Source of the illustration: Facebook page Khordong worldwide.
I was considering this series of recollections about Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche closed, when my friend David Dubois added his memories to mine in an excellent - and amusing - [French] article in La Vache Cosmique. In it, he very well depicts our naivety as young people thirsting for sublime and profound teachings, and the way we were taken aback by Chhimed Rigdzin.
When you read David’s article, you get the feeling that, for him, finally, CRR was too weird and that it would have been better to turn to serious teachers.
I admit to having had an infatuation with somewhat playful characters, based on the prejudice, the falsity of which I now see, that the spiritual path should consist of a kind of methodical disruption of all the senses, leading to some state that would be beyond good and evil. I think that, in my youth, I was too much impregnated with this kind of diffuse surrealism, the one that must have survived the French students’ “May 68” and that was still in the air in my younger years – this kind of thought that impregnates all the avant-garde discourses in art, in particular, that only tastes the plunge into the unknown, the deconditioning, the return to immediate simplicity by overcoming all the fears, etc., – in short, the very type of verbiage one finds under the pen of Chögyam Trungpa, that great craftsman of seductive neo-Buddhism.
Nevertheless, it is not as if, besides some “crazy” lamas who are ultimately disappointing because, in fact, they are confused or irresponsible, there were serious and good ones, methodically transmitting theoretical and practical devices “that do work.” Even if my infatuation was more towards Nyoshül Khenpo, who basically taught nothing, or towards Chhimed Rigdzin, who seemed to be ready to do just anything, I also followed other masters, who transmitted, from A to Z, traditional practice devices, without mistakes, without personal inventions, without adding or subtracting anything of their own. And yet, in spite of my efforts, at the time, to put these “techniques” into practice, I had, frankly speaking, a feeling of great sterility, which brought me back to the strange masters with whom, at least, one had the feeling that something was happening.
It goes without saying that I did not experience the worst of Tibetan charlatanism, which, apart from the singular case of Sogyal Rinpoche, only came to the fore later, perhaps in the 2000s. I don’t have anything to say about it because I hardly know the names of its actors, self-proclaimed gurus who have swept over poor Europe (and America, surely) like a wave of the starving dead ready to do anything for money, for fame – and for European women. I don’t want to discuss these cases at all, because, as Aristotle says, “there are things that are unworthy of being known by an honest man.”
In the end, the real good question, at least sketched by David Dubois’ article, is: what did we, young Europeans, imagine when we devoted so much effort to seeking wisdom from these Asian masters ? And what did we find ? If I wanted to tell my memories about Chhimed Rigdzin, it is because he, at least, was not possessed by the archetype of the “Master,” and played it very freely, in a way that at least “moved the lines” quite a little.
It was be told, among French Buddhists (surely even among some of Rinpoche's old disciples), that I am only expressing here my disappointment, which will be interpreted as being my fault (“Ìe did not practice enough,” which is normal, since “he is an intellectual,” and therefore, of course, by essence, a proud person who never meditates and desserves only to be endlessly punished – which is – of course – never the case, in their perception of things, for the self-taught person who poses as an Internet guru, or for any of the Tibetan lamas who are abusive, or incompetent, or lazy !). I know by heart this reasoning that I heard between the age of 15 and 39 in the so-called “Dharma centers.”
But, as spiritually deficient as I may be, I am no more stupid, and especially no more blind, than anyone else, and I have at least looked around me. The few Western practitioners of Buddhism that I find inspiring and even edifying are mostly, in my opinion, people for whom I would have had the same esteem without them practicing any Buddhism, or even if they had turned to whatever religion, even supremely ridiculous and depressing religion, or to no spirituality at all. These people have, more or less, expressed their natural greatness in Tibetan Buddhism as they might have done in anything else, trade unionism or contemporary art.
It is difficult to pinpoint where are those major transformations that the practice of Vajrayāna, Dzogchen or whatever are supposed to produce in the individual who is seriously engaged in it. In the end, it is difficult to say if all these Tibetan teachings allow a real transformation of the practitioners, or if they would not be rather, for poor human beings as lost as the others, another way to give shape and meaning to their life.
The only thing that seems to me to completely escape this doubt, which is probably too encompassing, is the direct vision of what some people call “the natural state,” clear in its own light, the core of the mind that the mind does not see.
