Source of the illustration: http://www.khordong-byangter.org/teaching.html
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There is a lot to be said for my trip to India and Nepal in 1992-93; basically, it was the moment when I began to confusingly understand that Nyoshül Khenpo would probably never do what I thought he had committed to when he accepted me as a disciple a few years earlier, and what he had promised beyond all expectations when he once told me : “I will teach you the whole tradition of Longchenpa.”
In the ideology of Tibetan Buddhism, or in its fantasized representations of itself, the disciple must be trained from A to Z by the master. On the disciple’s side, only perfect docility is required; it would be up to the master to choose the way, to set the rhythm, and of course to correct mistakes. This is something I ardently desired, both because I had the feeling of my own incapacity to orient myself and because I deeply adhered to this idea of a transmission through a real apprenticeship, quite distinct from the simple reception of teaching; finally, I was convinced that I had found the perfect master in the person of Nyoshül Khenpo, whom I met in the summer of 1987.
I will come back to this expectation and the way it was disappointed by Nyoshül Khenpo, perhaps simply because things in the real and living Tibetan tradition had not corresponded for a long time, or perhaps had never corresponded in reality, to the idealized models of Tibetan “Lives of Saints.” This is a point on which my testimony, together with that of others who may have experienced something quite different, might not be useless, – especially for young people who would throw themselves wholeheartedly into a similar adventure. At the same time, I know that if, when I was twenty years old, someone had warned me about my hopes, well, like any young man full of vitality and with all the sap of his illusions, I would probably have taken for an old fart the one who would have charitably warned me.
But, now that I am quite old enough to be myself such an old fart, I will fill the role with all possible naivety, offering, especially to the younger generation, the fruits of my experience, even those that are bitter. For experience also teaches that most of those who have been warned, and who, because it is in the nature of the young man (maybe young women are less silly, at least for that type of heroic fantasies?), have taken no notice of it – and have thrown themselves without any reservation into what their delusions, laden with expectations, have precipitated them into – are in the end, however, grateful for the advice they have been given and in which they did not want to believe when they received it.
This is precisely what happened to me in the previous episode: Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche’s warnings did not stop me from throwing myself into this adventure, in which I was not far from losing my life. Generally speaking, I have always been rather obstinate and I have always had to go to the end of an experiment, even a ruinous one, in order to convince myself that it was not for lack of having tried seriously that it did not work, but because the thing, in itself, was a dead end. On the other hand, I always kept in mind the warnings or advice I had been given, even when I had found them very upsetting.
In this case, my confidence in Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche was significantly increased by this trip to India. Perhaps, on the other hand, my feeling of being able to rely comfortably on Nyoshül Khenpo's wisdom began to wane at that point.
It must be said that it was not easy to develop trust, let alone the “devotion” that is spoken of in the “Dharma centers,” towards such a person. There are many reasons for this: first, one could never be completely relaxed and at ease in his presence, so unpredictable and sometimes (morally) brutal were his reactions. One could not refrain from thinking of the feline whose claws, to be retracted, are not less capable of coming out at any moment, and whose paw stroke is sudden and sometimes unexpected.
On the other hand, it was often difficult to know when he was joking and when he was serious, including when he displayed, when talking about himself, a sort of pompous and megalomaniac side where there was probably in reality a great part of self-mockery and a really deliberate intention to break the hypocritical codes of false modesty. Thus, I remember that on his first visit, Guy Serre had a stamp made for him: “H.E. [His Eminence] Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche”. He looked at it, he said, "Why not His Holiness?" and he laughed. By the way, [this is a 2021 correction to the original French version] it was not until many years after his death that I realized that, in terms of rank in the Tibetan clerical hierarchy of the Old Regime, being the principal Tülku of Khordong Monastery was indeed a high dignity. But as there was no indication of this either in his conduct or, in general (with some surprising exceptions) in the conduct of the other lamas towards him, it took me a very long time to become convinced.
This reminds me of a piece of advice he gave me when he gave me his letter of recommendation for Sarnath University: not to be too humble!
“Inside, humble being is good, but outside, LITTLE PRIDE SHOW NECESSARY.”
Alongside the supposed wisdom of the old Tibetan master, he was not lacking in solid, even rather cunning, common sense and a precise awareness of the psychological and social mechanisms of the real world. In fact, his companion Gudrun once had him tell her us he had obtained a price for something by telling the man with whom he was negotiating that if he did not lower his demands, his house would fall down on him. The man was a Hindu, he was afraid of sadhus, Rinpoche was quite sadhu-looking; he lowered his price.
