Tuesday 29 November 2011

I can't get no. . .

. . . satisfaction.  Well, not when trying to engage in fundraising anyway.  Like a home sick polynesian, I'm always left longing for Somoa (some-moa donations, that is. . . and yes I will keep making puns like that until we reach our target).  Still, with 8 of the 50 calligraphies sold at the special display-rate on Friday and some kind gifts last night, we've already raised £1,000.  In addition to calligraphies themselves there was quite an interest in some calligraphy t-shirts which we had made up for the evening (£10 plus postage - e-mail sncd.treasurer@gmail.com with your postal address & shirt sizes for full details):
They carry the seed syllable Hung - symbol of Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel.  On Friday night Ngak'chang Rinpoche explained how the tulip bulb brushes are manipulated in order to create both very fine and very thick lines in a single brush stroke, as you can see in the sweeping curves of the Hung on the t-shirt:
Well, we had a select crowd at the talk.  As far as I am aware this is the first time Ngak'chang Rinpoche has ever given a public talk on Tibetan Calligraphy.  It was delightful to learn on the evening that one of the attendees who had come to Aro Ling via the online Membership programme was being accepted as an Apprentice.  Another had been coming to Aro Ling for a year and asking about calligraphy.  It did mean the evening was pretty Apprentice-heavy in terms of numbers, and I'm kicking myself a bit when looking back about the audience mix.  As Yanni pointed out, people who want to learn about calligraphy aren't necessarily the same people who might be inclined to buy them as part of a charity fund raiser - worth bearing in mind for the future - but nonetheless the talk was great and there were loads of questions.  

Also, Rinpoche has actually found a way to raise the funds for Drala Jong.

He explained that the last time he attempted to use calligraphies for fund raising was in about 1989, when Chhi'med Rig'dzin Rinpoche was visiting Britain, and had terrible toothache.  The dental work required was going to cost £400, but Ngak'chang Rinpoche didn't have the money to give him.  Instead he came up with the idea that he might draw calligraphy circles for Chhi'med Rig'dzin Rinpoche might write interesting things on, which could then be sold.  In the end they sold for £800 (£1,700 in today's money) - covering the expenses and also a donation to Chhi'med Rig'dzin Rinpoche.  At the end of it, Ngak'chang Rinpoche was able to keep just one of those calligraphies, for his toils.  Rinpoche would be loathe to lose that work, but has said that for a good cause (the best of Nyingma causes) he would part with it.  For £500,000.  So, if you would like to own the last surviving piece of cooperative calligraphic art by Ngak'chang Rinpoche and his root teacher Chhi'med Rig'dzin Rinpoche, bids start at half a million pounds. . .

. . . or if that isn't quite what you and your bank manager had in mind, why not buy a t-shirt (above).

Sunday 20 November 2011

Calligraphies - the Scorpion Seal

With the work of Ngak'chang Rinpoche, the calligraphy is not simply a brush-and-ink drawing.  Each piece carries seals and signatures, in unique combinations.  The most easily recognisable perhaps is the seal of scorpion is found in Tibetan calligraphy on the works of both Trungpa Rinpoche (see here) and some of the work of Ngak'chang Rinpoche.  Robert Beer describes the 'black Indian scorpion [as] a potent symbol of destructive malice' but of course within Buddhist Vajrayana the scorpion (Tib. sdig-pa) symbol is a transformative one, and Ngak'chang Rinpoche writes:

'The seal stamped in black is the scorpion which is used as the symbol of the Tantrika. The scorpion is symbolic of the power of transformation as the scorpion is known as the most dangerous and destructive creature. Because every aspect of duality—no matter how viciously deranged—remains undivided from the nondual state, even the most horrific states of mind can be transformed.'

In fact, the Tantric community of ngakpas and ngakmas, naljorpas and naljormas (collectively called the go-kar-chang-lo'i-de), owe the continuity of their tradition to the power of the scorpion, as this famous tale reveals:

'When in the ninth century, King Langdarma and his hostile ministers set about to suppress the Indian Buddhist teachings and to close the Buddhist monasteries such as Samye, he summoned the Tantric master Nubchen Sangye Yeshe and his disciples into his presence, although all of them were not Buddhist monks but rather Tantrikas (sngags-pa). The arrogant king challenged Nubchen, inquiring, "And what power do you have?"  "Just observe the power I can manifest merely from the reciting of mantras!" Nubchen replied and raised his right hand in the threatening gesture of tarjini-mudra.

