Saturday, 24 September 2011

Change is now overdue - (Interview - final part)

Q: Rinpoche - can you talk a little about students in the context of personal retreat? In the Drala Jong brochure we describe the aspiration to build a dratsang. I understand this translates as ‘tantric college’.

NCR: With a residential retreat centre we’d have a larger library. We would concentrate on developing that library, in order to support study as a part of the retreat experience. This would enable people to integrate study into personal retreat. We have the beginnings of a library at Aro Ling but there is so much more scope for development.

Q: I know that you received a ‘classical’ training with various Lamas of different traditions, in terms of study of madhyamaka philosophy and so on. I’m not asking about madhyamaka specifically, but do you have any concept of a more formalised, classical, even academically developed training programme for apprentices or teachers?

NCR: Well, one of the problems—and it will always be a problem—is that there has been no concerted effort with the publication of books in English to cover all fields of study. As a result, the study of Dharma means having to study and read whatever you can find. Back in the 1970s and 1980s one would simply read everything that was available—regardless of school or origin—because the overall corpus of material was so limited. In recent years however sufficient Nyingma material has become available – sufficient to last many years of study. However, there is still insufficient material concerning essential-vajrayana. This is why Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche forms a part of the core curriculum in our tradition – as well as Namkha’i Norbu.

Q: Would there ever be a place for things like essay writing, and examination?

NCR: We used to ask people to write essays – but we no longer have the time to give such essays the attention they deserve. It would be good if the senior ordained could gradually take on that kind of rôle. We have so many commitments now that we don’t have time to directly oversee that kind of activity without a retreat centre. As a result, study is currently a random procedure. We would like to encourage people to study, practise, and write.

Q: Is authentic Vajrayana possible without a residential centre – for anyone? Is that residential aspect vital?

NCR: Well certainly it’s possible to experience and practise authentic Vajrayana without there being a residential centre – but there has to be a way to get a handle on Vajrayana. There has to be somewhere to learn Vajrayana. You need a way in. Commonly—having a centre—enables people to know where you are, where they can find Vajrayana. Aro Ling starts to provide this help – because it can be a doorway, an entry point for people. Then, if they find value in what they are experiencing, they will recognise the value in establishing Drala Jong as a residential retreat centre. The two should complement one another.

Q: Some of what you’ve said—with regard to Henry Cow and Captain Beefheart—reminds me of the story of Joshua Bell, the world famous violinist. He once busked outside a subway station dressed in ordinary street clothes. No one stopped to listen – because they didn’t know who he was and didn’t understand what they were hearing. Only a child stopped a listened for any length of time – because he didn’t have the preconceptions around what he was hearing. For the child it wasn’t just busking, it was amazing, remarkable music. That’s why the child stopped – but the adults all had other agendas. If they’d been in a concert hall however, they would have seen the same man—and heard the same music—and been entranced.

KD: Yes . . . That is why we need a centre. We need a centre so we can be understood in a context where we can present Vajrayana.

NCR: Then maybe—from time to time—we can hire a dingy bedsit in Splott and teach Dzogchen men-ngag-dé to the one person who shows up. You see . . . it’s important to understand that Khandro Déchen and I are not ‘that which is proclaimed by the residential centre’ – it’s Vajrayana and more particularly the essential-vajrayana of the Aro gTér that would be proclaimed. We’re neither here nor there. The essential-vajrayana of the Aro gTér is what people need to discover – whether through us or someone else. We just happen to be the current lineage holders. There’s nothing special about us – or if there is it only resides in what we have the honour to teach. So the residential centre is the vehicle by which the essential-vajrayana of the Aro gTér can become known to more people who could benefit from it. For us it is important that Vajrayana can be incorporated into western society – and that cannot happen ’til such time as Vajrayana can be understood in terms of its essence. We have no desire to ‘westernise’ Vajrayana – that will happen over the course of the next millennium. Our concern is to make Vajrayana practical. At the moment Vajrayana tends to be the esoteric interest of a minority, who tend not to live in the mainstream of society. Some say that Vajrayana can never be mainstream – but we see no absolute reason why that should be the case. We have written half a dozen books which illustrate the way in which Vajrayana could be at the heart of everyday life – we simply need to be able to make this information more widely accessible.

KD: We used to joke that we were the ‘Tibetan Tantric Periphery’ because we had no centre. That model made some sense when we were a small sangha – but now not having a centre is a substantial inhibiting factor. Collectively, it costs people considerable sums of money to gather together. So, hiring places is no longer financially practical.

NCR: It’s no longer physically practical either. I’m schlepping too much now for my age. I can still lift an 80 LB suitcase – but throwing it up into the roof box on the car is becoming less and less possible. Khandro Déchen cannot help me with that because her back is not in the best shape.

