Oct 2, 1975

On the way to Shantiniketan: Bolpur Art Gallery

Tulku Pema Wangyal, Seattle 1976.
I wanted to improve my Tibetan, and asked Tulku Pema Wangyal where I should go to study. There were essentially two options at the time: Tulku Thondrup in Lucknow or Chimey Rigdzin Lama at the university of Shantiniketan. Tulku Pema did a divination, but the answer was only that going to Shantiniketan was the lesser of two quite unfavorable outcomes, so off I went. It turned out to be the case too, as I ended up getting kicked out of India, and losing all my belongings.

Somewhere on the huge railroad system that covers India lies Bolpur, a small town in Birbhum district of West Bengal. It has a transit station, a place where no one seems to live. Travelers come there mainly to switch trains to and from Shantiniketan, the famous international university founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore where cultures of the East and West meet and mingle. The million people who had passed through had a million aims. Mine is to learn Tibetan.

Tulku Pema Wangyal has sent me to seek the admission at the Tibetan department which is under the care of C.R. Lama, a tantric master disguised as professor. His divinations have been a tossup between Tulku Thondup in Lucknow and this university. Success in either looked like reading the meter of Erik’s lack of merit, if I was allowed to divine Tulku Pema’s face, but this was the lesser of two evils. Before departure, he hands me The Golden Garland Chronicles, Padmasambhava’s detailed biography. “Perhaps one day you can translate this into English.” The book is seven hundred and sixty five pages and I can barely read.

I reach the train station at night. It seems quiet, if you discount the loud clicking and clacking of the electric bulbs, as if hit by small objects. An undulating carpet covers everywhere, and crunches with every step you take. Now I see it is made of a sea of dead and dying mega-grasshoppers. They have all come to die together at this train station. Perhaps because it is the only place lit up brightly within a radius of thirty miles. Perhaps so they can see each other while they pass away from their grasshopper life.

A man wearing the official dark blue uniform uses a makeshift snow scraper, making corpse-free walkways, transporting blends of life-and-death over the side to the tracks, for rats to feast. I notice no particular expression on his face.

Under the corrugated iron roof there are benches and notice boards. I move over there, skipping from one tiny empty spot to the next. I hear the crunch of evil karma.

“Never mind,” a voice announces. “It happens like this every summer.”

On the notice board I see many hundreds of large photographs, close perhaps to one thousand. All are black-and-white, clearly defined, perfect focus. Each shows the face of a human being. Of all ages. There is writing beneath each, and some scribbles in Hindi. As I walk by them, I’m struck by the silence in their eyes. They have one more thing in common. Everyone has been photographed after death.

Each of these departed members of our human race must have posed lying down, with the photographer leaning close, right above, very intimate. In life they must have been too poor to have a name. And now their unclaimed faces are displayed in this gallery of masterful pictures, on a lonely railroad station near Shantineketan, where grasshoppers come to die under electric light on summer nights.

The silence I hear now is one I know. I’ve heard it many times before. When I stopped to listen on my way home from high school, with no plan in mind.

Soon my train arrives. I drink chai with roasted peanuts. Into the darkness vanishes Bolpur station, the place where no one seems to live.

Apr 14, 1975

Meeting Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Orgyen Kunzang Chokhor Ling,
the monastery of Kangyur Rinpoche.
The first time I heard mention of Chokgyur Lingpa was in 1976 when Dilgo Khyentse visited Europe. When I heard that he was in Europe, even though it was the dead of winter I immediately set out hitchhiking to the south of France where he was at the time. It’s actually a quite funny story, so perhaps I should backtrack a little.

During my first trip to India and Nepal I stayed in Darjeeling as I mentioned earlier. I stayed in a room at Gandhi Road No. 54. My travel permit would only allow me to stay for two weeks, but Tulku Pema Wangyal, who spoke English, had agreed to teach me. During that short time they were doing special pujas everyday because Kangyur Rinpoche had recently passed away. One day, I heard that some lama named Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was coming to visit from Bhutan, and I noticed that when others heard this they just lit up and appeared quite thrilled at the news.

Though I had never heard of this lama before, I concluded that whoever he was he must be quite special. So when his jeep arrived I ran down to the gate with everyone else to see him. The door to the jeep opened and out stepped this tall magnificent figure. He was a good foot and half taller than anybody else. He seemed completely unaffected by all the commotion. Later when I got to know him better and had spent some time visiting him, I discovered that he was always like that: completely at peace and stable. No matter where he was, who he was with or what was happening around him he always remained the perfect picture of total stability in samadhi. It was readily apparent that, if he hadn’t already been stable, then he certainly had become so during the many years he had spent in retreat.

