OT Rinpoche at Lerab Ling (1)

Sorry to say I am word-poor today (for some of you that may well be a relief), and instead of my usual drivel, would like offer you some snaps of the utterly incomparable OT Rinpoche during his stay in Lerab Ling this year, to ease you through your week. (He may not be quite a ‘new man’, but having had four of kids of his own, he’s clearly picked up some baby handling skills.)

Schnaftl Ufftschik

Last night we took Noa Jones to the ufaFabrik to hear the “The sound of the Transsiberian Railway on her way to Prenzlberg, featuring a thirsty trumpet and a drunken sousaphone” Wonderful stuff and for me, the ‘sound’ of Berlin. 

Advertising Overload

There are times when I feel as though I’ve been asleep for a couple of decades, so completely do I seem to have avoided noticing the evolutions in advertising. My modus operandi is to edit advertising out as it happens. My eye alights on an ad.—on a website, for example—then simply rolls over it. Nothing registers, even subliminally, and I’m able to continue looking for whatever nonsense it is that I’m after without contamination. I used to be rather proud of this skill, and  assumed, naively, it would not fail me. It turns out I was wrong.

Advertisers these days are developing stealth campaigns designed to creep up on unsuspecting, innocent, editors-out of mainstream advertising. I came across one recently in the toilet of a cafe in Treptower Park. Having washed my hands, grateful for the luxury of a clean public toilet as I mused over the horrors I’d stumbled into in India, I reached for a paper towel. At first glance it appeared to be patterned, but on closer inspection I discovered, to my horror, that I was clutching an advertisement for “Company music Berlin” and “Drehreif”.

What’s next? Advertising on the sticky side of plasters? Tampons? Condoms?

Anyway, I took a photo of the paper towel dispenser, in case you didn’t believe me, then returned to my husband with damp hands.

Stranger than the rest…

“Words, words, words!” Not the first time have I quoted Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunshine Boulevard, and it won’t be the last.

Bloody exhausting things, words. Especially when they won’t line up as they ought. I took a photo the other day of brightly coloured draw knobs that the Turk at the Mehringdamm end of Bergmannstrasse has been peddling for the past month. It hurts to look at this snap because they remind me of the jumble of vivid and brilliant words and phrases that pile up in this bleeding yet rusty mind of mine, for which I strain muscle and sinew to breaking point in the effort to screw into place, but always find that the end result is at best odd, or worse, painfully affected and downright awkward. Bugger it!

I think the root of the trouble may lie in sad fact that the wave of memories of music I’ve been drowning you under this week, indulgent reader, has also loosened and washed up faded but determined reminders of various poems I was exposed to as a child. I can’t say I ever learnt any of them properly, but scraps have been screwed up and lodge, painlessly, in the deeper recesses of my memory—all produced by the truly great and talented writers of the past. John Clare, for example, the farmer, rescued from obscurity in the 20th century and, we are told by them that know, is now loved as much as Keats and Shelley. (Does anyone truly read Keats and Shelley these days, except for exams?)

There’s an ode or a sonnet he wrote to some bird or other that schoolchildren of my generation in Buckinghamshire, where I grew up, were given to read—a generation earlier they would have commited it to memory, but all I can dig up  are the phrases ‘thick and spreading hawthorn bush’ and ‘sing hymns to sunrise’. A cursory google didn’t instantly splat the poem across my screen, so I’ve settled for posting perhaps his most famous poem, which I like better and which, given my current mood (be grateful I don’t elucidate), seems far more apt.

My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes;
They rise and vanish in oblivion’s host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes:
And yet I am, and live — like vapours toss’t

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise —
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest, that I love the best
Are strange — nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below — above the vaulted sky.

Maestro Muti

This recording of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, Muti’s ‘debut’, came out in 1979, and I was at the Festival Hall for the London concert he gave to promote it (might have been in 1980—things moved more slowly back then). Frankly, though, although I remember being utterly thrilled by the music, what I left the concert hall with that night was a dizzy crush on this stupendously sexy Italian. He was (is still, I’m sure) sublimely gorgeous, powerful, musical, successful… and a total bastard. My type to a tee.

