Arrivederci Kirchheim

Kirchheim is no more. Well the Hessonian village is still there, but the SeePark Hotel has filed insolvency papers. After twenty-four years of hosting Rigpa winter retreats it’s finally gone bust. Part of me feels I should summon some kind of regret or nostalgia for the place, but I can’t. The best I can say for Kirchheim is that it was the one retreat where I could count on having my own bathroom—a big thing for a sociopath like myself. Noone in their right mind could possibly regret much else.

Was there anything good about Kirchheim? Well, yes, of course. The teachings Sogyal Rinpoche gave were the point, not the physical conditions. 1998 was a very good year, I felt. Sogyal Rinpoche taught on Vajrasattva extremely thoroughly, and I’m a big fan of that practice (he was teaching the visualization in the photograph below). Many other Rinpoches visited too, although my rusty mind has failed to come up with a categorical list.

But practically speaking, Seepark never really made it into the 21st century. It barely made it past the 70s. Most years I had to strip off the plastic sheet on the bed before I got in because it was so thick and sweat-inducing, and made peculiar noises when you turned over. Who can forget the inevitable Kirchheim dreaded lurgy that would change shape each year, strike down at least half the retreat participants then linger until the spring.

And then there was the restaurant. But maybe, like me, you haven’t had breakfast yet, so perhaps you don’t need details about the plastic vegetables and processed cheese and the glutenous mulch that passed for ‘local dishes’. I clearly remember Ruth Seehausen prodding such a creation with a fork, then pushing the plate away, saying, “I never eat food I can’t positively identify.” A sensible girl, our Ruth.

The first time I went there was in 1986, the first ever Kirchheim retreat, a month after Phil and I got married. We’d met Sogyal Rinpoche in London and helped him with his packing. Rinpoche then gave me the key to his suitcase to take care of (some kind of test…) which I ostentatiously placed in a zipped pocket in my red filofax before his very eyes, and those of my new husband. Once we arrived in Kirchheim, having lost Phil’s wallet with all our money in it (a difficult feat to achieve in super-honest, super-rich Germany, especially back then) the key was no longer in the zipped pocket. Rinpoche didn’t seem surprised. I was mortified… was it a sign?

Auden (1)

George Osbourne wrote a biography of W.H. Auden that came out in 1980. In those days Auden’s reputation had diminished somewhat and his work was considered ‘second-rate.’ Then in the 90s Four Weddings and a Funeral used ‘Stop all the clocks’ and he became ‘popular’. But back in 1980, as I studied Benjamin Britten’s songs set to words by Auden, his writing entranced me. I think I’ll post some of it over the next weeks, but in the meantime, here’s a bit of the biography that, more than thirty years ago, wedged a splinter in the thumb of the material world I was being groomed for.

In the early summer of 1933, Auden experienced one of those rare moments of visionary or mystical insight which, fleeting though they are, can strangely persist as a lifelong influence. A feeling of intense, unearthly serenity, a moment of enlightenment which passes, but which leaves behind it the knowledge that, if only for a moment, the universe has made sense. These experiences do not translate easily to words, not even to the words of so skilful a manipulator of language as Auden, and verbal accounts of such occasions require to be read with a special sympathy. Auden’s account of his vision was written, or at any rate first published, a good thirty years later:

“On fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. I was also certain, though the conversation continued to be perfectly ordinary, that my three colleagues were having the same experience. (In the case of one of them, I was able later to confirm this.) My personal feelings towards them were unchanged‚they were still colleagues, not intimate friends—but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.

“I recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed by this spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being. I also knew that the power would, of course, be withdrawn sooner or later and that, when it did, my greeds and self-regard would return. The experience lasted at its full intensity for about two hours when we said good-night to each other and went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, it was still present, though weaker, and it did not vanish completely for two days or so. The memory of the experience has not prevented me from making use of others, grossly and often, but it has made it much more difficult for me to deceive myself about what I am up to when I do. And among the various factors which several years later brought me back to the Christian faith in which I had been brought up, the memory of this experience and asking myself what it could mean was one of the most crucial, though, at the time it occurred, I thought I had done with Christianity for good.”