Instantly, in the sky above the Tantric sorcerer, the king saw nine giant scorpions appear, each the size of a wild yak. The king was terrified at this vision. So he promptly promised not to harm the white-robbed Buddhist Tantrikas and to refrain from disrobing and exiling them as he had done with the maroon-robbed Buddhist monks. Then Nubchen pointed again into the sky with a threatening gesture, and lightning flashed from heaven, shattering into pieces a nearby boulder.

Doubly terrified, the king vowed, "I will not in any way harm you or your white-robed followers!" and he ordered that his prisoners be released. because of the mighty magical powers of this Tantrika Nubchen, the anti-Buddhist king could not destroy the esoteric teachings of the Mahayoga Tantras nor their white-robbed practitioners, the Ngakpas (sngags-pa, one who uses mantras.) Subsequently, this Tantric Order of Nyingmapa Buddhists has flourished among the Tibetans until this day.'

(From The Golden Letters - John Myrddin Reynolds)

In fact Padmasambhava himself is described as receiving the transmission of phurba practice - a practice almost synonymous with the go-kar-chang-lo'i-de - via the medium of 'a gigantic scorpion with nine heads, eighteen pincers and twenty seven eyes' which unearthed the phurba gterma - the heads of the scorpion being symbolic of the nine vehicles of the Nyingma Buddhist tradition, and the scorpion's sting equated with the tip of the phurba itself.

Ngak'chang Rinpoche reserves the scorpion stamp for the most dramatic and dynamic calligraphies he creates.  There will be an opportunity to ask about this and the other seals used in the creation of calligraphies at the talk on Friday 25th November, at Aro Ling in Bristol.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Tibetan Calligraphy

As next Friday's charity calligraphy sale at Aro Ling approaches, our thoughts are turning to focus fully on this modern art form (and of course to the sale itself).  Written words are sacred in Tibet because they carry the knowledge of liberation.  The scripts Ngak'chang Rinpoche uses are u'med and u-chen, and originate in part from the ancient script Lha-bab-yig-ge - meaning 'script symbols from the sky expanse'.

Trungpa Rinpoche is credited with being the first Tibetan Lama to work with calligraphy in this spontaneous style.  Examples of his work are relatively hard to come by but some examples can be found on the internet. 

Trungpa Rinpoche worked with both Tibetan and English script, as you can see here:

The second is from the weblink above, and is from Trungpa Rinpoche's Elegance series - titled 'Elegance overcomes aggression'.  His works are in the stewardship of the Shambhala organisation, but alas he passed away in 1987. His direct line of work did not end however, and is continued through the Sakyong.

Tai Situ Rinpoche also known to work with calligraphy and can be seen in the above clip, but the pool of artists working in this way within Buddhist Vajrayana is limited at present, and the art form in this context is in its infancy.. 

I myself have never even attempted to create a calligraphy. However it is still possible even for an ignoramus like me to be  appreciate the variety of approaches that can be seen in this clip. Even in the brief video here one can see themes reflected in the work of Ngak'chang Rinpoche and his students. I am particularly fascinated by the different effects that can be created, the different brushes, and even something so simple as seeing the different ways of holding the brush.  Next Friday Ngak'chang Rinpoche will be talking about some of these different approaches, stylistics, and in particular his own approach.  There will be ample opportunity to ask about the how- and why- of brush type, choice of ink, brush loading, the choice of paper, as well as the meaning of the calligraphies themselves, the ink spots and the seals and signatures that each work bears.

I look forward to seeing you there!

Saturday 12 November 2011

Mad as a snake

Well, things are building up nicely to the next main fundraising event on Friday 25th November at Aro Ling.

The calligraphies have arrived for the exhibition, talk and sale in a fortnight's time.  There are 15 different calligraphies, each of which has been specially commissioned in support of the fund raising appeal, as well as a set of 5 calligraphies of the syllable Hung.  Several of the sangha were here at our place last night, and the desire-to-acquire inspired.  In fact early pledges to support this fund raiser mean that at least 4 calligraphies will sell within moments of the doors of Aro Ling opening on the 25th - all from admirer's of Ngak'chang Rinpoche's art, and the Drala Jong project as a whole.  This means the day has paid all its costs and is already £150 to the good even before the exhibition starts.  Over all we hope to raise £6,000 from this fund raiser - and in the process we aim to give pleasure to all who come to the free talk and display (recommended donation £5 - all proceeds to the appeal. . .).

On the day we'll also have copies of the yojohnnycowpunk CD on sale, which has already raised £80 at time of writing, and also several select Raechel's Risible Rabbits items, which has also raised about twice that amount - both since last weekend alone.  Lama Bar-ché Dorje, who is just starting to learn the art of calligraphy, has also donated some of his early small scale practice pieces (which read 'Gar-tak') on offer for a mere £20 each, so there will be an opportunity for everyone to fully satisfy their acquisitive inclinations on the day, regardless of the depths of their pockets.

