Memories about Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche (English version), 5

Publié le 13 Mai 2021

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After these reflections on the “crazy wisdom” as it was constructed by Chögyam Trungpa (with a certain genius) and then used by various neo-Buddhist lamas, let’s come back to Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche, who was overflowing any frame in every possible way, including this framework of the so-called “crazy wisdom” apparently so conducive to all “beyond good and evil.”

   I remember that the lama’s first host in Paris took a very generous care of what, according to his taste and the fashion of the time, was the best in terms of food (“new cuisine,” it was said, as there had been “new philosophers” and what not). Perhaps the old master, who did not pretend to be an ascetic, had let out a few complaints. A young woman came to cook; I remember that she prepared something quite French and hearty - in my memory, simply steak with a wine and onion sauce, probably fried potatoes: in short, tasty and non-dieting.

Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche did not hide his pleasure and, when he had finished the plate, he brought it to his mouth and licked it, which was obviously amusing in a Parisian salon. Afterwards, he put it back on the table and said:

"We, Khampas, brothers of dogs. "

   At the same time he gave, at intervals of a few months, the consecration (empowerment) of Padmasambhava with the eight forms, and that of Guru Dorje Drolö, both according to the revelations (termas) of Khordong Nüden Dorje.

   In one, at the time of giving samayas (sacred engagements), he said: 

"Now I should give you samayas. But since no one is able to keep them, if I give them to you, you will go to hell. If I don’t give them to you, I might go to hell. So I prefer not to give them to you. "

In the other, under the same circumstances, he said:

“...And as samaya, I give you back your selfishness.”

In his public teachings, he also alluded to the superstitious nature of the French people who came to consult him (indeed, I witnessed this) very often because they thought they were under a spell. There was a curious and comical side to seeing this man, who had come out of the Middle Ages so to speak, and who had all the outward appearance of a Tibetan ngakpa (a tantric magician, so to say), call back to reason the Parisians in the midst of their magical paranoia. I would have a lot of memories to bring back on that front, but they would be more about the visitors than about the lama, who was obviously trying to help them. 

   Some of those who know me more or less certainly find me harsh on Buddhism, especially in the West, or not very optimistic towards Westerners who embrace a Tibetan religion. But if they had witnessed the thousands of hours I spent, especially in the period 1989-2005 or thereabouts, interpreting for one-on-one interviews between all kinds of lamas and their audiences, especially in Paris, perhaps their view of Buddhism in the West would have changed. No sociologist, through the most meticulous survey work, could have a more solid empirical basis for his or her inductions, except of course that I never thought of exploiting the contents of these interviews statistically - which would have undoubtedly allowed me to go beyond the “qualitative feeling,” where the tree can always hide the forest. 

 Still, for the devout, militant, text-loving young Buddhist that I was then, eager to deepen and reform his understanding, there was something profoundly disappointing about this parade of people to whom perhaps all one could do was “return their selfishness.” Today, perhaps I would be more forgiving and able to better perceive the richness, even spiritual, of interactions centered on the most basic needs or the deepest anxieties of people who are struggling as best they can with the harshness of life. Perhaps this is also something I learned from this master: a kind of availability to people at the very level of their expectations, without any ambition, unless they manifest the need themselves, to “over-code” by a religious or moral discourse their way of struggling with life.

   Which reminds me of a curious thing: part of the very down-to-earth nature of the concerns of Chhimed Rigdzin’s visitors was that he was also a doctor (in the sense of traditional Tibetan medicine). In fact, one of the things that revealed to me the extremely precise and technically proficient character of this man – who seemed so whimsical and impulsive at first – was seeing him perform acupuncture. In particular, I saw him stick the whole long thin part (several centimeters) of an acupuncture needle into the hand of a woman, who didn’t even flinch: which supposes, it seems to me, a perfect knowledge of the nerve paths. Thus I was perhaps more often instructed by what he did than by what he said: naturally, the impression was given, after seeing this, that Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche acted with his verbal spikes a little like the acupuncturist with his needles, that is to say, also according to a very precise art, and according to causalities necessarily escaping the understanding of the patient.

   Here again, we are far from the vulgar understanding of the “crazy wisdom,” whose moral is often of the form: “Rinpoche wanted to make you understand that...”, as if we were dealing with a parent raising a child and punishing him when he did wrong (which would bring us back, at least for the Westerners who cultivate this kind of perception, in the most shameless masochism although the least assumed: as long as eroticizing submission, if such is their pleasure, why take religious pretexts, and in so doing parasitize the religion they have embraced with “lama, lama, lama, hurt me, lama, lama, lama, send me to the Dharmakāya, I like the devotion that goes Boom?” [an allusion to an old and funny song by Boris Vian, which may not be familiar to the non-French reader]). In the case of “C. R. Lama,” whatever one may think of him in the final analysis, it is certain that one was not in this register, even if misunderstanding was possible (I am sure that there were a good number of great masochists among his Western disciples; and it probably required a dose of masochism to find its account in enduring all his algarades....).

