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.


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!


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…


Dam Ngak Dzö

Rinpoche was on a roll last night. I think the transmissions are inspiring him enormously, even though, as he says, they’re “so difficult to understand.” No other transmission he’s given has required him to do any homework, but this time, on top of everything else he has to fit into his day, he goes through the next day’s teaching before retiring for the night. The man is a force of nature…

Without the Dam Ngak Dzö, Rinpoche said, we wouldn’t have the necessary authoritative texts to clarify problems or ‘doubts’ (as the Tibetans like to put it) that arise from the teachings we focus on today, for example the Longchen Nyingtik—which, according to Rinpoche, is child’s play in comparison to the teachings of the great Indian Mahasiddhas. If I understood Rinpoche correctly, the Dam Ngak Dzö is a compilation of all the root tantras that were the basis from which the Tibetan tradition evolved. Although I’m not sure I should use the word ‘evolve’…

Rinpoche then told a marvellous tale about one of the Indian Mahasiddhas who is also revered by the Hindu tradition. I assumed his teachings appear in the Dam Ngak Dzö, but Rinpoche wasn’t that explicit. You may be familiar with this story, but I think it bears retelling.

Minapa was a fisherman. One day he caught a fish that swallowed him whole, and he found himself living in its belly. At the same time, Shiva had finally decided to give Uma a teaching that, Rinpoche said, “he was only allow to give three times.” He therefore wanted to make sure no one overheard him and instructed Uma to build herself a dwelling under the sea. She did so, and soon Shiva began to teach.

As luck would have it, Minapa’s fish found its way to Uma’s undersea home and proceeded to circle it throughout the transmission. As a result and quite by accident, Minapa received all of Shiva’s teachings. When Uma dozed off and Shiva asked “Did you hear that?” it was Minapa who replied, “Yes.”

Uma later confessed that she had been asleep and couldn’t possibly have responded to his question, so Shiva, who was a god after all, located Minapa in the fish’s belly and realized that, having received the transmission, he was now his student.

I looked up Keith Dowman’s ‘adaptation’ (rather than translation) of this story and he reckons that Minapa then practised in the belly of the fish for twelve years before the fish was caught by another fisherman, who cut Minapa out. Minapa then worked for the benefit of others for 500 years, and progressed along the path until he ended up in a ‘Dakini Paradise.’ Appropriately enough, his name means ‘Fish-Siddha.’ Good story, no?P1070147


At Baijnat, which is the next village on from Bir, stands an ancient Shiva temple. There has been a shrine to Shiva on the same site for many centuries, but the temple itself wasn’t built until around 1204. Otherwise, Baijnat itself is an unremarkable village more famous for its stupendous traffic jams than anything else.

IMG_1502Rinpoche’s done a few pujas at the temple over the years and seems very fond of the place, often suggesting to his guests that they visit during their time in Bir. That’s why we first went, but to be perfectly frank, I’ve never been able to see through the ancient caked-on bird shit that adorns the place to really appreciate its beauty. Ach ja, modern standards of hygiene can be such a disadvantage in India.

Anyway, Emily Crow went there a week or two ago with Khyentse Rinpoche, Khyentse Yangsi and OT Rinpoche, and kindly agreed to my sharing a couple of her iPhone photos with you—even though we couldn’t work out how to make them any bigger. Her pictures always take me a little by surprize, yet seem entirely true to their subject, which is why, following in Penelope’s footsteps, she is today’s ‘Oiling a Rusty Mind’ guest photographer. Could there be a greater honour, I wonder…


Tsok at the Labrang

It was the 25th day of the Tibetan month on Saturday, so Khyentse Rinpoche finished the day’s Dam Ngak Dzö transmissions at lunchtime and performed a reasonably elaborate tsok in his Library during the afternoon. Rinpoche invited both Yangsis, OT Rinpoche and Spiti Tulku, about twenty monks, a couple of westerners, and a relatively liberal smattering of Bhutanese and Tibetans. It was beautiful day and the sun flooded into the room all afternoon, so none of us were cold. There was an air of something very ordinary yet rare, even historic about the whole thing.

Once it was all over, I met Lama Sonam Phuntsok outside on the terrace; he looked absolutely radiant. It was the first time in two and half years (basically since his kidney transplant) that he’d taken part in such a practice and not felt overwhelmed or exhausted—an auspicious sign if ever I saw one!

All these pictures were taken from the same spot—it really wasn’t the kind of situation one felt comfortable getting up and wandering around in—so please forgive the bizarre angles, other-worldly colours and fuzzy bits.