All told, this means year to date in 2011 we've raised nearly £4,000 for the appeal, most of which has come since we tickled this Blog into life a few months ago.  Will we make five figures, by the end of the year?  We shall see.

Of course the kindness of donors and fund raisers, large and small, is impossible to repay - whether for the Drala Jong project, supporting the existing Aro Ling centre, or any of the other works of our charity Sang-ngak-chö-dzong.  Still, I wonder what HH Dud'jom Rinpoche (who directed the creation of the charity) or Kyabjé Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche (who directed us to establish a retreat centre) would have said if they had heard of Naljorma Rin'dzin 'Mad as a snake' Pamo's efforts, running the Bristol Green Man Marathon (check this link as it has footage of the inestimable Chris Bloor on it) ALL FORTY FIVE MILES OF IT.  Indeed as well as qualifying as a woodwose (and would a wose by any other name smell as sweet?) Rin'dzin win's this Blog's entirely unofficial mad-as-a-snake award for not only running the whole marathon (and raising over £1,000 for the Aro Ling centre as a result) but actually stopping near the end and running back a couple of miles before re-running the same leg of the trip.  She is the only person we know of to run 48.6 miles of a 45 mile run.  Actually, she likes to pretend that she dropped her phone on the route and went back for it, but we know truthfully that 45 miles just wasn't tough enough for that Pamo.

That feat (and those feet) is of course remarkable - but any and all fund raising is remarkable.  If, like Rig'dzin Palden Tashi, we could find just 1,900 remarkable dagger wielding fund raisers, and they raised just £222 each, we'd be able to establish Drala Jong.  Small is beautiful, and anyone, regardless of their knowledge, experience, and personal bank balance can make a difference.  From selling  unwanted books on Amazon, to donating art works and music for sale, to garage sales, to sponsored runs, sponsored sits, promise auctions, or just tapping up friends to give a contribution (how about 22 friends to give a tenner each) we can and we shall establish Drala Jong. 

All we need to do is think positive.  If you think that Drala Jong will be there, it will be there

Just avoid the negative waves, that's my advice. And I have a friend who tends to agree.. . .

So, on that note - how about working out how to raise £222.  Think you can do it?  I do.

All the best


Monday 7 November 2011

Ræchel's Ridiculously Risible Rabbits

As there are only 47 shopping days until Christmas - if you are considering buying presents ~ or know someone who might be ~ you might like to look at Ræchel's Ridiculously Risible Rabbits

All profits from the sales of Ræchel's Ridiculously Risible rabbits calendars and artwork will go towards the Drala Jong Retreat centre appeal. These delightful images were created by Ræchel Togden (age 8)

The Risible Rabbits Calendar can be obtained from : http://www.lulu.com/product/calendar/rćchels-ridiculously-risible-rabbits-calendar-2012/18549035

You can also obtain mugs, postcards and posters from the art shop: (in many different countries!): http://www.zazzle.co.uk/arobooksworldwide, http://www.zazzle.com/arobooksworldwide, ... and many other places besides. Calendars and mugs soon available in Aro Ling, Bristol http://aro-ling.org/


Sunday 6 November 2011

Drala Jong Radio presents yojohnnycowpunk

Forget J-Lo we've got that 'yojo' mojo here at Drala Jong Radio.  yojohnnycowpunk has been good enough to donate some CDs for sale by the Drala Jong appeal.

yojohnnycowpunk's page on Who's who reads: 'Ever since yojohnnycowpunk was a young boy playing air guitar in front of his bedroom mirror surrounded by the sounds, pictures and slabs of vinyl of his musical heroes, he dreamt of releasing a notable recording of his own songs. Something that he could hold in his hands and feel proud of. Although he couldn't at that point even play a real guitar, hero worship and adulation seemed just a step away. Fast forward 20 years through a deep and unremitting love-affair with the guitar that survived near-digit amputation and a long stint on the road with no money and no 6-stringed friend, the debut and self-titled yojohnnycowpunk album hits the streets to wild and unrestrained enthusiasm from a tiny pocket of family, friends and pets. 10 tracks of unique cowpunk tunes full of love mayhem and samsaric madness.'

The recommended donation is £9.99 - but I'm afraid the CDs are only ENTIRELY EXCELLENT IN ALL RESPECTS so we are willing to force ourselves to accept donations of up to £999.

Send Paypal donations to sncd.treasurer@gmail.com and mark them 'yojohnnycowpunk' and we'll be in touch to arrange mailing you a copy.

