The passage of years certainly leads me to look today with a much more critical eye at what I admired, to say the least, in my youth. Nevertheless, it is not without perplexity, or even a certain amount of wonder, that I think back today, among all the masters I have approached, of Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche (1922-2002).
My purpose here is neither hagiographic nor critical. I only want to report a few memories, as I write, which may satisfy the curiosity of some, or serve the history of the introduction of Nyingmapa Buddhism in the West, if one ever cares.
I met him, unless I am mistaken, in 1989; I was 19, more or less. At that time, the Lama, who had been retired for a few years from his post as professor of Tibetan language and civilisation at the University of Shantiniketan (West Bengal), was travelling in Europe where, in his own very singular way, he was working to implant Tibetan Buddhism. It was a certain Guy Serre, who has since passed away, that, with the idea of creating a centre for Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche in Paris, contacted me to act as translator. Guy Serre’s motives appeared to me to be rather impure, insofar as this man, full of resentment against Sogyal Rinpoche, wanted above all to create competition for him in the field of Nyingmapa Buddhism in Paris. I did not exactly share his motivation, but, being at the time fully involved in Nyingma Buddhism, I did indeed consider it desirable that an elderly master armed with solid competence be established in Paris, to counter what appeared to me to be a somewhat demagogic offer, made under morally uncertain conditions.
Guy Serre, a very manipulative man, undoubtedly had quite specific plans, involving sidelining a large part of the Lama’s Western entourage, for whom he did not have much respect. He was a curious figure, who saw himself as a sort of impressario, an agent in the sense that artists can have one. He was not shy about advising the lamas on their “communication;” he saw the whole thing as a commercial venture based on seduction. Basically, he had a very much occultist view of the world; for him, it was all about the flow of energy (in my impertinent youth, I called it the mystique of the petrol pump). This poor man was also convinced that he had been somehow bewitched by Sogyal Rinpoche and believed that he had found a much more powerful magician in Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche. Alas for him, his rather bizarre fantasies gradually evolved into a deeper and deeper mental - and social - degradation, which led to his death in obscure circumstances in Nepal some years later.
He told me about Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche’s plans to come and teach in France. After researching this lama, I discovered that he belonged to the lineage of the Jangter (Byang gter) of the Nyingma school, that is, to the lineage of Rigdzin Gödem (Rig 'dzin rGod ldem), a follower and “revealer of treasures” of the fourteenth century. I had heard of this fascinating character in the Tibetological studies in which I had recently become seriously involved (I had started learning Tibetan at INALCO in 1988). I knew that Rigdzin Gödem’s revelations included a vast and famous cycle of Dzogchen, the Gongpa zangthal (dGongs pa zang thal), which was to have (and still has) a very important place in the further course of my existence. Moreover, a photo that Guy Serre showed me of this lama made a great impression on me, I don't know why: probably because he had something, in his very appearance, of that old, raw, magical and bizarre Tibet, which made me dream more than its versions that are too much adapted to the West. It was clear that with him, we were going to find ourselves right in the world of the tertöns (gter ston, “discoverers of treasures”) and of a whole Tibetan wonderland, which was perhaps too exotic for Westerners to be able to project themselves in a beneficial way, but which at least had a certain stamp of authenticity.
It has often happened in my life that I have committed myself without hesitation to dubious leaders, as long as what they were proposing to me objectively had a meaning and a value. I had no illusions about Guy Serre’s uprightness, but I wanted to follow him in this venture. So I let myself be carried along. It started with the reception of a bunch of practice texts translated into English, at least some of which had to be transposed into French, when this had not already been done by the French-speaking disciples of Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche. My first impression was rather negative, because the English translations looked bizarre to me, sort of clumsy or even incorrect in style. My level of Tibetan, although not yet very high, already allowed me to see which terms were so strangely rendered in English. But what I did not yet understand was that, despite the names of former disciples supposed to be the authors of these translations, such as James Low, the main author of these translations was surely Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche himself, whose extremely personal English was one of the charms, which I only learned to appreciate later on (I shall give many examples of it further on).
