Wednesday 31 August 2011


The Greenness of Rice Fields
During the early 1990,s i had the good fortune to be able to spend some months each year near the village of Parping.  
This is a blessed place on the southern rim of the Kathmandu Valley.

The Great Dzogchen Master Orgyen Tulku had built and established a small retreat centre on the side of the hill directly outside a famous cave called Asura.  It was said that the Tantric Master Guru Rinpoche had practiced for a time in this cave, leaving behind hand and foot impressions in the rock.

A number of Lamas and practitioners were staying in small houses or rooms all around this location, leading a quiet life and going on with their various Buddhist practices.

I loved this area.  One could climb up past the cave and onto a small knoll just above.  From here there was a wonderful open vista that swept down the valley towards the city of Kathmandu, the view of which, was offset by the white soaring peaks of the Himalayas rising behind in the distance.  T

he fields directly below shimmered with the helplessly enchanting greenness of ripening rice paddies which weaved their way right down the valley between small mud and straw roofed  hamlets of the villagers.

Giant old Papal trees clung to the sides of the hill and in the late afternoon sunshine i would sit, completely mesmerized, by the leaves on these trees, which,  as they were shaken by evening breezes, glittered with effulgent explosions of light.

During one visit in which i stayed for several months i had another Western woman staying next to me.  She was a devoted student of the previous Jamgon Khontrul Rinpoche. At that time he was still very much alive.

We got along very well and it was lovely to have someone to talk with when we were both taking breaks from our practice sessions.

Our rooms were very simple, side by side on the upper floor of a small building that housed below, an old Lama Yogi in one room and a Tibetan woman and her small boy in the other. 

Both rooms had large windows that looked out over the valley and the rice fields above the Parping village, and when the shutters were pulled aside it was just like floating amidst and over a sea of shimmering green.  The roof was made of  large sheets of grey shale, so it was none too water proof, but fortunately the months i stayed there were relatively dry ones.

One day when we were both in our meditation sessions, i was jolted by the sound of a cry and a loud grunt which sounded out almost simultaneously from the room next door. Maria, my neighbour later told me with much amusement, that she had been sitting on her bed at the window, reciting mantras and lost in reverie, as could easily happen on these long and sleepy afternoons, when she suddenly she noticed a movement directly above where she was sitting...

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Sunday 28 August 2011

Traveller Be My Friend

"Traveller, be my friend.
Tomorrow our path will be long and we may become exhausted.
Let us walk together.
Let our path be one..." 


New Era Community. Helena Roerich

In the summer of 1988 i visited the valley of Kulu, in Himachal Pradesh in Northern India. During that visit, i had the good fortune to stay very near the compound where the Russian painter and mystic Nicolas Roerich and his wife Helena lived for many years.

At that time, the Roerich's old servants were still living in the compound as care takers, and although the doors were open to the public for a few hours a day, there were long periods when no one was around, and it was possible to stroll through the lovely grounds or just sit somewhere and gaze out over the verdant Kulu valley.

By a stroke of good fortune i met a couple on my very first visit.  These two people, one an American and the other a fellow kiwi like myself, happened to be strolling down the lane arm in arm just as i was coming out from the estate, and as westerners were not often seen in this quiet nook of the Kulu Valley, we naturally stopped and began to talk. 

They had rented a house right near this estate for the summer months, both intending to write and have some quiet time in this lovely part of the valley.  When they realized that i was hoping to do something similar they immediately offered me the small furnished flat on the first floor of this building, which, at that time was not in use.

It turned out to be a perfect arrangement.  Having them both nearby meant we could often share golden evenings on their veranda in comfortable companionship.  It would have been very problematic and possibly dangerous for me to try to stay in this area, as a woman alone, at that time.

Kulu is a fascinating old valley, and Nagar, where the Roerichs' estate is situated is nestled on the hillside a few kilometers south of Manali overlooking the valley with the blue thread of the bubbling Beas River winding it way  down the centre of it all.  

It is a magical location, with sweeping views up and down the valley and vistas of snow capped peaks all along.  The air is redolent with the scent of cedar pine and incense. Dominating  this village is an old castle that has now been turned into a heritage Hotel. However in its hey day this was the princely center of the valley and the seat where the local presiding Deities for the whole area are said to reside...

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Tuesday 23 August 2011

In Their Presence

Chadral Rinpoche and the Writer at Godavary
The author with Chadral Rinpoche at Godavary

'The transformative presence of a living Guru is by definition a great threat to the status quo of the ego."
   Ram Alexander, Death Must Die.

