A Life Well Lived
Beloved Lord of Refuge, how can we can never repay your kindness.
Merging into the expanse of Wisdom
you will continue to benefit countless beings …
If you don’t reflect on death and impermanence
There will be no way to practise Dharma purely.
Practice will remain an aspiration,
One that is constantly postponed.
And you may feel regret the day that death comes,
But by then it’s too late!
Kyabje Chadral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche
While working on the final stages of the book, (Who Lives? Who Dies) I received the news, early one morning, that my teacher Chadral Sangye Dorje had passed away in Parping, Nepal.
A few days earlier I had received a warning that he was unwell and had immediately thought to put together a list of things I would need to do and pack should I have to leave quickly for Nepal. I knew very well that if I received news that he had ‘passed away’ I would very likely be in no state of mind to attend to all the details of making a sudden and hasty departure. Surely enough, that ‘word’ came on the 5th of January 2016.
He had actually passed into ‘Tukdam’ (final meditation state) on the 30th of December 2015 at 17.35 but as he had requested his close family members not to announce his passing until he had fully merged into Maha Paranirvana, they carefully kept the occurrence a very strict secret. Not even people working on the premises inside Rinpoche’s compound were aware of what had taken place.
Chadral Rinpoche lived to the considerable age of one hundred and four, counting by the Tibetan system which includes the months of gestation prior to birth. His had been a grand and long life and one which had been of benefit to countless sentient beings.
He guided and took care of me for more than twenty years and the gratitude I feel along with the sense of the deep connection which will always exist between us is something which is not possible to describe in words. Along with the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche he was one of the central and most important people in my life.
Since 2009 it had not been possible to meet face to face with Rinpoche but for me personally, this had not been an issue. I had had the great fortune to be able to spend much time with him and was guided closely through my retreat years. I had been extremely fortunate to be able to go to him when I needed his advice or to verify ‘experiences’.
Others were not so fortunate however and a whole new group of people both young and old from all walks of life and all parts of the world missed that precious opportunity of direct contact with him. Nevertheless, his influence continues to reach far and wide.
Before 2009, Rinpoche was very accessible although he never lingered too long in any one place. There were a few occasions when things might not have gone the way some people might have expected but this was part of the beauty of his style and expression. He was never a Lama to compromise on the things that he held dear, neither could he be ‘brought around’ once a decision about something or other had been made.
A hundred and four years is a long time to be alive in the world. Rinpoche met with and was and an influential force in the lives of so many people. He saved countless lives and lived out his term without compromising his convictions in any way. His life was one of simplicity and integrity and stands as a testament and shining example for all those of us who were fortunate enough to witness at least a part of it as also for those who were not.
He spent time in worlds so incredibly different. Imagine Tibet in the early nineteen hundreds long before the Chinese occupation and try to compare that world with the one in which we live now? He moved seamlessly through both, never missing a step, never faltering in his determination to benefit sentient beings.
Practical and Yet Spontaneous
Rinpoche was a supremely practical man who did not possess even an ounce of hypocrisy. He was so direct and to the point that some feared him. Although he was very much a Tibetan ‘Yogi’ he could also be quite traditional. However, it simply was not possible to narrow him down and label him as either traditional or non-traditional because he rose to meet every occasion from a place of complete spontaneity.
His focus was always on the ‘essence’ of things, and he had little time for or interest in anything else. He was a living embodiment of the Buddha’s teachings, which he had so completely ‘owned’ through his own practice and experience and he encouraged all of his students to do the same.
Rinpoche’s spontaneity arose from his moment-to-moment capacity to live in the present, which gave rise to many unexpected little incidents, some of which could be quite humorous.
I remember one morning when we were buzzing around and preparing for a trip up into the hills of Darjeeling. We thought we had things pretty well in hand but when it was announced that the car had arrived, Rinpoche suddenly leapt up from his seat and began to head towards the door. We quickly grabbed the warm clothes that he would need that day, and awkwardly tried to dress him as he moved. Once he got into motion it could be difficult to pin him down. His daughter Semo Tara Devi was there on that occasion and between the two us we managed to put a jumper on him and also drape his trangju and sen (yogi skirt and shawl). But then suddenly he was heading towards the door again so Tara grabbed one shoe and I the other. Only when Rinpoche was actually climbing into the car were we able to see that he had a different shoe on each foot. Certainly, Rinpoche had not noticed.