Upon that first glimpse of him my mind just stopped. I saw photos that Ravinder Rai had taken at the time, and I am simply beaming with a grin from ear to ear. I remember I was allowed to hold his hand as he stepped into the building, he didn’t say a word and I was utterly tongue-tied and couldn’t speak. I didn’t really receive any teachings from him, except for when he explained about prostrating and a couple of other general things.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche holding my hand at
Orgyen Kunzang Chokhor Ling, 1975. (c) Ravinder Rai.
Nonetheless, his very presence had a profound effect on everyone—it was truly liberation through sight, as is readily apparent even by those who have seen a photograph or movie clip of him. He was a beautiful, beautiful man. If the sun and moon were to take human form then it would be as the 16th Karmapa and Dilgo Khyentse—they shone so bright that they were simply impossible to ignore. When either of them walked through a crowd, the sea of people would just part. People wouldn’t just turn their heads they would turn their entire bodies and even their minds would turn in a new direction permanently. I was so happy. Only a week before I had met the Karmapa and now I had met Dilgo Khyentse whom, it would turn out, I would become much closer to. I don’t know if my bliss was due to my naiveté or simple stupidity but whatever the cause it felt wonderful. Just seeing him I thought, “Wow! Now there is a real guru.”

I later discovered that he was the guru to the royal family of Bhutan and many of the important lamas that we know today. He was nonsectarian and received teachings and empowerments from almost all the schools and lineages available in Tibet. At one point, it came to be that no one in the Kagyu school held the transmission for the dohas by the great siddhas of India. Hearing this the 16th Karmapa said, “Call the old lama from Bhutan!” So they sent a request to Bhutan and Dilgo Khyentse went to Rumtek and transmitted the songs of realization of the great masters of India as passed on through the Kagyu school. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche was there studying at the time and received them as well.
At Orgyen Kunzang Chokhor Ling
in Darjeeling, 1975.

Even when he died, everyone wanted to host his body at their monastery if only for a few days so that they could all honor him and pay their respects for all that they had received from him. Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche once said, “We are so lucky that everyone thought that he was Nyingma, as this allowed us to spend more time with him.” However Dilgo Khyentse himself never said that he was a Nyingma lama, he was just who he was and simply agreed to give any teachings or empowerments that were requested of him. He had spent so many years in retreat, that he had not only received a great number of teachings but practiced them as well. This is quite rare, for many people receive all kinds of teachings but then don’t take the time and dedicate themselves to actually doing all the practices.

Because Dilgo Khyentse had actually practiced however whatever he taught or passed on seemed to have incredible weight behind it.

Apr 10, 1975

Darjeeling to see the Karmapa

Next I headed for Sikkim to meet the Karmapa. It was impossible to get an entry visa in Nepal, so I stopped in Darjeeling, and failing there I cried over my great misfortune.

On arrival, I discovered that by chance the Karmapa was in Darjeeling at the same time. He was there for something called the All-Himalayan Buddhist Conference which many great masters including the Dalai Lama were also attending. So, to my surprise I found myself at the right place at the right time.

His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa and Dalai Lama, Darjeeling 1975.
Among the many people I have met in my life the Karmapa is truly unique. I had met him briefly in Europe a few months previous to this and I had thought, “Here is someone who actually is mahamudra.” He was living proof of the efficacy of the teachings. I felt that if I could spend all my time with him then something would happen to me as well. I tried to spend as much time with him as possible.

I discovered that he could transform people’s experience. With just a glance, a smile and his demeanor he could suspend one’s ordinary perception completely; and not just an impressionable young Dane like myself but almost anyone: government officials, policemen, even stern Indian army colonels found themselves totally disarmed. Even his gait was divine, he walked as I imagine the
with Drukchen Rinpoche
Buddha would have walked. He was extraordinary. Although he was there again in Darjeeling I never got any formal teachings from him. It seems that he didn’t give teachings very often, but he certainly smiled and laughed a lot. He would grab my head and bang it against his belly and then he’d burst out laughing some more. And that was good enough for me, I would be so happy.

He did tell me, “You will do good practice.” That was it. But I was overjoyed, for what more could I want? However, after a few days I began to wonder what practice? So I decided that I must find a teacher. Not just someone I could have occasional contact with, but someone who could answer my questions and show me how to do what needed to be done. As I was raised in Denmark, I had been taught to not just accept anything someone said but to have my own opinions, ask questions and resolve any doubts I might have. So having so many opinions about everything, this fabric of opinions had to be either eliminated or satisfied, which is no easy task, in fact it is endless. However it had to be quenched and then eliminated. So a personal teacher was important.

Apr 5, 1975

One thing is the most important to know

Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche with Dzongsar Khyentse
and Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, ca 1977

Chokyi Nyima had already taught me quite a few times by now. When I was leaving for Darjeeling near the end of May, I went to pay my respects. As I was walking out the door he said to me, “Erik, one second! One thing is the most important to know.” 
“Thank you, Rinpoche,” replied.
Then I turned and left. 

