Continuation of my memories of Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche, #15

Publié le 23 Mai 2021

Photo of C. R. R. at about the age of 20, found in the book Oracles and Demons of Tibet (1956) by Nebesky-Wojkowitz, to whom R. served (among others) as an informant. The photo has obviously been retouched: it is much clearer than the one in the book and the background (landscape) has been removed.

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I left the reader in the middle of the Gongpa zangthal transmissions. All these stories, stirred up here, have brought back others from the depths of my memory, and have provoked some reactions, including from former disciples of Rinpoche.

   I have not wanted to put these other followers of Rinpoche on the scene until now, at the risk of appearing to give myself too central a place, as if, throughout these years, I had always been one-on-one with the master. This is absolutely not the case; as much as I had more personal exchanges with Chhimed Rigdzin than with any of my other Tibetan masters, if only because he was very easy to talk to, being perfectly capable of scaring away the intruders by himself, or of indicating more than explicitly that the interview was over – but also because I served him several times as a French interpreter for interviews (very few for public teachings: this role was reserved for Patrice Sammut; in public, I only had to translate once an initiation by Senge Dongma and the accompanying teaching, and that was it).

   If I have not spoken much about Rinpoche’s disciples, it is not in any way, once again, to give myself a role that was not mine. From the general point of view of the community of C.R.R.’s Western disciples, I have really only served as the one who made the requests for the Gongpa Zangthal teachings to be given. Again, I was skillfully brought there by Rinpoche himself and there is no reason to think that it is for my sake that he gave them – my role could have been purely instrumental. In short : in order for the teaching to be given according to the traditional norms, it had to be requested insistently by one of Rinpoche’s disciple, who had an idea of what he was asking for; I was, at that time, one of the very few that were fairly well versed in Dzogchen and had an idea of what the Gongpa Zangthal was; I also had the right character, in the sense of a mixture of docility (I understood that Rinpoche, in his own way, was pushing me) and stubbornness (I did not let myself be discouraged not only by the difficulty of the thing, but also by Rinpoche’s rebuffs). 

   I am deeply convinced that Rinpoche wanted to give the Gongpa Zangthal in the West before the end of his life and I think that he himself arranged all the tendrel, as the Tibetans would say, the “auspicious circumstances” that he considered necessary for this – including my repeated requests. If I had not been there, it is very likely that he would have done it differently to achieve exactly the same result.

  To say that I was only an instrument subordinated to his good pleasure does not necessarily imply that in his eyes I was only that. If I had to emphasize one more aspect of Chhimed Rigdzin’s behavior, I would say that this man, who seemed so impulsive and sometimes irritable, and whose overall purpose was (in good faith) not always understood, was in truth sovereignly skilful and seemed to really perceive the underlying pattern of destiny in such a way that with little visible action, he produced vast effects.

   To give an example of Rinpoche's way of being, here is a request he once made to me:

“One day you will be a great university professor. Could you write a letter of recommendation for my son Ugyen (Chemchok) so that he can come to France to see my eye-doctor when he needs it?”

This request must have been made twenty-five years ago; I don't know if it will ever be fulfilled, although I am quite willing, even today, to make the desired letter of recommendation, if it could be of any use.

   This curious relationship to the future and this strange way of arranging the causes and conditions of future events has had a great place in my relationship with Rinpoche, even though his other disciples have told me that he did not make so many prophecies to them and I myself have never asked Rinpoche in this sense, – except once, in my great distress, in 1999, when I understood that Nyoshül Khenpo was dying in Bhutan and I feared that I would not see him again. Thus, Chhimed Rigdzin predicted to me I don’t know how many times an academic career, and namely in French Tibetology, almost from the first time I met him at the age of 19 - that is, very soon after I started learning Tibetan and while positions in this field have always been extremely scarce. Quite frankly, without these repeated predictions (to which, of course, one must add the pressing advice of Yongdzin Rinpoche, Lopön Tenzin Namdak), it is certain that I would not have held the position I finally obtained, more than ten years after the defense of my dissertation in 2002, through countless, painful and often humiliating applications. It is no exaggeration to say that I owe him, if not this position, at least the endurance that allowed me to hold on through the deeply demoralizing ordeals that accompanied this long wait (that were all the more painful because I was quite demoralized by Nyoshül Khenpo’s demise).