During the blessed years back in the early 1990s when i was able to serve and be around my teacher Chadral Rinpoche a lot, there were many occasions in which i was tested.  I knew that Rinpoche watched me very closely.  He never contrived situations, these merely arose naturally in his presence.
Around him there was always  a fertile ground for all the gamut of human reactions and emotions to play themselves out.  Chadral Rinpoche is from the old school of Tibetan Buddhism.  Following time-tested methods, but always in completely fresh and spontaneous ways.  He lives, moves and breathes in the egoless air of a completely realized Being, offering all those who come near him a glimpse of  'That'.

Living near him was always very intense.  There was a lot happening.  The power of the Guru is so pervasive and so profound. It is like standing in front of a flame and being continuously singed by tongues of fire.  Of course, i speak metaphorically, and what is 'singed',  ruthlessly and constantly in the Master's presence, is one's ego. That sneaky, persistent little devil, that, like one's own shadow is the constant companion of ordinary people, like you and me...

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Thursday 18 August 2011

The Wonders of Life

Christ like Figure in the Clouds
Christlike figure in the Clouds

Back in the 1980,s i got a phone call from a friend who told me he had something very special to show me, and could he come by my place?.  I quickly consented to this and waited for him eagerly, wondering what on earth he could have to show me.
Soon afterwards he appeared and produced a copy of the above picture.  It seems that he had been given a copy by one of his music students and, at that time, the story was that the photo was taken from the window of an plane during an electrical storm.  There seem to have been numerous versions on this theme going about over the years.  However according to a write-in made at the link below, which you may like to read, the above photo was taken in someones back yard during a storm...

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Thursday 11 August 2011

A Remarkable Woman, Khandro Tsering Chodron

Khandro Tsering Chodron, 2004, Sikkim.

Khandro Tsering Chodron was one of the most remarkable women I have ever had the extraordinary privilege to meet.  Slight of build,  her appearance betrayed a woman of great strength, loyalty and humility.  I could sing her praises until the cows come home, but in the limited format of a blog, one must endeavour to be somewhat contained.  

In case you do not know her history,  she was the consort of the great Tibetan Master, Jamyang Khyentse Choky Lodro.  She came with him from Tibet in 1956, just before the take over by the Chinese in 1959.  When they first arrived in India, they went on a long pilgrimage to many of the sacred places of the Buddha,  but from 1957 they lived at the Palace Lhakhang just above the town of Gangtok in Sikkim.  Khandrola continued to stay there after Choky Lodro passed away in 1959.

She lived and practised in the simplest possible way, staying in the room that housed the relics of her Master.  This room was in the southern, lower corner of the Temple, and here she would sit in her wooden meditation box, with just a few personal effects around her. I always had a sense of awe when I came into her presence and into this room.  One could sense a very special atmosphere the moment one entered.

The first time I saw her was in 1989 when she visited Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche at his monastery in Nepal.  It was evening, and there were not many people around.  In fact, I seem to remember that it had been expected that she would come at a quiet time.  She preferred it that way.  At that time I knew very little about her and I had never met her, but it was apparent that she was no ordinary visitor.   

Khyentse Rinpoche had climbed out of the large wooden box, where he sat a good part of the day, and, taking a long white scarf, had gone to the door in order to greet her. This made a strong impression upon me at the time.  The atmosphere on that occasion was saturated with a special silence, and the fact that he had gone to meet her seemed very significant.  This did not happen very often and yet great Lamas from all the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism came to meet him in this room.

 When she appeared at the outer door, she cast a bright smile that shone like a beam of light into the huge hall-like waiting room outside Rinpoche's private chambers.  A diminutive figure, clad in a simple dark chuba and wearing a little green woollen hat, which she quickly pulled off, careless of the fact that her hair flew out from under it like a silver halo.  I clearly remember the hushed excitement and the joyful exchanges that soon took place between them.  There was nothing extraneous or effusive in this exchange, but one clearly sensed the love and the profound regard which each felt for the other.  This was a moving thing to witness and remains one of the precious memories I have from that time.

In the year of 1996, I went with a Tibetan friend to Gangtok in Sikkim, to attend a Kalachakra Empowerment that was being enacted by H.H. Dalai Lama.  One day, during a break, we climbed the hill to the Palace Lhakhang, and upon approaching the Temple, I noticed a number of wooden shelves with many flower pots and boxes directly outside the windows of one of the lower rooms of the Temple.  What struck me most at that moment,  was the fact that my favourite flowers were growing in many of the pots, and I had neither seen or smelt this particular fragrance since I had left New Zealand way back in the 70,s.  The flowers were Freesias, and the effect of coming upon them like this, so unexpectedly, instantly bought tears to my eyes. It was an intensely poignant moment.