Dry words in a book on a shelf were for the scholars. Rinpoche moved freely through the fields of experience. There was joyfulness around him and a scintillating sense of freedom without boundaries. Even so, it should be noted that Rinpoche was also a brilliant and prolific scholar who authored, at least, three volumes of works which are widely read.
He was tremendously learned in an organic way; his learning came through experience, and it revealed itself with considerable authority and power because it was so completely authentic.
This authenticity never moved me more profoundly than on an occasion when a small group of woman students gathered one afternoon in his room in Salbari Gompa in order to receive the Bodhisattva vows.
Some weeks before this event, a long-time Western student and I had been discussing the practice of Guru Yoga in general and Chadral Rinpoche’s Guru Yoga in particular. I had been deeply impressed by the way my friend had recounted some of his personal experiences in this regard. He had discussed the various qualities of different sadhanas (practices) but then pointed out that the Guru Yoga of Chadral Rinpoche was so potent that the blessings which flowed from it were almost palpable. He had said something to the effect that you can almost ‘hold’ the blessings in your hands and feel the weight of them.
The image which his description had conjured in my mind remained with me very clearly, and that afternoon when we gathered to receive the vows I kept remembering it.
I had taken Bodhisattva vows already on several occasions with other teachers; however, a European student of Chadral Rinpoche’s requested that he give them to her, and I found myself in the fortunate position of already being present in the room and therefore able to be part of this small group. I was delighted by this happy occurrence.
There might have been five or six of us present that day. If I remember correctly, we were just two foreign women, a couple of Tibetan nuns and one or both of Rinpoche’s daughters.
At that time, Rinpoche was staying in the small room upstairs in his house in the Salbari compound. We were called together and then he beckoned us to enter the room and close the door behind us. We stood before him in a line across the width of the room. Rinpoche meanwhile, sat on his meditation cushion on the floor ensconced in a large furry cape.
Although I had spent a lot of time around Chadral Rinpoche in an informal way, I had only been present on a small number of occasions when he gave formal teachings or empowerments. This turned out to be one of those rare occasions.
Rinpoche asked us all to make prostrations and as we did so, he picked up his bell and damaru (small hand drum) and began to chant the lineage prayer of the Longchen Nyingtik Tradition. Rinpoche’s lineage is a remarkably short and powerful one originating in Kuntuzangpo, which passes on to Jigme Lingpa, Gyalway Nyugu then on to Patrul Rinpoche, Nyoshul Lungtok and Khenpo Ngachung, who in turn passed it on to Chadral Rinpoche and Nyoshul Khenpo.
I don’t recall that I had any particular expectations of what was to come except a pleasant sense of anticipation which in no way could have prepared me for the impact of what was to follow.
As soon as Rinpoche’s deep and rich voice began to intone the lineage prayers I felt myself suddenly and quite inexplicably catapulted into a ‘timeless state’ which was absolutely saturated with blessings, so much so, that even though I had barely completed my three prostrations, a surge of tears rose up and began to flow.
I was not at all prepared; no handkerchief, no tissues, not even a long shirt sleeve to come to my rescue. These were not the emotional tears of joy or sorrow; these were tears that overflowed from some previously untapped source in my being. With every passing moment, it was as though Rinpoche was opening wider and wider the faucet on a stream of grace. Not only did the tears flow from my eyes but my nose was also streaming. I had never had any such reaction in previous gatherings where we had all taken these same vows. This was something quite unprecedented and really took me by surprise.
For the entire duration of the gathering, this flow continued. I recall feeling some embarrassment at not being able to control what was happening or even blow my nose. I was a complete mess, so much so that I did not notice if anyone else was as affected as I was. I only recall how relieved I felt when it all ended and I could rush off to my room and wash my face and re-compose myself again.
As Conventional as He was Unconventional
In many ways, Rinpoche could be quite conventional, and yet in others, he was quite the opposite.
One instance of the manner in which Rinpoche could be unconventional, and which most people would not have been aware, prior to his passing away, caused many some surprise. This only emerged when the family compound in Parping was opened to the public. On the walls of the Lhakhang, which had been built inside the compound, were painted the Hindu deities of Shiva with his consort Parvati. On the left side of the shrine; Krishna with his consort Radha and their entourages along with various other representations of this kind.
Directly in front of the temple entrance, and housed in its own separate building, a Shiva lingam of generous proportions.
