Just found this on Vimeo and, given that it’s a Sunday morning, it seems far more fitting to listen to Rinpoche than to waste time scribbling meaningly babble. Someone calling themselves Khyentse Norbu uploaded it, but I don’t know if the that person really is Rinpoche. The subject of the video is, though…
It turns out that the interview is one Lesley Ann Patten included on the DVD of her documentary about Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher (see comments to this post). Both Andreas (my husband) and Philip (my ex-husband) can be seen during the football section of that movie… ha ha! And if you’d like to buy the DVD to see them (and Rinpoche), and by so doing support independent documentary makers—they’re the ones who really suffer from rife pirating, not big hitters in the movie world—go to
We visited Britzer Garten a couple of weekends ago to see the tulips, but had left it too late in the season and they were almost dead by the time we got there. Last year we were too early, so next year we’ll go in the 3rd week of April which is, I believe, peak season, and be there just in time.
I spent the whole day fiddling fussily with my camera, trying to adjust the settings to get better snaps, but missed the fact that I’d selected, by mistake (can’t see close up any more), a macro setting on the lens. Typical. A pre-senior moment, I think. So, even though nothing is right about any of these photos, I still feel moved to add them as a record of that day to help oil the rusty cogs of my desiccated memory during future browsings—my own, of course, I wouldn’t want you to put yourselves through any of this waffle a second time. It was such a lovely, if chilly, May day.
On the way to Britzer Garten, which is about 20 minutes from our house if the bus comes on time, we saw an ad painted on the wall that reminded me of Indian ads I’d seen in Varanasi. This one’s for a master painter—but I’m sure that’s not the right English translation of Malermeister. My tragedy is that I never learnt to speak German properly, and now I can no longer summon ordinary English to my quivering tongue… ach ja!
Anyway, the master painter is the first picture you’ll see. Then there are a couple of assorted ‘views’, and the last photo is of a deckchair with a verse from the collection of anonymous German Folk Songs called ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ printed on the back. All the deckchairs had some verse or other plastered on them, so each, from the point of view many who pursue contemporary art with some seriousness, is a work of art. And noone sat on them. But that may have been because it was so cold.
Throughout the day Andreas quietly sang through his now extensive repertoire of traditional Irish songs, so the most appropriate sound track to this posting would be of him doing his Irish thing. But as I don’t have a new recording of him yet and can’t access his voice right now as he’s currently snoring and farting his way through the morning after a very late night ‘session’ in Kreuzberg (36, I think, not 60), I thought I’d substitute another exquisitely great voice.
My first choice of song was to have been from Mahler’s settings of Des Knabe Wunderhorn, but the Harvest Song I photographed isn’t part of that selection. So instead I’m offering a rather crackly recording (obviously a badly made video that I found on youtube) of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a musician and singer of such magnitude I’m not even going to try to describe his greatness, who died last week at the age of 86—a lifelong 60 a day smoker, but don’t tell Andreas. We will not see his like again in our lifetimes.
Here he is singing ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ from Mahler’s setting of five songs by Frederich Rückert. It’s worth including the translation of this poem, I think, even though the artistry of the poet doesn’t come through in English.
I am lost to the world
on which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing of me for so long
that it may well think me dead.
I do not care at all
whether it thinks me dead.
Nor can I deny it:
for I have really died to the world.
I have died to the world’s tumult
and rest in a realm of quiet:
I live alone in my own heaven,
in my love, in my song.
When I was in Varanasi and visited Sarnath we all fed the deer in the now fenced off deer park and it all felt very special. But apart from the fact Buddha taught there, the deer park itself wasn’t unique. We have one at the end of our road here in leafy Tempelhof and I go there quite often. Well, I pass through on my way to Kreuzberg (I walk—my concession to this body’s desperate need for constant attention) or when I’m trying to dump tsok offerings auspiciously. I’m sure someone will catch me one day—in Germany it’s not a spiritual act but a criminal one: littering.
There’s a large pond in the middle of the fenced off enclosure (not quite such anti-human fencing in Berlin as in Sarnath, I must say), and in March the deer were all so bloated with hormone activity they were racing around their enclosure as if their tails were on fire. Maybe that’s why their tails are black? Every photo I tried to take ended up being of a green and emphatically deer-less space. It didn’t occur to me to video it (I still haven’t go used the my camera yet), I’m afraid. But I did manage a photo a few days ago, now they’ve calmed down a bit. And a short video, which I’m too lazy to upload. Be grateful, I think it’s one of those little movies that you could only really enjoy if you’d been there… like births and kids brithday parties and such.
