Continuation of my memories of Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche, no. 16: what passes from master to disciple

Publié le 24 Mai 2021

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I don’t know who is the author of the picture I put in the illustration and that I borrowed from the Facebook page “KHORDONG WORLDWIDE.” What is certain is that it is the first photo of CRR that I saw, before I met him; it must date from 1988 or so.

   I only mentioned in passing, in the previous episode, Rinpoche’s entourage; I don’t know what to make of the fact that many Tibetan masters deploy a veritable pandemonium around them when they teach in the West. There is no doubt that there is a lot to be said in many ways. In many cases, it is clear that most Tibetans simply don’t understand anything about Western psychology (especially as far as the depressive, self-destructive, guilt-ridden traits are concerned, they seem to escape them); but precisely in this respect, Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche is one of the few Tibetan masters I have met with whom I have no doubt as to the real finesse of his perception of the mind of others.

   Generally speaking, Western disciples of Tibetan lamas exaggerate a lot the clairvoyance or simply the penetration of their masters: In addition to my personal experience with those I considered to be my masters, countless observations I have made, especially as an interpreter for personal interviews over a period of more than twenty years, have convinced me that Westerners and Tibetans would have everything to gain from more frank exchanges, where the disciple, even if he likes to believe in the omniscience of his master, would nevertheless proceed to a frank confession of his difficulties, and where the master, even if the disciple tells himself that it is only a game, would frankly ask the questions about what escapes him and that he does not manage to guess.

   Of course, this would be at least a tacit acknowledgement that the Buddhist masters are not what we would like them to be. But, if progress is not made in this direction, it is certain that the decomposition of Tibetan Buddhism through its passage to the West will only continue. Paradoxically, it is the piety (often bordering masochism) of the new Western converts that is killing it, creating situations that actually block fully human communication. Haven’t I heard people (though they could not be more educated) say (of another master, by the way): “Rinpoche is a Buddha, he doesn’t need to eat, he is pretending out of pure compassion for us.” 

   Chhimed Rigdzin cannot be suspected of this all-too-human blindness to the intricacies of his students’ psyches: I have given many examples (and I could give more, some of which might be chilling) that suggest that, in his case at least, one was truly naked before him, and even as if transparent throughout. Moreover, even if, of course, in the context of the “devotion to the master” advocated by Tibetan Buddhism, he had to deal with all sorts of idealizing projections on the part of his disciples, it seems to me that he was more than any other capable of demolishing them. Because, finally, even if many of the stories I have reported may give the impression of a kind of tyrant, a half-crazed guru demanding that his followers abandon all common sense, from my point of view at least, a good part of what he could say or do led to the methodical destruction, precisely, of the pious image of the “Lama.”

   If one wanted to write a short essay on “lamas’ humor,” it is clear that Chhimed Rigdzin would deserve a chapter of his own. Comparisons of the quality of people aside, and considering only the speeches, there is a gulf between, for example, his humor and that of a master who was said to have some, like Sogyal Rinpoche. Chhimed Rigdzin, for one, respected absolutely nothing and nobody, at least in words, except Tülku Tsurlo (or Tshullo) and Düdjom Rinpoche. His humor was therefore far from being limited to ridiculing in a more or less sadistic way disciples placed in a position of inferiority, supposedly to correct them. In addition to the satirical vein, there was also a component of black humor that I have not yet emphasized enough, but of which we have had a sample at least in his discourse on black magic; we will see, in a forthcoming episode, that he did not neglect the tasty register of anthropophagic jokes either. We have also seen that he did not shy away from extremely crude sexual jokes. But above all, and this is the key point, he went much further than anyone else in a form of self-deprecation that was sometimes a little difficult to perceive.

   CRR was not afraid to evoke the miseries of old age; how many times did we not hear him say, in the last years of his life:

“I still not fully stupid,”

In the sense: I am not yet fully senile. But I also remember hearing him describe several times the deterioration of an old man’s body in very medical terms, very objective, although fed by his own experience. Of course, sometimes it was just light-hearted and amusing, as in this answer he gave me once when I asked him about his health:

“The tires are dead [= he couldn’t walk much anymore], the body is faded, BUT THE ENGINE IS STILL GOOD!”

But sometimes it was more demeaning. 

   However, the main thing is not there, but, in my opinion, in the often excessively pompous way he talked about himself. I don’t know how aware his other Western disciples could be of this, because perhaps in order to capture this kind of “second degree” one has to be familiar with Tibetan cultural codes and to have got some acquaintance with the dominant opinions among the Tibetans, and especially the Nyingma lamas, of ours days. But when, as I have related, he threw away the stamp that Guy Serre had made for him in 1989, “H.E. (“his eminence”) Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche said, “Haha, why not His Holiness?” This was obviously, from the dominant contemporary Tibetan point of view, a pure enormity

[Note : but, by the way, it was surely sort of a 3rd degree joke, in this sense that, in the Tibetan Old Regime, if he could have stayed in Khordong and perform all the corresponding functions, he would have been a very high-ranking lama – was he not one of the few ones for whose recognition as a tülku the “golden urn” was used? I did not realize this, not only while he was alive, but even when I wrote the French version of these memories, and this has only become clearer to me quite recently, when I started an extensive study of the Northern Treasures tradition on the basis of the Tibetan sources, especially this very large History of the Northern Treasures by one Chöying :

Vol. 62 of the Byang gter phyogs bsrgigs : the Byang gter chos ’byung.]

