what is this mind of ours: what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week’s potatoes! They now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago—a mind which has long ago been replaced. To note that the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out—there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.”
And he had a great sense of humour…

A Shelf

I am in a slightly arty-farty mood today, so I’m posting another still life from my home. Well, our home, actually, because of course, Andreas lives here too. Although, as he prefers a quiet life, he does tend to follow various guidelines (‘rules’ may be a little harsh… or not) that I set down.

This picture is of the middle two shelves where all our dvds are store. There are ten in all, but the middle one lies below the shelf holding our favourite TV series, the timeless productions that never fail to entertain, and above TV series that we like a lot but which have dated a bit  (like X-files). And as you can see, on that middle shelf are photos of Khyentse Rinpoche, dating from the early eighties right up to the mid noughties.

Is it really a kind of shrine, I hear you thinking to yourselves? Perhaps. And could such an assembly of disparate snaps be considered a kosher shrine (so to speak), from a Dharma point of view? I have no clue! Does it place Khyentse Rinpoche’s image in the midst of products of a media that rarely fails to inspire him? Albeit in a slightly abstract, homespun way? Well, what do you think? 

Khyentse Rinpoche at Jamyang’s Sister’s House

We ate momo’s at Jamyang’s house last night. Her momos are the most delicious you can imagine and she never fails to make a huge pile of them so we could really dig in and gorge ourselves.

Anyway, that’s really not the point here. Having spent the evening with Jamyang it occurred to me that I had a few photos somewhere of the day we went to her sister’s new house in the hills surrounding Thimpu. Rinpoche was performing a puja there (White Tara I think, but I can’t really remember) along with a few monks and long-haired gomchens. It was a lovely atmosphere and I remember the food was also particularly good. So here’s a snap of that day.

There’s a phrase I remember being repeated ad nauseum during my early years, “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” Well, the whole god thing has been rather blown apart for me by Buddhadharma, so taken literally it doesn’t really make sense any more. But when Rinpoche looks as happy as he does in this photo, I can easily buy into the illusion that, just for this instant, all really is right with the world. 

Mullah Nasruddin (7)

One day Mullah Nasruddin decided he wanted to learn to play the zurna, which is a kind of pipe.
“How much does it cost to learn to play?” he asked a well-known zurna master.
“Three hundred akche for the first lesson and one hundred akche after that,” replied the zurna master.
“That sounds good,” replied Mullah. “Can we start with the second lesson. I was a shepherd when I was a young boy, so I already have some experience of whistling. That must count as the first lesson, no?”

OT Rinpoche (4)

I’m feeling a bit self-indulgent this morning. OT Rinpoche changed planes in Berlin yesterday and as Andreas had some unfinished business with him I tagged along for the ride. Now, I know I’ve already posted umpteen pictures of OT Rinpoche over the past week or so, and that they’re all portraits rather than images of him doing anything particularly interesting, but I can’t help myself. He is very hard to resist.

Delhi Railway Station

Rinpoche likes trains. Even Indian trains. Perhaps I should say especially Indian trains. More often than not he catches the night train from Delhi and settles down in a 2nd class A/C sleeper for perhaps the longest night’s sleep he ever gets. The train arrives at Chakki Bank or Pathankot in the early hours and then it’s four hours of windy mountain roads to Bir.

Rinpoche hates wasting time.  He is always doing something. On this occasion he was at Delhi railway station (which is the most chaotic and challenging place on the face of the planet; for me, at least), where he sat on his suticase quietly reading a script someone asked him to give feedback on as he waited for his train.

Heartbreaking Delhi Hawkers

If you’ve ever been to a large Indian city you’ll be familiar with the phenomenon of street hawkers who appear like flies and more often than not are treated as such.

One lunch time Rinpoche was waiting for his car on what used to be known as Connought Place but is now Rajiv Chowk, and, inevitably, became surrounded by a swarm of hawkers. Two small, brown men were particularly fervent, one waving a selection of rather poorly printed postcards, the other a kind of wooden pipe, or some such. They were poor and simple and desperate, and God only knows how many kids and dependents they had at home.

Canny tourists and Delhi natives always shoo hawkers away, but Rinpoche didn’t. He had time as the car hadn’t yet arrived, so he listened patiently to their sales pitches (although I’m not sure he understood every word). Before long their words dried up and they resorted to urgent interjections of what sounded like “Buy! Buy! Buy!” as they pleaded with their eyes.

“They break my heart,” said Rinpoche, smiling very sweetly. He signalled to Sonam Chöpal, who pulled out a wallet and bought some postcards. The wooden pipe sellar looked a little downcast, but he needn’t have been because Sonam Chöpal also paid for one of his pipes. Rinpoche then accepted the postcards from the hawker on this right and immediately presented them to the pipe sellar on his left, from whom he accepted the wooden pipe, which he handed the postcard sellar.

