Malevolent Irish Donkeys

At Dzogchen Beara, if you turn south (facing the sea, go right) you can go on what they call the ‘river walk.’ The idea is that you end up at a river, some say a waterfall, but frankly, it may turn out to be one of those sights that can only be seen by the pure of heart. We certainly couldn’t find it, but then, we were handicapped by my lack of mobility (sciatica appears to be contagious) and compulsive blackberry picking. Jerry, a musician staying at the hostel, found it, and he definitely had the feel of an innocent about him. Two other guys (I liked them, but my brain is a colander) set out to look for it but like us, struck out.

Not finding the waterfall didn’t bother me a bit, actually, because my main focus was the blackberry bushes. They gladdened my aging heart. I felt like a six year old as I hobbled from one large outcrop to another, plucking and devouring the biggest and juiciest berries I could find, and reluctantly surrendering the odd one or two to my patient husband. He was equally entranced by our slow motion exploration, you’ll be relieved to hear, as it gave him ample opportunity to light up some killer weed and rest his gaze on the sea and sky. Ever the contradiction, my husband, combining in one cheerful soul a fondness for both the sublime and the terminally dangerous. My big find was wild strawberries—in September! They were divinely delicious, and the best reason yet for upping sticks and relocating to the wilds of south-west Ireland.

It was on the river walk that we met a pair of donkeys. They were guarding the swing gate that would take us onto the road. We couldn’t move them, so we ended up (after trying to make friends) climbing over the larger, five bar gate next to the blocked one. The lighter coloured donkey was rather a bland being, the dumb follower of her more charismatic mate. He was not a happy creature. I petted him a bit, but the vibe was one of temporarily hooked back malevolence ready to spring at any moment. He reminded me of OT Rinpoche actually. Well, not OT Rinpoche himself, but the shopping trip we took with him in Berlin—the one I wrote about on 21 September last year. Rinpoche invested in more than a hundred model animals at KaDeWe, but couldn’t find a good donkey, complaining that none of them had the right energy. He illustrated his point by pulling a funny face, and I can now show you a picture of what that face looked like, but curiously, it was the dark and dangerous donkey who displayed it.

Friendly Irish Cats and a Japanese Novel

Throughout our time in Ireland, we found ourselves in the presence of keenly communicative cats. And being catless cat people, each encounter was a joy.

The first cat to find us was at Errisbeg b&b. It’s a 20 minute walk from MacCarthy’s Bar and one of the prettiest houses I’ve seen in Ireland. (We stayed there for one night at the beginning of our holiday because Dzogchen Beara didn’t have room.)

Actually, there were two cats at Errisbeg, one of whom we met at about 2am when she jumped through the very slightly open window, (English people need to breathe at night, unlike most Europeans. Andreas has now been thoroughly trained, so whatever the weather, we open a window) padded around for a bit, then having located the most comfortable (from her point of view) and inconvenient spot (from our point of view), curled up between us on the bed. A comfortable bed, as it happens, but about a foot and a half narrower than we’re used to (Andreas is 6’5″) and therefore a little less spacious than strictly necessary. But the cat found her place and settled in. Until about 4am, when she wanted to go out. Naturally.

The other Errisbeg cat came in as we were dressing and, as you can see in the photo, distracted Andreas for a while. Then at breakfast (a particularly delicious breakfast, I remember) we caught another glimpse of our nighttime visitor. She looked rather forlorn out in the rain, but turned her nose up at the open conservatory door when we tried to invite her to join us. Cats!

At Dzogchen Beara there are many cats, but we only really became friendly with two. The big ginger and white, Marlon Brando’s Vito Corrleone in the furry flesh, remained aloof, but kept his eye on us to make sure we didn’t overstep any cat-set marks. We were tolerated, nothing more. The white fighter and the little ginger and white were friends, and as you can see, the little ginger and white became very attached to Andreas, slept with him, sat on him, and searched for him diligently on the few occasions she lost sight of him.