Am I partisan - well, yes I am.  Am I feeling particularly mercenary this morning -  well, yes I am indeed.  So, for those of you who trust me not one whit (and why wouldn't that be you) try this:

Or, if that's not enough for you, how about a bit of this instead, for a change of tempo (and yes, that's YOU he's singing about - so presumably that's you singing back to him.  Nice voice):

Saturday 22 October 2011

Ngak'chang Rinpoche's calligraphy

Ngak’chang Rinpoche (pictured above with Khandro Déchen his wife and two children Robert and Raechel) is a Lama of the Nyingma Tradition within Vajrayana Buddhism. Born in 1952 in Hannover Germany—of an English father and German mother—he is the great grand-nephew of Franz Schubert. He was raised in England—attended Farnham Art School—and later Bristol Art School, where he gained a first class honours degree in Illustration (Fine Art painting and print making).  Subsequent to receiving his BA degree in 1975 he spent the next eleven years travelling and studying in India and Nepal, where he studied thangka painting, and calligraphy – as part of the Lama’s training (study, practise, and retreat) he commenced with Kyabjé Düd’jom Rinpoche in 1971 during a sabbatical  year from Art School. 
Written words are sacred in Tibet, because the carry the knowledge of liberation. The scripts Rinpoche uses are called u-chen and u’mèd – and they originate in part from the ancient script: Lha-bab yig-gé, meaning: script-symbols from the sky-expanse. The calligraphic form of these ‘sky signatures’ are thus both ancient and contemporary. Their spontaneous style was first evolved by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche from the influence of his friendship with the Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Variants of this style were later taken up by Ta’i Situ Rinpoche and other Lamas.
Spontaneous calligraphy is new to the Tibetan tradition – and as yet has no established form. Each Lama works individually. Rinpoche uses a variety of turnip-shaped Japanese brush which holds a considerable quantity of shellac based Indian Ink.  The line produced by these brushes can vary from a hair’s breadth to two inches in width, according to the pressure exerted – and Rinpoche often uses the full range of possible widths within a single calligraphy – the result being a startling dance of chaos and precision. Rinpoche simmers Indian ink over a gentle flame to reduce its water content – thereby increasing the density of the ink. This gives an unusual crispness and shine to the calligraphies – reminiscent of thermographic images, in which resin is employed to produce a raised surface in the printing process.
Rinpoche uses a ‘heavily loaded brush’ rather than the ‘dry brush’ of the Chinese and Japanese styles. Due to the speed at which the calligraphies are executed, erratic ink droplets explode onto the paper. This causes the ‘splatters’ by which Rinpoche’s calligraphies have become known. The splatters—due to that viscosity of the ink—settle in dramatic patterns on most of his calligraphies.
Rinpoche uses two types of paper - hand-made rag paper from Sikkim and Tibetan birch-bark paper.
The hand-made rag paper has various unusual qualities. Being inconsistently absorbent / non-absorbent it is unpredictable in use. The paper Rinpoche employs is pressed between thread-bare blankets and therefore not always available – as blankets are now more frequently replaced.   He sometimes has to wait a few years before new supplies of the ‘inferior quality paper’ becomes available – and then has to take whatever is available.  The process of pressing between thread bare blankets gives each sheet a unique texture - the roughness of the warp and weft break the edge of brush strokes allowing tremendous variation in character of each sky signature. Sometimes smooth spots occur where holes occur in the blankets and where these are found, Rinpoche employs them as part of the calligraphy. 
Tibetan birch-bark type is rougher, has visual characteristics, and is absorbent. A more sparsely loaded is therefore employed.  The paper from Sikkim results in more starkly dynamic appearance and the Tibetan paper results is more wistful æthereal appearance.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche is also skilled at a range of other art forms, including poetry, musical performance and creation (most especially the electric bass, electric and acoustic guitar, blues harp and blues vocals, along with being a lyricist), gar cham (vajrayana Buddhist dance) and traditional thangka painting, which he also teaches.

Saturday 15 October 2011

Sky signatures

We are delighted that Aro Ling Buddhist Centre (in Bristol, Great Britain) will be hosting a display of calligraphies by Ngak'chang Rinpoche on November 25th (start 7.30pm). The evening which will consist of a talk about 'sky signatures' and opportunity to purchase a calligraphy. All proceeds raised will go towards the Drala Jong Retreat Centre appeal.

All of the calligraphies on display have been created specifically for this event by Ngak’chang Rinpoche. Each is a unique piece, and no copies or prints have been taken of the works which are being displayed this evening.‘A sky signature is the ‘sky’, signing itself, within itself and out of itself.

