Sonam Chöpel’s Chicken Story

Although I can’t remember exactly why, Ron asked me a few years ago if I’d write up Sonam Chöpel’s chicken story. (It was something to do with producing a text to read out loud to test a recording device—Ron will remember.) I agreed because I’m a bit of pushover, but as Sonam Chöpel never tells a story the same way twice, I had to take notes for a couple of weeks (Rinpoche was asking for it every other night) before putting fingers to keyboard. The result was the following, which, as you can see, is a pastiche of the Heart Sutra. Looking at it now I can see it doesn’t really work, certainly not as well as the Football Sutra, but I’ve decided to swallow my pride and post it nonetheless, as it’s topical.

Homage to the Master of all Chicken Stories!

Thus have I heard. Once when Sonam Chöpel was serving supper at Khyentse Labrang, together with a great gathering of the Sangha from Vancouver, Hong Kong and Taiwan, he entered the samadhi that expressed the paranoia of the Chicken Farmer from Bhutan.

And at the same time, noble Ron Stewart, the bodhisattva raconteur, whilst eating his food, saw in this way: he saw a vision of the story of the paranoid Bhutanese Chicken Farmer.

Then, through the power of Sonam Chöpel, he-who-must-be-obeyed Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche asked noble Ron Stewart, the bodhisattva raconteur, “Tell us a story, Ron.”

Addressed in this way, noble Ron Stewart, the bodhisattva raconteur, said to he-who-must-be-obeyed Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, “Oh Rinpoche, there once was a Chicken Farmer in Bhutan who hated his nasty neighbour and felt sure that one day he would do him wrong. And sure enough there dawned a day when one of the Farmer’s chickens was gone! ‘Oh, Oh, cried the Chicken Farmer as he jumped up and down with glee, ‘My neighbour’s robbed me! I must go to town and seek justice from a court of law!’ And off he went to court.

At the law court, a lawyer told the Chicken Farmer, “Oh Chicken Farmer, you cannot press a suit against your nasty neighbour for theft unless you have a witness to the crime!” And so the Chicken Farmer hurried to the local bar where he asked a poor Nepali immigrant, “Oh poor Nepali immigrant, my nasty neighbour stole from me, but I can’t take him to court without a witness to the crime. Here, take the handsome sum of fifty rupees and come to court. Tell the judge you saw the crime, and justice will be done!”

Bent and brown, the poor Nepali immigrant thought over the Chicken Farmer’s proposition, then replied, “Honorable Chicken Farmer, I really need the handsome sum of fifty rupees, so kindly offered, but if my lie is found out I will be ejected from Bhutan before you can say ‘Bob’s your uncle’, so please find yourself another stooge.”

“No, no,” cried the determined Chicken Farmer, “my poor Nepali immigrant, that is not how things will transpire. You will not be found out! And I will give you the princely sum of one hundred rupees, and justice will be done!”

Again the bent and brown, poor Nepali immigrant thought over the Chicken Farmer’s proposition, then replied, “Honorable Chicken Farmer, I really need the princely sum of one hundred rupees, so kindly offered, but if my lie is found out I will be ejected from Bhutan before you can say, ‘Where is Ali!’, so please find yourself another stooge.”

“No, no, no, no, no!” bawled the frantic Chicken Farmer, “you infuriating poor Nepali immigrant, that is not how things will transpire. You will not be found out! Just say two words, “I saw”, when the judge questions you and I will give you the kingly sum of two hundred rupees, and justice will be done!”

Once more the bent and  brown, poor Nepali immigrant thought over the Chicken Farmer’s proposition, then replied, “Honorable Chicken Farmer, you have won my help. I really need the kingly sum of two hundred rupees, so kindly offered, and will say the two words you require.” And off they went to court.

Beady-eyed, the judge stared hard at the poor Nepali immigrant and asked, “Did you, poor Nepali immigrant, see the Chicken Farmer’s nasty neighbour stealing something from his farm?”

“I saw!” replied the poor Nepali immigrant, much to the relief of the Chicken Farmer who clapped his hands with joy.

“How big was it?” continued the judge, beady-eyed and staring hard.

Shocked and confused, the poor Nepali immigrant raised his bony hand up as high as his shoulder—he had no idea what it was the nasty neighbour stole! The judge’s beady eyes bulged bigger and he exclaimed, “Can a chicken be so big?” And the poor Nepali immigrant raised his other hand in graceful mudra to indicate the height of an ordinary chicken.

Thus concludes the story of the paranoid Bhutanese Chicken Farmer.

