Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche with all kinds of personalities, including Pope John XXIII. Photo taken from the Facebook page KHORDONG WORLDWIDE
If I had known, when I began to write down these few memories, that there would be so many episodes, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to embark on this adventure; but, now that the wine is drawn, it is necessary to drink it – all the more so as it is not without a sweet inebriation that I close my lips again to this ancient chalice
In the summer of 1998 I interpreted for several lamas at the Lerab Ling center, among them the endearing Tülku Sherab Özer, who then… suffered a stroke immediately after he had formally enthroned Sogyal Rinpoche as tülku of Tertön Sogyal. This quite frightening episode, combined with other equally appalling elements (in other registers), determined me to leave suddenly, without asking for anything else. For the first time, I felt a strong rebelliousness and even anger – but, so as to say, a very selfless anger – at everything that stood between Nyoshül Khenpo and me and hindered the reception of his teachings. I, a regular practitioner of the Chö rite, had always called upon myself the obstacles - “May I take upon myself all the sufferings and faults of all beings, and may they obtain all my happiness and merit,” according to the formula that Lojong teaching invites us to internalize – so I stood up for the first time with holy indignation and the will to pass, even if by force, through all the impediments to which I had hitherto thought I should yield.
I recited in this inner disposition the practice of Mahākāla and all the Protectors, terma of Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche (“Zilnön Lingpa,” his tertön name). On the rare occasions when I have dared to ask for something for myself (in this case, moreover, it was only a matter of reversing obstacles to my dearest desire in the direction of the good as presented by the Tibetan tradition), I have obtained satisfaction – but often in a way that was, if not purely parodic, at least mingled with bitterness, maybe because what I asked for was not always that which was in the due course of things.
However, as soon as I returned to my home in Le Havre, I found, to my great amazement, a letter from Nyoshül Khenpo, urging me to call him on the phone; I called him, he took the phone himself (which never happened) and told me:
“If you still have the desire to receive the precepts of Dzogchen from me, you must not delay any longer; I am old now.”
Immediately, I tried to obtain a leave (I was then a highschool teacher) - but, a few days before the beginning of the school year, I owed its obtaining only to the strong recommendation of Pr. François Jullien (then President of the International College of Philosophy in Paris, of which I was one of the “program directors” as it is called), be he forever thanked! In any case, I would have left, at the cost even of losing my quite confortable status as a French civil servant (as a “agrégé professor”, I was teaching philosophy in highschool, but with a salary comparable to the – quite low – ones of the associate professors in French universities). I sold most of my furniture, stored the rest and my books with relatives and friends, gave up my little apartment in the rue des Orphelines in Le Havre and took a plane ticket to New Delhi, from where, after a few days, I arrived in Bhutan – alas only with a permit for two weeks, I don’t remember it very well.
The immediate continuation belongs to another series of memories – the one about Nyoshül Khenpo, which I should also write one day – and I am therefore saving it for later to avoid unnecessary repetition. To make a long story short, I received from Nyoshül Khenpo, either alone or in the company of Mingyur Rinpoche (probably to create a link, or just so that he could testify to it later), the Trekchö part of the Nyongtri in the lineage of Paltrül Rinpoche, going back directly to Longchenpa. – When I had to leave, too soon for the Khenpo, who was already quite ill, to have been able to give me all the teachings he apprently intended to give me, I took the bus from Thimpu to Siliguri, to go and meet Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche. I intended, in fact, to go on to Nepal, where Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche was going to give all the transmissions of the Jangter (Byang gter, “Northern Treasures,” of which Gongpa Zangthal is the finest flower).
I had the good fortune then to spend a week, more or less, in the family of Chhimed Rigdzin R., in his house in Siliguri. That was the only time I saw Amala, his Tibetan wife, and got to know his children a little better, especially Tülku Ugyen Chemchok, now the main repository of his tradition.
In fact, I have few distinct memories of that time, when the absolute sovereignty of Nyoshül Khenpo was exercised in my memory. My memories of Rinpoche’s house and my conversations with him at that time are much more confused than those of the previous years. I will give the missing pieces of the puzzle if I have the courage to report my memories about Nyoshül Khenpo later on this blog. This is anyway the time when Rinpoche told me this strange saying, that I already reported, about all these people who “were nothing in Tibet”, including Nyoshül Khenpo.