   In many cases, it is arguable that he was simply asserting his real standing in a Tibetan clerical hierarchy blurred by the effects of the Chinese invasion and the delusions of new Western converts to Tibetan Buddhism. Thus, in an interview I had with him much later, in India, during my 1998-99 trip, he told me (in essence; he was speaking in Tibetan, with his wife, Amala, sitting by his side and amused):

“All these people, Nyoshül Khenpo, Khenpo Thubten of Rahor, Khenpo Thubten of Mewa, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, Chatral Rinpoche (!), etc., they were nothing in Tibet, and now they have become so important [in the Nyingmapa school]...”

This shocking formula was actually aimed, in a somewhat disillusioned way, at this upheaval of traditional hierarchies, that was privileging the tülkus of large monasteries, in relation to which these characters could certainly look a bit like “parvenus,” in the sense that they owed their rank only to their personal qualities and had indeed risen from the ranks in the course of their lives. But, in general, Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche had a way of talking about himself that would have been the most monstrously unhinged pride, had he not been so full of common sense. Pride can certainly very easily push towards ridicule those who are not aware of the effect their jactance produces on their listeners; but in my opinion, there was a great deal of second degree in the enormities that CRR used to enunciate. He himself gave me the key to this in a piece of advice he gave me when he wrote me a letter of recommendation for the CIHTS in Sarnath in the early winter of 1992-93:

“Inside, being humble [is] good; but, in university [Indian, in this case], OUTSIDE LITTLE PRIDE SHOW NECESSARY.”

He was perfectly aware of the necessity of this part of  “ego theater” to make a place for oneself in society, without which one is prevented from doing the good of which one would be capable. Part of his self-staging can be explained by his long association with Indian academics, who are often very capable of first degree in this kind of pompous presentation of themselves.

   The point I want to come to in order to deal with the question that occupies me is that of the destruction of the idol of the master.

   One reader of these stories [the original French version] has complained (I believe from the first episode alone) that there is not “enough Dharma” here. I readily concede to this frustrated reader that these recollections are the testimony on a remarkable man, by someone who cannot and does not wish to assume all the presuppositions or stereotypes of an internal Tibetan Buddhist (or post-Tibetan neo-Buddhist…) discourse. But I invite this and other frustrated readers to consider how, in a way, this also gives me a point of view that is not without value: I am trying to grasp precisely what remains of the character of Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche as I knew him, once stripped of all the stereotypical verbiage about “realized masters.” I am reduced to the raw content of my experience, somewhat disenchanted, disillusioned; and I am forced to note that, in the case of Chhimed Rigdzin, what remains once the figure has been stripped, if I may say so, of all romantic fiction, is far from being nothing – something I am not able to grasp to the same degree with regard to several of the other masters I have followed.

   This is also another opportunity to revisit the Trungpian myth of crazy wisdom in light of the reality of the conduct of an extraordinary master. 

   The Trungpian crazy wisdom always seems to place the master in a kind of off-the-ground position, out of the world, in an absolute point of view that no one can see – I’d say : as the perverse author of the rules of the game that he has sovereignty over, supposedly to “destroy the ego” of the disciple 'as it ever worked at all?). In contrast, Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche engaged in very concrete, very human, and very simple interactions with those who followed him. The real place of the teaching, in my opinion, was as least as much at the dinner table with him as in the formal moments when he preached from his throne. Even in the latter case, much was done through dialogue, such as when he challenged the audience by asking who had understood what point, for example, in the text being recited.

   It is true that Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche was, in a sense, elusive and unpredictable. But he was more like a wild and anarchic singularity than some terrifying hypostasis of the Absolute. Precisely because of his immeasurable weirdness, it was difficult to perceive him even as one of those “wrathful” deities of which the Tibetan pantheon is full. His trickster, “deceptive” side, often pushed to a kind of clownishness, destroyed any attempt at a “pure vision of the master as a Buddha.” 

   To put it another way: he was the only one who managed to derail my whole mental theater as a young devout Buddhist. While I was able to tell myself that Nyoshül Khenpo was an enlightened being, my inner attitude towards Chhimed Rigdzin was mostly, “I don’t know, I don’t understand, but I trust.”