Telling Stories

Have you ever met Sonam Chöpel? He’s one of Khyentse Rinpoche’s Bhutanese attendants who trained as an artist (as in ‘thangka painter’), but most of the time assumes the role of ‘fool’ to Rinpoche’s King Lear (not that Rinpoche has three daughters… yet). Sonam Chöpel is famous, amongst other things, for telling ponderously long and wholly pointless stories at Rinpoche’s behest, often as a kind of cabaret after dinner. And he landed this job in spite having a memory so colander-like as to rival even my own. Perhaps if he could at least extemporize… but alas, that particular art was missing from the curriculum of the monastery he attended, making even the thought of being forced to sit through another rendition (the ‘chicken story’ and the ‘pig story’, for example, not to mention the ‘eagle story’) makes solitary three year retreat in a toilet-less cave, living on grass and cold water a far more attractive alternative.

Have you ever met Suresh? He’s a filmmaker and one of Rinpoche’s Indian friends who is famous for his many long, convoluted arguments with Ron (everyone knows Ron). Well, I say ‘argument,’ but the reality is something less easy to define. It’s more like an unstoppable monologue, punctuated with Ron’s valiant, if sluggish, attempts at opening a rebuttal that almost always fail to penetrate Suresh’s instantly renewed assaults (usually tangential), mounted with such vivacity and commitment that he might well have been an American divorce lawyer in a previous life. Six year retreat without the grass and water would be my preference.

Over the winter months of 2006-7, Rinpoche gave the Kangyur lung for the better part of ten hours a day in the icy shrine room of the Dzongsar Institute in Chauntra, and one of his favourite forms of relaxation was to ask Sonam Chöpel to tell a few of his stories at dinner (the ‘chicken story,’ the ‘pig story,’ and the ‘eagle story’), over and over and over again.  

In those days (a mere six or seven years ago…), we still used the old dining table which was long and thin and only sat about a dozen. In those long-gone halcyon days, no one even thought of bringing a camera to the table (come to think of it, I didn’t even own a camera), and we therefore have no record of the regular performances Sonam Chöpel was chivied (by Rinpoche) into giving Suresh (the rest of us were incidental to the process).

Why is this relevant? Because try as I might, I really can’t think of any other reason why Rinpoche (who is now inseparable from his iPhone 5) would even think of setting Sonam Chöpel on Suresh again, as he did one lunchtime in January this year (see photographic evidence below). But Rinpoche being Rinpoche, I doubt we’ll never know.

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More blues…

But of course, my mind turns in this direction when it’s indulging in pretty high-end ‘luxury suffering’—which may be why I never had the guts to attempt to sing the blues. A rather stiff and starchy inside hiding behind a provocatively louche veneer was one of the contradictions that so successfully inhibited many of my activities in the days when I cared to experiment creatively. Still, various forms of inspiration sometimes helped me slur my way through a Torch Song or two without disgracing myself completely; not the blues, though. Perhaps that’s why I love it so much. Do you know this one?

Water Snake Year

Wishing you all that you would wish yourself; health, happiness, prosperity and liberation for us all; and the long life, good health and complete satisfaction of all the authentic spiritual masters who guide and inspire us.P1070251

The Shrine Room (3)

There’s a great deal about the packaging  of Tibetan Buddhism that turns me off completely. The particular shade of orange, for example, with which masters painted every available piece of wooden furniture they made contact with the moment they landed in Switzerland, Norway, England, France, or whereever; the stylized tradition of thangka painting that, until very, very recently, follows a set of written rules rather than requires an artist to look at or even imagine his subject (if there were any ‘her’ artists, I haven’t heard about them…); and the extremely impractical books (from the point of view of one who reads on the hoof and therefore values good binding extremely highly).

But it’s also an admirably practical religion. Anything to do with money, for example. In England in the 1960s, when I was growing up, we were taught by our proudly middle class parents to be wary of wide boys who flashed large wads of money. Do you remember that thoroughly objectionable character Harry Enfield made a fortune impersonating in the 80s, ‘loadsamoney’? I still remember being far more deeply shocked and offended by his ostentatious relationship with pound notes than I ever was by graphic sex.

Tibetans have no such hangups. The daily offerings made to the monastic sangha, which in the west would have been discretely hidden away in plain, unsealed envelopes, were doled out by one of the monastery’s administrators from the top of a massive wad that he wielded with a pragmatic, no-nonsense air that impressed me to my very core. But I still lowered my eyes, politely, as I had been taught, so I wasn’t tempted to try to calculate how much each group or wealthy individual gave—there are things about being English that irritate me even more than the colour orange…P1070712

The Shrine Room (2)

Another thing that struck me was just how uniform we all are. Perhaps I should be more specific. Three easily identifiable cultural sects were apparent amongst the 2,500 people that thronged the Dzongsar Insitute shrineroom (those who spotted yesterday’s typo, please adjust your imagination accordingly): the monks and teachers who all wore maroon robes, with a few traditional variations; the older generation of Tibetans, who usually wore something traditional plus a sensible winter coat or woolly hat or jeans to protect them against the icy blast they braved if they sat near the open door at the back; and the westerners who were either entirely nondescript, Hippies or, patrons of Uniqlo (everyone seemed to be wearing the same puffy jackets). No points, then,  for creative expression.