   I said that Rinpoche used me as an instrument to achieve his ends; this is not to say (far from it) that in this very skillful manipulation he used me “only as a means, not also as an end in itself.” Thus, for example, on the occasion of the public dialogues which preceded the initiation of Gongpa Zangthal, he said to me (witnesses may remember):

“I remember every single thing you have said or written to me since we have known each other.”

I am deeply convinced that this was the truth of the matter, without in any way exaggerating my rank among his Western disciples: in truth, again, I was never more than a background figure, and I can perfectly well acknowledge this while also recognizing the extreme importance to me of my exchanges with Chhimed Rigdzin, the importance of which I have only come to discern ever more clearly in much later years. I mention this sentence only because I for one firmly believe it applies to anyone who came into contact with him. Having served as an interpreter for dozens, maybe hundreds, of personal interviews in Paris, I was able to witness the extreme attention that this apparently gruff and expeditious man devoted to his visitors. He seemed to change his mood from one to the next, as if his own attitude mirrored something in them. Most amazing was his interaction with the most psychologically disturbed people (and God – or Samantabhadra – knows there were some, especially in the crowd of his Parisian visitors in the early 1990s). As an interpreter, I sometimes had to translate talks that I didn’t understand at all, while Rinpoche answered with utterly strange statements to fully crazy questions as if it were all the most natural.

   Sometimes it was more fun and more intelligible. I remember a lady who came to ask him, probably with the hope of being recognized as an exceptional personality, what a ḍākinī was. Rinpoche replied seriously at first that they were either female tantric deities or female demons – but he also added that in Tibet, ladies who were a little exalted and fancied they were inspired (that is to say, hysterical women who had cast their lot with religion) were sometimes called ḍākinīs also.

   What is disconcerting is that among Rinpoche's Western disciples, that tenderness, that great generosity and that kindly attention to the uniqueness of people, which was the core of his character in spite of often brutal forms (of which I have already given many examples) did not always prevail, but quite often a way (a little ridiculous, it must be said) of apeing the harshness of his outer aspect. There has always been a great deal of jealousy, and even genuine pettiness, in the relations between the master’s disciples; the younger ones who regret, rightly, not having had the happiness of knowing him in person, during his lifetime, can partly console themselves by trying to imagine the pandemonium in the middle of which he seemed to take pleasure in evolving, like these terrible deities dancing in the middle of the eight great mass graves full of various zombies. I have not made many friends in this often unbreathable sphere, apart from those I have brought there myself. With some of them, a much better relationship was established... after Rinpoche’s death. But when he was alive, things were excessively unfriendly, to call it what it is, at least for me. Everything that people tried to do to be helpful got denigrated (in France, at least), and one cannot say that the principle of “everyone in his place, but a place for everyone” prevailed: on the contrary, everything happened more often than not as if each person thought he was buying his place with the lama at the price of the deepest possible denigration of the others, sometimes even going so far as to set up real traps for the others.

   Here is an example; I will be forgiven for not mentioning the names of those who created the situation I am about to report.  

   In the last few years, Rinpoche, if I understood correctly, no longer shared his life with Gudrun, whom I have already mentioned, who has always remained very close to him, of course, since he appointed her, along with a few others, to ensure a sort of “regency” while awaiting his return (in the sense of the Tibetan belief in tülkus). He lived with another young woman, Nadia, with whom I always got along well, but who would admit herself that she was not easy-going and often made life impossible for Rinpoche’s guests. Again, I think that Rinpoche played it up, both for her, for them, for the other disciples who had to endure the electric atmosphere that these scenes created. Whoever knew the madhouse ambiance that prevailed almost all the time around the lama will not blame Nadia for having been often difficult – and me the last one, who, to be frank, was then only frequenting “Rinpoche’s sangha” (to speak in the neo-buddhist style) at the strict minimum.

   There was an evening when I was invited to dinner by Rinpoche in a house where he was staying, the hosts having gone out and Nadia having to prepare the meal. I don’t know how much of this was intentional (it seems possible, unfortunately), but what was supposed to be cooked – rice dumplings that were meant to be pan-fried, among other things – turned out to be impossible to prepare; apparently, the dumplings were falling apart in the pan. Nadia went into a huge rage. She was at the stove with her back to us; I left was alone facing Rinpoche.