One of the reasons I love the Rinpoches I’ve met is that they continually debunk my most beloved prejudices and never cease to confound my expectations. Not always comfortable, it has to be said, but according to the Buddha and the great bodhisattvas, a sign that they are authentic teachers—I’m lucky to have met them.
I mention this because I’m still reeling from Khyentse Rinpoche’s most recent reorganization—I should more truthfully write ‘decimation’—of many of the spiritual misconceptions I’ve acquired over the years that I didn’t even know I had. For example, why am I practising Buddhadharma?
Truthfully, I started trying to practise in the first place because I was mesmerized by some extraordinary men—as I thought of them—and keen to feel less discombobulated. Neither Sogyal Rinpoche nor Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche were like anyone I had ever met before. They fascinated and appalled me in equal measure because they operated on such a radically different level, each with his own quite a distinct style. Most disconcerting of all, they seemed to know me better than I knew (and know) myself. So, when they strongly suggested I learn how to meditate, I had a go. But Buddha, honestly speaking, had very little to do with it.
In those days, I had rather black and spotty ideas of what being ‘spiritual’ meant. A left-wing liberal who valued ‘art’ above all things, I therefore picked up a few bumps and bruises as I learned to roll with the many punches and perforations and shatterings my most highly esteemed ideas were then subjected to.
One of my earliest memories of being in a teaching is of a Saturday morning at the Rigpa Centre in St, Paul’s Crescent, Camden Town (London). Sogyal Rinpoche was late. Not very late, actually, just twenty minutes or so, but the teaching was supposed to have started at 10am and it was hot. As he settled himself on his huge orange seat (I had yet to learn to call it by its traditional name ‘throne’—as an anti-royalist when I did discover the seat’s name I confess it stuck in my throat for many, many years) a woman at the back asked Rinpoche, a little tetchily, what the schedule for the weekend would be. Would lunch be late because he was starting late? And would we therefore be finishing later that evening? She needed to know! She had things to organize! And anyway, if an organization takes out an ad in Time Out announcing a teaching will start at 10am, it’s unprofessional to deviate.
At the time, I felt she had a point. But I’d only just met Rinpoche and the process of chipping away at my preconceptions had only just begun.
Instead of responding to the woman clearly and ‘professionally’ with an apology and a neatly printed schedule, Rinpoche proceeded to tease her about what it was she had really come for. Did she want to receive teachings, or a schedule?
The woman was upset and left in a bit of a huff. It often happens, and sadly some of those who react quickly and walk away from such an encounter harbour grudges and misconceptions for the rest of their lives. I must admit, I considered following her, but decided to stay. Which was fortunate because Rinpoche went on to explain the difference between attending a teaching to accumulate information and facts, or attending to learn how to fundamentally change the way you operate. And I’m still grateful for having at least rubbed shoulders with those ideas so early on.
Of course, back then, I wasn’t at the teaching because I was interested in following the Buddhist path or becoming a spiritual person. I was a singer—a rather screwed up, highly-strung singer, it must be said—who wanted to learn how to relax and wondered if meditation might help. I had no clue about the different yanas and traditions, who Buddha was, why I should care about what he said, and what the point of all this spiritual stuff really is. I certainly didn’t know that Buddhism is about self-moderated brainwashing—the vajrayana shows us how to adjust the way we look at ourselves and our world, and the mahayana shows us how to learn to love all sentient beings so much that their wellbeing and enlightenment is more important than our own. Basically, you’re signing up to change the way you think from top to toe. If I had, I’d probably never had turned up at a meditation weekend in the first place. All that was gradually revealed over the years, to be wrestled with and contemplated and rejected and reconsidered, etc, etc, etc. You know how it is.
By the way, I say ‘brainwashed’ because being by nature a rather misanthropic creature (to the point of being a full-blown sociopath) my brain was—some might say still is—in serious need of an industrial strength wash and blow-dry. Namby-pamby, lubby-dubby, flower-power-type ‘love your neighbour’ stuff would have had no chance. So for me, the great bodhichitta and pure perception teachings necessarily needed to behave like a powerful brainwashing… But it’s probably not a word you’ll find much in the traditional teachings.