The men looked extremely confused, especially when we started  laughing. But then Rinpoche’s car pulled up and we piled in, our minds already moving away from the street hawkers, who had themselves turned their attentions to a foreign looking couple as they quit their taxi.

I suddenly saw my own mind switch from sympathy and amusement into self-preservation mode, and as that happened those poor men were no longer human beings like me, but had regained their former shape as swattable fly-like nuisances. Why is it so easy to close ourselves off from the sufferings of others?

Saturday Afternoon at Tempelhofer Feld

We cycled around Tempelhof airport again on Saturday. Sadly, the politicians have decided to ‘develop’ it next year, and although it will still be a park, they intend to organize it and lay out gardens and draw up regulations…. Money will be spent. But noone we’ve met who uses it can understand why anything at all should be done to it. It’s fabulous as it is. A huge open space with two long runways for skating and cycling and kite flying, and plenty of glass to gambol and play on. In the middle of a city it’s already luxurious. What more could you want?

On Saturday I tried to take a photo of the very small section by Neuköln that has become a temporary garden colony. Locals have dragged crates and poles and garden furniture to mark out small sections of turf that they’ve cultivated over the summer, some with flowers, others veggies. We could have too, if we’d wanted to, because technically we’re also ‘local’. But we’re too lazy. It’s not the most beautiful garden colony I’ve seen, but the people who have created it love it and appear to have a wonderful time there. And by and large it is respected by other Berliners even though it has no fences or gates to protect it.

The most appealing thing about the Flughafen as it is now is the atmosphere. There were loads of people wandering around on Saturday, but not one gang of wild kids, and if anyone was abusing drugs of any kind they were doing it quietly and gently. Everyone seemed to be having fun or relaxing in old-fashioned ways, and we all rubbed along very nicely.

We smiled at the serious kite flyers who almost decapitated us every few yards and they smiled back, relieved that our smiles were still on our shoulders and not rolling to the ground. We shared the bicycle lane with the skaters and let them win. We avoided the wind surfers because they were clearly beginners and still mastering their crafts, not because they looked malicious or threatening. We smiled a little smugly at the families with tiny, bawling children, and their parents did their best not to look defeated by exhaustion. For once we were part of a multifarious group, two amongst many with a common purpose: to relax and enjoy the sun. Not being a natural ‘group’ person, it was an unusually pleasant experience.

These are the  two photos I kept of the garden colony. I doubt they’ll be the last photos I post of the airport this summer. At least, I hope they’re not.

Backs from Bir

Almost everywhere you go in Bir you will find yourself walking behind monks, often two or three at a time. Interestingly, though, I don’t remember seeing any of the grown up monks studying as they walked.

OT Rinpoche (3)

My final snaps of OT Rinpoche. I think you’ll recognize Philip and Andreas in the first two, taken at Dharma Mati (although you wouldn’t know it because I seem incapable of capturing any kind of recognizable or characteristic background). Then a photo Emilie took of Rinpoche in Heinz’s 1973 Mercedes (we like the colours), followed by a very strange picture of Rinpoche in a hunting knife shop. This particular shop has the most incredible selection of dangerous weapons, but seems to specialize in guns designed not to work!

OT Rinpoche (2)

OT Rinpoche gave Andreas a drawing lesson at the beautiful Einstein Café near Nollendorfplatz yesterday. Emilie took the first of the drawing lesson pictures (thank you Emilie). And the other two snaps were taken at Dharma Mati (the Rigpa Centre, Berlin).

The Garbage Man

One year Khyentse Rinpoche opened all Chökyi Lodrö’s trunks and suitcases and boxes to find out what was in them. Every day for quite some time, Maggie neatly arranged the latest selection of Chökyi Lodrö’s personal belongings on the table outside the archive room, so that Khyentse Rinpoche could swoop down in between pujas and interviews and work sessions and teachings to decide what to preserve and what to chuck.

Now, as I’m sure you know, Khyentse Rinpoche is only ever extremely busy, and it probably won’t surprise you to hear that the examination process was pretty much over even before it had begun. Speedy is not the word here. (Sadly, my thesaurus has been unable to provide me with an adjective that can adequately convey the quality of any of Rinpoche’s tempi.) He was in and out like a speeding bullet.

Before the dust had settled, though, OT Rinpoche would suddenly appear and insist on going through the detritus that had been left in Khyentse Rinpoche’s wake. At this point, things would slow down markedly. Purposeful and thorough, OT Rinpoche went through everything Khyentse Rinpoche had tossed aside, employing his entire catalogue of wordless expletives in the process. As his long-fingered hands passed over the piles of junk, it was as if he were conjuring all manner of treasures, each glowing with historic and spiritual significance. The one I particularly remember was a mouldy, tattered cloth that, it turned out, had once covered Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s prayer book.