There were others, of course, but I’ve run out of steam now, mostly because I want to tell you about a character in Haruki Murakami’s wonderful book Kafka on the Shore. Have you read it? One of Khyentse Rinpoche ‘s recommendations, but I must confess it didn’t appeal at all me and so I approached it with some trepidation—I was on holiday after all, and Asian metaphysical mindbending wasn’t, initially, my idea of relaxing reading. But the dutiful student in me kicked in and, sighing a little wistfully perhaps, I turned on my kindle the day before we left and began to read. (I can’t start a book at an airport or in a plane, so unless I’m well into something before I travel, I just space out or reread Hello! magazine until my brain turns off altogether.)

In three pages I was hooked and am now eager to evangelize. It’s a marvellous book. My only quibble (there has to be one) is that it was translated into American not English, and somehow American slang doesn’t, for me at least, sit well with what little I know of the Japanese character and culture. American publishing is wiping out English at a rate of knots, and I don’t think anyone these days really cares. What to do?

Anyway, one of the main characters, who had his mind wiped during a mysterious incident involving flashes of light in a forest as he picked mushrooms with his schoolmates (very X-Files, but no Scully or Mulder), found subsequently that he was able to talk to cats. Of all the super-powers I’ve ever come across (and these days, that’s more than a handful), talking to cats sounds has to be the best. I think Andreas can already. And his mother can talk to birds. So I’m the odd-one out, because I can only communicate through a computer keyboard—a realization I’ve only recently allowed myself to accept. And which, I suppose, is another very good reason for regularly removing myself from my computer by taking more holidays.

Posh Irish Sheep

Dzogchen Beara faces the tail end of Bere Island, which looks like a bloodhound rising up out of the water under a green baize sheet, and was part of the view from our cottage window. So we went there one day, on the ferry (only takes 15 minutes), to have a look around.

I hadn’t quite anticipated how little there would be there, and was disturbed to find there were no public toilets on the island. As I’m definitely not a ‘do it in the bushes’ kind o’gal, I was extremely grateful to a very nice Chinese lady—one of the 200 people who live there—who let me use hers. We also noticed that the advertised cafe was shut, but as we hadn’t gone to drink tea (especially once we discovered the lack of facilities) we weren’t much bothered. It was the closest I’ll probably ever get to the kind of walking the Bhutanese engage in routinely, especially when travelling to the wilder, even less civilized east of their country. Or to Philip’s experience last year of hiking to Sengye Dzong with OT Rinpoche.

Naturally, we weren’t at all prepared for our hike. Or at least, I wasn’t. Number 1 priority should have been the acquisition of gum boots, which I’d thought about, but not acted upon (what’s new?). So I spent most of the walk trying to avoid the squelchy bits, which meant skirting the uniformly squishy trail and leaping like a mountain goat over the worst patches. (Andreas didn’t manage to capture this unlikely activity on camera, for which I am extremely grateful.) And of course, I had to keep my head down and concentrate, so from that point of view, it was not unlike my normal working day.

The point of this post, though, is to report on the sheep we met on our hike.

First, though, I must confess a guilty, nay, shameful secret. When I travel I usually buy a Hello! magazine to browse through on the plane. Sad, but true. I only mention it because on our flight over to Dublin, I’d read about Victoria Beckham, the pouting pop princess turned fashion designer, and her latest ‘collection.’ The breathlessly enthusiastic fashion reporter noted that the collection featured three colours, black, white and bright orange—this year, it seems, black is the new black, once again.

So, back to my tale. As we left the lighthouse, which had been our goal, to make our way back to the ferry landing across the hills (equally mushy, by the way, however high we climbed—I thought water obeyed gravity and flowed down to the sea, but not on Bere Island) we met some sheep. As I tried to capture decent images of them with my trusty camera (I’ve been known to photograph paint drying…), Victoria and her clothes popped into my mind. In the time it takes to wrinkle one’s brow, as most of us do when we try to make a connection or clarify a thought (not something you’ll see Victoria do much), I realized that the sheep weren’t as cut off from civilization as I’d assumed. Their faces and legs were black, their woolly coats white (well, sort of) and on them was emblazoned a single colour. Orange. Victoria’s cutting-edge fashion had even penetrated the wilds of south-east Ireland. Of course, it was only the sheep who seemed keen on Victoria’s vision, but nothing in life is ever truly perfect, is it.