  I think it was also around this time (1989-1990) that he gave a memorable lecture on “spiritual healing” at the Sorbonne, in I don’t remember which setting. I believe that there had been one the year before in another Parisian university; I will come back to this later, not being sure of the exact chronology.

   Here again, we need to put things in context: at the very end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, the New Age had arrived in France and this was probably the time of the greatest vogue for “healing with crystals” and other neo-magical practices. In a way, C. R. Rinpoche surfed on this wave, but his own way a very ironic one.

   Thus, for example, in the case of the conference at the Sorbonne, Rinpoche, whom I had supported by the arm to climb the many steps that led to the room where he was to speak (he walked with great difficulty following a fall from a horse when he returned to Tibet earlier in the 1980s), after chanting Tibetan prayers in a very loud voice into a microphone set for the vocal power of an ordinary speaker, began thus, addressing his favorite French translator (Patrice S.): 

“- What is the subject of the lecture?
- Spiritual healing, Rinpoche.
- Oh, yes. There are three points: cutting, killing and healing.”

There followed an elaboration on these three points, where the first one took up three quarters of the time, the second one almost all the remaining time, the last one just two or three sentences.

   “Cutting” basically explained the spirit of the Chö (gcod) practice: if the ego grasping is destroyed, one does not care about being sick anymore; and even, sometimes, as an added bonus, one is healed. Naturally, this did not satisfy the expectations of the audience, which was quite far from an approach on the “good use of illnesses” in the almost Pascalian sense, or at least, from a sovereign indifference to the ills of the body in the name of a metaphysical perception of a higher order.

   “Killing” was rather farcical, in the sense that it was a reflection on the respective advantages and disadvantages of killing the microbes (or other causes of disease) or the patient (or letting them kill the patient). It is true that Tibetans often attribute illnesses to the action of spirits and have all sorts of rites which they believe are likely to “liberate,” i.e. magically kill, the demons, if they cannot be removed by gentler means (war being, again, the continuation of diplomacy by other means).

  Finally, for “Healing,” it was quickly dispatched as having little interest.

 In the other lecture given by Rinpoche in a university setting (I don't remember where, Nanterre perhaps?) on “spiritual healing,” this time in front of an audience of “practitioners” of the thing, adepts of all kinds of “alternative medicines,” or even self-proclaimed healers, he went about it in a very curious way and, in fact, fully correctly in my opinion.

   Indeed, he started by saying: “This time, It is me going to ask you some questions. You say you are able to heal others, but who trained you?” – Only silence answered him, except perhaps for some reactions of spite. He had rightly pointed out the abyss between his own world - that of practices framed by transmission assimilated through long learning - and theirs - that of self-taught skills, claimed intuitions and self-proclaimed talents.

   I don’t remember the details of this conference, which had as its center of gravity this attack on modern charlatanism draped in the garments of superficial traditional knowledge. But I do remember that, among other things, he said that he never brushed his teeth and took antibiotics when he was sick. I think the second point was, for his audience, an even bigger enormity than the first.

  Deflating mystifications seemed to have a central place in Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche’s world, which put him quite outside the clerical (in the sense of serving forms of domination) use of the so-called “crazy wisdom.” He was often very perfectly ironical about all the “sacred cows” of Tibetan Buddhism, and it was very difficult to know what he was really thinking and whether his disrespectful outbursts were not more intended to shake his listeners out of their pious tensions than to say what he really thought.

   Perhaps he was sincere when he said, with a little mystification, that he had an apartment in London overlooking the living room of Sogyal Rinpoche, and commented: “Someone who spends his life in front of the television cannot teach others.” About the same, he once said (reported by his faithful student David Cowey): “Number one holy-buddhist-tourist lama.”

   I don’t know what to make of what he said about the Dalai Lama in the same vein. Once, for example, he was given a Tibetan version of Tintin in Tibet; I remember seeing him reading it on a couch at his first Parisian host’s house, U. A., and laughing and saying: “Very good, very good! The next time I see the Dalai Lama, I’ll give him one - that way he'll talk less!”.

   At the same time, I heard him say of the 16th Karmapa, whom I think he sincerely respected: “Good lama, but what a dictator!”…

  I think there are only about two people about whom I have never heard him say anything even slightly disrespectful: his main teacher, Tülku Tsurlo or Tshullo, and Düdjom Rinpoche, whose disciple he had also been.

   I have only heard him tell one specific story about Tülku Tsurlo: he told me that when he was young (a teenager, in fact, given the age at which he left the Golok region) he was fascinated by the idea smoking a pipe. It must be said that in Tibet, smoking had quite different connotations than it does today in the West - probably on the side of an aggressive virility not at all suitable for a religious person, perhaps like wearing a leather jacket and riding a big motorcycle? Something, anyway, that non clericat. - Tülku Tsurlo, he told me, realizing that he had this in mind, stuffed a pipe with chili pepper and made him smoke it. After that, he told me, “I had tuberculosis for a year” (probably he meant: a cough with bleeding).

For the next chapter, click here.

Rédigé par Stéphane Arguillère

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