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After a vague overview of the situation of Buddhism in France at the end of the 1980s, let's come back to Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche and how I got to know him.
Guy Serre, mentioned in the previous article of this series, wanted to make me the “official” interpret of Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche; this was without counting (he didn't care) with the older personal disciples of the lama, such as Patrice Sammut and Nathalie Koralnik, – and above all, it was very much exaggerating his influence on this man who never did anything but his own idea, and who had many other criteria than that of supposed technical competence as imagined by Guy Serre. Experience would later show me that he always had his own ideas, which were in fact rather focused, it seems to me, on the real needs of individuals (as he perceived them) than on material, institutional success.
I don’t remember much about my first meeting with Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche; I think I gave him something to bless. Describing things in a purely subjective way, Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche had about the same effect on me as Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, whom I had met a few months earlier, in 1988. It's a difficult thing to describe, a bit like saying that some actors “blow up the screen.” Certainly, there is no connection, at first sight, between these two characters: while Namkhai Norbu appeared very westernized, at least in the external forms, very constructed, precise, concise and rational in the speech, and finally relatively indifferent to the surrounding Tibetan religious world, as for Chhimed Rigdzin, he appeared really like an old Tibetan sorcerer, with the reserve close to his “Benares” scarves which gave him a small hippy stamp. He also cultivated provocation and the wildest black humor, as we will see, but with a purely traditional practical teaching, since he made his disciples sing or recite practice texts mainly from the revelations of the Tertön Nüden Dorje of Khordong, of which he was regarded as the tülku. However, both of them, as soon as I saw them, were imprinted in my memory with an extraordinary vividness; and even today, I cannot think of Chhimed Ridzgin Rinpoche without his image in my memory being so vivid, that often it feels as if he were here, alive and present, although in another space – in an unlocatable place - somewhere perhaps in the imaginal world of which Henry Corbin speaks!
Besides, and in spite of all their differences, Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche and Namkhai Norbu were both part of quite related spiritual currents - those of the nyingmapa tertöns of Khams (Eastern Tibet), floating in an atmosphere of continuous revelation, for whom dreams and other signs have a great importance; both seemed somewhat “beyond good and evil,” if not in the sense of those so-called “masters of crazy wisdom” who only abuse the credulity of Westerners, then at least in the sense that morality, even the traditional ethics of Buddhism, was not their central concern. In these traditions, being a monk is not prized and is often the object of mockery; everything happens as if the essential was rather on the side of a kind of common decency associated with fidelity, in a quasi-familiar sense, to the master. This is definitely not on the side of the narcissistic, omniscient neo-Buddhist gurus – but not either on the side of another kind of character, just as traditional: that of the monk who, even if he is a great practitioner, hides himself behind the role of exact and meticulous transmitter of the content of the texts.
In the months that followed, and before his second visit to Paris, I wrote Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche a little letter in Tibetan, in which I basically defended myself against the spiritual fascination that he had begun to exert on me as soon as I saw him, and perhaps even before. I really experienced this encounter as a profound decentering, as if I were suddenly captured by a maelstrom of pure power, shifting me, as if in spite of myself, from the trajectory I had proposed. From my first contacts with Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche (and until his death in 2002 - curiously not beyond), I saw him very often in my dreams - sometimes in a sort of secondary role, like an extra passing in the background. The degree of hold (I don’t know how else to say it) that he exerted on my imagination, to say the least, was immediately extreme; I who had at first appreciated his extraordinary black humor and his way of shamelessly underlining the ridiculous sides of even the great dignitaries of Tibetan Buddhism quickly gave way to a kind of diffuse terror before what appeared to me as a swallowing up of a quasi-magical power, or at least, of which I had no idea of the spiritual character, good or evil.
Basically, here is what I was telling him in this short letter in Tibetan: that I would be happy to serve him, especially during his visits to Paris; but that I was a disciple of Nyoshül Khenpo, whom I should therefore follow first. In short, I was trying to keep a firm grip on the spiritual journey I had in mind, and in a way, this letter was therefore an expression of resistance to the drive, to the powerful gravitational force, that his person was already exerting on me.