Anyway, back to my current state of chagrin. After all this time, you would have thought that my mind and attitudes must have been so neatly retuned that nothing could surprise or unsettle me. Not so. Not by any means. I’m presently reeling from the horror of having unearthed the fact that in spite of donkey’s years of so-called Buddhist practice, I still don’t really know what it is to genuinely long for enlightenment. Worse! I realize I make absolutely no concessions to my need for personal comfort and ease for the sake of spiritual progress. I like sleep more than practice, I usually chose lunch over encouraging a teacher to continue to teach, and, far from trying to remember to be aware in every moment, I love to lose myself in a great book or movie. Sad, but true.
I wonder if I’ll even get close to genuinely longing for enlightenment before I go completely ga-ga?
Gott Buddha im Himmel!
I love Miriam Margolyes, but I’m not a lesbian. I love her because she is wholly herself, devoid of any artifice or pretention, and her timing is exquisite. To illustrate her enviable ‘selfness’, here she is on the Graham Norton show last year.
Thinking about Adam yesterday (because of his book) led, naturally, to me thinking about Patrick this morning. Typically, memories started flooding my mind as I tried to do some practice—a rare enough event in itself. I should say in my defence that I struggled, ‘personfully’, for a good half hour to cut this particular chain of thoughts, but failed. And instead of doing a Riwo Sangchö, I find myself back at the computer with very, very itchy fingers.
I wonder how many people outside Rigpa (the organisation, obviously) know about Patrick? I’m not sure I know him that well myself, yet he is in my top five of those who had the greatest influence on the way I operate. So he has not been an insignificant figure in my life.
You probably came across his name when you read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, where he’s listed as editor, along with Andrew Harvey. But what does editing Sogyal Rinpoche really involve? Rather more than you might imagine, as I discovered when I started working for Sogyal Rinpoche in 1993.
I’d rubbed shoulders with Patrick on many occasions over the previous few years, but never really got to know him. But then, noone really did because he was always working, putting together the teachings and supporting Sogyal Rinpoche’s work. One of his two right hand men, actually, the other being Philip, my ex-husband and very good friend.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche always used to be fascinated by the process Sogyal Rinpoche put himself through when he taught. In order to capitalize on the spontaneous realisations that arose in particularly inspired moments, Sogyal Rinpoche’s students, and in the first instance Patrick, would gather every word Rinpoche would say over what used to be described as a ‘cycle’ of teachings, and continually present a complilation of those moments to Rinpoche for further clarification. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle, actually. And for those involved in the process, it was the most wonderful exercise in ‘listening’ to pick up where new clarifications happened, where they should fit into the whole, how to inspire the completion of incomplete bits—always based on traditional models of course and the teachings of Sogyal Rinpoche’s own masters—and which bit was better than another. This is a gross simplification of course, but it’s the best I can do for now.
Clearly, it is neither a simple nor an easy method, but the results are often magical. The writing of TBLD is the supreme example of how this method works, and I think you’ll agree, the result was not at all bad.
So he’s a Buddhist scholar and captivating writer—I think both these qualities are pretty well-known. The thing about Patrick that really impressed me over the years, though, was that he never, ever gave up. Of course he is also brilliant, cultivated, radical, a polymath, a poet, a musician, extremely witty, occasional rambunctious, a fatally precise perfectionist and outrageously courageous. But far and away his most extraordinary quality is that he’s still there. He is still serving Sogyal Rinpoche as he has for the past forty-odd years. How many clever, well-educated right hand men last that long in such a position? Most are off after their 18 year stint to gather students for themselves. Not Patrick.
He told me once that not long after he first met Sogyal Rinpoche in the 70s, he tried his hand at transcribing a teaching Rinpoche had given. Once he’d finished polishing his meticulously accurate transcription, he presented it to Rinpoche—no doubt, spiced with a little youthful hubris (my addition—Patrick was a Cambridge scholar, an historian who studied Egyptology and worked for a while at the British Museum in London, so I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that he might have been just a little full of his own education, if you know what I mean.) Glancing over the absolutely faithful rendering of every word he had spoken, Sogyal Rinpoche handed the manuscript back to Patrick and said, “I didn’t say that.” Another student who was with them, I don’t know his name, agreed. Yet, Patrick said, it was word-for-word what Rinpoche had said.