Remembering Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Last night was the evening before Khyentse Rinpoche begins to transmit the teachings from the Zurmang tradition, so he asked some of Trungpa Rinpoche’s older students to make a visual presentation and talk a little about their hugely influential master. It all happened at Deer Park and both the Yangsis attended, along with Spiti Tulku and, of course, Khyentse Rinpoche.

Rinpoche introduced the evening by telling a story. It was dark and I’m not only a bit deaf but also a compulsive editor, so what follows bears no resemblance to a transcript whatsoever, but it was too good a tale for you to miss.

“When I was 10 years old, the guy who is now sitting there [Khyentse Yangsi was sitting in the front row] was taming, training and teaching me—and he hasn’t aged one bit! On his shrine stood a photo of a man with a clean-shaven head, wearing a very impressive military uniform.

“Having spent a little time with Kyabjé Rinpoche I knew that in many ways he was a very broad-minded person and open to many things, but in others he was absolutely meticulous, and this photo just seemed… well unacceptable. A picture of an army man standing next to Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Rinpoche! Surely, I thought, Rinpoche’s attendants must have made a mistake.

“In the end curiosity got the better of me, and I asked who the army man was. ‘He is one who has perfect realization,’ said Kyabjé Rinpoche.

“Now, in my very stereotypical mind, a being with ‘perfect’ realization could only take the form of a monk or a yogi, never, ever a soldier. So, it was many years later that I realized this was just another example of the extraordinary, yet often unfathomable wealth of the Buddhadharma, and that great vidhyadharas are always ready to pull the rug out from under their students feet at any moment.

“At one point I visited Trungpa Rinpoche’s seat—the one called ‘Halifax’—and was told that he had asked many of his students to move there. Some seven hundred families willingly relocated. Did you know that Halifax was the biggest producer of babies’ bibs in America? To me, though, with my impure perception, it should have won the award for being ‘the most boring place on earth.’

“Westerners generally, and particularly Americans, are not easy to order around or teach, which makes it almost unbelievable, unthinkable even, that this half-drunk, half-paralyzed guy, could ever have managed to transform all those dippy-hippy north Americans into sadhana practitioners and even lineage holders.

“As we are now coming to the part in the Dam Ngak Dzö that presents teachings from the Zurmang tradition, now is good time to celebrate the life of this great master, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, so I have asked some of his students to talk about him a little.”

And they did…

(I believe the last photo here, of Trungpa Rinpoche and Robert Elk, appears in Sacred World: the Shambhala Way to Gentleness, Bravery, and Power by Jeremy and Karen Hayward. I’m sorry, I don’t know then name of the photographer.)
P1070020P1070018P1070043 CTR & RE

From the Shrine Room

I don’t go down to Chauntra often, but I was there yesterday and the day before and wondered if you’d be interested in some snaps (see below). Of course, my view of Rinpoche was partial, to say least, (see the first photo of the series—can you spot Rinpoche?), but it doesn’t seem to matter a jot.

Every word that falls from Rinpoche’s lips is in Tibetan, (the Yangsis, Tulkus and monks are his target audience) and so Rinpoche very kindly arranged for both English and Chinese simultaneous translation to be broadcast on FM radio. Miraculously, the super-cheap Nokia phone I brought with me has a radio built in and it’s unbelievably good quality. So, for once in my life, as we received an empowerment I could follow what was going on quite easily… until I spaced out completely, that is.

I must say, the English translators (a Frenchman and an American, I believe…) are doing great job! I can’t believe how well they keep up with Rinpoche’s extremely fast reading speed. And we were served peach tea instead of butter tea, which is very refreshing (if a little sweet) and far less sticky when split. All in all, a most pleasant afternoon.

By the way, Michael Damian is here for those of you who harbour doubts as to his whereabouts… And many apologies to Sarah.




Sunny Bir

We’ve had two hot sunny days and I’m feeling sleepy and lazy. The dining room has been decorated and looks lovely. The wood burning stove is a great success, now that the metal chimney has been daubed with what looks like cow dung (and probably is). And we no longer have to wear our outdoor coats when we eat. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. Or something like that.

The sun has inspired me to share my current two favorite ‘India’ photos, which I’m posting in lieu of any really interesting news.

On second thoughts, perhaps I ought to let you know that the Nyingma section of the Dam Ngak Dzo is likely to start around 8 January, PAPs can be acquired through Deer Park for a small fee (worth every rupee), and Raj Kumar has been roasting potatoes and frying freshly-strained panir and carrots. The bad news: I love Raj Kumar’s food so much that my girth has expanded exponentially and is now seriously threatening the integrity of my jeans.