David Dubois’ amusing recollection depicts Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche receiving interviews while watching cartoons on television (and sometimes pretending to be deeply interested in those when people came to tell him sensitive things or ask him sensitive questions). In fact, the late Mr. Jean-Louis Massoubre welcomed Rinpoche in Paris in an apartment where he also accommodated a Tibetan family who had a little boy; it was this little one who took the remote control of the television and put on cartoons for little children. CRR could not walk much anymore and could hardly get his hands on the remote control (sometimes he managed to hide it between the cushions of the sofa) - so if you went to see him in the morning, you could sometimes find him stuck, in spite of himself, in front of these children's programs. But it is true that he made the most of this baroque situation to give his visitors, who were full of the importance of what they had to say, a deep sense of their perfect insignificance.
This reminded me of an unforgettable scene in the same genre, much earlier – that of his visit to the Centre d’Études Tibétaines of the Instituts d’Asie of the Collège de France in Paris, in 1989 or 1990.
CRR had a rather comical discussion with the librarian, now a very famous French tibetologist, whose name I will not mention; he may recognize himself and I hope he will not mind if I tell the story as I remember it, in the same spirit of amused tenderness about the past and admiration mixed with perplexity for the strange holy man Chhimed Rigdzin.
The librarian - we'll call him N - had hung a poster on the wall behind his chair depicting Ekadzati, the main protective deity of Dzogchen, in the form in which she is venerated by the students of Namkhai Norbu R., that is, holding in her right hand a stick ending in a three-pointed swastika.
C. R. R. asked him:
“Who is that ? NAZI GODDESS ?”
Those who know Tibetan masters must have noticed how rare it is for them, especially those of that generation, to joke about the “Guardian Deities.” It was, to say the least, piquant. After a discussion in which CRR, as he had done for the letter I wrote to him, pretended not to understand N's Tibetan and answered him as always in his broken English, he asked him what interested him then in Tibetan Buddhism.
- “The Yangti Nakpo [the Black Quintessence, a very deep and quite rare Dzogchen teaching],” N answered.
- “Ah, and why is it called that?,” Rinpoche replied.
- “Because they practice the development of luminous visions through retreats in complete darkness,” N. replied, in essence.
- Not at all! It is because, just as black covers all the colors, but is not covered by any of them, so the nature of rigpa envelops all the phenomena but is not veiled by any of them.”
This answer, which I had found poetic, but which sounded improbable (as a contradiction purely made to destabilize his interlocutor), was confirmed to me later by I don’t know which learned lama to whom I reported it.
It was on this occasion that CRR also met Pr. Anne-Marie Blondeau, who came to visit him at the library. I don’t remember him saying anything too incongruous to her. Anne-Marie Blondeau was then the head of all studies on Tibetan religions in France. She had come out of curiosity, because she knew Rinpoche’s name as the editor of many Tibetan texts and because he was known to be a colorful character. After all, he was in a way also her retired colleague.
When he left from the library, he seems to have (probably on purpose?), put back in an unlikely place (the top of an inconspicuous shelf) a Tibetan volume that he had been borrowed to look at it for a while. The librarian, N, looked for it for several days, oddly persuaded that C.R.R. had stolen it.
He also told me a story about a famous great Tibetan Tibetologist who, probably in the 1960s or 1970s, had gone to meet him in India to ask him about an ancient and obscure text, the Samten Migdrön or Eye Lamp of Contemplation, of which Chhimed Rigdzin had had an edition made. It seems that Rinpoche had cast him out of the house, shouting and throwing the unbound Tibetan text into the air, its pages scattered in all directions.
This reminds me of another memory (they come back in scattered order) about the Samten Migdrön: as I asked Rinpoche one day if this text was really important and if it was so difficult to interpret, he gave me a strange answer, which I report as I remember and as I thought I understood it:
“They [Tibetologists, Tibetan half-scholars, etc.] don’t understand anything, because there are passages that should be read from the end to the beginning.”
I have not since found out what he was referring to; maybe our young colleague Dylan Esler would know, as he spent quite a lot of efforts on the Samten Migdrön; anyway, CRR’s English, of which one can get an idea from the few words reported, made everything he said sound completely vague – which I think he was playing with.