Today I imagine that he was trying to tell me that my sentimental perception of things, which put Nyoshül Khenpo absolutely at the center of the universe, and left him, Chimed Rigdzin Rinpoche (and thus the Gongpa Zangthal), in a somewhat peripheral place, was unbalanced, unrealistic.
It reminds me of something he told me early on that I don't think I reported.
Once, when I was very young, I asked him a question, I think, about the order of the practices in the Gongpa Zangthal “curriculum.” Probably for fear of his sometimes explosive reactions, I added, “I am not asking this for myself, Rinpoche, but only for the case of qualified practitioners.” He then gave me an absolutely perfect answer:
“How could you know who you are?”
I think that was so much more right than if he had said to me, in Tibetan style: you have been in a past life such and such; therefore your destiny is to do such and such. No – it meant rather: what you want to do, and what I am pushing you towards, do it without any qualms, without thinking yourself superior or inferior to others, a question that is absolutely useless.
Anyway, after leaving Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche’s house, I went to Nepal; Nyoshül Khenpo had given me a letter of recommendation for Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, asking him to kindly put me up somewhere, so that I could have the time to translate his History of Dzogchen Nyingthik. Instead, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche asked me to be an interpreter for a very nice Khenpo, whose name I don’t remember, who was teaching on the Gampopa’s Ornament of Liberation. I don’t remember much about that time (well, they would surely come back if I focussed more, as a dream when you get the thread of at least one image – but it doesn’t matter for now, these are in no way connected to Chhimed Rigdzin R.), except that it was then that I had a falling out with the strange Khenpo Chöga, a character who seems to me typical of what one could call the “colonial arrogance” of the Tibetan lamas in their relations with the Westerners.
Incidentally, the lamas find it quite natural to call us by our first names, like the hippies of yesteryear, while we give them all the titles which, in their tradition, are theirs (some Westerners, in their passionate infatuation, go so far as to give them more pompous ones, holinesses and what not, to which they have no right). There is something profoundly unbalanced here, which, on the part of the Westerners, comes under the heading of the most enraged ethnomasochism.
In the Tibetan language, one avoids personal names, which are too familiar, and one willingly calls a friend, even one with whom one jokes freely, by his title. I think that Chhimed Rigdzin had seen this problem clearly when he told me “outside, little pride show necessary.” At the time he said this (at the very end of 1992), I had already been an agrégé professor for a few months, and perhaps I should not have let myself be called by my first name by the Tibetans, with their excessively hierarchical mentality. incidentally, I then clearly saw how they literally need to know the social rank of the person they are talking to. If I get Rinpoche’s meaning well, I should have had all these Tibetans, who respectfully pointed someone to me, saying “he’s acharya” (that is a mere master degree…), call me professor or what not. It is not in my frame of mind but that would have made things a bit clearer.
I invite all Westerners to apply this rule in their relations with Tibetans: certainly, internally, to embrace the deepest humility (that is to say: that each one has a realistic relationship with his or her own all-too-human weakness), but, in relations with Tibetans in general, and in particular the lamas, to impose the use of the title. You are a simple teacher? Let the one you call Khenpo call you Gen-la. Are you a medical doctor? Demand Emchi-la. And so on. You will do them the greatest service and make them feel comfortable according to the standards of their own civilization.
If they don't want it, remind them of the good old ways. I would not go so far as to say, as a former (quite ridiculous) French Minister of the Interior once did about the terrorists, that terror must change sides. But it would restore a minimum of order and dignity in relations, especially when it comes to relations with people you do not consider your masters and who have no claim to it. At least that is what I remember from my dealings with various particularly rude, ungrateful and smug people like the famous Dzogchen Khenpo Chöga.
After a few weeks of interpreting, at Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche’s monastery, for another Khenpo, who was very kind, modest, well brought up, but whose name I don’t remember anymore, I left for Pharphying (Yangleshö), where Ralo Rinpoche was hosting, for about forty days, the Jangter transmissions given by Taklung Tsetrül Rinpoche. It was then that I was led to receive from this master the vows of Getsül (“novice”), which I had to abandon a year later, after the death of Nyoshül Khenpo and in the state of deep discouragement in which this death had plunged me.