Be that as it may, as the next two months will be wallpapered with the blessings of Dharma, a legal stay in Bir without an extra 8 hours of car-sickness (because I don’t have to go to Dharmasala for the PAP), and plenty of insulating flab, I feel almost equal to the task of welcoming the winter with a measure of sanguinity. Or I would, if Rinpoche wasn’t planning to dress Douglas up in a Santa suit on Christmas day…

Penelope’s Birthday

I’m afraid all my words are currently being swallowed up by a project I’m engaged in, so I think it’s best I just post a few snaps of last night’s party rather than embarrass myself by failing to describe the fun we had. There is one mystery that I can’t expalin, though. How did Jamyang Dorjee manage to find his way into so many pictures when it was, in fact, Penelope’s birthday and not his…P1060881P1060877P1060864P1060918P1060898



Rinpoche wore a very distinctive hat last night, which I immediately canned to add to the huge collection of hat portraits I now have of him. Two of the best are today’s offering for my fellow obsessive-compulsive Khyentse addicts. I had lined up a wonderful array of colourful local Indian houses to show you, but it’s a miserable grey and rainy morning her, which makes the sunny photos on my computer screen seem somehow inappropriate. I doubt you’ll lose any sleep over having that particular post delayed, though, given the subject of the substitute…


Things are changing fast around here. I’ve noticed more this visit than any other. For example, a bridge has been built over a small river that we used to have to cross by jumping from stone to stone. I took a photo in 2007 of the un-bridged river and another last week and it’s really difficult to believe it’s the same place.

The Himachalis are becoming more prosperous by the minute. Houses are being built, more animals acquired, more poxy cars, of course, and inevitably more people. The changes are unstoppable, so there’s no point regretting them. But I’d miss the rice steppes if they were to disappear. They’re not being threatened quite yet—at least I don’t think they are. But we’re already eating imported Chinese rice, even though we live surrounded by rice fields, so who can tell what’s going to happen.

(I’ve also added a another picture from OT Rinpoche’s party, for those who care nothing for bridges…)

OT Rinpoche’s 61st Birthday Party

Before I start writing about the party itself, I must first apologise for the quality of the photos. I don’t know what got into me. It wasn’t as if I drank anything (not even water), but try as I might, it seems I was incapable of dealing with my camera’s settings. Why then am I posting so many? The thing is I promised Philip and Andreas that I would, so I’m afraid we’ll all have to make do with what I’ve got.

OT Rinpoche is a very generous party host. Delicious food and drinks never ceased flowing, which was just as well because the the entire Bir Tibetan colony had been invited, and quite a number of westerners gatecrashed. Nevertheless, all were made welcome and well-fed and watered.

The flies in the ointment on these occasions are always the guests. Everyone attending these kinds of do is usually so fixated on the guests of honour—the Rinpoches—that noone ever really gets down to any serious partying. People stand in queues, eat, and hunt for chairs, all of which keeps them busy as they wait for ‘something’ to happen. In the process, they forget all about enjoying themselves. By the way, the ‘something to happen’ of choice is usually that one or other of the Rinpoche’s raises a hand, or speaks a word or two, smiles, or, best of all, laughs out loud. So the focus of the evening tends to be a little one-sided.

How can I describe the entertainment? Difficult. Very difficult. Of course, OT Rinpoche had nothing whatsoever to do with the spontaneous floor show that we were treated to, but he seemed to engage a little with one or two of the earlier acts. A girl from New Zealand, for example, performed an arresting Maori dance right at the beginning, but after that things degenerated at a rate of knots. Songs were offered, but I feel uncomfortable even considering afixing the verb ‘sing’ to many of the ‘happenings’. Ditto ‘dance’ and ‘perform.’ A number of contributors certainly appeared to be attempting some version of those activities, yet the results were… well, indescribable.

At these affairs, it’s always hard to know whether the Rinpoches really enjoyed themselves or not. Last night they sat in white plastic garden chairs and maintained a fairly formal front: Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche sat between Dilgo Khyentse’s Yangsi on his left and Dudjom Yangsi on his right, then a little off to his right, OT Rinpoche sat with Thartse Khen Rinpoche. Dzongsar Khyentse often beamed broadly, but for no apparent reason.

Generally, though, there was a great deal of laughter and conviviality throughout the evening, so thank you, OT Rinpoche, for your abundant hospitality. May you enjoy many, many more birthdays.


Khyentse Rinpoche has tremendous devotion for Saraswasti and keeps images of her all over the place. The statue below is the one that stands in the pagoda in his garden in Bir, and I love her.