What Patrick himself hadn’t realized at the time was that what Rinpoche wants to say takes time to mature and never comes out all in one sitting. So, what Patrick had transcribed was, from Rinpoche’s point of view, just a scrap of what ultimately needed to be said. But perhaps that first transcript was the starting block for their joint rather relentless pursuit of perfection.
So, the teachings are quite right when they tell us that, particularly in the vajrayana, things work best when the blessings of an authentic master meet the devotion of an authentic student. Khyentse Wangpo’s accomplishments, we are told time and again, were so great and numerous that it’s difficult for later generations to believe that one person could achieve so much in just one lifetime. It’s even more amazing when you consider that Khyentse Wangpo retired to his room in his forties and threw his shoes out of the window saying he’d never need them again. Leaving us to wonder, if he didn’t cross his own threshold for the rest of his life, how did he get so much done? From what I’ve heard, he had the help of his two great compatriots, Chogyur Lingpa and Jamgon Kongtrül Lodrö Taye—a great double act to have on your team, it must be said—and upwards of one hundred extremely good students to help him. The blessings of this sublime master mingling with the devotion of his remarkable students resulted in the resurrection of Tibetan Buddhism in the 19th century, and without their efforts we probably wouldn’t be practising Tibetan Buddhism in the 21st century. It’s food for thought, don’t you think?
I have one funny memory from our time in Paris in the early 90s. A group of us, around twenty or so I think, had gathered at the Rigpa Paris Centre in rue Burq, Montmatre. Therapies of all kinds were becoming very big in the ‘new age’ world—’wellness’ was a term that had yet to be coined—and one of the fashionable themes was how Buddhism and therapy might cooperate.
Why we all decided to sit in a circle to try a sharing session, I have no idea, as my memory, being selective, only switches on at the point where twenty French, German, Dutch, English, and indeterminate beings, none of whom have anything in common except their devotion to Sogyal Rinpoche, gaze, embarrassed and uncomfortable, anywhere but in the faces of their neighbours. God it was awful. The atmosphere was leaden! None of us knew what to expect and were nervous and tense. Rinpoche, being the perfect mirror, looked exhausted and depressed too. Noone moved. We barely breathed.
Then Patrick intervened. He leaned over to Rinpoche and said, quite loudly, directly into his left ear, “Wakey, wakey!”
I was deeply shocked. So shocked, in fact, that, like those who experience road accidents, time slowed down almost to a halt. What was Patrick doing? How would Rinpoche react? What the *!@? was I doing in this mad-house?
And suddenly, everything changed. Sogyal Rinpoche started giggling and each member of that circle relaxed, shrinking two inches from their previously frozen states. One by one, a little hysterically in some cases, we cracked up until everyone in the room was helpless with laughter. Needless to say, the dramatic change of atmosphere was the perfect prelude to a profoundly moving session, though I remember not one word of what passed between us. But Patrick’s profound sensitivity to Rinpoche’s moods and his courage to act impressed me deeply.
I see from my word count that this post is at least four times longer than usual, so I’ll stop now, a little abruptly perhaps, but I have no wish to try your patience. And I’ll close with words translated into English quite early on by Sogyal Rinpoche and Patrick, which remain some of the most beautiful in the new English canon.
Mesmerized by the sheer variety of perceptions,
which are like the illusory reflections of the moon in water,
Beings wander endlessly astray in samsara’s vicious cycle.
In order that they may find comfort and ease
in the luminosity and all-pervading space of the true nature of their minds
I generate the immeasurable love, compassion, joy and equanimity
of the awakened mind, the heart of bodhichitta.
I’ve never really studied Lojong thoroughly—which won’t come as a surprise to most of you reading this post. You’ve all seen me breaking such commitments as, “Don’t ponder others’ flaws,” or “Don’t strike a vulnerable point,” or especially, “Don’t be irritable,” and “Don’t be temperamental”. Actually, as I read the list, I can’t see one commitment that I have managed to keep. Ach ja. That’s what comes from being one of the generation so-called Buddhist practitioners who jumped in at the deep end in the 80s and have been flailing around in a quagmire of misunderstanding ever since. I’m definitely “difficult to train”; in fact, the very idea of “training” is anathema to me. Which is why putting Lojong teachings into practice would do me quite a lot of good.