Ireland, the Weather and Bread

The rain in Ireland is the wettest in the world—bar none! Not even monsoon in India can beat it. Infuriatingly, a quick glance out of the window as I was trying to decide what to wear, didn’t even begin to inform me of the depth of penetration a light drizzle can inflict. Just one minute’s exposure, though, and not only only was I drenched, but so was my suitcase and everything in it.

Fortunately, we only had one serious day of rain out of the ten we spent on Ireland’s shores, and that was on the day we flew out of Dublin back to Berlin. By then, it was good to leave the rain behind, but we loved our time in that gentle, poetic, stout-loving land, and Andreas is already planning his next visit.

For someone who lives in Berlin, Irish home-baked bread is a delight. Soft, tasty, nursery food that soaks up hearty soups deliciously and, when properly buttered, holds together just long enough to get into your mouth before delicately scattering its many tastes and textures on your tongue. Uncalled for alliteration aside (there’s something in the Irish air that brings out the poet in the most unlikely creatures), yum yum! as Anthony Blanche might say. German bread, while being delicious in many important ways, rarely manages ‘soft,’ preferring instead  to be ‘sturdy and long-lasting’—rather like the Germans.

Tibetan bread is another beast entirely. A version of it was one of the first dishes I ever saw anyone cook for Sogyal Rinpoche. It was in Tenby at that first Easter retreat I attended at the caravan park, when I ended up spending most of my time burning my uncomfortable energies away by washing dishes. I remember an Australian woman was asked by Rinpoche to make what he called “mother’s bread” , which is basically a very simple 6 inch round loaf of white unleavened dough that doesn’t acquire a crust and barely rises. (What, I wonder, does mother’s bread say about the Tibetan character?) I never learnt the recipe because it didn’t appeal to my palatte—then or now.

Anyway, Chris had never made it before, and once her loaf emerged from the oven wasn’t quite sure how to serve it. Should it be sliced, or left whole, or what? The only version either of us had seen was a hollow shell, but we didn’t know whether this hollow shell was a ‘before’ or ‘after.’ Doubt plus lack of experience often equals epically stupid decisions, and together we decided that perhaps the entirely indigestible gluey interior of the loaf should be scooped out—or at least some of it. We didn’t consider, at that time, what Rinpoche would then eat. Hmmnn…

Five minutes after the loaf had been buttled in to Rinpoche we were informed, in no uncertain terms, that we were idiots and dolts, and Chris was strongly encouraged to start all over again. Which, to her credit, she did without hesitation.

The moral of this story? Never abandon common sense, especially when you find yourself up-close-and-personal with a Buddhist master.

I have nothing to illustrate any of this post, but here are a couple of entirely irrelevant snaps of the view from our cottage at Dzogchen Beara—especially for Susie.


Voices are funny things. However great a musician a singer may be, if the voice sets your teeth on edge, you’ll have no hope of enjoying the performance. Benjamin Britten’s partner and favourite tenor, Peter Pears, suffered from a very nasal sound that many people couldn’t bear to listen to, in spite of his exquisite musical interpretation. I have the same problem with Gérard Souzay, master of the mélodie who, being French, had a very French voice, with the kind of vibrato you can crack concrete with. I’ve never been able to listen to him for pleasure.

Anyway, the point here is that I have a sudden and determined longing to introduce you to a lovely song that has almost been frustrated by the limitations of youtube. The only truly great performance it provides is the one by M. Souzay, and I’m almost certain you’ll be completely turned off by him. So I’ve been forced to turn, instead, to Katia Ricciarelli, who you’ve already heard singing the duet from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, but whose Italian operatic voice is a just a bit too sciroppo d’acero for this Fauré song, which barely needs a dusting of icing sugar, and rather more youthful charm than Signorina Ricciarelli can provide. But what to do? It’s the best version I can find for now, and the song is a delight.

Lerab Ling

Lerab Ling inhabits a unique place in my memories of this life. It is, for me, the home of excruciating extremes, and a place I haven’t, in the past, visited willingly. Having said that, I spent a great deal of time there between 1993 and 1999—all of every summer and many bits in between. I lived there for a while too, 1993-94, dividing my time (or should I say having it divided for me) between what was then little more than a mud farm and Paris. Eight or nine of us survived a winter there, sharing a bathroom and the big kitchen, the damp fog and a desperately uncomfortable van. Things have certainly changed since then.