It was therefore hardly possible to “correct” them, or even to redo the translations directly from the Tibetan into French; it must have been a real asceticism for me thereafter to refrain not only from proposing improvements, but even from pointing out the many misunderstandings or nonsense that I – rightly or not – perceived in these translations; this may seem strange to anyone who did not know those Western Buddhist circles of the very late 1980s and early 1990s, where anyone with a solid competence in the field of Tibetan studies (mine was so solid yet) was struck with suspicion. Western neo-Buddhist mindsets owed more, at least at that time, to those of the occultist circles (Guénonian, etc.) than to anything that could really claim to be Tibetan traditions.
After a few weeks of preparation, during which I translated a few texts as best I could (I have no precise memory of it at the moment, except for the state of feverishness and exhaustion in which I found myself at the end), Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche arrived in Paris. At that time he was still walking, albeit with a stick. He was not yet invited in the apartment owned by the late Jean-Louis Massoubre, as was soon to be the case, but with another friend of Guy Serre’s, whom I will not name as I could not ask his permission.
I remember my first meeting with Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche as if it had taken place yesterday, and I will recount it in the rest of these memories.
I would like, for those who did not know it, to characterise a little the time of Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche’s first visit to Paris. It was on 10 May 1989 that Kalu Rinpoche died. At that time, the world of French converts to Tibetan Buddhism was dominated by the Kagyüpa sensibility, notably what was called “Shangpa Kagyü,” which is a combination of the transmission proper Shangs pa (for the inner practice) with the Karma Kagyü traditions (for the general framework, liturgical, etc.). This tradition had - and still has - many well-organised centres, where Kalu Rinpoche had placed all kinds of lamas, especially Bhutanese ones.
Another curious point deserves an in-depth investigation: many of the artisans of the implantation of the Kagyü tradition, and in particular of the branch incarnated by Kalu Rinpoche, were visibly “initiated” with a Guénonian spirit. One only has to leaf through the writings of the “godfathers” of Shangpa Buddhism in France to see - surprisingly enough! - that Tibetan Buddhism is almost considered as an indifferent wrapping of a Guénonian gnosis - René Guénon’s pretensions to speak in the name of some “primordial tradition” allowing, at least to the less enlightened of his disciples, to drown all the rich and complex singularities of the various traditions in a vague mush, which is basically a kind of vulgarisation of Neoplatonic thought. This second parameter, together with the inadequacy in many respects of part of the clergy set up by Kalu Rinpoche, would eventually lead to the decline of this interesting tradition in the West, or at least in France.
However, it was mainly the conflict over the recognition of the 17th Karmapa that caused it to fall apart. The two “pretenders” were born, one in 1983, the other in 1985; by the end of the 1980s, everything in the Kagyüpa school had become considerably worse.
It may come as a surprise that a case of “anti-pope” in one stream of Tibetan Buddhism could have had such a disastrous impact on European converts. This ignores the hyper-clericalism that prevailed then, and still prevails, in Tibetan centres in the West. If Buddhism (including Tibetan Buddhism) likes to claim to be a “wisdom” religion and struggles to accept itself as a religion, if Western converts to Buddhism have harsh words for Catholic dogmatism and moralism, if they like to believe that they are bathed in a gnosis “without ego” and radiating universal compassion - it must be said that clericalism has experienced a blossoming that the most ferocious ultramontane Catholics of the early French 19th century period would hardly have dared to dream of.
The reason is that while the Catholic religion owes a great deal to Roman legalism, in Tibetan Buddhism (especially emancipated from Tibetan social frameworks as a result of the disorders caused by the Chinese takeover of Tibet and increased by the uprooting associated with the transplantation to the West), the Tibetan clerical dignities are supposedly based on a form of gnosis, or rather, a fantasy is cultivated which tends to make the degree of a prelate in the hierarchy of his institute coincide with a degree of “realisation,” of inner perfection. Thus, when the master, especially if he is a hierarch of Tibetan Buddhism, gives an order or makes a judgement, it is supposedly, for Western followers of Buddhism (especially at the time I am talking about) the enlightened wisdom that speaks with an authority even more infallible, if possible, than that of the Supreme Pontiff for Catholics. For the latter do not accord infallible authority to the head of their religion in his or her every move in daily life; Western Buddhists, on the other hand, imagine their pontiffs to radiate omniscient wisdom perfectly appropriate to the situation at every moment of their lives.