   So he asked, with the plaintive air of a child, for tsampa, roasted barley flour, which Nadia took from the top of a shelf and put on the table; she then put water on to boil, since tsampa is normally eaten with tea and butter, and continued to struggle, swearing, cursing, with the rice balls.

   C. R. R. then began to eat the dry roasted barley flour, covering his face and clothes with it. When Nadia turned around and saw him like that – he genuinely looked like a senile old man – her anger boiled over and she started to shout at Rinpoche, telling him not act as a child. Rinpoche really did look like an old man who had lost his mind. But as soon as she turned her back, he looked at me... and winked.

   This story – and there are countless others to tell – shows how Rinpoche played on the extremely conflicting nature of the communities gathered around him. It can be said (I would not presume to explain what purpose he had in mind) that he himself created, or at least pushed to the limit, all possible tensions, especially those based on jealousy, between his disciples. For example, once David Cowey phoned me from Poland and said that Rinpoche was saying a lot of bad things about me publicly and that I absolutely had to come and settle things. But… I had just been on the phone with Rinpoche, and he hadn’t told me anything about the things he was apparently saying publicly against me. In the end, there was nothing to worry about: I, for one, had decided to pay close attention to what he was saying to me, even when I didn’t understand it – but to pay no attention to what he was saying to others, including about me. It seems to me that what he said to each person was made strictly for the person to whom it was said and was not even necessarily meant to be believed, but above all to be memorized, meditated on, kept to heart, with the greatest caution as to the meaning, which often only unfolded much later in its full scope.

  In this way, when I now tell what I remember of Rinpoche talking to me, in do not have any intention to disclose pieces of information of any general value (“What C.R.R. thought of this and that”), but rather to evoke concretely his living presence in order to make it felt as much as possible, especially to those who have not had the chance to know him. 

   I still don't know what to think about this lack of charity among Rinpoche’s disciples. One is reminded of Christ’s words that one would know his disciples by their love for one another. If one must “judge the tree by its fruits,” (but actually it is, in my opinion, much, much too early) Rinpoche’s record in this regard might appear as mixed, to say the least. It is also true that C. R. R., as we saw in the previous episode, was also the one who had agreed to teach the “samaya breakers” in the Golok area. Perhaps part of the detestable atmosphere that prevailed around him, and which the honesty that is my bias in these memories forbids me to write off entirely, was explained precisely by Rinpoche’s great kindness, which led him to take in hand even the worst types of humanity, among whom I am not afraid to count myself, especially at that time. 

   It doesn't really matter how lowly and petty some people were when they met the master and decided to follow him, if they came out any better. These are things that are completely beyond me but that I believe I must report, without dwelling on the most saddening details, especially in the register of wickedness full of good conscience and extreme dryness of heart; it remains in my mind as a kind of mystery of iniquity, and I confess that the human composition of the groups of Western converts to Buddhism, at least as I knew them in the past, was one of the elements that made me doubt very much, afterwards, the value of Buddhism as a path. This is perhaps unfair, because no spiritual tradition is as such responsible for what is done with it by those who do not take care of its moral principles; but, in another sense, one expects from a religion that would be the true one, that it would be rich enough in grace to allow the conversion of great sinners, including that of the pious hypocrites. 

   I wanted to reflect today, by returning to the transmission of the Gongpa Zangthal, on the question of “what passes” between the master and the disciple; but I let myself be deported, in a way, to this very important question, in its essence, of the human relations between the “vajra brothers and sisters” which inspired me these ambiguous reflections on the one hand, the master’s skill in achieving his ends, including by mobilizing the weaknesses of his “spiritual sons and daughters,” and on the other hand, the strangeness of these communities where the crudest passions of jealousy, aggressiveness, arrogance, self-satisfied ignorance, and conflicts, to put it in a word, the most pitiful, seem to prevail to an unimaginable degree, with a complete incapacity to mutualize means and to combine capacities in order to achieve the best results in the common work. 

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Rédigé par Stéphane Arguillère

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