It might appear to be perhaps a minor occurrence and yet it stopped me in my tracks.  Standing outside those windows and bathed in the scent of these flowers I felt a sensation of coming into the presence of something deeply familiar.  After making one complete round of the Temple, we came again to the doors just outside this room.  My friend beckoned me to follow as he stepped inside and then lifted the curtain over a door on the left of a small passageway and then ducked inside.

He had been very keen to meet with Khandrola.   He was preparing to go into a long retreat in the mountains to the north of Kathmandu, and was anxious to receive her blessing before he went.  His father and uncle had both met her on several occasions in Lhasa in the 1950s and they had great faith in both Choky Lodro and her.  I was very eager to meet her myself.  Khyentse Khandro had been the consort of my Master's, Master.  In fact, Choky Lodro had been close to both Dilgo Khyentse and Chadral Rinpoche, the two most influential people in my life. These were strong associations and the sense of being in the presence of something deeply 'familiar' should hardly have been surprising.

She greeted us with a bright and completely open smile. I have not met another woman who was as unaffected or as humble as she was.  However, I was also profoundly struck by the atmosphere in that room.  It was both subtle and yet, at the same time almost palpable.

Soon after our arrival and exchange of greetings, a large group of visitors appeared.  Khandrola quietly slipped away to the bathroom and we both instinctively knew that she would not reappear until the crowds had passed through and gone again, so we made our way out into the glistening sunshine, both of us deeply impressed by this brief encounter.

Tsuklakhang, Gangtok.

After my first meeting with Khandro Tsering in 1996, I was not able to visit Sikkim again for several years.  However, in March of 2001, I set off for Gangtok, eager to deepen my connection with Kandrola and spend time practising near her.  Soon after arriving, I found a pleasant room not far from the Palace, and as evening set in,  took up a kadak and my small offerings and headed towards the Temple.  

It was a glorious, golden evening, and at that time, there were few buildings near the Temple, it stood alone in grand splendour, on an upper fold of the hill above the township.  A small apartment off to one side, housed an old Lama, whom I found dozing quietly in a deck chair, around him, the inert bodies of three or four cats stretched out comfortably.

  As I made my first round of the Temple I came across Khandrola making her evening circumambulations,  her faithful old mutt of a dog, trailing just behind. The only other people around were two ancient Tibetan woman, busy with their prayer beads and muttering mantras.  Apart from them, the place was deserted. Khandro greeted me with a beautiful smile and asked what I had been doing all the years since my first visit.  

I was very surprised that she remembered me, I fell into step with her and we exchanged a few sentences.  I told her I had come in order to spend time practising in and around the Temple, saying nothing of my desire to just be in her presence.  I knew very well that, being as reticent as she was, she would not encourage that.  After my brief explanation, she nodded her head in approval and bade me to follow her into her wonderful room.

That evening everything unfolded with such ease and naturalness that I immediately felt at home and extremely happy to have made the decision to visit in this way.  Over the next ten days, I rose early in the mornings and went up to the Temple.  Khandrola was often outside making her rounds, and we always exchanged some words.

 Although I was spending a lot of time up there, I always went on with my practice, and in this way, I had many unplanned and wonderful interactions with her.  Simple sharings, spontaneous and in many cases very joyful.  It was a teaching in itself, just to be near her, the whole atmosphere around her was quietly charged.   

Since my Master, Khyentse Rinpoche's passing I had not felt such an effortless intensity.  I found this to be a tremendous support for my sadhana. Without even trying to request teachings or have any expectations what so ever, everything simply unfolded in a completely spontaneous and natural way.

On many occasions, I would think of something I would like to ask her, and she would simply begin to talk on that very thing.  One time I was sitting under the little canopy where we often sat to rest, and for a fleeting moment, I thought how wonderful it would be if she would bless my mala, (a rosary).  Sometime later she appeared from her room and came and sat with me, her hand stretched out to take the beads.  We sat there for a long time while she quietly chanted some prayers and told each bead one by one...

Often I would sit under this small canopy not far from her room.  From this place, one had a sweeping view of Kanchendzonga to the west and a whole series of mountains to the north. Many times she joined me there, and she would ask me things or share little stories, or we would just sit together in companionable and easy silence.   She never baulked at my atrocious blundering and efforts to communicate in the Tibetan language, but instead was always encouraging and helpful.  Sharing many experiences and insights,  just as they would arise in her mind.  I felt so utterly blessed.