"The ‘sky of one's Being’ can ‘sign itself’ in its own dimension – for this to come about however, the experience of Mind must be identified with the sky; an expanse without limit. The nature of Mind is like the sky. Ideas and images that arise within it, are like clouds. Clouds appear and disappear, but the nature of the sky is unchanged. When a calligraphy can arise as freely as the play of clouds, then the sky of one’s being has signed its signature."  - Ngakchang Rinpoche

In forthcoming posts on this blog we will look at further details of this beautiful art form.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Change is now overdue - (Interview - final part)

Q: Rinpoche - can you talk a little about students in the context of personal retreat? In the Drala Jong brochure we describe the aspiration to build a dratsang. I understand this translates as ‘tantric college’.

NCR: With a residential retreat centre we’d have a larger library. We would concentrate on developing that library, in order to support study as a part of the retreat experience. This would enable people to integrate study into personal retreat. We have the beginnings of a library at Aro Ling but there is so much more scope for development.

Q: I know that you received a ‘classical’ training with various Lamas of different traditions, in terms of study of madhyamaka philosophy and so on. I’m not asking about madhyamaka specifically, but do you have any concept of a more formalised, classical, even academically developed training programme for apprentices or teachers?

NCR: Well, one of the problems—and it will always be a problem—is that there has been no concerted effort with the publication of books in English to cover all fields of study. As a result, the study of Dharma means having to study and read whatever you can find. Back in the 1970s and 1980s one would simply read everything that was available—regardless of school or origin—because the overall corpus of material was so limited. In recent years however sufficient Nyingma material has become available – sufficient to last many years of study. However, there is still insufficient material concerning essential-vajrayana. This is why Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche forms a part of the core curriculum in our tradition – as well as Namkha’i Norbu.

Q: Would there ever be a place for things like essay writing, and examination?

NCR: We used to ask people to write essays – but we no longer have the time to give such essays the attention they deserve. It would be good if the senior ordained could gradually take on that kind of rôle. We have so many commitments now that we don’t have time to directly oversee that kind of activity without a retreat centre. As a result, study is currently a random procedure. We would like to encourage people to study, practise, and write.

Q: Is authentic Vajrayana possible without a residential centre – for anyone? Is that residential aspect vital?

NCR: Well certainly it’s possible to experience and practise authentic Vajrayana without there being a residential centre – but there has to be a way to get a handle on Vajrayana. There has to be somewhere to learn Vajrayana. You need a way in. Commonly—having a centre—enables people to know where you are, where they can find Vajrayana. Aro Ling starts to provide this help – because it can be a doorway, an entry point for people. Then, if they find value in what they are experiencing, they will recognise the value in establishing Drala Jong as a residential retreat centre. The two should complement one another.

Q: Some of what you’ve said—with regard to Henry Cow and Captain Beefheart—reminds me of the story of Joshua Bell, the world famous violinist. He once busked outside a subway station dressed in ordinary street clothes. No one stopped to listen – because they didn’t know who he was and didn’t understand what they were hearing. Only a child stopped a listened for any length of time – because he didn’t have the preconceptions around what he was hearing. For the child it wasn’t just busking, it was amazing, remarkable music. That’s why the child stopped – but the adults all had other agendas. If they’d been in a concert hall however, they would have seen the same man—and heard the same music—and been entranced.

KD: Yes . . . That is why we need a centre. We need a centre so we can be understood in a context where we can present Vajrayana.

NCR: Then maybe—from time to time—we can hire a dingy bedsit in Splott and teach Dzogchen men-ngag-dé to the one person who shows up. You see . . . it’s important to understand that Khandro Déchen and I are not ‘that which is proclaimed by the residential centre’ – it’s Vajrayana and more particularly the essential-vajrayana of the Aro gTér that would be proclaimed. We’re neither here nor there. The essential-vajrayana of the Aro gTér is what people need to discover – whether through us or someone else. We just happen to be the current lineage holders. There’s nothing special about us – or if there is it only resides in what we have the honour to teach. So the residential centre is the vehicle by which the essential-vajrayana of the Aro gTér can become known to more people who could benefit from it. For us it is important that Vajrayana can be incorporated into western society – and that cannot happen ’til such time as Vajrayana can be understood in terms of its essence. We have no desire to ‘westernise’ Vajrayana – that will happen over the course of the next millennium. Our concern is to make Vajrayana practical. At the moment Vajrayana tends to be the esoteric interest of a minority, who tend not to live in the mainstream of society. Some say that Vajrayana can never be mainstream – but we see no absolute reason why that should be the case. We have written half a dozen books which illustrate the way in which Vajrayana could be at the heart of everyday life – we simply need to be able to make this information more widely accessible.

