Ama-la

The Ama-la pictured here is not Sogyal Rinpoche’s mother. In India, it seems, all woman past child-bearing age with wrinkles and grey hair are called ‘Ama-la’, or ‘mother’. I guess it’s a monicker that will be applied to me before very long (Gott im Himmel!).

You’ll remember (you have a good memory) that I posted a picture of her with a goose not long ago. She lives at OT Rinpoche’s home. in the room beneath where I stayed, and we greeted each other every morning for week. Only two words were ever exchanged (Tashi Delek, a cover-all Tibetan greeting), but I now think of her as an old friend.

I feel I must apologize to regular readers for the horrible typos in recent posts. I really am the worst proof reader in the world. And I never have my reading glasses to hand, or am in a dash, or whatever. Typically, I find the mistakes after I’ve published and although I correct them as soon as I see them, I doubt I catch them all before you start reading.

Anyway, here’s Ama-la turning the huge new prayer wheel that OT Rinpoche installed recently.

Ganesh

I first met Ganesh in 2006. His official job title (an important asset in India) is ‘OT Rinpoche’s cook’, but fortunately for Rinpoche, he can also turn his hand to pretty much anything. If the new cold water tank on the roof starts to overflow (it boils very dramatically, for no good reason), Ganesh knows how to tame it. If the dogs are eating a duck, again it’s Ganesh who scolds the dogs and clears up the feathers. You get the picture.

Since 2006, he’s grown a belly and a moustache, but is still as friendly and helpful as he ever was. He has a little English, but I’ve never really worked out how much. Sometimes he appears to understand, at others I’m not so sure. Take breakfast, for example.

“Madam like porridge?”
“Yes, thank you Ganesh.”
“Madam like omelette?”
“No, thank you Ganesh.”
“Madam like bread?”
“No, thank you Ganesh, just porridge.”

Yet, the next morning, and every subsequent morning, three open boxes of cereal were set out along with two heat insulated pots, one containing porridge (thankfully) and the other omelette or chapati or Tibetan bread (which, I should warn you if you haven’t tried it, is virtually indigestible, however much butter you try to soak it in).

So, being an inveterate, but largely unsuccessful, saver of time and effort, I had a go at trying to save him the trouble of setting the breakfast table with unnecessaries every day.

“Ganesh, just porridge is fine in the mornings.”
“Yes, madam like porridge?”
“Yes, thank you Ganesh. You make delicious porridge.”
“Welcome… Madam like omelette?”
“No, thank you Ganesh. Just porridge is enough.”
“Madam like bread?”
“No, thank you Ganesh. No bread.”
“Welcome…”

But once again, the breakfast table was heaving. Should I have had another go at easing Ganesh’s morning duties? The egalitarian in me screamed, “Of course you should!” However, as my fundamental conditioning has its roots in the English middle classes (dammit!), I simply didn’t have the heart to say anything more in case it sounded as though I was complaining. So I accepted everything offeredl, gratefully. And just ate the porridge.

Silhouette

A snap from last year that I think I debuted on Facebook (please note, I lurk there now, but rarely interact) so some of you may already have seen it—forgive me for being repetitious. It was taken one supper time at the Labrang and as you can see Chokling Monastery is in the background.

When I was first invited to eat with Rinpoche, he would sit, very properly, at the head of a long thin arrangement of tables. But only about eight people could squeeze around that old table, so he had a new one made. It is large and deep (made up of several long thin sections), and although Rinpoche started out sitting at what used to be the head, he found himself stranded in the middle of a very long side and quickly moved to sit in front of the window, by the corner.

Having changed place, his attendant made sure the usual square of carpet marked out his stool and within seconds the never diminishing pile of miscellaneous goods that follows Rinpoche where ever he eats, had moved too. Noone would even think of sitting on Rinpoche’s place. It would be like climbing onto his throne in the shrine room.