 I would watch the locals coming up, many in their gym shoes, striding around the Temple at twenty miles an hour.  They were of course very aware of Khandrola, but for most of them, she was simply part of the beloved and familiar landscape of that place.  They were preoccupied and involved with their own thoughts and schedules, mindless of the living treasure in their very midst.
Kandrola had such a pervasive sense of the ordinary about her, that one could easily forgive their seeming indifference.

She who knows, but does not show...  Hers was the quiet evanescence of realization, that, due to her natural reticence and humility were often overlooked by those who did not know her well.

  In every sense of the word, Khandro Tsering Chodron was a 'hidden yogini', a practitioner of the highest order, who never, in any way put herself forward to the world.  And certainly, the 'world' around her just went on with its own day to day business, while this luminous being graced them with her presence.

Between 2001 and 2006 I visited Khandro, three or four times a year.  I would stay several days and on a number of occasions was also able to attend the ceremonies that would take place in her room from time to time.  

In April of 2006, Sogyal Rinpoche was present and we were all able to celebrate a wonderful Guru Rinpoche Feast Offering together in that room.  At that time, I had no idea that I would not meet Khandrola again.

 I received a phone call early one morning, a few months later, with the news that she was unwell, and although my instinct was immediately to go to Gangtok,  her assistant, who had phoned me, told me to wait a few more days, and he would call me when things settled down.

 However, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, (the Tulku of her former Master Jamyang Khyentse Lodro)  arrived that very evening and it was quickly decided that he would take her to Delhi for medical tests.  Soon after that, the sacred remains of her Master Khyentse Chokyi Lodro were moved to Bir, where she stayed for a while until leaving for Lerab Ling in France, where she recently passed away.

Her life was one of quiet, focused and very dedicated practice.  There was nothing superfluous or showy in her manners or appearance.  Having the extraordinary good fortune to observe her on many occasions, I was able to witness something that was very special and unique.  She had a strikingly penetrating way of looking at people.  It was very fleeting, but one felt that in that short moment she perceived clearly,  the whole panorama of the life of the person she was seeing.  She did not miss a thing.  Acutely aware,  she had the sword like qualities which alone,  cut through all outer trappings and uncover the very heart of things.

Sunday 7 August 2011

A Feathered Friend

Spotted Baby Owlet
Fatty Boy

In the late 1990s, when I was staying at Godavari in the eastern corner of the Kathmandu Valley, it was not at all unusual to come into the garden compound of Chadral Rinpoche's retreat centre and find several cages with varieties of birds that had been bought from the markets and then gifted to the Lama in order that he would bless and then release them back into the wild.  Often these birds were in bad shape and could not be released right away.  They needed care and good feeding for some days before they could face the rigours of freedom.  Many never made it to the point where they could even be released.

It was a sad business to see this kind of trade going on and yet it was rife throughout the valley and although people meant well when they bought the birds from the markets, in many ways, this practise just encouraged and perpetuated the trade.

One day my friend and I took a path through a nearby botanical garden which passed through a lovely piece of forest on its way to the neighbouring village.  We had come to know of a very skilled tailor living in that place and we both had a number of items on order and ready to pick up. 

Coming back, however, we decided to take another route that skirted a village we had not been through before and passing by some small, mud dwellings Sherab, the Lama who was with me, suddenly turned and began to speak to a small group of boys.

He would often stop to banter with the locals as he passed by, so I didn't take much notice at the time and just kept slowly making my way along the cobbled path.  After a few moments, he joined me again but bade me stop and opening his bag, pointed to a little ball of feathers sitting on the bottom.  I could just make out two very large and shinny, sad eyes peering out at me. Even though I could not quite make out what it was, I immediately fell in love with the look in those eyes.

It turned out that the boys had somehow captured this little fellow from his nest, (he was a spotted baby owlet) and were trying to rear it in their home as a pet.  The boys had told Sherab that they were trying to feed it, but the little fellow had not taken any food since they had captured it two days before.

With some clever persuasion, Sherab had managed to get them to hand it over to his care and thus it was sitting on the bottom of his bag, looking very weak and bereft.

My mothering instincts kicked in as soon as those large eyes looked up into my face. Anxious to get home now, we picked up our pace and soon arrived back at my apartment, which consisted of the upper floor of a private house.  As it turned out, this was to be rather ideal for the feathered friend who had just entered our lives.

I found a safe and sheltered corner for him, spread out some newspapers and put a small cage down with large stick tied onto the top of it, this would make it easy for him to perch, and somewhat easy for me to clean. I had absolutely no idea what baby owls would eat.

It was all improvisation and I simply prepared a  mixture of oats and water with some honey mixed in and tried to spoon it into his little beak. But unless I forced him to open, so a little would slip in, that beak remained firmly closed and I found myself trying to repeat the process every few hours, without much success.