He’s made many enemies over the years—if I ever met him I’m sure I’d hate him. The La Scala musicians hated him so vehemently that they ganged up against him and forced the management to sack him. But then, they’re famous for hating just about everyone. In 1980, though, I was at college learning (theoretically at least, between drinking binges) to sing, and still imagined I had a career ahead of me—the fantasies we come up with to get us through life!

For a while in my second or third year, I had an American girlfriend called Karin who was also a singer and who was also training at the same college. I remember her father—an American lawyer who collected stamps, I think as a way of retreating into a world of meticulous care and order, such a contrast to his deeply neurotic family—managed to get one of the publicity posters of Muti from HMV (in those days, not as easy as it should have been) and framed it for her so she could put it over her bed.

They lived in one of those little squares off the King’s Road, Markham Square I think, and she had the two rooms at the top. They were rich. I was living just off Newington Green, north of Islington, in a ground floor flat that I had to leave to get to the bathroom at the top of the staircase. I was poor. Well, not truly poor. I had a grant and didn’t have to pay my college fees, so I was pretty well off in comparison with today’s English kids (poor things) who won’t have the luxury of studying something just for the sake of it. But that’s another story.

Anyway, I brought Karin into this post in the first place because I have a vivid memory of her saying, as we sat waiting in the Blandford Street studios for lessons or a practice room or some such, that she only became really serious about making music her profession when she first saw Muti at that concert. If she could work just once with him, if she could worship at the alter of his prodigious talent, as well as wallow in the deep oceans of his ostentatious Latin sexual magnetism (most of these words are my own invention, but Karin definitely mentioned the ‘sexual magnetism’) she would consider all the years of training we had ahead of us, and the deal-making, and the compromises, worth while.

I remember smiling knowingly (I was all of 19 and quite vile) and changing the subject. I don’t know whether she had a career or not—we didn’t keep in touch—but her aspiration has taken up residence in a side cupboard of memory, and pops out occasionally to make me laugh. Particularly when I hear Beethoven. The recording of the symphony, which I bought at the concert on my shiny new credit card stayed with me too, for a couple of decades. I listened to it obsessively for several years, until I gave away all my records when I moved to CDs, then only slightly less often to the cassette transfer. Before long, though, a dirty tape deck chewed it to pieces and refused even to give it up the shreds, so I haven’t heard it for a while. Not until this morning when I found it on youtube, as I looked for something else entirely.

Bottom line, it’s worth a listen. I wanted just to give you the second movement, but ‘whoever’ uploaded the whole thing in one chunk. It’s really worth the effort it’ll take to carve out the time to listen to it all—and don’t forget to turn on your speakers.


I so rarely listen to music any more (only when something rises in my mind and won’t back off, like a Delhi hawker), I forget how certain harmonies can take hold of the heart and sometimes instantly, but always relentlessly, crush to a pulp one’s resistent to the raw emotions they wring out. I have no control whatsoever over that particular trigger. Take for example this piece of deliciousness from more than 30 years ago. Katia Ricciarelli and Lucia Valentini sing the Doloroso from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater under the baton of the great Claudio Abbado and the orchestra of La Scala Milan. (If you have good speakers, turn them on now.) My eyes are still swimming…

Summer in the City

Hmmnn, not much ‘hot town’ in Berlin this year, but I love the song and it keeps rising up in my mind, especially when the roof’s leaking and hail storms wreak havoc with our geraniums. We did have one weekend of sunshine in June, but otherwise it’s been a grey, wet summer this year. This week, with two weeks of the season to go, temperatures are supposed to rise. Let’s see. Otherwise, we’ll have more muddy puddles for ducks to bathe in, the sunflowers will have to be renamed ‘shade’ flowers and Berlin’s many bronzing salons will make a packet..