When I saw him again in Paris, he answered me about this letter, as if it had deeply upset him, and this, moreover, in front of his French disciples and in front of Gudrun Knauesberger, a young German woman who shared his life - which, of course, increased the humiliating side of the “winding up” that I had to undergo. I will say a few words later on about these often violent outbursts from Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche, which did not necessarily have the meaning that neo-Buddhist / New Agy childishness would willingly give them (“Rinpoche said that to break your ego,” etc.).
Still, during this interview, Chhimed Rigdzin told me, in substance, this (in his strange English, of which I will give some samples later):
"I read your letter well; I read it three times. The first time, I didn't understand anything; the second time, I corrected the spelling mistakes; the third time, I still didn't understand anything and I threw it in the garbage. "
Then he spoke to me in Tibetan, or more accurately, in the dialect of his region, as if to test my level of understanding of Tibetan (I had only two years, barely, of Tibetan behind me). C. R. Lama was originally from Golok, a region on the border of Khams where a language rather similar to Amdo is spoken, which at the time I had never heard and which requires a real learning process. Not having understood anything, naturally, to what he was saying to me, I answered in Tibetan:
Ha go ma song, that is to say: “I have not understood;” which he hastened to correct by saying: Ha go gi mi ’dug, that is to say: “I do not understand.”
The two formulas are, in reality, perfectly interchangeable; I had not made a mistake, but apparently it was important to inflict this humiliation on me on the ABC of the Tibetan spoken language. But I was not done with my head washing.
Indeed, the conversation then moved into the realm of philosophy; I don’t know why I told him, which for a Tibetan is a real provocation, that I felt closer philosophically to the Buddhist idealism of Vijñānavāda than to the Madhyamaka. When he asked me why, I told him that it seemed to me that Madhyamaka (as I understood it at the time) gave too much to language in the construction of illusion. I had studied a bit the Gelukpa presentation of Madhyamaka a bit in the few and meager publications available at the time, and it seemed to me that the authors were saying that things were “mere nominal imputations on the basis of designating destructible aggregates.” It seemed to me that giving this central role to “nominal imputations” posed a very deep problem for understanding what could be the illusion in which were immersed beings without language, starting with animals.
Chhimed Rigdzin answered me, in essence: “What do you care? Are you a pig or a dog?” (I'm not sure about animals anymore, but the meaning was basically this one). Naturally, the answer was just a snub; philosophically, anyone sees that it made no sense (and was not meant to make philosophical sense).
And then the lama asked me, with a sort of hissing voice:
“Who is your master? Nyoshül Khenpo? He's old! He's sick! He will soon die!”
The answer had a comical side to it, since Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche was about ten years older than Nyoshül Khenpo. But at the same time, it is true that the Khenpo’s health was extremely precarious. And above all, it is true that, I had not given serious thought to what would happen when he would die, and his death, which came ten years later (three years before Chhimed Rigdzin’s own death), was to cause me a profound shaking, from which, in a way, my adherence to Buddhism largely died after ten years of painful mourning.
In the following, I will say a word about Chhimed Rigdzin’s extremely brutal way of talking to me. I am convinced, as I have already briefly indicated, that it was nothing like what one might think in terms of mortification of self-esteem: as for the facts, I remain convinced that it was quite wrong that there were spelling mistakes in my letter, or that he could not understand it, etc. And my overall experience with him suggests that, in general, he was much more on the side of strengthening people, than of demolishing their moral defects through humiliation. Simply, with him, it was necessary to acquire a very great flexibility, a listening, an always fresh availability, which is on the side of the etymological meaning of the term docility, which has so to speak nothing to do with submissiveness. Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche was probably for me the greatest pedagogue of freedom and solidity in the fact of firmly following one’s own unique, singular thread against all the temptations to conform to the good pleasure of any authority. But this was done with those kinds of verbal slaps that provide the material for most of the amusing stories that those who knew him closely have to tell.
Coming back to this second meeting of 1989 (unless I am mistaken, which would be only a few months), the impression that this head washing made on me was quite positive: as I was to serve as his interpreter for a whole week shortly afterwards, I told myself that, for having taken the risk of scaring me away at the moment when he was not going to be able to do anything without me, at least as far as receiving visits (and consultations of Tibetan medicine) was concerned, he must have felt the need to tell me such hard things, that it was actually in his best interest, in terms of skillful use of human resources, not to tell me.
In short: I wanted to see what would happen next and I embarked on this adventure, which is one of those that I do not regret at all in my life.
The next chapter of this series is here.