An interview with Ngak’chang Rinpoche
Question Did you have any sense of what would occur when you first went to India in 1971?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche No – not at all, not in any obvious sense. I knew I’d study thangka painting because I had arranged that with my Tibetan pen friend Yeshé Khandro. I knew I wanted to study Vajrayana – but I was not sure exactly how I would approach that. I had been told that there were classes at the Tibetan Library near McLeod Ganj – and I thought I would start there. It was quite open ended – and then I met Kyabjé Düd’jom Rinpoche and everything that has happened since is due to his kindness. That includes his introducing me to my root teacher Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche.
Q Do you have any memories of your past lives since being recognised as an Incarnation?
R Yes . . . I think you can assume I’m cagey on this subject . . .
Q Could you give a short description of how this works, for readers unfamiliar with this process? How one has memories? Or how does incarnation work?
R With regard to memory – that is really . . . quite a subject . . . Memories are triggered by stimuli within the sense fields. I think everyone could relate to particular fragrances bringing back a flood of memories. The olfactory sense is particular in that regard because it does not tend to be under as much intellectual control as the other senses. In terms of remembering past lives – this probably happens with everyone – but unless we are expecting such material we process it as fantasy or strange dreams. In my case all my memories arose in dreams – but I have never been able to prompt such dreams. All I can say is that I know them for what they are – when they arise.
With regard to incarnation and how that works – I am not sure what to say. How would you say birth or death ‘worked’? They are equally as mysterious as re-birth. Maybe death is easier to understand. The body obviously falls apart as a working organism – but birth is not so simple. It can be scientifically explained vis-à-vis biology – but consciousness coming into being is still a mystery no matter how much it is clothed with science. Having said that I would say that re-birth is the osmosis of awareness – and that it is as natural as any other kind of osmosis.
Q What part does retreat play in the modern world?
R Same as it did in the old world. However – I would say that it plays the same part as a guitar lesson or a horseriding lesson. You have to take time out in order to learn a skill or to gain experience. Meditation is not different in that sense to any other realm of skill or learning.
Q What help do you still need for the new centre?
A great deal of money.
Q What will Drala Jong offer to non-Buddhists?
R It will offer something quite surprising. Vajrayana—or essential-vajrayana—is an area in which people are already involved whether they know or not. Vajrayana is there in romantic relationships and in the Arts. Vajrayana is there in all forms of creativity and in all human endeavours. We would make that obvious to people by speaking on an essential level about whatever interests them in life. This will be especially important to people involved with the Arts – but every area of life is open to being informed by essential-vajrayana.
Q You mention the value of the khandro-pawo teachings. Could you encapsulate the essence of these and explain how they differ from other available forms of relationship counselling? In what way can they help people to evolve healthy relationships?
R Difficult. I am not good at encapsulating things unless something suddenly springs to mind. The khandro-pawo teachings are probably not a great deal different from advice you might receive from an elderly couple who had maintained a loving relationship. ‘There ain’t a lady living in the land as compares with me dear old Dutch.’ Funny old Music Hall song – but it brings tears to my eyes. The difference with the khandro-pawo teachings is that they have an extremely profound and subtle spiritual underpinning which also deals with the nature of reality. It is possible to see from exploring these teachings that romance is far more than we think it is.
I went to breakfast this morning, down to the corner bar, / I thought I heard my baby call my name, and it came from so far, / I started runnin ’n’ answering, like a crazy fool would do, /Ah–ya–see, my woman gone away ’n’ left me – now my mind’s trying to leave me too. Albert Collins–––My Mind is Trying to Leave Me––1991
It is not accidental that there are thousand of love songs – and that people keep writing them. There is a neurotic element—as has been shown in terms of psychology—but there is something else. That something else however requires careful investigation – based on meditation experience.
Q You’ve mentioned the trek-chöd teachings from Dzogchen as being useful in helping people overcome emotional difficulties.
R Not quite. It’s not a question of overcoming – even though deep in my heart—I do believe—we shall overcome one day.
Q Could you explain how these work in a few words?