   The presupposition of the Tibetan Buddhist (or Bön) traditions is that the center of gravity of the relationship between the disciple and the master is in the transmission of the teachings of which the master is the custodian, perceived as the necessary means to access spiritual attainments. In sum, the normal sequence is supposed to be: I meet the master; I recognize that he is the one I want to follow because he has all the right qualities; he tests me and then accepts me as a disciple; then he transmits his instructions to me little by little; I put them into practice under his guidance, like an apprentice trained in a manual skill by an experienced mentor; then I reap the fruits of it, which finally I must share with others.

   But I would like to venture a somewhat daring hypothesis which is inspired by a curious sentence that Nyoshül Khenpo once said to his wife’s nephew Orgyen, who reported it to me.

   One day Orgyen asked the Khenpo what the lha skal, literally, the “divine share” of each of his disciples was. This term actually refers to the share in the spiritual heritage of a master that is to fall to each of his disciples.

   Apparently, for all the others, Nyoshül Khenpo named this or that traditional teaching of the tantras or Dzogchen, etc. But, when it came to me, Khen Rinpoche said:

“His lha skal, his share of spiritual heritage, IS MYSELF.”

To me, this curious and not even traditionally understandable formula seems to make a lot of sense: finally, the center of the relationship of the master to the disciple may not be the famous teachings, which in many regards may only have the character of a kind of “transitional object.” And, to continue in this psychoanalytical register, perhaps the essential thing is rather in the transference, in something that is tied up and that operates at the hinge of these two singularities, that of the master and that of the disciple.

   In the end, to be honest, I didn’t learn much from my masters, in terms of information: even when I ended up having the famous “teachings,” including when it came to verifying my experience, especially of Dzogchen, frankly, they did little more than dot the i’s and cross the t’s, certifying what I had already understood at the crossroads of meditative practice and reading of texts. It is certainly true that I read the texts (a lot of them) with a form of very ardent devotion, as if, in short, I were hearing them from the very masters to whom I had the most enthusiastic piety. But, if I am honest and since I can speak now without any concern for betraying anything, I cannot attribute to my interactions with these sublime singularities any direct increase in my understanding, either intellectually or even experientially.

[An exception would be what happened to me when I first met Nyoshül Khenpo: but actually it was not a teaching, it just happened through seeing him, and then in the next 12 years when I was trying to follow him, I did not really get anything more from him. At the very end of his life, when he finally gave me the instructions, it was really, as I said, a mere confirmation, not an additional extension of either my intellectual or my practical understanding.]

   On the other hand, I am certain that I have been very deeply shaped by these very intense interactions, so intense that, many years after their deaths, I think and rethink endlessly about these exchanges which remain present in my memory with an incredible precision. 

   To go further in the direction of the hypothesis I am risking here: when Nyoshül Khenpo said: “His lha skal, his share of [my] spiritual heritage, IS MYSELF,” I do not understand this as if it were to say that I would have become like him, another himself. There is an abyss of difference between those whom I have looked up to as my masters (and whom I must still consider as such, in a certain way, in spite of - or even because of - my later evolution); they have been for me examples rather than models: powerful sources of inspiration to go further on my own “individuation path,” and not types to be aped at best, to be imitated in the most slavish way.

   In the end, it seems to me that the master is the one who makes the disciple sensitive to his or her own vocation and who gives him or her something of the energy needed to follow to the end this Ariadne’s thread, from which all conformisms invite us to deviate.

Next episode: click here.


Rédigé par Stéphane Arguillère

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Petra 24/05/2021 19:47

" that Westerners and Tibetans would have everything to gain from more frank exchanges, where the disciple, even if he likes to believe in the omniscience of his master, would nevertheless proceed to a frank confession of his difficulties, and where the master, even if the disciple tells himself that it is only a game, would frankly ask the questions about what escapes him and that he does not manage to guess."

That's exactly my observation, too. And my best guess at why they don't do it is, because culturally, Tibetans (and maybe Asians in general?) do not talk about problems. It almost feels like it's beneath them. Also, that they need to keep a certain distance from their western students. Also, that they possibly feel like dragged even more into the role of psychotherapist, a role they just do not want.

" Moreover, even if, of course, in the context of the “devotion to the master” advocated by Tibetan Buddhism, he had to deal with all sorts of idealizing projections on the part of his disciples, it seems to me that he was more than any other capable of demolishing them. "

Honestly, most westerners who are exposed to this have no clue what's going on and that fact makes them create just more weird projections and conceptual thinking. I think that this is one of the reasons why western student groups of Tibetan teachers are that emotionally immature. People are thrown into something that emotionally triggers them left, right and center and they get zero explanation what's going on. The teachers also do not adjust that so people only get an amount of it they can take.

it was difficult to perceive him even as one of those “wrathful” deities of which the Tibetan pantheon is full. His trickster, “deceptive” side, often pushed to a kind of clownishness, destroyed any attempt at a “pure vision of the master as a Buddha.”

Stéphane Arguillère 24/05/2021 21:06

Dear Petra, I fully agree with your remarks !