Nonetheless, it stuck with me and I decided that from now on I would ask every good lamas that I met what was the most important thing one should know. Even though I asked many people over the years, and heard the answer over and over again, I believed I still had not experienced it. I knew the Tibetan words for it, and could translate them into Danish or English, but still they seemed just more words and ideas. I had only managed to fabricate a few more preconceived notions on top of all the others I already had. So I was no closer to the actual experience, in fact I was closer to it back in Denmark when I was seventeen. 

After eight years of being a Buddhist I was now further away from it than when I had started out on this path. It is strange, and more than a bit sad, that studying the Dharma can take you further away from what is most natural and simple. Nevertheless such was my journey. I had done several retreats, the preliminary practices etc. and yet there I was.

Apr 4, 1975

Meeting Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

I first met Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, when the monastery was nearing completion; the consecration took place the next year. Unlike Dilgo Khyentse or the 16th Karmapa, I walked right past him without ever noticing him or thinking that he was anyone special. He was almost invisible. He put on absolutely no airs, instead walking quietly and humbly with his head down. That humility permeated his teaching style as well.

The first time I met him was when Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche told me that I should meet his father. Not knowing anything about Tulku Urgyen at that time I simply thought, “They must be very close family and he loves his father very much.” So I got a white scarf and found Tulku Urgyen outside on the construction site talking to a worker. I went up, bowed down and offered him the scarf expecting him to give it back along with a pat on the head as blessing. But nothing happened so I looked up to see that he was also standing there bowed as well. I leaned forward a little thinking that perhaps I was too far away for him to reach. Then he leaned forward as well and we touched heads which is a common form of greeting in Kham. I couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t put his hand on my head and given me a blessing like lamas normally do. It was almost shocking in its simplicity and humility, and struck a very deep chord within me. In a way this was the essence of his teaching: a deep and abiding respect for everyone. Whether meeting the King, an illiterate villager from the mountains or even an unemployed student from Europe like me, he treated everyone equally. Later when I became familiar with his teaching it was quite apparent to me that he taught everyone equally, no matter your social standing or background he would take the time to help guide you to see the true nature of your mind. He saw, as clear as daylight, that everyone possessed the nature of enlightenment, in this all were equal and worthy of respect no matter their social standing.  

Mar 23, 1975

My First Indian Teacher: Shakedown in Delhi

Standing on the street at Connaught Circus, he says “you will come with me to have tea?” It is not a question. I see a young Indian prince with a beaming smile, white teeth, tailored tunic, dignified cut. This is very suitable. I am a young Danish prince as well, fifteen minutes just off the Aeroflot Russian airline from Moscow to Delhi. On his first state visit. I accept.

We drive to old Delhi in a two-person taxi scooter, through more side streets and back alleys than can be remembered. We walk up too many staircases and corridors. Inside a large room my new very good friend asks me to sit down on the floor.

Steaming hot spiced tea arrives in tall gleaming metal cups. Suddenly two humongous men slip in and sit down, flanking the only door. It is Samson and Obelix. They don’t smile. They don’t speak. My host doesn’t look at them. They are just flies on the wall. Somehow this absence of introduction feels even more ominous. Their inconspicuousness takes over mind.

Samson will cut my throat as easy as nothing. It will take no more than one gesture from his master to sic Obelix on me, breaking my brittle Danish neck like a twig between his huge hands. These two monsters will feel no hate for me. They won’t even frown. The famous Indian equanimity is anchored in their bones. This makes the finale: the twenty years of the Danish incarnation; the endless, boring hours in school; the inheritance from my mother spent on the ticket to India; and all the wishes to learn the Dharma in India and Nepal—all of this—is sucked into my mind’s black hole in Old Delhi.

I wonder where this Danish body can be disappeared. Eaten by rats and dogs in a damp cellar? Chopped up and served as mutton curry to non-vegetarian hippies? Who will ever know? Who will care? How could I be so stupid? Are all Danish people dumb like this?

“You must drink tea while it’s hot,” he says, the well-mannered traitor. Indeed. A convict has the right to enjoy a last cup of tea before execution. I agree with him; the tea is quite good.

“You have some things you want to give me?” This again is not a question.

He grins, more a sneer than a smile, revealing yellow stained teeth, like a wolf trying to ingratiate itself to a lam. I see grime on his collar; the sleeve is dusty and wrinkled. In his eyes a mixture of greed and joy, like a child. Like any human child.

After all, he just wants “some things”. Not my body snuffed out and away from this earth, leaving the bones to bleach under the scorching Indian sun. And not the entire existence of I who tried to erase it daily in zazen, unsuccessfully.