It’s my friend Dorothy Iannone’s birthday today. A mile-stone birthday, as it happens, but I’m far too discrete to divulge which one…

I’ve been struggling for a couple of days to find the perfect image to offer you, Dorothy, on your birthday, and have finally plumped for a snap of Sogyal Rinpoche with Heinz and Andreas. I took it after we all had dinner at Pauly Saal on Auguststrasse during Rinpoche’s last visit to Berlin. We had walked round into Tucholskystrasse to see the building once owned by Anne’s family. I started snapping Rinpoche in the twilight, trying desperately to get the settings right on my camera, but often failing, and nervous about being too conspicuous. Suddenly Rinpoche announced he wanted to have his picture taken with each of us, so in spite of my badly set up camera, I had a go. This is one of those photos.

Rinpoche was laughing about how short he was in comparison to the two German boys, and Andreas, with his rather stiff back, was laughing about failing to do the ‘Tibetan’ thing of bowing so he could be lower than Rinpoche, and I think Heinz was laughing just because he was so happy to be with Rinpoche. It was great fun. And of course, I thought of you because you’d had your latest opening dinner at Pauly Saal only a few weeks earlier.

Happy Birthday, dear Dorothy. I hope you have a wonderful day (and I’ll phone you a little later on).

Tirelessness (5)

There’s one form of tirelessness that I doubt will survive beyond the present generation of masters: the tirelessness of genuine enlightened, spontaneous activity, without reference to external judgements or pressures. Take Do Khyentse Rinpoche, for example, a truly tireless Dzgochen master of the crazy wisdom school, whose unconventional outlook and activities profoundly shocked the majority of Tibetans in his own time, but whose reputation today is sky-high. Tulku Thondup tells a wonderful story about him in Masters of Meditation and Miracles:

“Do Khyentse went to meet Gönpo Namgyal (d. 1865), the wicked chieftain of Nyarong, who caused many sufferings to many parts of Kham. One day that chieftain said to Do Khyentse, ‘You carry a gun—now shoot that crow.’ Do Khyentse did so. Then the chieftain said, ‘You claim to be a compassionate Buddhist, but you are killing animals. How can that be?’ Do Khyentse snapped his fingers, and the crow flew away.”

But do you think this great Mahasiddha with power over life and death (not a bad siddhi, you must admit) could have survived the contemporary western world. Can you imagine what the English media would do to a Buddhist who went hunting? Let alone his other difficult-to-explain activites. Spiritual power and miracles don’t sit well in the laps of Dockland hacks, in the same way that spontaneity doesn’t lend itself well to conformity.

These days, for example, since society has finally accepted that women have the right to tell their side of any story, a man’s right to a fair hearing appears to be on the wane. In a world where wisdom is trounced time and again by the rule of law (which is an ass) and media bias and love of black and white sensationalism (words fail me—and a fear of potential litigation…), if a man is accused of violence towards or abuse of a woman, it’s virtually impossible for him to find a forum in which to tell his side of the story. Bill Clinton, for example. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I do not condone abuse or disbelieve Monica Lewinsky, et al, but apart from the denial the news ran of him saying “I never had sexual relations with that woman” as he wagged his finger, I’ve never seen or heard his version of what happened.

Do you know the movie, The Life of David Gale from 2003? It’s an Alan Parker movie with Kevin Spacey, Laura Linney and Kate Winslet. The critics loathed it but audiences seemed to love it. The bit that stuck with me was when Kevin Spacey’s character (a college philosophy professor) refused to bed a student in exchange for a pass mark, and then met the girl (by now an ex-student) at a party, had consensual sex with her, then found himself accused of rape as payback for failing her. In the movie, his side of the story didn’t count. He was barely given a hearing even by his closet friends. Just the fact he’d been accused of rape was enough to get him the sack, and the excuse his unfaithful wife needed to take their son to live in Spain with her lover. David Gale became untouchable.