Paris, December 1993

1993 was a very, very long time ago, but what a time! On and off for about a year I slept on the floor of the shrine room at the apartment in rue Burq that Babette lent to Sogyal Rinpoche as centre and home. It was a very old apartment, as run down and dilapidated as many I’ve seen in India in more recent times. And the public parts (the kitchen, the bathroom) were positively medieval. Yet, it was a magical place. Bang smack in the middle of Montmatre, we had on our doorstep: the gourmand’s paradise, Rue Lepic; the marvellous, if architecturally confused, Sacre Coeur Cathedral; the tourist trap that is the Moulin Rouge; and the brazenly outrageous transvestites of Pigalle. Something for everyone…

Sogyal Rinpoche had published the original English version of  The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying  the previous year, and it was time for the European editions to be launched. A team had been assembled to facilitate Rinpoche’s French tour and as a result some nights I slept with twenty human beings, snoring and farting their way to an early call, or just a phone and the shrine mice.

Patrick Gaffney was around quite a lot in those days, supporting Rinpoche as what, post The West Wing, we might now call his ‘speech writer’. Can you imagine him as Toby Ziegler to Rinpoche’s Jed Bartlett? Perhaps not. I found this photo of him the other day. A bit fuzzy, but it serves to oil those cogs that I’m so desperate to get moving again.

Anyway, as you know Patrick is a wonderful writer, translator and poet, and someone whose advice and opinion I wish I could seek more often. But he sets the bar very high indeed, and as part of some wonderful solicited advice he sent recently, he included the following quotation.

“Ariel and Chana Boch say in their The Song of Songs, A New Translation, New York: Random House, 1995, p. 41: ‘One of the major challenges facing a translator today is to find the proper register in English, neither too formal and stylized nor too breezy and colloquial—language that is fresh and urgent and passionate, and at the same time dignified.’ ”

It’s good, don’t you think? After the first, second and third readings I felt giddy with enthusiastic determination, inspiration surged through my previously atrophied creative channels and I knew I was the equal of this and any other challenge life threw at me. But once that initial light-headedness began to clear I started seriously thinking about how such advice might be put into practice. And now, some months later, the reality of the task ahead is so vivid and its horrors so tightly riveted to my already hyperbolic imagination that I am daily racked and terrorized by the mere thought of it. If ever a girl needed a ‘muse of fire’…

Jonas Kaufmann

If it’s early morning whereever you are when you look at this post, I recommend you listen to the link a little later. Act three of Tosca is really not morning music. Cavaradossi knows he is about die and in this aria, naturally enough I think, reflects on how much he loves Floria, and on how cruel it is to die when life is so sweet.

This man, Jonas Kaufmann, is special. A glorious voice and a musician: a very rare combination, especially in a world where music has become an ‘industry’. Sadly he has the misfortune to have to sing with some of the flabbiest divas ever to have existed on this earth, but somehow manages to encourage them to raise their game, albeit briefly.

By the way, please forgive the French oboe player for his desperately sentimental ornament. I think he got a bit a carried away.


If you read the piece I posted a couple of days ago about the Indian Juicer, would you mind casting your eye over the corrected version? I just realized that I am guilty of spreading misinformation, for which I apologize profusely. Sadly, such a slip is not unusual these days, despite my best efforts. India can be so confusing and middle-age so addling.

Les Mamelles de Tirésias

My first contact with the story of Therese’s breasts was through Poulenc’s wonderful one act opera. I saw it in 1979 at the ENO (therefore in English, not French) and adored it immediately. Such a welcome change from the tragic heroines I’d been living with during my first year or so of music college. The lovely Norma Burrowes was Tirésias and I still have a strong memory of her bursting two balloons (her breasts) at the point she changed from a woman into a man.

The reason this piece sprang to mind in the first place is that I sat through Woody Allen’s latest smudge of a movie on the plane back from Delhi. What a disaster! Owen Wilson doing a rather poor impersonation of Woody Allen himself, propped up by a cast of two dimensional, banal caricatures. Do your best to avoid it. Transformers 3 would probably be a better bet…

Part of the plot of the Allen movie, though, is that one of the caricatures wishes she had been born during La Belle Epoque, and for the first time in thirty years I found Apollinaire surfacing in my scrapbag of a mind. He wrote the play, Les Mamelles, but died young, at 38, when the flu pandemic of 1918 swept across Europe.