Interestingly, neither does anyone ever voluntarily sit at the old head of the table—and three or four people could do so quite comfortably. I don’t remember a decision being made that Rinpoche’s old place should be kept free, but, the only way he can get people to sit there is by calling on them. I’ve often wondered why…

Skype

While I’m at OT Rinpoche’s I have access to really quite good broadband. Good enough for Skype, in fact, which is a real bonus. Of course, the electricity tends to explode from time to time and I’ve already lost one power adapter to it, but nothing in this life is perfect. Right?

A couple of nights ago as I Skyped Ireland, Andreas looked fuzzy around the edges, and for once it wasn’t the Guinness. I liked the effect, so I screen captured him. (I love my Mac.) Perhaps there’s a future for Skype Art?

Mutton Curry

There are a few shelves of western dharma books in OT Rinpoche’s house and on one of them I found these two stuffed sheep, or are they rams? Whatever they are, they struck me as being rather unusual ornaments given the opulent gilt and marble in the rest of the house.

It occurrs to me that they might be some kind of ritual substance. I vaguely remember a friend being given a sheep familiar to keep by her bed when she was sick (on the advice of a lama) with the instruction that she should write down her dreams. Loads of other stuff was involved that I can’t remember, but a toy sheep was definitely part of the mix. Maybe these examples were created for a similar purpose? Or maybe OT Rinpoche just has a thing for woolly animals?

They reminded me of a car ride with Khyentse Rinpoche from the Dordogne to Roqueredonde in the south of France. It was mid-summer and extremely hot. The roads were narrow and the local drivers we met cavalier, to say the least. At one point, though, instead of narrowly dodging badly serviced French cars we found ourselves gridlocked by a flock of several dozen sheep. It was a relief, in many ways, to be still, and for a while we sat in silence. Then Rinpoche spoke.

“Mutton curry,” he said, completely deadpan.

Another moment of silence as we processed the implications of those two words, then appalled delight broke out amongst vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, and Rinpoche smiled, wickedly.

Mullah Nasrudin (9)

Mullah was very lazy.
One day, having returned from a trip to the Gulf, where it is extremely hot in the summer, he said his village friends, “Do you know what? I have never been so continuously active in my life as I was during my last trip to the Gulf.”
“What is that you were doing, Mullah?” asked the villagers, curious to discover what it was that could inspire Mullah to action of any kind.
“Sweating!” replied Mullah.

Postscript: I know how he feels.

Yet More Drupchen Photos

In the first photo we see OT Rinpoche’s attendant’s, Karma, who was tireless throughout the ten days, not only serving Rinpoche personally but acting as chöpon during the ceremonies and doing whatever was needed, day or night. So this photo is a little unkind because it captures in the only yawn he indulged throughout the drupchen. But I love the colours and atmosphere and therefore can’t resist including it in this collection.      

Emilie’s Photos of the Drupchen

Emilie (the beauty in a gorgeous green sari in the final photo) very kindly sent me some of her photos of the drupchen, some of which I’ve posted here. Phil also took some great snaps but I didn’t manage to grab them from him before he left on pilgrimage to Bhutan. For once, I wasn’t quite quick enough.Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Chokling Rinpoche just before the now traditional flower petal and rice war that breaks out during the prayers for auspiciousness at the end of the ceremony. Khyentse Rinpoche’s Chinese students have developed particularly lethal methods for launching handsful of petals and rice aimed exclusively at Rinpoche, who retaliated on this occasion by shaking up a bottle of orange Fanta, aiming it into the crowd, and opening the lid…Khyentse Rinpoche, obviously.Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche making aspiration prayers. Lama Godi and friends.This monk, who is probably about twelve years old, served us tea and refreshments during the drupchen several times each day.Les Français (plus a Swiss and a German).

Jinny Joe

Andreas debuted his latest song for me over Skype last night. I usually hear new songs through the bathroom door, but that doesn’t work well when I’m half a continent away. Or is it a whole continent? I was hopeless at geography. Or rather, determined to be hopeless at it so I could give it up. If memory serves, I made a supreme effort in my last exam to win as few marks as possible. The grand total was 13%. And Miss Harvey (French), my loopy form teacher who collected rubber bands and twanged and twsited the entire collection continuously, phoned my mother.