R Not in a few words – and not without a giving a background of expansion in terms of the meaning of emptiness, duality and nonduality. These things can certainly be explained—no great intellect is required—but time is required. There needs to be a dialogue in which teacher and student can explore the nature of reality. Experience needs to be developed in order that explanation can be understood. This is not mysterious – or not more so than listening to a horseriding lesson that is outside your comprehension. I used to sit and observe Khandro Déchen’s riding lesson before mine and often I would have no idea at all of what she was doing or what the instructions meant. Now I am remembering those times and thinking ‘Ah . . . that’s the thing that I didn’t understand . . . and now I understand.’ Explaining how a thing works depends on who is asking and what their experience is. This is why we often work personally with people in terms of explanation and guidance. This is also open to the public. We always answer questions as we teach – and encourage questions. Having said that – embracing emotions as the path is a means of allowing emotions to exist in a non-conceptual space. An emotion is allowed to exist in a non-conceptual space – simply through identifying entirely with the physical texture of the emotion and letting go of the thought structure that supports the emotion. The emotion then becomes what it is or shows what it is – outside the remit of our societal conditioning.
Q Do you see a relationship between Art and Craft and spiritual practice?
R Absolutely – especially Vajrayana.
Q What part do these play in your tradition?
R You could almost say they are the tradition. Vajrayana deals with the senses and the sense fields – and in so doing touches the heart of creativity. The essential nature of creativity is compassion – but that statement would take a great deal of explanation.
Q I notice the brochure mentions dance. What kind of dance is this?
R Meditative dance. The actualisation or enactment of the realised state in terms of movement. Dance is an aspect of enlightened theatre – and as such is central to the Arts. Vajrayana contains all the Arts and expresses itself through the Arts.
Q How do sKu-mNyé and trül’khor differ from other yogas?
R Trül’khor—yantra yoga in Sanskrit—resembles hatha yoga combined with pranayama and movement.
Q What are they for, how do they function?
R The answer to this is several hours of teaching. As with all these questions – it is hard to answer without knowing the person I am addressing. If it is ‘you’ then the questions are easier to answer – because I can use terminology and I can base my answer on what I conceive to be your level of knowledge and experience. If I am to address an anonymous audience it becomes far more difficult. Usually if I were to address the public on these subjects I would write books.
This is what I would say to a practitioner: sKu-mNyé is a method of using physical movement to generate a highly special type of sensation termed zap nyam (profound manifestation). One then finds the presence of awareness in the dimension of the zap nyam aroused. Finding the presence of awareness in the dimension of the sphere of zap nyam enables you to recognise rigpa. To explain that to an audience without experience would take several hours.
Trül’khor is a means of regulating the subtle energy of the body in order that meditative experience is more directly facilitated.
Q The name ‘Sparkling Meadow of Primal Iridescence’ may seem rather grand to some people. What inspired it and what does it imply?
R The ‘grand’ sound of the name stems from Vajrayana spiritual culture. If a name is given for any endeavour, then—according to Vajrayana—it needs to be inspirational. This name accords with that style. Drala Jong could also be translated in many different ways – because there is no English equivalent for drala. Jong simply means meadow – but meadow has certain connotations in Tibetan that might be lacking in English – so I made it ‘sparkling meadow’. Then drala . . . well . . . drala relates to the fact that the world is not inanimate, insensate, or uncommunicative. Drala is the living ambience of the world in terms of the personality of a place. If you take a walk in a wood—and you’re not entirely preoccupied with thought—you may well have a sense of connectivity. You may feel that the trees reciprocate within the sense fields. We’re not exactly speaking of Ents here—you understand—but maybe Tolkien did have some sense of what is meant by drala. I don’t want to turn this into purple prose with a phrase like ‘being in harmony with nature’ – and anyway—that—would only be part of the story. In terms of drala the harmony would be a two-way process . . . it might even be three dimensionally contrapuntal. Oh dear . . . I think I’ve made it sound grand again.
Q What is the difference between the Aro gTér and the rest of the Nyingma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism?
R None is the first answer. The second is that the Aro gTér is a. fundamentally non-liturgical – i.e. there is no emphasis on chanting, particularly chanting of long texts; b. essential-vajrayana – i.e. it stresses the core theorems of Vajrayana; d. entirely non-celibate and non-monastic; and, e. primarily based in silent sitting and yogic techniques.
Q What exactly is a gTér?