That part of the story rang true for me because I’ve had friends in similar situations. And I ask myself, in such an environment, how is it possible for the crazy wisdom masters to function?  If Do Khyentse Rinpoche had had to think twice about getting arrested for GBH, and the harm his arrest might do to the reputation of vajrayana buddhism, he may never have used physical violence to introduce Patrul Rinpoche to the nature of his mind. A good thing, you might say. But what if the only way to make that introduction was to drag Patrul Rinpoche by the hair and beat him up? Given how effective Patrul Rinpoche’s teaching life became after that introduction, I, a life-long pacifist, find it hard to censure or condem Do Khyentse for his actions.

I can’t imagine ever being able to emulate such courage, though. Could you tirelessly be true to the activites inspired by a genuine realization of the nature of you mind, regardless of the opinions and judgements of those around you? I couldn’t. But I’ve met a few masters who can. OT Rinpoche, for example, and of course Sogyal Rinpoche. But will any of the next generation of tulkus be able to risk such speedy and effective methods without getting chucked into prison, or run out of the civilized world? It’s not very likely, is it?

Tirelessness (4): the Intellectual

I found  myself wading through acre upon acre of deadly newspaper/internet articles yesterday, as I endeavoured to gather material for a new project. In the process, I came across an article on Ariana Huffington’s wildly popular news blog, the Huffington Post, which, we are told, gets more ‘unique’ hits per month than the New York Times (but less than the Daily Mail). She’s not a woman I admire. I first brushed up against her tireless and truly ruthless self-promotion when I read the gossiped-centred biography of Maria Callas she wrote, way back when. I’ve since done my best to avoid her.

Yesterday, though, it was on her site that I came across a somewhat touchy-feely article from about a year go, entitled “Rumi and the Way of the Spiritual Lover”, which, I must admit, I didn’t really read at all. However my eye alighted on the author’s own translation of one of Rumi’s poems, which includes the line, “Intellectuals plan their repose; lovers are ashamed to rest.” I can’t say I’m much moved by the quality of Kabir Helminski’s English translation, but that particular line stopped me in my tracks. It’s so painful to recognize yourself in negative poetic examples.

Anyway, here’s the whole poem, which is quite thought-provoking in spite of its rather lumpy language—and my profound sympathies to fellow pseudo-intellectuals out there who recognize themselves in its imaginings. Plus a photo of the quintessential spiritual lover who also, miraculously, manages to embody all the most useful and brilliant qualities of an intellectual.

The intellectual is always showing off;
the lover is always getting lost.
The intellectual runs away, afraid of drowning;
the whole business of love is to drown in the sea.
Intellectuals plan their repose;
lovers are ashamed to rest.
The lover is always alone,
even surrounded with people;
like water and oil, he remains apart.
The man who goes to the trouble
of giving advice to a lover
get’s nothing. He’s mocked by passion.
Love is like musk. It attracts attention.
Love is a tree, and lovers are its shade.

(The Pocket Rumi by Kabir and Camille Hleminski)

Tirelessness (3)

I heard an interesting story the other day. Yangthang Rinpoche is in Lerab Ling at the moment. He’s in his eighties and spent many years in a Chinese prison. Philip said that he doesn’t teach, he just gives empowerments and transmissions, and fills the rest of his time with practice. Nothing else.

It sounds to me as though his brand of  ‘tirelessness’ is the effortless kind, which I simply can’t imagine for myself. I love my ‘breaks’ away from making the effort of even attempting to be aware, which is something of a contradiction for someone who so eagerly insists she’s following a spiritual path. What a fraud!

Philip told me that on the second or third day of empowerments, Rinpoche spent four hours preparing through the ‘self-empowerment’ before giving the empowerments themselves, which took two or three hours. They all then broke for a two hour lunch, as there are 1,100 people in Lerab Ling at the moment (Gott im Himmel!) and it takes a good two hours for everyone to eat.

Yangthang Rinpoche, however, suddenly appeared in temple after about an hour, and sat quietly under the Buddha to practise. A helpful Rigpa person explained to Rinpoche that the next session wouldn’t start for another hour, so he could go to his room to rest if he liked.

“But I like it here,” said Yangthang Rinpoche, simply. And stayed put.