Why would anyone care about a crappy exam result in a subject that was being dropped? Well, that was Wycombe High for you. In my fourth year (at 14 years old) I failed to demonstrate the requisite ambition. I didn’t care about my position in the form ratings. My uniform was a mess, I was best friends with disreputables and consorted with the opposite sex. I could do well if I felt like it, but couldn’t care less about coming top. Or bottom. All very confusing for the rather blinkered spinsters (the last of a now defunct breed) who were running that particular all girls Oxbridge factory. My education did not get off to a good start.

But back to  ‘Jinny Joe’, which is what the Irish call the powder puff of seeds that a dandelion produces. It’s a song about the terrible sadness a father feels when he suddenly realizes the lifelong pain and suffering he has inflicted on his son by bringing him into this world and plunging him, virtually unprotected, into the vicissitudes of ‘life’, just as a dandelion scatters its seeds to be caught up and swept away by the winds of change and uncertainty. A point worth considering, don’t you think?

The Upper Shrine Room

I was a little disappointed with the photo I posted in the ‘Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s Head’ piece, so last night I went up to the shrine room on the top floor of OT Rinpoche’s house and had another go. I’ve also included snaps of the Guru Rinpoche that is central to this shrine and the life-sized Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche who sits on the other side of the Guru Rinpoche statue to balance Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö.      

Shopping

Rinpoche’s, lamas, khenpos and monks all seem to love shopping. They throw themselves into it in a way I never could. Take OT Rinpoche, for example. There’s nothing he likes more than to wander through flea markets, department stores, even mega-sized electrical gaget stores—I should probably have written, ‘especially’ rather than ‘even’, but such monolithes are my kind of hell.

Khyentse Rinpoche has less time these days, but in London in the late eighties he haunted Oxford Street, Soho, Leicester Square (“home”) and Tottenham Court Road. He always seemed to be on a quest: the perfect leather case, the perfect linen shirt, the perfect duffel coat, etc. And nothing deterred him. However cold, hot, wet, humid, blustery it was, if he wanted to shop, he shopped.

One summer, in the days when I still thought in Farenheit, he led a crocodile of friends and students from Marble Arch to Goodge Street at midday in the middle of a heatwave (more than 100 degrees). I wilted. And it’s only now, having visited India, I realize that for him 100 degrees was quite balmy. Everything interested him. He visited Selfridges’ perfume counter, scoured the shelves of HMV for the latest art movie imports, plundered Liberties ground floor for desirable note books, and of course, browsed the bookshops. Frankly, I never recovered from it. To this day, the idea of ‘going shopping’ inspires a low level of panic, and I very rarely window-shop.

All these memories crowded into my rusty mind when Philip mentioned last week that whenever he stays at OT’s he is surrounded by the products of countless shopping expeditions through many of the major cities of the world, which triggered a memory I have of taking OT Rinpoche to the famous KaDeWe in Berlin. We ploughed through all the usual departments—fabrics, poreclain, cut glass, food—and somehow ended up in children’s toys. I expected to sail through, but OT Rinpoche dropped anchor by a display of model animals, tiny things that toddlers love to stuff in their mouths and are therefore designated 5+. Jamyang Nyima, OT Rinpoche’s monk, stood patiently by as OT Rinpoche examined each species with an expert eye, then passed those that met with his approval onto him, or returned them to the neat line of clones they lived with on the shelf.

After some time Jamyang Nyima said something to OT Rinpoche and walked away. So Andreas was pulled into service and became the repository for OT Rinpoche’s selections. I asked Jamyang Nyima what the menagerie was for. Did OT Rinpoche have a secret penchant for playing Zoo? Or was he buying toys for his children or grandchildren (or whatever). No, no, none of that. It turns out they are a necessary part of certain rituals. “But we have so many,” he sighed, a little testily, it must be said.