KD: 15 years ago we reached a point before when we could no longer use peoples’ homes for our retreats. We had to start hiring venues. That was seen as something of a huge step and apprentices were quite worried about it. Now it the taken for granted as essential. Now we’ve reached the next transition point – or rather, we reached it a few years back. A residential centre is becoming a necessity not a choice. In the past we have been averse to saying too much or moving things too quickly – because we have no sense of ‘ambition’ in what we do. Now we have reached the next transition point however, a residential centre is not something merely to be desired as ‘the next stage of development’. It is now a pressing need for change – and that change is now overdue.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

No More Songs? (Interview - Part IV)

Q: Rinpoche, I hate to ask this question – as I suspect I know your answer . . . and it might upset some people. Drala Jong is intended to establish the lineage for future generations . . . If you don’t wish to answer I’ll understand – but do you think that the Aro gTér Tradition will survive after your death if we don’t manage to build Drala Jong in the next few years?

NCR: No . . .

KD: You’ve said that before, when asked. . .

NCR: Yes. This is a difficult question to answer. I really don’t like to give this answer – because I don’t like the answer. But I can’t see any way around it. If you subtract Khandro Déchen and myself from the equation – there would need to be a building. If we’re no longer living it would be difficult for lineage to maintain cohesion. Without a physical structure—a location which provided a focal point for all the brevet lamas and their sanghas—there would be something of a lack of cohesion. Something might survive – but not the lineage as a whole.

Q1: I suppose as students we always pushed your death into the future. . .

NCR: Well, I’m definitely getting older. In the last couple of years I’ve had to say ‘You know, I’m definitely not young any more.’ That’s the past. I’m actually getting old. I’m more easily tired. It’s not a problem – but it’s a fact.

Q: I’m aware of this at the moment, because my own father is 65 this year and is going in for heart surgery . . .

NCR: 6 years older than me . . . Mmmm . . . My father was 5 foot 2, 16 stone, and died at 76. Maybe I’ve got longer than I think . . .

KD: Rinpoche’s blood pressure is good . . . but everyone is on the slippery slope by virtue of having a human body. Look at those poor people in Norway who were murdered by that psychopath. They were on the slope but didn’t know.

NCR: Perhaps I might stretch it to 30 years, who knows – but travel would definitely shorten my life so I’m looking to cut down on travel in the future.

KD: Travel certainly shortened Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche’s life.

NCR: Yes . . . he did travel ’til the end – but even he had to change his schedule in order to stay in one place for 6 months at a time.

KD: I think if you had asked us that ten or twenty years ago we would have given a different answer. I think Aro Ling has taught us something about what is possible – and what is needed in terms of teaching. The importance of having a residential centre has also become paramount because of Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche’s advice.

NCR: That is probably the central, pivotal and crucial statement. Künzang Dorje Rinpoche’s advice was given for two reasons. The first concerns liberation and creating optimal circumstances. The second is based on the recognition of what ‘samsara’ is. From the perspective of Dharma—the liberated viewpoint—the benefit to having a centre is the ability to be able to concentrate efforts – to: house special lineal objects; create supports for Dharma and store them; preserve ancient artefacts; and, collect and index records of the teachings. A residential centre can be a vast repository. From the perspective of ‘samsara’ – if one wishes to ‘make the thing work’, people have to see it. In the common run of things—according to the dictates of society—people have to see what we’re doing as something serious. The press needs to be impressed if they are to write accounts of our work. People want to go to a place that looks as if it represents something cogent in the world. There are few who will go to a rented flat – to see a Lama, even a Tibetan Lama. From the perspective of Dzogchen it makes no difference – but Dzogchen is the goal, rather than the state of societal consciousness. I shall give an example from my own experience. In the 1970s I went to a Captain Beefheart concert. The supporting band was Henry Cow – and I found them entirely marvellous. The audience however were unconscionably rude. They talked and walked around – almost complete ignoring the music. I had to concentrate in order to screen out the disturbance in order to hear Henry Cow. Then Captain Beefheart walked on stage. Now I must say that I am an admirer of Captain Beefheart – but on this occasion he gave a poor performance. He treated the audience as poorly as the audience had treated Henry Cow. I only considered later that he might have acted in this way deliberately to make a point – but what he did was to sit half off stage and drink beers when he wasn’t singing. The audience however seemed universally enraptured.

KD: Because Captain Beefheart was famous and Henry Cow wasn’t.

Q: So we’re Henry Cow and the centre is Captain Beefheart.

KD: That is how it works with samsara. We can laugh about it and ridicule it – but it’s the everyday reality. Of course that ridiculous societal scenario creates opportunities for people to see through the illusion of what is worthwhile and what is not worthwhile. Künzang Dorje Rinpoche recognised this samsaric aspect – and said “Most Tibetans are like this too. They think that if someone has a big gompa they must be an important Lama!”

NCR: Künzang Dorje Rinpoche never had a centre – but he lived in a culture where he was recognised by the highest dignitaries. Many people sought him out – but he accepted very few as disciples. We don’t have that culture in the West. Künzang Dorje Rinpoche recognised our culture and our cultural needs – where a centre is needed. Without it we’re fly-by-nights. We’re insubstantial even though we have been teaching for 30 years.