Anyway, for years I imagined he was the author of a poem I love, and was shocked to discover it was actually written by an English poet some fifty years after Apollinaire’s death. You would have thought I’d have noticed the difference in style, but no… I put the obvious stylistic contradictions down to ‘creative translation’. Clearly, I’m not much of a literary critic.

In the meantime, I haven’t stopped loving the poem, even though it was written by a man called Christopher Logue, not Guillaume Apollinaire. And it reminds me of life with Khyentse Rinpoche.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
And they came
And he pushed
And they flew.

An Indian Juicer (corrected version)

I took this snap on a trip to Kangra with Drubgyud Tenzin Rinpoche in 2010 on a visit to the Shaktipeeth Vajreshwari Devi-Kangra Temple.

When I first wrote this post, I gave the temple a different name and mentioned seeing a crown here, a sacred crown, a fuzzy picture of which I still hold in my memory. But as I leafed through Rinpoche’s photos this morning, I realized I’d been talking (or writing) through my hat. I’m still convinced I saw a crown, but can find no mention of one in descriptions of the temple I’ve been reading. Maybe an alien presence invaded my brain with strange, uninterpretable images that this rusty mind fell for, hook line and sinker. Clearly, it requires a great deal more oiling…

The Nagarkot Dham, or Kot Kangra temple (popular names used by locals) isn’t dedicated to she who breathes fire at all. That temple is a couple of hours drive away (and looks quite similar to this one). This one is where a goddess dropped her left breast. But I think I’ll write about it in a fresh, new post. This one is simply too messy to salvage.

Anyway, clearly this photo was not taken in a temple! It’s a sugar-cane juicer, and as I pulled out my camera one of the onlookers suggested to its owner that his face would now appear on cover of a glossy Inji magazine. Hmmmn, not quite…

Magik Mass

Here are three more signs that I saw on my way to Chakki Bank. My guess is they’re something to do with body building (“get magically big”).

Delhi Metro makes an enormous difference to being in Delhi. Especially if, as a woman alone, you can work out where the women’s only carriage is (pretty essential during rush hour when people are squashed together like sardines).

The cost of living is escalating in Delhi, but you can still hire a taxi for the day (eight hours) for about 15 Euro. The disadvantage is that the traffic is so bad, you can spend a significant chunk of those eight hours in traffic jams. Or parking jams. Indians cram their vehicles together as tightly as they pack human beings into small spaces, and separating your taxi from the throng can really eat up your time. The Metro, on the other hand, is very cheap, perhaps 15 rupees (25 cents) one way, extremely clean and spacious, and although you have to get used to Indian ways (as always in this remarkable country) it’s really quite efficient.

India is a country of squatters. People sit on the floor without hesitation. And lie down in the dust and dog shit and pigeon droppings on station platforms, often for days on end if their train has been delayed. So I wasn’t surprised when I heard an announcement yesterday on the violet line, that you would never hear on the London Underground: “Customers are asked not to sit on the floor of the train.”

Chakki Bank Revisited

Chakki Bank railway station is pretty grim. I’d forgotten at first, but if you ever go there, make sure you check the ground around any seat you choose to sit on, for pigeon shit. They lurk in the metal rafters, and their aim is deadly. Luckily, an old man alerted me to the danger I was in before their vile and smelly projectiles were let loose, so I managed to avoid being rained on. Others were not so lucky…

New Delhi railway station is also quite an experience. I’ve had to fight my way out of it a few times now, but it never gets any easier. This time, after hours of neurotically clinging my computer to my heart, I managed to leave it on the train. Again, luckily, I remembered in time and with unexpected strength and determination, ran against the flow of disembarking Indians (they were determined to walk up the stairs, I to run down) and retrieve my rucksack just before the train departed for Gujerat.

On my way to the station yesterday morning, I spied the sign I’ve posted above. I love Indian signs. And as I waited for the train, captured a classic Indian scene: Man Squatting Under Tree. This particular tree is on the other, virtually deserted platform at Chakki Bank. The one I’d squeezed onto was heaving with all manner of beings, so the land of the man squatting looked as though it belonged to a different world.