This went on until the around midnight the following day, when I had taken up the spoon yet again. However this time, to my surprise and joy the wee fellow opened his beak and let me tip the mixture right in, gulp, gulp...

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Friday 5 August 2011

Headlights in the Sky

Comet Hyakutake

Comet Hyakutake, image by David Darling.

In March 1996, i was staying in Parping, a small village to the south of the Kathmandu valley. Although spring was beginning to set in, it was still remarkably chilly at night.  Parping, in those days, was a small hamlet at the end of a long and winding road.  It was visited only on Tuesdays and Saturdays, during which times, the roads would be choked with taxis and buses plying back and forth from  the city.
The rest of the week, it was a sleepy little village, with a few Hindu and Buddhists temples scattered about here and there.

At that particular time, i was staying in a small  compound belonging to Chadral Rinpoche, not far from his monastery at Yanglasho.  This place is really the main seat where he resides.  It has a spring that has been captured in two fairly large tanks just below the rocky outcrop in which the monastery is nestled.  And just  nearby is a small cave that is said to have been one of several where the great Tantric Master, Padmasambava is known to have spent some time in meditation.  Large old trees surround the cliffs, the spring and the monastery, giving it all something of the feel of a small oasis.

At that particular time Chadral Rinpoche was conducting a ceremony in the Lhakang just above the monks quarters.  These prayer gatherings normally last ten days, during which time, special, consecrated substances and herbs are gathered together and placed within a carefully constructed mandala.  Then prayers are recited and rituals enacted by Rinpoche and his gathering of monks and nuns.  Soon after the beginning of this ceremony, which is  called a Drupchen, the Lhakang is 'sealed' so speak, and only those who have sipped some consecrated water, before entering, are then allowed to cross the threshold into the Temple. From that day on, the sessions are carried out in a daily routine that begins before dawn and ends around 8pm at night, however there are several monks who always remain in the temple to recite the mantra, and this is kept up during the entire ten days and nights that the ceremony is in progress.

On the 10th day, everyone rises very early and the puja begins around 2am.  This is the day when the 'mandala' is symbolically opened and everyone present is given some of the special, blessed substances and water that have been kept within the closed shrine.

That morning i rose at 1.30am, drowsily dressed myself,  made my few preparations and then closing door,  headed out onto the road that runs down to the monastery where the ceremony was about to begin.  Just as i was closing the outer gate, i noticed some thing very odd...

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Monday 1 August 2011

The Perils of Visiting the Lama
From Jore Bungalow Monastery
Jore Bungalow is a nondescript town about 9 kilo-meters from Darjeeling. It clings to a ridge from which a small road veers off to the left, winding its way several thousand feet down  to Kalimpong and Sikkim.  At this junction, another smaller road winds up towards the famous view point of Tiger Hill.  Hindu's come from far and wide to witness the sun rise from this vantage point, where it is said a flash of green light can be seen at the very moment the sun lifts above the horizon.

  From this place also, on a clear day, one has an unimpeded view of the Himalayan mountains, right across to Mount Everest in Nepal.

In the 1960's soon after the Chinese invaded Tibet, my teacher Chadral Rinpoche rebuilt a small temple here and established the very first three year retreat center in India. He would visit regularly, often slipping in unannounced and staying quietly a few days, before word would get out that he was 'in town'.  Then the crowds would begin to arrive from Darjeeling and  surrounds, all eager to receive his blessings, teachings and advice. It would be crowded for a few days, then things would settle down again, and the visitors taper off to a more manageable trickle.

During one of Rinpoche's visits, my friends Uncle, Kunzang, decided to pay his respects, as was always his custom when the Lama came to Jore Bungalow. He waited a few days for the crowds to subside and then spruced himself up one morning and donned his best Tibetan jacket,  filled his wallet, bought some cakes and a ceremonial scarf of greeting, and  boarded the local jeep. This was a dilapidated old dzongkar, that was packed to bursting.  Four people squeezed into the front seat, that should normally  accommodate only two. Four more, plus a few children sat in the second row, and finally in the back, four or five unfortunate fellows were pushed in along with bags of rice, vegetables, and the odd, live chicken or two.

The old crate would then fire up and puff along the road somewhat like the toys trains that chugged up and down the tracks. If one survived that bumpy, windy ride without vomiting, one would never the less emerge from the old jeep somewhat rumpled, shaken and grey around the gills.

However the good, and uncomplaining folk of Darjeeling were well acquainted with inconvenience and various other kinds of discomfort and somehow adapted themselves to these little  trials.  After this, there was a fifteen minute vertical climb at 7,500 feet and rising, to the Gompa...

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