Yesterday afternoon I found another image of Saraswasti as I walked through Bir, one that I’ve never seen before. Truth to tell, it was a grey and uninspiring day, until I happened upon the local school. Since I was last here, they’ve had an image of Saraswasti painted on their wall, which is extremely appropriate given she’s the goddess of knowledge and the arts.

Lessons are usually conducted outside, so the teacher, a middle-aged man with glasses and a very kindly face, sat on one of those ghastly white plastic garden chairs that you find all over the world, surrounded by a dozen or so children, most standing, some sitting, and all of them happily listening to whatever it was he was saying.

Rather rudely, I thought in retrospect, I poked my camera through the bars of the gate to grab a quick shot of Saraswasti. Of course, all the children saw me and, with the permission of their patient teacher, immediately rearranged themselves into a neat line so that they too could have their photo taken. It hadn’t been my intention to immortalize them, but honestly, who could resist?

The Dining Room Lamp

There’s a lamp in the Labrang dining room that’s causing me quite a lot of anguish. But it’s my own fault. I mean, if you were Rinpoche, would you want to be the object of an amateur snapper over supper, especially after you’d put in a hard day giving lungs and empowerments and whatnot? I wouldn’t. So I can quite see why the lamp has been placed in the least advantageous position for chancers like me to get a good shoot.

Sadly, with age I have less control over my actions than ever and can’t seem to stop myself from reaching for my camera, even at the least appropriate moment. With luck, I’ll grow out of it before long (I should really be thinking of other things), and anway, I have that poxy lamp to contend with.

To that end, here are few rather ordinary portraits, stolen over the past couple of nights, but offered in the hope that drowning you all in images of an Indian standard lamp (a throwback to the English style imported by Memsahibs in the early part of the 20th century) might satiate my rather desperate obsession.

White Tara

As I passed the time of day with Heather and Jason, I found myself telling them a story about the White Tara image that was said to have spoken to Khyentse Wangpo, which was kept in Khyentse Rinpoche’s personal shrine room. Heather, very sensibly, asked me what she said, but, as you will already have predicted, if I ever knew I’ve now forgotten. But I did remember a wonderful moment in 2006 involving White Tara, Khyentse Rinpoche and Sogyal Rinpoche.

Sogyal Rinpoche was staying in Bir and Khyentse Rinpoche, a most gracious host, took him on a tour of his home. Those of you who know Sogyal Rinpoche won’t be surprised to learn that he really lit up when we came to Dzongsar Khyentse’s shrine room, and was particularly thrilled to see the original White Tara painting once more, a photo of which he had printed thousands of times and distributed all over the world. Many of Khyentse Rinoche’s things are familiar to Sogyal Rinpoche, who knew them first when they were in Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s care, and seeing them again is always a moving experience for him.

As we all gazed at Tara, ooing and ahing and oggling, Sogyal Rinpoche told us a little about her, finishing with the words, “She is said to have spoken to Khyentse Wangpo.” Although we had heard this story before, more than once, standing before her and in such company invoked a moment of awed silence, that was broken, with impeccable timing, by Khyentse Rinpoche, who said, somewhat indignantly, “Well, she’s never spoken to me!”

Anyway, having enjoyed introduced you to Penelope, I’ve decided to start posting photos of other people I bump into up here in Bir, and so you’ll find below a rather hastily taken snap of Jason with Rinpoche, and a rather less explicit one of Heather receiving blessings from Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s stupa…

Warm Dütsi

I’ve never been given warm dütsi before. It’s very earthy looking and sticks together in clumps, but it was the warmth of it that stayed with me. OT Rinpoche distributed it, and told us afterwards that he gave less to those who only put out one hand to receive it because from a Tibetan perspective it was more respectful to use two hands. I held out an empty envelope to collect mine, but he didn’t mention how he felt about people who employed that method.

I have a slightly guilty confession to make. It’s extremely rare first of all to see anyone tell Sogyal Rinpoche what to do, and even rarer to see Sogyal Rinpoche willingly comply. So to watch as OT Rinpoche guided Sogyal Rinpoche through the receiving of the siddhis sent a shiver of excitement down my spine. Childish, I know, but there it is.

On Sunday morning I went back to the Rigpa Centre to attend a teaching by Sogyal Rinpoche. He was on spectacularly good form. He spoke of how Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche affected complete strangers, who often showed him great respect without having a clue about who he was. Sogyal Rinpoche said he thought they reacted that way because Kyabjé Rinpoche just was the nature of mind. That’s how I felt about Sogyal Rinpoche on Sunday morning. He was beautiful, radiant, compassionate, funny, absolutely ‘there’ and, from my point of view at least, seemed to be transmitting the nature of mind almost like a radio beacon.