KD: We used to joke that we were the ‘Tibetan Tantric Periphery’ because we had no centre. That model made some sense when we were a small sangha – but now not having a centre is a substantial inhibiting factor. Collectively, it costs people considerable sums of money to gather together. So, hiring places is no longer financially practical.

NCR: It’s no longer physically practical either. I’m schlepping too much now for my age. I can still lift an 80 LB suitcase – but throwing it up into the roof box on the car is becoming less and less possible. Khandro Déchen cannot help me with that because her back is not in the best shape.

KD: 15 years ago we reached a point before when we could no longer use peoples’ homes for our retreats. We had to start hiring venues. That was seen as something of a huge step and apprentices were quite worried about it. Now it the taken for granted as essential. Now we’ve reached the next transition point – or rather, we reached it a few years back. A residential centre is becoming a necessity not a choice. In the past we have been averse to saying too much or moving things too quickly – because we have no sense of ‘ambition’ in what we do. Now we have reached the next transition point however, a residential centre is not something merely to be desired as ‘the next stage of development’. It is now a pressing need for change – and that change is now overdue.

Saturday 17 September 2011

No More Songs? (Interview - Part IV)

Q: Rinpoche, I hate to ask this question – as I suspect I know your answer . . . and it might upset some people. Drala Jong is intended to establish the lineage for future generations . . . If you don’t wish to answer I’ll understand – but do you think that the Aro gTér Tradition will survive after your death if we don’t manage to build Drala Jong in the next few years?

NCR: No . . .

KD: You’ve said that before, when asked. . .

NCR: Yes. This is a difficult question to answer. I really don’t like to give this answer – because I don’t like the answer. But I can’t see any way around it. If you subtract Khandro Déchen and myself from the equation – there would need to be a building. If we’re no longer living it would be difficult for lineage to maintain cohesion. Without a physical structure—a location which provided a focal point for all the brevet lamas and their sanghas—there would be something of a lack of cohesion. Something might survive – but not the lineage as a whole.

Q1: I suppose as students we always pushed your death into the future. . .

NCR: Well, I’m definitely getting older. In the last couple of years I’ve had to say ‘You know, I’m definitely not young any more.’ That’s the past. I’m actually getting old. I’m more easily tired. It’s not a problem – but it’s a fact.

Q: I’m aware of this at the moment, because my own father is 65 this year and is going in for heart surgery . . .

NCR: 6 years older than me . . . Mmmm . . . My father was 5 foot 2, 16 stone, and died at 76. Maybe I’ve got longer than I think . . .

KD: Rinpoche’s blood pressure is good . . . but everyone is on the slippery slope by virtue of having a human body. Look at those poor people in Norway who were murdered by that psychopath. They were on the slope but didn’t know.

NCR: Perhaps I might stretch it to 30 years, who knows – but travel would definitely shorten my life so I’m looking to cut down on travel in the future.

KD: Travel certainly shortened Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche’s life.

NCR: Yes . . . he did travel ’til the end – but even he had to change his schedule in order to stay in one place for 6 months at a time.

KD: I think if you had asked us that ten or twenty years ago we would have given a different answer. I think Aro Ling has taught us something about what is possible – and what is needed in terms of teaching. The importance of having a residential centre has also become paramount because of Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche’s advice.

NCR: That is probably the central, pivotal and crucial statement. Künzang Dorje Rinpoche’s advice was given for two reasons. The first concerns liberation and creating optimal circumstances. The second is based on the recognition of what ‘samsara’ is. From the perspective of Dharma—the liberated viewpoint—the benefit to having a centre is the ability to be able to concentrate efforts – to: house special lineal objects; create supports for Dharma and store them; preserve ancient artefacts; and, collect and index records of the teachings. A residential centre can be a vast repository. From the perspective of ‘samsara’ – if one wishes to ‘make the thing work’, people have to see it. In the common run of things—according to the dictates of society—people have to see what we’re doing as something serious. The press needs to be impressed if they are to write accounts of our work. People want to go to a place that looks as if it represents something cogent in the world. There are few who will go to a rented flat – to see a Lama, even a Tibetan Lama. From the perspective of Dzogchen it makes no difference – but Dzogchen is the goal, rather than the state of societal consciousness. I shall give an example from my own experience. In the 1970s I went to a Captain Beefheart concert. The supporting band was Henry Cow – and I found them entirely marvellous. The audience however were unconscionably rude. They talked and walked around – almost complete ignoring the music. I had to concentrate in order to screen out the disturbance in order to hear Henry Cow. Then Captain Beefheart walked on stage. Now I must say that I am an admirer of Captain Beefheart – but on this occasion he gave a poor performance. He treated the audience as poorly as the audience had treated Henry Cow. I only considered later that he might have acted in this way deliberately to make a point – but what he did was to sit half off stage and drink beers when he wasn’t singing. The audience however seemed universally enraptured.