This August visit was the first time I’ve made the trip to Lerab Ling, without having to be summoned, since I returned there in 1993, the year after the first three month retreat. During the noughties I was hardly there at all. In 2006 I went with Harry and Boris and their crew during the shooting of their documentary about Sogyal Rinpoche. John Cleese was there too and Graham took a photo of us in Rinpoche’s garden after the interview Mr Cleese very kindly gave Boris. And Sogyal Rinpoche was kind enough to invite us in 2008 when HH Dalai Lama opened the Temple and Sarkosy’s wife (Eric Clapton’s ex!) graced us with her presence—arriving in a helicopter without a bra, completely oblivious, it seemed, to the inappropriateness of her fashion choice.

For years I was convinced I would have to up sticks and relocate to Lerab Ling—the dream of so many Rigpa students. But for me, a confirmed misanthrope, who is very attached to the illusion of privacy, it was the worst possible nightmare. One that never came to be, actually, so I now wonder at all the hours of anxiety I put myself through and wish I hadn’t wasted so much time on such energy-sapping imaginings.

So how did I feel about the place this time round?

It’s changed. The land itself has changed, and so have the people—the three-year retreat may have had something to do with it. Thankfully, though, Sogyal Rinpoche is still his glorious self—just even more so.

How, then, has Lerab Ling changed? Well, for a start, there’s a lot more of it. The temple is always a surprise  (I keep forgetting it exists). The old tent that used to be the shrine room is now where people eat, which I find oddly disturbing. So many extraordinary teachings happened on that spot, I can’t ever bring myself to take a plate of food and eat it there. And this time I didn’t have to, because I stayed with Phil in his tiny chalet on the hill. Although spartan by German standards, it’s the lap of luxury when compared with the tent I was allocated for the 92 retreat—the one that was washed away in the big July storm, the one I never managed to sleep in, and the one in which I broke almost all my vows.

Many more people ‘live’ in Lerab Ling now. And the community includes wonderful gardeners, like my friend Susie, who have transformed the wild mushroom farm into a softer and far more lush kind of paradise. It’s as if the land itself has been tamed. And the people too, as it turns out. There are so many practitioners there now, and their more spiritual way of life shows in the very fabric of their personalities. More peaceful. Less discontented. And you can somehow feel all that practice and ease in the atmosphere.

It’s still super-intense, though. Particularly from the point of view of scheduling. The full-time team who make everything work don’t sleep much because there’s always something going on. But as I was visiting rather than participating, I could pick and choose what I did. It was great!

Sogyal Rinpoche showed me where Khandro had passed away, the extraordinary shrine he’s created in his old room in the farmhouse and the new shrine in his cute chalet. It was like walking into a magical realm, even a buddha realm (but I’m just guessing, as I’ve never actually been to one myself). The colours were brighter, my eyesight seemed better and sharper (hmmmn!), the air fresher. Rinpoche even took me to see his mother as she ate her supper, and delicately chose the dishes he knew she wouldn’t touch so he had something to offer to me. Humbling, to say the least.

OT Rinpoche is extremely at home in Lerab Ling. As you know, he guided Sogyal Rinpoche and his team through the process of designing and building the Temple, and was instrumental in commissioning and overseeing the creation of the immense Buddha statue in the main shrine room. Lerab Ling would not be what it is without OT Rinpoche.

And all in all, I was very happy there—which was the biggest turn-around of all. It just goes to show that the one thing we can truly count on in this life is change. And that miracles really do happen.

Finding Manjushri

In Bir a couple of years ago, Dolma and Al made a twenty-minute movie based on a story Khyentse Rinpoche has often told during teachings about a monk who longed to meet Manjushri. I haven’t yet seen the finished film yet, but I just found the official website and my appetite has been thoroughly whetted. Ha ha! The whole thing was done with next to no funding, so there’s an opportunity on the official website (see my blogroll) to pre-order the dvd and for sponsoring dvd copies as a way of helping the project move forward. Sadly the pig (below) didn’t make it into the film because she proved to be a spectacularly uncooperative diva, but is so beautiful that I simply had to steal her image from the website for this post—will you forgive me, dear Dolma?


If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near,
Shadow and sunlight are the same,
The vanished gods to me appear,
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
November 1857