Another thing is that beyond Chhimed Rigdzin’s unpredictable and sometimes chilling outbursts, it was also impossible to understand where he was going, or what his medium or long-term plans were. At first glance, he seemed to have no plans at all and to act impulsively, as if moved by sudden inspirations. On the contrary, it appeared afterwards that he knew very well where he wanted to go, but it was very difficult to understand him, even if it was to cooperate meekly.
I can’t speak for others, but, in any case, for me, trust was built up very slowly towards this man, the most paradoxical of all those I met. And, even in the end, it never had the character of “devotion” in the sentimental sense that one commonly thinks that the disciple must have for his master. Chhimed Rigdzin was too frightening on the one hand, too clownish on the other, and basically too frontal, too friendly even, to be put on that kind of pedestal of pious idealization that is implied by what is called “devotion.” Basically, I have no other term to name what was built between him and me over the years than that of friendship, even if it was obviously a very asymmetrical friendship, since I had a lot to receive from him, and he, from me, nothing, except that at his age, he necessarily thought of transmitting something to some of those who were going to survive him.
This very matter of transmission is, moreover, equivocal. I don’t imagine myself in any way being called upon to transmit anything like a teaching received from him. On the other hand, there is indeed something imponderable, elusive, indescribable that has passed, an information in the most literal and physical sense of the term, that is to say, a certain transformation of my being by apposition of the form of the long-frequented master, a form itself likely to be transmitted, notably by giving testimony of the things seen and the words heard. Finally, the form of docility required is perhaps not so much to obey orders – possibly bizarre and painful ones, like those reported in the Life of Milarepa – but above all to lend oneself, like a material that is both flexible and firm, to the reception of this form. Soft, because stiffness (indocility) would prevent any new form from being imprinted, as in a matter that is too hard and resistant to information; firm, however, because a matter that is too labile, too fluid (extreme submissiveness) would retain nothing of the imprinted form, “as words, written on water, fade away...”.
In any case, and to get more precisely back to my memories of Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche, the return from my trip to India and Nepal was to open a new phase in my relationship with this master, oriented towards the moment (in 1995) when he would finally give the consecration (initiation) of the Gongpa zangthal and the oral transmission (lung) of his master Tülku Tsullo’s Manual for its practice.
As a first step, and to finish this chapter, Chhimed Rigdzin, after making sure that I had read the Manual, the Tibetan text of which he had given me around 1992, also told me that he had “some copies of the Gongpa zangthal stored in a garage in India” and that he could give me one. Indeed, he brought with him the five heavy volumes of the 1973 edition, which is a reproduction of the excellent xylograph of A ’dzom ’brug pa in the very large bound format of the Tibetan text editions of the late 1960s and 1970s. But, far from giving it to me, he made me pay for it, even quite expensive for the student that I still was. I must admit that the commercial transaction aspect of it was a bit disconcerting; but in the end, it was clearly a sum of money that he did not need, which for me was nothing compared to the treasure he was offering me, and which, according to my perception, was part of a kind of spiritual pedagogy – an extremely softened form of the ordeals imposed by Marpa on Milarepa, to come back to this archetype (or stereotype) of the relationship between teacher and disciple. In fact, it was perhaps something much more down-to-earth and even intended to work against all the heroic idealizations of the master: by selling me these texts for a sum that was neither a gift nor perhaps a price equal to what this long-out-of-print edition would have cost me in the market, Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche introduced an element of triviality, of purely human transaction, which brought me back to earth. Besides, as I have already written several times, I do not pretend to (I have even long ago given up all expectation to) understand at all the ins and outs of the often strange acts of “C. R. Lama.”
The volumes of the Gongpa Zangthal that Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche “sold” to me
One piece of conversation is worth reporting, however. Having in hand the five wonderful volumes (it must be said, which is difficult to imagine today, that despite my infatuation with the tradition of which Nyoshül Khenpo was the repository, I only succeeded very late in obtaining the volumes of the Nyingthik Yazhi), I asked Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche:
“Are there any secret texts, which should not be read now?
- BETWEEN THE MASTER AND THE DISCIPLE THERE IS NOTHING SECRET.
- But for example the confrontation texts, Nyoshül Khenpo told me...
- I am the holder of this lineage, I know, I tell you to read everything.”
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