R A teaching which is revealed through the vision of a Lama.
Q Do you know of any equivalent to this in western spiritual traditions?
R The Book of Mormon?
Q Many people today are abandoning religion in favour of a more amorphous ‘spirituality.’ What is your view of this?
R I would say that it’s a waste of time. It would be like giving up a romance in favour of amorphous association.
Q Do you see some of the more traditional and Tibetan aspects of your lineage—robes, instruments, chanting in Tibetan—changing in years or centuries to come? If so, how? If not, why not?
R I never think about it. I’m not a prophet. If I were a prophet I might have made a profit by now. We chant very little – so there would not be a great deal of need for change. As to the musical instruments . . . they simply are as they are. We do however use ’cello and guitar for the Yeshé Tsogyel mantra on certain occasions – but that is ‘in addition to’ rather than ‘instead of’. Robes? One has to wear something – and what would be the purpose of changing them? You know . . . this question makes me think of having a husband or wife and being asked if changes might occur. Sure, he or she will get older – but as to whether I would like him or her to have a nose-job or a tummy tuck . . . well no. If you love your husband or wife – why would you want to make changes? There is always some sense in the present time that ancient traditions have to be changed – and I think that is a problem. I think that change will occur naturally without anyone having to fix anything. Our tradition is Tibetan – but I don’t think that making it look western will make it more accessible. The factor that will make it more accessible has more to do with linguistics. In terms of language – we have put a great deal of energy into presenting the tradition in creative contemporary English. The externals of the tradition are its colour and feeling the need to change the colour of a tradition seems little different from wanting to modernise the appearance of a house. There is a considerable industry now – based on undoing the horrors of the modernisation perpetrated in the 1950s and 1960s.
Q What is your personal goal, aim, dream – for Drala Jong?
R We would like to see people access essential-vajrayana and change their lives for the better. We would like people to recognise themselves as innate artists. We would like to see more happy relationships and consequently happier children. Happier children will create a happier world.
Q What do you most deplore in the world today?
R What I have always deplored in every age of the world – fashion and greed. They go together. Fashion in religion, philosophy, psychology, politics, Art, clothing – everything.
Q And what hopeful signs do you see?
R I see no hopeful signs that have not always been there – in one shape or another. I think I shall wait and see what happens with ‘an odd boy’ – it’s the book I’m writing. It’s a monothematic memoire 1957—1975 concerning the Arts. It’s a stealth Dharma book – but don’t telephone anyone.
Q Are there any predictions within your tradition for these years leading up to 2012 and following?
Q What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?
R I wish I could mention an achievement, let alone a great one. I think that some people are happier in the world as a result of these teachings – but that has little to do with me. My greatest personal achievement has been finding my wife – she is one in a . . . how many million people are there on the Earth?
Q Do you have time for hobbies? What are they?
R Not exactly . . . but then . . . I’ve never had a hobby. Everything I do is a serious commitment – and everything in my life is Vajrayana. I do have pursuits that might not look like Vajrayana, from the outside: horseriding; National Resophonic guitars; electric Blues guitars—I have a 12 string Telecaster and 12 string Gibson ES335—bass guitar, a Gibson EB3; Blues harp i.e. harmonica; target shooting with Old West handguns; historical drama movies; historical novels; researching 19th century American history, poetry, painting, calligraphy, antiquarian clothing.
Q What are you reading at the moment?
R A series of 20 novels by Patrick O’Brien on the Napoleonic Wars.
Q Top 5 favourite films – why?
R Ride With the Devil, Tombstone, Little Big man, Pride and Prejudice, and The Witches of Eastwick. As to ‘why’ – excellent dialogue, humour, wit, poignance, humanity, and hope.
Q What would you like as your epitaph . . .
R ‘I’d rather be in Philadelphia.’ That’s what WC Fields wanted. Or what about ‘Give me espresso or give me death’? Or maybe I’ll go for the line George the 6th used “Bugger Bognor.” Or maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger “I’ll be back!” Hey this is fun – what about ‘This isn’t as bad as you’d think’?
Q . . . or what would you most like to be remembered for?
R Kindness—nothing else has any meaning—oh, and maybe that I never wore trainers as street-shoes.