To some traditional Buddhists, this would seem like a grave eccentricity in the Lama and something quite inexplicable.
However, Rinpoche had gone beyond the narrowness of needing to confine himself solely to the accepted and traditional Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. He saw no conflict of interests. What these images represent is an expression of ‘energy’ in its many and varied forms and this ‘energy’ is universal.
On more than one occasion I was with him when we visited a Hindu shrine. One which he dropped into regularly, was the shrine on Tiger Hill near Darjeeling and there were others in various locations.
There was complete integrity in all that he did, and this is no doubt why he could carry so powerfully the traditional alongside the non-traditional.
He made it very clear that he would not perpetuate himself in the lineage of ‘Tulkus’ and requested that no one search for his ‘reincarnation.’ In recent years, after the passing of several great masters, a number of ‘Tulkus’ were put forward as candidates, and much controversy ensued. Rinpoche made his position crystal clear on this point and thus avoided any future complication.
He had always steered clear of the monasteries and large institutions and consistently underlined the importance of doing practice in solitary retreats in order to have direct experience of the essential points of the ‘dharma.’
On several occasions Rinpoche made the comment that some people who came to him and who were dressed like ‘practitioners’ actually had no stable inner experience, while there were those who seemed to be very ordinary and who did not have the appearance of being a ‘practitioner’ yet who were in fact ‘true practitioners.’ To Rinpoche, a ‘true practitioner’ was someone who had recognized the natural state and achieved a measure of stability in settling into That.
He underlined for us the fact that we cannot judge anyone by appearances alone.
He established many retreat centers after he moved to India in the late 1950,s so that those who came to him would be able to practice in suitable locations and thereby actualize the teachings by gaining first-hand experience of them.
He clearly pointed to the fact that one has to practice the ‘dharma’ in order to gain benefit from it for one’s self and in turn for others. He had spent many decades of his life doing just that and often under the most trying conditions. For many years he had wandered around Tibet, staying in the caves or in a small tent with little more than what he could carry over his shoulder. He could easily have passed his days in comfort and plenty in one of the rich monasteries. He truly had lived as an example of what he later encouraged others to do.
The master is not able to give us something that we do not already possess. He/she simply alerts us to our true and inherent potential. It is for us to understand and gain true experience of our inmost natural state by taking his/her advice to heart. Rinpoche gave his students every opportunity to do this, providing the conditions needed to really settle down and practice.
He established many simple places where practitioners could come together, or where they could be alone in order to practice the Dharma without distraction.
He always emphasized the need to gain experience in retreats and almost all of his direct students have undergone a retreat or two under his guidance and care at one time or another.
That our lives should be an expression of what can bring benefit to others is the motivation of a true Bodhisattva whose every action is geared to turning others towards the ‘truth’ which is within themselves. Rather than spending our precious lives and energy in meaningless activities and distractions, he encouraged us to benefit beings through sincere and concerted practice motivated by Bodhichitta. As with the perfume of a flower which need not ‘do’ anything particular and yet which affects and purifies the whole surrounding area with its scent, so too should our practice radiate its fragrance throughout space.
Soon after Rinpoche escaped to India from Tibet he took a vow renouncing the consumption of meat. This happened in nineteen sixty, long before it became fashionable. Prior to that, he had been as rabid a meat eater as any other Tibetan. Once he decided to abstain, however, his stance was unshakable, and all the temples and retreat centers under his guidance became ‘no meat’ zones. Here again, he was an example of what he preached and living to a grand age underlined the fact that human beings can subsist very healthily and happily on a vegetarian diet.
He made it a mission to release countless fish from the fish farms in Kolkata and elsewhere. Other kinds of wildlife were also rescued in a similar way.
His compassion revealed itself through a long stream of activities that brought freedom, on one level or another, to countless sentient beings.
It was a delight to spend time in Rinpoche’s company. There was always plenty of laughter and light-hearted banter. There were so many humorous incidents, but one instantly springs to my mind.
One year, we were in the Lhakhang retreat center up in the Helambu Region of Nepal. At that time a group of devotees had come up from Sermatang to accompany Rinpoche to their monastery.
Around thirty of the older and higher ranking people from the village had made the journey on foot in order to welcome Rinpoche and accompany him back. They brought with them a sturdy little pony which Rinpoche was to ride on the way down the trail to the village. This particular pony was an old favourite of Rinpoche’s and had carried him around on other such occasions in the past.