Anyone who has ever attended a large scale gathering of any kind will not be surprized to learn that everyone got sick at one time or another. Even if you avoided a cold, a cough or a nasty flu virus, you were sure to get a runny tummy, or the opposite, or find yourself puking for days at a time. And towards the end of this particular Dharma marathon there was even an outbreak of chicken pox!

One of the many consequences of sitting in a room full of people who are ill was that moments of silence were rare. More often than not, we found ourselves drowning in a symphony of a thousand coughs, sneezes, nose blowings and unmentionable expellations of bodily fluid. Which I mention just in case you still have romantic notions about following a calm and esoteric, white silk and gentle breezes kind of spiritual path. If you do, please shelve them before you attend a mass Buddhist event. And always pack a vast pharmacy—even if you manage to stay well yourself, whoever you sit next to will without doubt require medicating.

Another important piece of advice: when Rinpoche is teaching a crowd that includes a disproportionate number of high tulkus and khenpos, try not to enter the shrine room after the session has already begun. While I have no doubt that the vast majority of attendees were able to concentrate for many, many hours without a moment’s distraction, in my experience, the moment I had to return to my seat a little late because I had been unable to fight my way through the impenetrable body of ancient Tibetan women who, inevitably, knew all the tricks about jumping any semblance of a ‘queue’, I would feel a thousand pairs of eyes fix themselves, laser-like, to every inch of my body. Uncomfortable, to say the least. But not for OT Rinpoche.

Now, before I continue, I should first point out that OT Rinpoche is never calm or self-possessed. Both descriptions immediately suggest a demeanour that is adopted or a state of mind applied, and OT Rinpoche would do neither. I have never seen him on his ‘best behaviour’; nor have I ever seen him ‘behaving badly.’ He just ‘is.’ He is never embarrassed about arriving early, nor shame-faced about arriving late, and I can’t ever imagine him aspiring to a 100% attendance record for anything.  

Anyway, the first time I noticed him come in late, it was as he walked, without looking right or left, to an empty carpet by a shrine at the front. He just plonked himself down until Khyentse Rinpoche had finished speaking (see photo below), without smirking, or excusing himself, or even noticing how many hundreds of eyes had followed him to his seat. He just was.

The second time was even more impressive. Again, Khyentse Rinpoche was teaching, but this time OT Rinpoche wasn’t remotely interested in settling for that same easily accessible spot. Instead, he walked, flatfooted and slow, like a crow, towards the seat he had been assigned on the other side of the shrine room. I think his intention was to pass behind Khyentse Rinpoche’s throne rather than walk in front of him, but just as he reached the ‘no-time’ zone, he suddenly turned back and made, instead, for the Umze. He then spoke, at some length, into the monk’s ear with the air of one who has all the time in the world, before resuming his original trajectory—scrutinzed every whisker of the way by a  couple of thousand pairs of undistracted eyes! Not for one second was he disrespectful, and he was always and for ever entirely himself. Magnificent!

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The Shrine Room (1)

Today a friend asked me what the shrine room of Dzongsar Institute was like during the Dam Ngak Dzö transmission. A valid question, but not one I find easy to answer.

Visually, it was frustrating. The photograph below is a very accurate representation of ‘my view.’ But don’t get me wrong, I had nothing to complain about. OK, so I sat behind a pillar, but I was right at the front with the most glorious side view of Rinpoche and all the tulkus and khenpos who attended.

Everything happened on quite a large scale (2,500 people in all, including lots of monks, gomchens, Tibetan laypeople and more foreigners than expected) and Rinpoche spoke only in Tibetan, so it was a bit like watching a marvellously exotic but very slow-moving movie by Tarkovsky. No subtitles, of course, but some very courageous, if sometimes breathless, on-the-spot dubbing.

Those who attended the whole 72 days appeared to be very much at home in the shrine room. Fortunately the organizers had the forethought to lay fairly thick carpets on the marble floors, which were comfy, and as long as each person felt their territory was respected by their neighbours, things went swimmingly. The occasional influx of ‘new’ attendees tended to create a little tension, so those who had already taken root photographed their neighbours to guard against alien infiltration.