KD: Because Captain Beefheart was famous and Henry Cow wasn’t.

Q: So we’re Henry Cow and the centre is Captain Beefheart.

KD: That is how it works with samsara. We can laugh about it and ridicule it – but it’s the everyday reality. Of course that ridiculous societal scenario creates opportunities for people to see through the illusion of what is worthwhile and what is not worthwhile. Künzang Dorje Rinpoche recognised this samsaric aspect – and said “Most Tibetans are like this too. They think that if someone has a big gompa they must be an important Lama!”

NCR: Künzang Dorje Rinpoche never had a centre – but he lived in a culture where he was recognised by the highest dignitaries. Many people sought him out – but he accepted very few as disciples. We don’t have that culture in the West. Künzang Dorje Rinpoche recognised our culture and our cultural needs – where a centre is needed. Without it we’re fly-by-nights. We’re insubstantial even though we have been teaching for 30 years.

KD: We have to acknowledge that if people go to a centre and sit there as 1 of 100 in an audience – it’s more impressive than being 1 of 10. It’s important to have a centre because people need to have something to rely upon as concrete. There is no point in saying it shouldn’t be that way - and that therefore we shouldn’t do it. Life simply isn’t like that. Most people wish to be enthused and excited by something.

NCR: I didn’t go to see Henry Cow. I went to see Captain Beefheart – but I ended up preferring Henry Cow. Without Captain Beefheart however – I would possibly never have heard of Henry Cow.

KD: Some people find—after the excitement wears off—that they come away empty-handed. Or . . . they recognise to some degree they’ve come to be interested for reasons other than excitement. They find value from practice – so it’s not—all—bad.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

'Unless you are an imbecile. . .' (Drala Jong Interview - Part III)

Q: What sort of location do you have in mind?

KD: It depends on how much money we raise. It depends on many factors. It would be wonderful . . . perhaps . . . to have a cliff-top hotel . . . Housell Bay Hotel on the Lizard Peninsula . . . It has a private beech – that would be grand. That’s a place we used to frequent some years ago.

Q: So do you have a particular part of the country in mind? Should it be a coastal location?

NCR: Anywhere in striking distance of motorways form London so that people from other countries could find their ways there without undue difficulty. We would probably think of South Wales.

Q: You touch on an interesting point here, Rinpoche - we have an international sangha, but whenever you’ve spoken of it Drala Jong has been planned to be based in Britain. How will Drala Jong make a difference for people who live outside of Britain?

NCR: It will make more difference as I get older and cannot travel as much. I’d say that’s perhaps 10 years away. Travel takes its toll I’m afraid . . . I will be 60 next year . . . and there is a limit to how long I can throw 80lb suitcases into the roof box of our car. Unless we had millions and could have a centre in every country, we would be looking to have a centre somewhere. We would necessarily have to choose one where we live. Even if we didn’t have a centre, my travel arrangements will become increasingly restricted. In fact people within the sanghas do travel great distances to attend events with other apprentices. Having our own place means we can engineer things to make it easier for foreign apprentices to come here, by giving them concessions on distance travelled.

KD: But I guess it won’t mean as much to the Americans as to the European sanghas, simply because of distance – although it really depends a lot on the individual and what they perceive as important. We don’t live in America—and cannot do so—so the retreat centre cannot be there in the final analysis.

NCR: Even if it was in America it would have to be on the east coast or west coast – and that would create the same problem. Montana wouldn’t work as a central place because of the cost of travel to get there. . .

KD: We have a fragmented sangha in terms of geography, because Rinpoche always goes wherever he’s asked. It will have to work differently for different people. When we know the specifics of the venue we can acquire, we’ll be able to work out how best to make that accessible for people.

Q: I’d like to ask about how Drala Jong ‘fits’ with Aro Ling? We do have a city centre non-residential venue in Bristol – Aro Ling. Why is residential retreat so important; what difference does it make having a residential venue?

KD: It makes a huge deal of difference in terms of the 5 certainties being present. There’s just something about having to leave home and go to a different place. You pack your case – and then only have what you have. You go to a place and there is a certain sense in which you’re committed. You could leave or walk out on a residential event – but it’s only happened once in 30 years. So when you’re there, you’re there – because you’ve made the commitment to be there.