Hand and Foot

This is the third picture of Elise to appear on your screen in recent times, but it’s not the image I had in mind. Inevitably, I managed to leave my camera on my desk while hunted down a cup of tea (they have become strangely elusive of late), then happened upon Elise, sitting, as she is in the snap, but surrounded by platters and bowls and cake stands piled high with momos. Hundreds of them.

Perhaps I should explain that Khyentse Rinpoche is currently offering a Tsok Bum and Elise is one of the organizers and arrangers of the offerings, and this is why she got down and dirty (literally) with the momos in the courtyard. It’s not an activity she engages in on a regular basis.

You’ll notice that, apart from the fact she is so beautiful, she was sitting with one of her legs extended. This is because she turned her ankle ten months ago (I think in Sikkim) and the resulting ‘inflammation’ was so painful that she ended up in Brazil (her country of birth) under a surgeon’s knife. She only returned to India a couple of weeks ago, and she still has to be very careful.

So, why is her hand bandaged? Because in spite of her fragile state, our Elise did not hesitate to leap into the fray in an attempt to separate two dogs fighting. OK, they were her dogs, but any six year old will tell you that the only sensible reaction to a dog fight is to stay as far away as possible. Elise didn’t. So now she is doubly incapacitated, and her husband, Mr Wyatt de Grande, is to waiting on her hand and foot (sorry, I couldn’t resist…). Poor Elise!

On Being Lazy

I wonder if I can do justice to the rather bizarre conversation I had last night with a friend (who would rather remain anonymous, for reasons that will become patently clear as this piece continues) about her tendency to be lazy.

It all started as we crunched our delicious after dinner apple quarters and my friend exclaimed, quite loudly, “It’s just too much work to chew gum.”

As you might imagine, the three of us sitting with her at the table were not convinced we’d heard properly.
“You’re too lazy to… chew gum? Is that what you said?” we asked, in unison and separately, our eyes wide, our jaws dropping.
“Yes, yes, of course. I mean, it’s a lot of work!” she replied, with admirable, if slightly misjudged candour.  “It gets stuck in your teeth, you have to prise it out… you know, it’s work.”

We were silent. Dumbfounded. As Sogyal Rinpoche might say, wonderstruck.

“So, what else are you too lazy to do?” I asked, fascinated.
“Well, I don’t ever brush my hair. That’s work too, right?”
“OK,” I said, laughing, agog for more revelations. “And…?”
“Or wash my face. It saves a lot of money actually. I’m not one of those high maintenance women who have loads of luggage because I don’t have to pack face washes or ‘products’ or brushes. And anyway, I’m too lazy to have to deal with a lot of luggage.”

I had quickly run out of expressions of amazement, so instead asked, “Is there anything else that you’re too lazy to do?”

She thought for a bit, but was clearly struggling, so I asked, “How about cutting your nails. Do you, for example, cut your toe nails at all?”
“Oh, no!” she replied. “That’s really hard work!”
“So, how do you deal with nail growth?” I was almost afraid to ask.
“I peel the nails off when I notice they’re too long. It’s quite easy, actually.”

We then wandered through a list of personal hygiene rituals common to most living, breathing, civilized beings, discovering on the way that she plucks her armpits but not her eyebrows, brushes her teeth (which was a relief) and cleans her belly button (ditto).

So, things were going quite well until we rubbed up against the topic of going to the toilet, or ‘pooping’, as my friend prefers to describe dropping her load.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said, predictably. “I mean it’s really hard work, isn’t it!”
That’s not an easy statement to respond to.
“For a while, it just didn’t occur to me that people really had to poop, so I lay on a sofa for two weeks.”


“Having a poop is a big job!” she repeated, I think to emphasize her point. “You have to dedicate quite a big chunk of time to sitting on the pot and having a poop, don’t you?”
“So instead, you lay on a sofa for two weeks?” It was important, I felt, to clarify.
“And you didn’t poop at all?”
“No, it didn’t occur to me.”
“For two weeks!”
“Right! I mean, it’s hard work, isn’t it?”

“And how old were when this happened,” I asked, convinced her answer would put this particular exchange into some kind of manageable context.