Eventually, OT Rinpoche had sorted through the entire range. “No good donkey,” he said. “Look, no energy of donkey.” And he made an extremely funny face that suggested all manner of politically incorrect nouns. Nevertheless, he had amassed a serious collection of animals, and I still have somewhere nearly three feet of till roll detailing the name and stock number (in German) of each item.

In this snap from July this year, we had put shopping on pause, briefly, for a photo shoot in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the Hotel Adlon (because HH Dalai Lama stayed there): OT Rinpoche with Karma and Urgyen.

Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s Head

Before I get into the head…

In India it is quite common to see dozens of school-kids crammed into a rickshaw, or a train with at least half its passengers sitting on the roof, or yesterday’s example of a four-member Tibetan family riding a tiny motor scooter along a puddled, pot-hole ridden track. In this case, Pa was driving, the seven-eight year old sat in front of him, the five-six year old behind him in the embrace of his mother, who sat side-saddle at the rear. What made this family so appealing was that they were all singing at the tops of their voices as they made their way in the afternoon rain. I wasn’t quick enough to get a picture, sadly; I was too busy enjoying the spectacle.

Later, as I explored one of the four shrine rooms in OT Rinpoche’s house, I discovered a full-sized, life-like representation of Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö sitting opposite a similarly life-sized Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

It occurred to me relatively quickly (given that middle age has dipped this rusty mind in concrete and my thought processes are now generally more dogged than brisk) that the head used on the Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö image must be the one fashioned by technicians at Madame Tussaud’s in Paris. I recognized it because I brought here in my very bulky and frankly unmanageable hand luggage on one of my first trips, several years ago. We had become quite close because the head had lived on my shrine for a month and a half, and I was sorry to have to give it up.

I remember being terrified about transporting a human head through airport security. Surely, I reasoned, someone would become suspicious when such a potentially grisly shape showed up on a scanner. But noone turned a hair and, in fact, were far more interested in my mascara.

Mullah Nasrudin (8)

Mullah opened an agency for those who give speeches because he knew many people who were convinced they had something interesting to say.
Unfortunately, though, most of the people who thought they were interesting and amusing rarely were, and he received many complaints.
“Next time someone books a speaker, I’ll make sure they are satisfied!” thought Mullah.

Soon, a telegram arrived from a study society that read: “Please supply us with a wit to address our group on Sunday.”

“Ah ha!” thought Mullah, “This time I’ll make certain they get what they’ve asked for.”
He contacted two of his speakers and gave them the address of the society and the time they should be there. Then he sent a telegram to the secretary of the society: “Wits difficult to find. So have sent two half-wits instead.”

MORAL: The sum of the parts is not necessarily equal to the whole.

(with thanks to Idries Shah’s books of stories about Mullah) 

Highs and Lows

Memory is a problem for me—you already know this—and I’ve just spent the morning wondering what from the last few days is most likely to stick.

Perhaps the ten seconds we spent with Khyentse Rinpoche at 03.50 on the morning of receiving the siddhis when we bumped into him on the way to the gompa. “OT Rinpoche hasn’t woken up yet,” he told us, clearly more amused than concerned, although without OT Rinpoche the ritual could not begin and was scheduled to start at 4am.

The one memory I am bound to preserve with excruciating exactness is my sole foray into serving tsok. Each day injis were invited to take turns serving tsok to the monks and other guests, and when my turn came along I was given a box of Amul milk to distribute. Someone had cut it open, thankfully, but a bit skew wiff, which I only discovered when I tried to pour a drop into the cupped hand of the first in a long line of the Mindroling monks. White, smelly, long-life milk gushed uncontrollably over his text, his thigh bone trumpet, his mala, his robes, everywhere and all I could do was move on to the second monk, where I made an even worse job of it. A sea of milk threatened to engulf us both, even though, bizarrely, the box of milk remained virtually full (a reverse kind of siddhi?). I then treated the third monk in the line to the same treatment, and the fourth, and on and on and on until I reached the end of that line of honoured guest participants, who by now were utterly drenched and grimacing.