On the morning when we were due to leave everyone gathered near Rinpoche’s hut. He climbed onto the pony, a big happy smile spreading over his face. One lama went ahead of our group wielding a large kukri blade in order to make sure that the pathway was cleared of any debris or stray branches and the rest of us followed behind.
Barely had the small horse begun to move than it let out a loud fart. We could see Rinpoche ahead shaking with laughter and everyone behind followed suit. The animal continued on in this vein every few minutes all the way to the Sermatang. Goodness knows what he had eaten for breakfast. Suffice it to say, we kept a respectful distance behind…
Above all else, Chadral Rinpoche encouraged us to recognize our ‘true nature,’ because absolutely nothing else will be of any use to us in the long run. This and this alone is the chief and crucial point. In recognizing and practicing, one brings into balance all other factors in one’s life. It is the great panacea, the one thing which brings resolution to all that causes confusion and suffering in this world.
On one incredibly precious occasion when he gave a couple of us some ‘pith’ instructions, he referred to the advice given as the ‘blood of his heart.’ Such ‘treasure’ has the power to liberate countless beings; we need only open our hearts and pray with one-pointed devotion. Our devotion is like the sun that melts the snow on the top of the mountain of the Guru’s blessings.
A few days after the news had been broken about his ‘passing,’ I made my way up to Nepal from the South of India.
I had gone to Nepal for the first time in almost a decade in August of 2015 and had the great good fortune to see Rinpoche on a number of occasions.
I had gone in order to pay my respects while I was still in the region and had made my way over from Darjeeling, having spent the summer months in my retreat hut in one of his centers in the hills.
The latest visit, however, although following just a few months after was under very different circumstances and carried with it a very different mood.
Being the middle of winter and in the grip of not only the cold but also profound economic and political misery, there was an added dimension to the sense of sadness at his passing.
Crippling power cuts and shortages of every kind were the order of the day and these were not due to the after-effects of the powerful earthquake that had struck only months before. These had been brought on by the greed and short-sightedness of an elite few.
Despite all of this, however, or perhaps because of it, the population near and far came to Parping. They came in droves to pay their respects and receive the blessing’ of the reliquary.
Initially, I had passed some days inside the temple shrine and participated in the ceremonies that were taking place. However, it soon became too crowded so I withdrew to a spot outside and below the temple area. Every evening before the prayers ended, I would head up to the temple building and stand near an open window in order to recite the words of the Guru Yoga prayers with all the Lamas who were gathered inside.
For me, this proved to be the most moving moment in the days during which I could be present. Invariably, as soon as the Umsey (chant leader) began to sing this particular prayer, his voice would crack and waver. Sometimes he would have to stop chanting all together and then another Lama would take over.
Rinpoche had brought so many of us together and the feeling that we were and are one big family remains. How can we ever forget his kindness?
A Life Well Lived
Day after day I sat and watched the stream of humanity, young and old, rich and poor pass by and through the temple precincts in which the Kudung was being housed. It was not easy for these people to make this journey to the fringes of the Kathmandu valley. Their transport was inadequate and often terribly over-crowded. It was a costly journey for most people and also extremely uncomfortable. Yet they came and kept coming.
It is profoundly moving and humbling to see how one life, which is motivated towards the good of others can influence so many in juxtaposition with those who are motivated by temporary gain and greed at the expense of so many.
What a stark contrast and the more moving for being so.
We need good examples of how to live our lives and how to give precedence to what is most meaningful. It is not as though we are going to have endless chances to do this.
Everywhere we look we can find countless examples of lives spent in dissipation and distraction while a well-lived is a rare thing indeed.
I can only rejoice in Rinpoche’s example which was and remains so deeply meaningful not only me but to so many. The radiance of what he gave the world will continue to have its beneficial effect long into the future if in fact, humanity has a long future before it…
In these days and times, we can be sure of nothing except the ‘one true thing’ of which we have spoken repeatedly throughout this tome.
May we be moved to discover this for ourselves and thereby make our own lives resonate with what is truly meaningful.
With the pure motivation of Bodhichitta (the wish to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings), each one of us has the power to transform our world.
May we keep this in our mind and heart; always.
Precious Bodhichitta, the highest attitude
Where it is unborn, may it arise
Where it is born, may it increase,
rising ever higher and higher.
Prayer by Shantideva