And was at not me who several years back convinced my father’s wife to help me cart off my own things collected since childhood and place them on walls here and there along the streets in my hometown for other people to take, if they so preferred? Am I still attached to “some things”? (Of cause I was, but I was still in the habit of pretending to be unattached.) I look over at my backpack. The gracious host nods at it and Samson jumps up and carries it over to us with two fingers, strengthened from snapping stupid Scandinavian necks.

Perhaps Prince Traitor and I can make a pact. A trade of base matter to which the human’s heart entwines itself, in exchange for a life. I’m not sure if my feeling is empathy or cunning. A gentle appreciation for this opportunity. What are my two most treasured items here?

“This is a cashmere sweater,” I say. My last girlfriend gave it to me. She also broke my heart. I divorce this painful reminder. “And here is a finely crafted knife from Finland. I would like you to have them both.” The bodhisattva is now defenseless.

Surprise and gratitude flickers behind his eyes and are gone. Appeasement has been transacted. We carry on conversation as if nothing has happened. His uncles are making fine Persian carpets, employing childrens’ delicate fingers for low or no pay. I hear that it’s a good business. We are friends; I’m just visiting for a cup of tea, like on any other day.

Back on the street near the railroad station, I look at my watch. Two hours and a small eternity have passed since I met my Indian teacher at Connaught Circus. The Danish ego has danced once more his to-be-or-not-to-be tango in the charnel ground of Old Delhi. My luggage feels much lighter.

Feb 26, 1975

The Great Adventure Awaits

After graduating from high school, I bought an airline ticket to the Himalayas. I had spent several months looking at maps and atlases, tracing routes and looking at pictures of mountains imagining what an adventure it was going to be. As I personally wasn’t aware of anyone like this who lived in Denmark, when I turned 20, I received a small inheritance from my mother who had passed away many years before. My mother had passed away, and on my twentieth birthday I received an inheritance of $1000. So I used this money to buy an air ticket to India. It wasn’t much, but enough to buy a roundtrip ticket to India and stay for seven months.

As I had no ties to Denmark, my plan was actually to stay in India and never return. During my senior year in high school, we were each given a box with all the choices of professions such as doctor, lawyer, businessman etc. However going through them all there wasn’t a single one which interested me. I only wanted to connect with Padmasambhava’s teachings. So with my $1000 I bought a ticket, and felt like a rich man with whatever was left over. In fact, on the advice of a friend, I exchanged some of this into Lebanese currency as its value was on the rise at the time, which wasn’t the best advice. The rest I changed into German marks, which was better but I soon discovered that in India, unlike American dollars, this currency could only be exchanged in New Delhi.

Before leaving for India, a wonderful friend named Jack Hurtigkarl, who had spent a lot of time in India and Nepal, had given me a list important places to visit and people to meet there and in the Himalayas. This list included Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and he was also the person who explained how to get to Sikkim to meet the Karmapa. Also on my list was Sonada, where Kalu Rinpoche whom I had met in Europe resided, as well as Rewalsar in Himichal Pradesh, the sacred Lotus Lake known in Tibetan as Tso Pema. I went to most of the places and met many of the people he had suggested, but I also met many other people I never expected to.

Feb 25, 1975

Saying goodbye to Karmapa

The Karmapa had traveled through Europe on his first trip to the West in 1975. I had followed along with a small group of people from Denmark through Germany, Holland and finally Paris. I had a growing sense that rather than just pursuing a great master and being in his presence as I had been doing, I should instead do some practice starting with finishing my ngondro.

I had begun my prostrations back in Denmark when I was 19 years old. Even though it was hard it brought deep joy and a lightness of being, together with a compassion and devotion that I had never known. I felt as if I was actually connecting with a living lineage of realization. Rather than just sitting quietly and developing a feeling of serenity, the ngondro seemed to give rise to a more intimate connection to the buddhas which I now wanted to strengthen. So, one January day, having decided to return home to get back to practicing, at Kalu Rinpoche’s center in Paris I went to have a final interview with the Karmapa to say good bye. I took along the bulb of a huge red flower that had four blossoms.

Entering his room I prostrated three times and then presented him with this potential flower and told him that I was returning to practice and to save up enough money to go to India. The Karmapa smiled, reached behind him and gave me a large apple the same size as the bulb. He then gave me a blessing by touching the crown of my head and through his interpreter said, “You will do good practice.” I left to start hitchhiking back to Denmark in the cold winter night.

Back in Denmark, I found work as a substitute teacher and did prostrations on a “prostration board.” It is not easy to continue the ngondro on your own, and after my initial enthusiasm waned I found myself getting disheartened and often finding excuses not to do my sessions. But I did my best and continued as I could. After three months, I received an inheritance from my mother which had been held in trust and immediately took it to buy a ticket to India. And off I went.