Finally I reached a monk I know, one of Khyentse Rinpoche’s jewel-like  Labrang monks, Tenzin Dorje, who held his cup out, smiling broadly and encouragingly. I breathed deeply and made yet another attempt at pouring a tiny portion and succeeded, finally, without spilling a drop. At the time it felt like a miracle. And from then on it was plain sailing. But I blushed for a full hour afterwards and my bowels still shrivel within me when I think of my terrifying incompetence.

I’ll also remember the rain, which played quite a significant role in creating an particular atmosphere throughout the drupchen. At one point we were deluged day and night for more than 72 hours. It was the kind of rain that soaked you through within a couple of seconds, and the mud was primeval. Interestingly, or should I say predictably, it pretty much stopped once the drupchen had been completed.

One of my favourite memory will be of just how happy OT Rinpoche was to have Khyentse Rinpoche with him for all that time. You can see it in his face, don’t you think? 

Denouement

The last few posts have been rather photo heavy, I’m afraid, and this one is bordering on the ridiculous, but what to do? At about 3.45 yesterday morning I discovered, to my horror, that every single one of my carefully tended and nurtured words and phrases had upped sticks and made a run for it. I don’t think they could stand the pace. So I spent the entire day gibbering as I had to rely on the cast-offs of others that spilled out unnoticed and cowered in the shadows. But I had no clue what what on earth I was talking about.

As any semblance of eloquence has yet to reappear I have once again resorted to pictures. I won’t try to explain them, I’ll just confuse you. Suffice to say, they were chosen because they have the power to make my tough old heart ache a little.   

Khyentse Rinpoche and Chokling Rinpoche

In OT Rinpoche’s new gompa (Philip calls it the ‘drupchen factory’ because the upper section has been built solely to accomodate drupchens), the mandala house alone is at least 8 metres high. It takes up almost all the room in the upper part of the gompa, it’s huge. Two very high thrones are set up beside it, one for Dzongsar Khyentse, who is the ‘Vajra King’, and the other for Chöling Rinpoche. In the second snap below, Chöling Rinpoche is standing on his throne for a few minutes during one of the rituals—it was the only opportunity I’ve had to capture an image of him in the shrine room. The other picture is of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche as he gave a spontaneous fifteen minute teaching one evening at the end of the practice. 

OT Rinpoche’s Treasures (2)

The second of OT Rinpoche’s treasures is an image of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé that was made during his lifetime and is also said to look just like him. Personally, I think he looks a bit like Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, and OT Rinpoche said he looked like the previous Kalu Rinpoche. Perhaps there’s a bit of both in that smile? It’s certainly one of the jolliest statues I’ve seen. I wonder (and, by the way, I speculate respectfully) if Kongtrul Rinpoche had as good a sense of humour as this image suggests?

Beginnings and Endings

The beginning and the end of a drupchen feel very different. Or at least, that’s what I’ve been told. Actually, they’re something I know little about as I’ve barely brushed shoulders with them over the years. The Chimé Phagma Nyingtik drupchen at OT Rinpoche’s home in Bir is the first I’ve ever participated in full time. And I can definitely recommend the experience to any undecideds out there for whom the idea of seven days of ritual practice (6am-7.30pm) seems a little daunting.

Just eight days ago, I bounced into the gompa, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, for day one (a seven-day drupchen actually lasts nine or ten days—welcome to Tibetan Buddhism) to find myself surrounded by similarly enthusiastic beings, as you will see from the photo I took of the line of practitioners who sat directly in front of me (below left).

Today, though, it must said, there’s been some wilting (below right). Spirits are most definitely willing (and tremendously inspired) but our feeble human bodies do tend to let us down. Unless you’re a Rinpoche or a Chokling monk, all of whom, it won’t surprise you to hear, have barely broken sweat.