“Twenty-one,” she smiled. “That’s not old, is it?”


Rupla is a Nepali man who works at the Labrang. Rinpoche trusts him completely. His sister-in-law also works here, and her daughter, but his wife and children are back in Nepal and he visits them once a year.

When I first visited Bir, Rupla didn’t seem to speak much English. I would smile and say good morning and good night, sometimes offer the odd thumbs-up sign, or, when needs must, ask for a toilet roll in sign language (Rupla is the guardian of those rare and expensive symbols of western civilization), but didn’t think to engage any further.

However, this visit, I learned from Rupla that he has been learning English by himself at night. “One or two words a night,” he explained, smiling broadly.

So, yesterday afternoon, I wasn’t surprized when he asked, “How are you?” It’s a phrase all language students like to get under their belts when they start a new language, so I responded appropriately.

“How much to do you weigh?” was the next question. Not one I’d anticipated, I must say, nor one whose answer could possibly hold any interest for him, nevertheless, I answered truthfully.

“60 kilos.” And, being polite and keen to help him practice, I asked, “How much do you weigh?”

“Low 60 kilos, high 68 kilos,” he beamed.
“Well, we’re about the same height, I think,” I replied.
“Five foot nine,” he said. “And you?”
“Five foot seven.”

And he stood by me to measure our heights, like a six year old might, and we laughed.

Back at my computer, I started thinking (instead of working) about how easy it is for people to become like furniture. We, or in this case, I, hadn’t even considered the possibility that Rupla might want to learn to speak more English. Like my desk at home, I expected him to retain exactly the same shape and position, and the possibility of change didn’t even occur to me. Yet, he has worked to improve his English to such a degree that more words were exchanged between us in those thirty seconds than in the previous seven years. And I find that strangely moving.

An Indian Kitchen/Bathroom

This is our next door neighbour’s kitchen/bathroom. It’s not so easy to see, but there’s a plastic mug with the families toothbrushes lodged in fork of the tree, a water tap, of course, and the concrete basin where all the pots, clothes, plates and bodies get washed. Everything your average family of six could possible need. Not a design you’re likely to find in IKEA, though.

Mantra Fans

The Labrang is full of monks. I assume they’ve come up from Chauntra, but can’t be sure. They sit all day in the garage, out of the burning sun, preparing all manner of ritual substances. Yesterday it was fans of mantras, and on my way up to the dining room for tea, I found two upturned umbrellas overflowing with hundreds and hundreds of them.

Before and After

I was browsing through my photos this morning (avoiding work, of course) and suddenly noticed how much has changed in the seven years since I first came to Bir. For example, the white house (below) is OT Rinpoche’s as it was in 2004, and the orange one is the same house as it is now.

As Emily pointed out during the drupchen, walking through the front gate and into the grounds of that immense marble edifice is becoming more and more like wandering into a magical realm, even a buddha realm. But of course, my perception is fixed so tightly on the ordinary and the mundane that I have no genuine experience of what a buddha realm is really like, so I’m just guessing.

Middle age brings with it a certain amount of nostalgia. Most of the teachings I received during the first seven years or so that I called myself a ‘buddhist’ went in one ear and out the other. But I can remember drinking in every story Philip told and storing it away in my mind for a time I might understand it better.

Yesterday I thought about when Dudjom Rinpoche visited Europe and Phil said he had been a little shocked to see that his attendant was generally quite drunk and that he smoked. Then, one day, Phil happened to catch sight of them in a more private moment, and was deeply moved by the pure love and devotion it was clear the attendant felt for his master. Devotion, it seems, covers a multitude of sins.

Marble Love Story

We found this set of prints at a flea market in Berlin over the summer. Of course, they aren’t on the wall yet because to get them there would require a vast amount of rearranging and hammering and thought and effort from both of us, and I’m in India. So my compromise, before I left, was to scan them so I could see them on the computer, and it occurred to me today that you might like them too. It’s such a charming story, and so very English.

The Pasta Tree

After years and years of painstaking research, thousands of Euros spent on air travel, car hire, guides and translators, I have finally discovered the original pasta tree growing in the garden of the house just before the bend in the road between Bir and OT Rinpoche’s house.