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!