When I returned to Kathmandhu, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche took me aside to ask me if I had any news about Nyoshül Khenpo’s health. Officially, he had caught a cold, but in reality, increasingly alarming reports were coming in from Bhutan: he was almost completely paralyzed (in fact, due to the brain tumor he was to die of a few months later).
It was then that I turned to Chhimed Rigdzin, for the first time in my life, with all the superstitious expectation that despair can produce even in an educated and roughly balanced human being. He very kindly composed a long-life prayer for Nyoshül Khenpo, in addition to the existing ones; for any reason, this prayer is actually a slightly modified version of the one to Guru Dorje Drakpo Tsal, the main wrathful form of Padmasambhava in the Northern Treasures. For the first time, too, my anxiety led me to ask him, as if he were a soothsayer, whether I would see Nyoshül Khenpo again, that is, whether I would find a way to go to Bhutan – which he confirmed. In fact, I did not manage to go to Bhutan, but the Khenpo was taken to a clinic in Thailand, and then, a few months later, to France where I was able to spend with him almost all the last weeks of his life. I won’t elaborate on this here: it would be too much out of the question.
The point is that once again Rinpoche’s prediction was right, if not in the slightest detail (I could not return to Bhutan), at least in substance – since the object was to know if I would be able to see Nyoshül Khenpo again in his lifetime, on which he was not wrong (and even, I spent more time with the Khenpo at that time than I had in the rest of my life, but only taking care of him on his deathbed - he was no longer in a condition to teach, although he sometimes spoke a little).
After the Khenpo’s death at the end of August 1999, I did not see much Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche, who survived him until June 2002 (almost fifteen years to the day before I began writing this series of memories in French). I was both completely lost because of Nyoshül Khenpo’s death and especially by the – at least apparent absurdity – it conferred on all my long wait crowned by such brief and fragmentary teachings and then by weeks of watching over him while he was dying, without him giving me even the vaguest piece of advice about what to do or the slightest hint of the future. I also had to finish my thesis, a huge monograph (about 1500 pages) on Longchenpa, which I defended on May 13, 2002, so hardly more than a month before Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche passed away. However, I did manage to see him at least once more in the French Jura, with one of my best friends whom I had taken on this journey; but alas, I have only vague memories of it, except that he was very gentle with me, which was probably not only due to his own fatigue as he approached his own death. I think that he perceived very well that I was not in a condition to bear more.
Perhaps other memories will come back to me later; perhaps I will also realize that there are some that are very present in my mind, but that I have forgotten to relate. I hope above all that these stories will make others, especially the Great Ancient Ones, want to tell what they have heard or witnessed, to add more flesh to this too meager skeleton.
It would remain for me to say, in order to complete my testimony, what I finally took away from the frequentation of this figure who at the same time burst the screen and made the frame explode - any frame, even, basically, that of Tibetan Buddhism. But, while I sincerely ask myself this question, I cannot answer it. He was not a model that one could imitate - I would even say: that one could have wanted to imitate. Generally speaking, I would not take seriously a man who posed as a spiritual master while (apparently at least) flaunting himself with mistresses, making a mockery of everything, talking about himself with a pompousness bordering on the grotesque, giving teachings that were more bizarre and comical than truly instructive, and so on. But, in truth, I am even more incapable in his case than in any other of judging his life by the standards of normal morality. Nor am I able to express clearly what he has given me, what he has changed me into. But I am deeply convinced that his wild singularity has, though how, “I cannot tell: God knoweth”, worked on mine and that it has determined very deep inner and secret movements of which I still don’t perceive well today neither the nature, nor the range. Even with all the distance I have taken for years (I confess) towards Buddhism, I am obliged to recognize that, all in all, I carry his indelible imprint forever, as if something of its person had somehow infused into mine. I don’t know if I deserve the title of “Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche’s disciple;” I don't even pretend to – but “last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.” Still, I am certainly one of those whose life trajectory has been profoundly impacted (and, in my opinion, clearly for the better) by this incomprehensible encounter. I don’t know what trace Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche’s life will leave in the history of our time, as it will be written by those who will come long after us; I think that perhaps no one will ever take the measure of what he will have been and done, like those deep ocean currents which, on the surface of the waves, leave no discernible trace.