He described himself quite cheerfully as the “Garbage Man”. But, once I stopped laughing and thought about what was happening, I realized that OT Rinpoche can’t have been more than eight years old when Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö passed away, yet he retains detailed memories of every moment he spent in Chökyi Lodrö’s presence. Not only can he remember word-for-word what was said and done, but even which piece of cloth was used to covered which book. When I compare it to the garbage my mind has collected over the years, I begin to appreciate what an extraordinary being this great man really is.
Garbage man, indeed!


This weekend was a weekend of work, but as the sun made its first appearance of the summer on Saturday afternoon and took a few bows on Sunday, Andreas and I took time out (note my confident use of an Americanism) to catch a few rays.

On Saturday we went to the park just south of the canal, which takes about fifteen minutes to walk to, and boasts a long rectangular lake where enthusiasts sail model boats (picture 1).

On Sunday we cycled north to the old Tempelhof airport (five minutes) and rode around the perimeter. We saw, quite by accident, the police motor cycle stunt team giving a display (picture 2), three fenced in dog runs full of happy dogs shitting and pissing in between a great deal of arse licking, loads of kite flyers (some kites were a big as parachutes), entire families grilling wurst (and the odd pig) on the portable barbeques that all true Berliners seem to own, multifarious roller bladers—youthful roller bladers, senior roller-bladers, single roller-bladers, married roller-bladers, roller bladers pushing prams (whatever happened to roller skates?)—cyclists, joggers, mobile cafés and beer gardens and a jolly mass of Berliners enjoying the open space.

And picture 3 is Andreas feeling in his pocket for a fag. I love Berlin.

The Inimitable Urgyen Wangchuk and Incomparable Phuntsok Topgyal

Another photo from the Bhutan 2007 trip. Here you can see Urgyen Wangchuk on the left and Phuntsok Topgyal on the right. Urgyen Wangchuk is quite an eccentric character who chews paan abd takes care of things for Rinpoche in Dewathang. He is also a fabulous cook. You may have seen Pawo’s glorious photos on Facebook? Well Urgyen Wangchuk is his uncle. But then, all Bhutanese seem to be related one way or another!

Phuntsok Topgyal is one of Rinpoche’s attendants and seems to be able to turn his hand to just about anything. He’s the kind of person who makes you feel safe when he’s around. We met for the first time in the late 80s when he accompanied Rinpoche to London, so I think it’s fair to say we’re old friends.

And yes, they are simultaneously pulling faces at me…


I’m still feeling home-sick for India. It must be quite hot and humid there right now, but I still want to leap on the first plane out. In India it’s best not to think about physical comfort. Far better to focus on the magic and luxuriate in a sea of enchantment and miraculous transformation. Wherever I am there, even in smelly Delhi, I feel as though every second brings with it the key to a realm of wondrous possibilities—if only I could see it! I can feel you thinking, my god, the woman’s barking, or menopausal. And you’re probably right. But it’s not all fantasy and middle-age hormones. In India miracles really do seem to happen.

I noticed it first in Sikkim, or more precisely, Gangtok. One night I walked from the taxi to the hotel—some ten yards—in the dark. Now, if you’ve ever been to Sikkim you’ll know about the roads. Or should I say the craters around which the odd lump of concrete masquerades as road. The problem that night was that a crater looked to me, in my rather depleted state, like a shadow, and so I tried to walk over it. The bloody thing was at least three feet deep and without that magical whatever-it-is that only ever keeps me safe in India, my landing could have been nasty. Very nasty indeed.

For a night and a day I wondered if it was ‘nasty’, because my ankle hurt and walking wasn’t much fun. But as luck would have it, I spent the following afternoon at the Tsuk Lha Kang where Khandro still lived, and where Sogyal Rinpoche continued to do his daily practice. There’s no need, I’m sure, to describe the intensity of the atmosphere in that place; it was so full of other-worldiness my mind felt fit to burst. Suffice to say that after a couple of hours the pain in my ankle simply wasn’t there any more. Neither was there a bruise or a scratch or any other sign of violence. Mysterious healings have never happened to me here in the more rational part of this world. Far from it.

I didn’t own a camera during that visit in April 2006, so I have no photos. Instead, I’ll post a picture I took of the steps down to the office in Khyentse Labrang during a monsoon downpour, to try to discourage myself from brooding…

The Monkey God

On the way back from the café at the Norling Gallery on my last day in Bir last October, we saw the monkey god walking ahead of us. He wasn’t happy because his bag was empty, but he did have a marvellous tail. Today I miss India.