This is one of the reasons I’ve recently read—and enjoyed enormously—To Dispel the Misery of the World written by the great 15th century master Ga Rabjampa, and translated by Adam Pearcey for Rigpa Translations. True, I probably wouldn’t have opened it at all had Adam not been a friend and very kind answerer-of-stupid-questions, or had I not been to his 21st birthday party (a homemade cake and a couple of cups of an unidentifiable French alcoholic beverage—it was the last time I smoked a cigarette, come to think of it) at Lerab Ling a lifetime or so ago. But I did, and he does, so I have, and am glad.
It’s a very beautiful looking book, I must say, but one of the disadvantages of such a gorgeous cover is that it is so easy simply to gaze at the photo in wonder and forget about opening the thing up—a strong temptation in this case, which I guess future book makers should take into consideration. On the other hand, or should I say page in this context, there are an awful lot of really beautifully designed books these days, but this is one of the few whose content merit the designer’s effort.
The first thing to point out, I suppose, is that it is a book of pith instructions. Not hard to work out, given the “Whispered Teachings” part of the subtitle. And true to the spirit of pith instructions, the teachings presented here, while completely authentic and true to their tradition, follow their own logic most elegantly. But for those whose bible is Trungpa Rinpoche’s Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness, there are one or two surprises in store. For example, Trungpa Rinpoche’s “point one” covers Guru Yoga and the ‘four thoughts’ or ‘four reminders’ (or whatever your favourite translation for these profoundly transformative contemplations), in a couple of hundred words. In To Dispel the Misery of the World it takes up around 70 pages!
Then, instead of leaping into absolute bodhicitta, Ga Rabjampa reinstates a line that he says has often been omitted from the root text, “Once stability is reached, teach the secret” which means, he tells us, “Once stability in relative bodhichitta has been reached, then absolute bodhichitta, which is kept secret from those not yet ready to receive it, can be taught.” The upshot being that the order here is reversed and we find ourselves instantly propelled into the midst of one of the most detailed descriptions of tonglen and ‘exchanging self for others’ I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. And so, if your reason for reading this text is to learn how, practically speaking, to go about developing love, compassion and bodhichitta, you’ll find everything you need right here.
The text is, as Tibetan tradition demands, peppered liberally with quotations from great and familiar texts—Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend, for example, and of course The Way of the Bodhisattva—as well a number I hadn’t come across before (not being much of scholar). One of these is repeated a couple of times and is from the sutras. It is included to encourage us to feel grateful to our mothers in the section about how to meditate on love. See if it works for you:
All the breast milk that we drank
when each sentient being was our mother
is greater in volume than all the water
contained within the four great oceans.
Sadly, my black sense of humour and general lack of appreciation of mothers find it hard to read these words without reference to a number of disturbing images that flicker, unwanted, through my degenerate mind, so clearly, I have a very limited capacity. But this is certainly no reflection on the excellent teachings on developing love through contemplating the love of our mother that appear here in a very moving practice that’s combined with Guru Yoga, and also includes a meditation on compassion. It’s just an instance of how a modern, sick mind unravels itself.
Having completed the ‘holy secret’ of how to arouse relative bodhichitta, we discover, again in a very detailed way, how to practise shamatha and vipashyana meditations—absolute bodhichitta. In this section Ga Rabjampa relies heavily on teachings by Kamalashila from his Stages of Meditation II, which are clear and extremely pragmatic. Then come what I think Trungpa described as the ‘slogans’, and finally a conclusion.
For a five hundred year old text, it’s surprisingly pertinent, at least to this aging modern mind, and has been translated with meticulous care and grace. Let me know what you think. It’s an auspicious first from Adam, though, and I pray it will be followed by many, many more translations of texts from that glorious golden era.
Most of you will probably already have seen this interview, but my sentimental heart can’t resist posting it here. Apart from anything else, it means I’ll be able to find it again…
I made the mistake of taking a ‘which character from classical mythology are you’ test on the Oxford English Dictionary site, instead of just looking up a word and getting back to work (I wish I had some discipline). It seems I display all the characteristics of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Makes sense in some ways, I suppose. I have queenly aspects to my personality, I think, but I can’t see myself pronouncing curses then committing suicide. Especially not for a man whose father was only a second cousin to King Priam!
(Please note, my tongue is shoved firmly into my cheek as I scribble this—or whatever the computer term for typing quickly and carelessly might be. Scramble? Scroffle? Tribble? An example of snotty English humour at its worst.)
Anyway, the best thing about Dido is the Lament Purcell wrote for her. Sung wonderfully here by Sarah Connolly at the Proms in 2009.