This vision, which does not take into account the human weaknesses in the sometimes questionable decisions of these Tibetan prelates (or even of the lesser masters), necessarily makes the conflicts between them perfectly inextricable: if one is a god, the other, to whom he is opposed, must therefore be a demon. Neither of them can, for those who follow them, have passions or prejudices, or commit errors of judgement.
Presumably, the Tibetans, though very capable of fanaticism, were more able of putting these oppositions into perspective and seeing the political dimension. How the claim that such and such a master is ‘an enlightened being” is combined in their minds with the observation, which poses little problem for them, of his very human weaknesses - this is probably not pure logic, but rather practical common sense. The newly catechisedWesterners had not had time to develop this ability to close their eyes to the contradictions of the faith they have embraced, and so they - logically - threw themselves wholeheartedly into these distressing controversies.
The result of these three main groups of causes (to speak only of what I have seen myself) - the sometimes unedifying Bhutanese lamas, the more or less latent Guénonism, and the conflict over the succession to the 16th Karmapa - was a profound weakening of the Kagyüpa current in Tibetan Buddhism in Europe, or at least in France where, at first, Kalu Rinpoche could have fulfilled, if he had taken the trouble, the role of a de factoleader of all Tibetan Buddhism.
This crisis benefited the Nyingma current, which had several advantages: first, many more older lamas, who lived longer and held the school firm in the Tibetan diaspora; second, a more anarchic, less centralized character, which, while initially a weakness, had a great advantage precisely when the same kind of Tibetan conflicts arose (for example, there are at least two “tülkus” of Düdjom Rinpoche... but no one bothers). In this more informal world, figures may have emerged and then faded into the background, without dragging down the overall fortunes of the school. Similarly, figures who hardly recognised each other were able to coexist without their possible friction preventing them from prospering, each on his own. The most typical case is that of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, who was denigrated by the great prelates of the Nyingma tradition (for various reasons, in particular his close interest in the Bön religion), but this did not prevent him from spreading his teaching widely.
In any case, the situation of Tibetan Buddhism in France, as far as I can tell, was at that time characterised by the beginning of a weakening of the Kagyüpas and by a still discrete but noticeable rise of the Nyingmapas, the Gelugpas (whose teaching was perceived as lacking spiritual profundity) having difficulty gaining a foothold and the Sakyapas even more so; the Bönpos did not establish themselves until much later.
At the very end of the 1980s, there were four active Nyingmapa groups: in the Dordogne, the group whose head was (and still is) Tülku Pema Wangyal and the other sons of Kanguyr Rinpoche, who were more closely linked to Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche; and the group of Düdjom Rinpoche’s disciples, under the leadership of his youngest son, the late Shenphen Dawa Rinpoche. These two groups represented the dominant orthodoxy in a way - but they had in common a weak influence, a somewhat closed functioning which made it difficult to access them. Then there was the group, still not very well established in France at the time, of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, who ensured the most effective propaganda of Dzogchen. Finally, the dominant group in Paris was the late Sogyal Rinpoche’s Rigpa Centre, whose teaching, it must be said, was weak in terms of traditional content, but attracted many people because of Sogyal Rinpoche’s worldly talents.
In short, it was the consideration of this state of affairs that persuaded Guy Serre that there was something to be done in Paris. Without sharing his superstitious dislike of Sogyal Rinpoche, I agreed with him at the time because the latter's teaching seemed to me to be quite inconsistent, and I felt a certain unease about what, in Rigpa, was called “crazy wisdom,” a term coined by the neo-Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa in the United States, which, in theory, means that the natural manifestation of a master’s enlightenment is an activity that is alien to all norms, beyond good and evil, and which is meant to lift the disciple out of the routine of his ignorance. In practice, this is the “supreme stage of clericalism,” i.e. the alleged infallibility of the masters no longer has to be exercised even in the name of a fetishised tradition of which they are the holders, but can be expressed in the very form of the things most contrary to Buddhist morality itself, from parasitic living in disgusting luxury, nourished in money shamelessly extorted from the disciples (in the form of paid training courses etc.), to sexual abuse, exploitation of voluntary work, etc., all in a purely perverse atmosphere.
I mention all this because this is the context in which Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche arrived in Paris around 1989, particularly insofar as he was considered the “master of crazy wisdom” par excellence, while bearing no resemblance to the “narcissistic empire-building gurus” that we have known elsewhere.
The next chapter is here.