Horrifying as this may seem to many of you, after a quarter of a century of attending Tibetan Buddhist shindigs, to me one traditional Tibetan shrine room looks much the same as another. I must say, though, that the cylindrical brocade confections hanging from the ceiling fascinated me. They were gargantuan, yet, as far as I could see, completely pointless. I don’t remember the last time I saw one in a European shrine room, which Philip explained, is because the fire regulations prohibit them. I couldn’t help wondering how many strange and exotic beasts had made their homes in the folds of all that expensive silk.

And how many monks does it take to serve four men a cup of tea each? Eight, as it turns out. One for each of the cups, then one for each of the thermoses.

There was a great deal to be charmed by, though. Being India, sparrows had no trouble finding their way into the shrine itself and when they landed on the super-shiny marble floors, slid expertly towards the largest patch of scattered offering rice, hoovering it all up with delicate efficiency.

One of the traditions that I really admired the monastery for upholding was the regular morning and afternoon service of butter tea accompanied by corn bread or sweet rice. Imagine putting that together twice a day for 2,500 people! And everything they offered us was quite delicious.

On the other hand, the usual shawn voluntary to announce Rinpoche’s arrival in the shrine room was replaced by the altogether softer beating of a drum—a very typically ‘Rinpoche’ adjustment.

But is any of this ‘what it was like’ there? Not really…

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Feel real nice…

After two and a half months in India—cold, crowded India—I really ‘wanna feel real nice.’ But how? Feeling nice hasn’t been a priority for decades. How does one, at a certain age, go about it? As I pondered my dilemma, a familiar, albeit rusty, recklessness enticed me to dig a little deeper for ideas, which was how I found myself dredging up images captured by the teenage sensualist I once was (can you grow out of it, do you think? or does it just trickle away with your hormones?) of a cornucopia of hedonistic pursuits, played out against a surprisingly eclectic musical backdrop.

Truth to tell, it all started on the train down from Chakki Bank to Delhi. I had no choice. It was either distract my mind or commit murder, and I opted for the former as a way of drowning out (with, in this case, the blues… mostly) the wheeler dealer in the opposite bunk, who owned the longest lasting mobile phone battery every invented. Anyway, somewhere between Freddie King’s Ain’t No Sunshine and BB King’s The Thrill is Gone, I established, for the record, that it’s more than twenty-five years since I gave away my blistering record collection, and with this single act of penitential self-denial, I effectively deleted a large chunk of early 70s atmosphere from my life.

Little Feat, for example, and the beautiful Lowell George.

So, after the requisite ten days of feeling like a lump of shit and proclaiming my state of mind (and body) loudly, and in no uncertain terms, at all hours of the day and night—my husband self-medicates at such times, and very effectively, with Guiness—I did some research. Did you know that Lowell died in 1979? That particular tragedy passed me by completely—a year into music college and Little Feat was already passé! What was I thinking?

You’ll find Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor below, which I think is my favourite of their songs, but it was the very first chord of Dixie Chicken (thankyou youtube) that whisked me back to a damp and rather nasty terraced house somewhere off the West Wycombe Road. I can still replay in slow-motion the moment our very stoned tortoiseshell cat toppled over sideways, like a falling statue (second-hand smoke… I’ve mentioned it before, methinks), and am aghast when I think of the hours and hours ten of us spent squashed up together on stinky armchairs in a ten foot by twelve foot back room, with a pile of the ‘latest’ albums that we listened to from cover to cover (so to speak), full blast, on a state of the art ‘music centre,’ without saying a word until stylus left vinyl. The only time the inescapable fug of ‘black,’ ‘lebonese,’ or Pete’s home grown pot pourri was allowed to disipate, was when the Pakistani landlord made his weekly visit to collect the rent (cash only). My memory has edited out the bathroom, for which I am grateful, but I can still see the 1930s kitchen sink, alive and putrid, which I doubt human hand ever emerged from untainted.

My long-haired boyfriend at that time (21 to my 16-ish and as far as my memory is concerned he looked like a ‘man’ rather than the boy he must have been) was a big fan of Little Feat and Steely Dan, the Doors, Cream, Alex Harvey (the Sensational…), Velvet Underground, etc. The small of my back still tingles when I hear any of that music, my tongue tastes vodka and lime and Walker’s barbecue crips, and of course, my nose registers every one of a variety of competing aromas. Hmmmnnnnn….

By the way, my three month PAP, the permit to stay in Bir that I applied for last September, arrived and was given to me in the taxi on the way back down to Delhi… a sign, I think, that one should never give up hope about anything.