KD: We have to acknowledge that if people go to a centre and sit there as 1 of 100 in an audience – it’s more impressive than being 1 of 10. It’s important to have a centre because people need to have something to rely upon as concrete. There is no point in saying it shouldn’t be that way - and that therefore we shouldn’t do it. Life simply isn’t like that. Most people wish to be enthused and excited by something.

NCR: I didn’t go to see Henry Cow. I went to see Captain Beefheart – but I ended up preferring Henry Cow. Without Captain Beefheart however – I would possibly never have heard of Henry Cow.

KD: Some people find—after the excitement wears off—that they come away empty-handed. Or . . . they recognise to some degree they’ve come to be interested for reasons other than excitement. They find value from practice – so it’s not—all—bad.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

'Unless you are an imbecile. . .' (Drala Jong Interview - Part III)

Q: What sort of location do you have in mind?

KD: It depends on how much money we raise. It depends on many factors. It would be wonderful . . . perhaps . . . to have a cliff-top hotel . . . Housell Bay Hotel on the Lizard Peninsula . . . It has a private beech – that would be grand. That’s a place we used to frequent some years ago.

Q: So do you have a particular part of the country in mind? Should it be a coastal location?

NCR: Anywhere in striking distance of motorways form London so that people from other countries could find their ways there without undue difficulty. We would probably think of South Wales.

Q: You touch on an interesting point here, Rinpoche - we have an international sangha, but whenever you’ve spoken of it Drala Jong has been planned to be based in Britain. How will Drala Jong make a difference for people who live outside of Britain?

NCR: It will make more difference as I get older and cannot travel as much. I’d say that’s perhaps 10 years away. Travel takes its toll I’m afraid . . . I will be 60 next year . . . and there is a limit to how long I can throw 80lb suitcases into the roof box of our car. Unless we had millions and could have a centre in every country, we would be looking to have a centre somewhere. We would necessarily have to choose one where we live. Even if we didn’t have a centre, my travel arrangements will become increasingly restricted. In fact people within the sanghas do travel great distances to attend events with other apprentices. Having our own place means we can engineer things to make it easier for foreign apprentices to come here, by giving them concessions on distance travelled.

KD: But I guess it won’t mean as much to the Americans as to the European sanghas, simply because of distance – although it really depends a lot on the individual and what they perceive as important. We don’t live in America—and cannot do so—so the retreat centre cannot be there in the final analysis.

NCR: Even if it was in America it would have to be on the east coast or west coast – and that would create the same problem. Montana wouldn’t work as a central place because of the cost of travel to get there. . .

KD: We have a fragmented sangha in terms of geography, because Rinpoche always goes wherever he’s asked. It will have to work differently for different people. When we know the specifics of the venue we can acquire, we’ll be able to work out how best to make that accessible for people.

Q: I’d like to ask about how Drala Jong ‘fits’ with Aro Ling? We do have a city centre non-residential venue in Bristol – Aro Ling. Why is residential retreat so important; what difference does it make having a residential venue?

KD: It makes a huge deal of difference in terms of the 5 certainties being present. There’s just something about having to leave home and go to a different place. You pack your case – and then only have what you have. You go to a place and there is a certain sense in which you’re committed. You could leave or walk out on a residential event – but it’s only happened once in 30 years. So when you’re there, you’re there – because you’ve made the commitment to be there.

NCR: Unless you’re an imbecile you’re going to make the most of it. If you take the time and trouble to go to the cinema you normally stay to see the thing out. If you hire a DVD you might quit after 5 minutes because you’re at home. So because you’ve taken the trouble to get there you’re going to participate. And you’re also going to eat, sleep and defecate there.

KD: You get up in the morning, you practise, there’s breakfast, when you’re able to talk to people in a way you wouldn’t in a non-residential setting – because you’re there. In a non-residential setting people go off for lunch in small groups to cafés and so on. People don’t mix the same way. They don’t talk the same way. It’s more disparate. If you are dropping in and out of the venue through the weekend – you go home for the evening. You can watch television—you can check your email—you’ve left the retreat. A non-residential retreat is a constrained space. It’s different – but only as different as what’s immediately outside the door. On a residential retreat there are many different places to meet and chat with others. You can go for a walk – down a country road, or in the woods. At a non-residential city centre venue once you’re in the street – you’ve left the retreat. On a residential retreat people don’t leave or change environment – and in that way they get the most out of the experience of being there.

NCR: Also . . . a residential retreat allows more time. The teaching can be given in a more leisurely manner – with time for practice. On a non-residential retreat, incorporating too much meditation seems vaguely felonious . . . The attendees’ time is constrained, so we tend to talk at them most of the time. As a result, they can receive a barrage of teaching that may be hard to digest. On a residential retreat we can intersperse periods of silent sitting – and that radically changes the manner in which people understand.

KD: Then, people talk over meals. They interact – and that gives a chance for the teachings to percolate.