Sunday 14 February 2021

Warm Winter Boots

In the winter of 1990/1991, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche spent the entire cold season in Bodhgaya.

He had arrived there even before I did and was comfortably installed in some large ground floor rooms in Beru Khyentse's monastery on the outskirts of the sacred Buddhist town.

It was still early in the winter season and not as crowded as it would surely become in the weeks and months ahead so I was fortunate to find a room in Beru Khyentse's monastery just doors away from where Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was staying.

No two winter seasons were ever alike in Bodhgaya. I must have spent at least ten winters there and each time I was there I had very different and powerful learning and even life-changing experiences.

I distinctly remember that the mood that particular winter was in some ways a very subdued one. Khyentse Rinpoche was not in robust health. Despite this, however, he began to give an important (for the Longchen Nyingtik lineage) cycle of teaching transmissions and empowerments to the students, monks and visiting Lamas who had gathered to receive them.

Where ever he was Khyentse Rinpoche always had a very busy schedule even if he never left his seat or his room. His days were filled with the buzz of endless comings and goings. But during that particular winter, we started to notice changes to the way things were usually happening around him.

Several new rules were announced which restricted our access to Rinpoche somewhat. This had never happened before. However, one of these new rules was rather in our favour, or at least in mine. We were told that he would not speak until after 9 am in the mornings. I liked this new rule because it meant that I could slip into his room early in the morning for a blessing and then quietly sit nearby in a corner of the room usually completely unnoticed and do my practice while he was doing his. This was always a very special time and I felt deeply blessed, grateful and fortunate for this happy circumstance.

He would sit in his wooden box with a large woollen blanket draped over his folded legs. His upper chest bare. I was always fascinated by the various appendages that he wore around his neck. Intricately carved silver and gold amulet boxes and other precious items hung there. He would lean slightly forward and they would all clang softly together whenever he moved. During these early morning hours, he would be fingering a large wooden malla ( rosary) as he mumbled various verses, chants and prayers. Nothing remarkable appeared to be happening and yet the entire room was suffused with an intangible, deep peace. For me, it felt as though I were sitting in the very centre of the universe. It was certainly the centre of my universe.

That winter I had come directly from Australia where I had gone to work for a few months. Khyentse Rinpoche usually spent his summer seasons in retreat in Bhutan and so that would be the time when I would go to the west and earn some money with which to support myself during the winter months in India and Nepal.

I had pondered long and hard over what I would bring him in the way of a gift when I returned and eventually I decided on something very practical, as was my want. I decided to get him a pair of the iconic Australian footwear known as Ugg Boots. These slippers, for they were and are essentially an indoors shoe were initially created by an Australian surfer in 1970s. They were a relatively simple design and made of sheepskin wool, supremely snug and warm.

However, Khyentse Rinpoche had very large feet, some might say, unusually large and I had to search quite a while before I found a pair that I thought would fit.

I was so excited to present these to him. I knew they would be just the thing to keep his feet all warm and toasty and I eagerly anticipated a happy outcome.

However, on the morning after my arrival, when I went to offer my greetings to the master and present my gift I quickly discovered that it was not possible to get his feet to slide into the boots.

It was not that the boots were too small, they were in fact just the right size and the biggest size that I had been able to find. The problem was in the design of the boots which meant that they rose well above the ankles to cover the entire foot and lower leg. I tried and I tried to get his feet into those boots, there was much huffing and puffing, but there was just no way it was going to happen. I hardly minded because Rinpoche sat with one hand on the top of my head throughout all of my exertions. There was a bemused expression on his face but he had sat there patiently putting up with my various and energetic man-oeuvres. But eventually, I had to withdraw.

When Rinpoche had first laid eyes on the boots he had looked well pleased and I was determined, come what may, that I would find a way to make them fit. I quickly settled on a plan to cut the front of the boots open and surely enough, his feet then slipped effortlessly in. I was thrilled and Rinpoche cast a bright and loving smile my way. I could have melted into the floor right there and then I was so perfectly satisfied and happy.

Throughout the winter months, these same boots were worn during the day and also on various outings. One can just make them out in the photo above. I could not have known then that this was to be our final walk around the sacred Stupa of Bodhgaya. Due to ill health his stay that winter was cut slightly short and soon after he had bestowed the empowerments, he returned to Nepal and then a few months later left for Bhutan.

Continue Reading in Tibetan Masters and Other True Stories

It is interesting how we unconsciously intuit things which the mind can never comprehend. Tibetans are very superstitious and I became acutely aware of this during the years that I was living much among them and yet I was constantly discovering new and unsuspected twists in this propensity.  

Some time after I had given the boots one of the lamas told me that they were not an auspicious gift to offer a Lama. This was a bombshell. I felt mortified to think that I could have unwittingly bestowed an unwelcome gift and done so with such happiness. But how could I have known?

No one had said anything to me about it at the time and there had been no inkling of displeasure on Rinpoche's part. However, the lama said that according to Tibetan traditions such a gift was considered to be a bad omen. He said that it might indicate that the life force of the one they were given to was not strong.

My only thought when offering the boots was to see my masters feet warm, cozy and snug so this revelation naturally came as quite a surprise and dampened my enthusiasm greatly. Of course, there could be no taking them back and every time I saw him wearing the boots thenceforth, I was reminded of the lama's words.

That winter Khyentse Rinpoche's health did begin to suffer a marked decline. We were all saddened and very much aware of this change and we became anxious and watchful.

Following his return to Nepal from India Rinpoche never fully recovered his former health. Try as we would to avoid comprehending the truth, the 'writing was on the wall' and several months later he passed away in Bhutan.

All sentient beings have an allotted time on this earth, nothing and no one can live forever, but who among us cannot mourn the loss of such a one? This was not the loss of an ordinary sentient being. For Rinpoche himself, it was little more than the casting off of a mortal coil, but for those of us who had basked so unreservedly in the ocean of his grace, it was deeply affecting.

Always we are forced to confront ourselves, to confront our own mortality and to remember what it is that is most important to do in this life that we now have...

Certainly, Khyentse Rinpoche was always trying to remind us of this.


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