NCR: Unless you’re an imbecile you’re going to make the most of it. If you take the time and trouble to go to the cinema you normally stay to see the thing out. If you hire a DVD you might quit after 5 minutes because you’re at home. So because you’ve taken the trouble to get there you’re going to participate. And you’re also going to eat, sleep and defecate there.

KD: You get up in the morning, you practise, there’s breakfast, when you’re able to talk to people in a way you wouldn’t in a non-residential setting – because you’re there. In a non-residential setting people go off for lunch in small groups to cafés and so on. People don’t mix the same way. They don’t talk the same way. It’s more disparate. If you are dropping in and out of the venue through the weekend – you go home for the evening. You can watch television—you can check your email—you’ve left the retreat. A non-residential retreat is a constrained space. It’s different – but only as different as what’s immediately outside the door. On a residential retreat there are many different places to meet and chat with others. You can go for a walk – down a country road, or in the woods. At a non-residential city centre venue once you’re in the street – you’ve left the retreat. On a residential retreat people don’t leave or change environment – and in that way they get the most out of the experience of being there.

NCR: Also . . . a residential retreat allows more time. The teaching can be given in a more leisurely manner – with time for practice. On a non-residential retreat, incorporating too much meditation seems vaguely felonious . . . The attendees’ time is constrained, so we tend to talk at them most of the time. As a result, they can receive a barrage of teaching that may be hard to digest. On a residential retreat we can intersperse periods of silent sitting – and that radically changes the manner in which people understand.

KD: Then, people talk over meals. They interact – and that gives a chance for the teachings to percolate.

Friday 12 August 2011

Almost entirely unlike being a snail

The thing about setting up residential retreats, is that it is almost entirely unlike being a snail.

What we do - what we did this last week - was uplift part of our 'home' and take it to some rented venue. This shot of Sonam and Simon's Wedding Blessing shows a hint of what we can achieve in our current nomadic mode. Thangkas depicting the Eight Manifestations of Padmasambhava can be seen on the walls here, according to the Dud'jom gTér, which help transform the room we use as a shrine room.

However to give a sense of the amount of artefacts we would like to have on permanent display, our lineage Lamas alone transport two 50kg suitcases of objects from their home in Penarth. This includes robes, instruments and lineage treasures.

The thangkas come from Aro Ling in Bristol, along with statues and other shrine objects. When there is an ordination - as there was on this retreat - the full array of Vajra Weapons are taken to the event, and in this case that is sufficient to fill the back of a regular family car.

And it is not just the transportation that presents challenges. The room you see here is actually a living room in a rented property. It takes a team of eight people a good couple of hours to clear the room of furniture and artworks, and secure them safely, to then set up the shrine accordingly. Again at the end of the event a similar amount of time and energy is spent putting things right. Unlike a snail, we can leave no trail that we were present, because later that same day some other good folk will be using the space for their own purposes. Obviously it can be quicker if there are more people but it is not just about schlepping stuff around the country

- if we were to just run a weekend retreat, a good half day could easily be spent in setting up and taking down the shrine room alone - eating into time for teaching and study
- the amount of handling of these items results in damage, requiring repair and attention - consuming time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere
- the array of practice equipment and inspirational artefacts on display is limited by the amount of spare luggage space we have in vehicles, which means not everything is always available to hand, constraining spontaneity and opportunity
- in fact, in effect for a 30-person event we have at least one full vehicle equivalent just transporting stuff to the event. Hardly economically or environmentally sensible

So - we've gotta stop being so unsnail-like - just on a pragmatic basis.

Sunday 31 July 2011

Drala Jong will be a creative space

Drala Jong is intended to be a space supportive of creativity and invention. With that in mind, I thought (albeit somewhat self indulgently) to post the first piece of creative narration by my son who is 4 - as relayed by his nursery teachers.

I went with mummy and daddy, we flew like dragons to the castle. I saw a green dragonfly. There were 3 dinosaurs in the castle, they were big and tried to eat us with their big jaws. They had chips with tomato sauce.

Then we went to my house and played with my toys.

And I think we can all learn something from that. . .

Friday 29 July 2011

Humble Beginnings

Looks like Kate Humble thinks Drala Jong is such a good idea she is going to copy it (sort of!): www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-w​ales-south-east-wales-14330147. Nice to see support for rural skills from some imaginative councillors and a TV celeb! It is interesting to read the headline that Kate and her husband are looking to invest around £500,000 in the project - as that coincidentally is how much we are looking for to establish Drala Jong on a firm footing.

The local press have presented the idea as being like 'Monmouthshire's answer to River Cottage'. They appear to have missed the fact though that River Cottage has gone through some shaky times recently, including job losses. Whilst local, rural, green, organic matters are still fashionable, that doesn't necessarily mean they are automatically sustainable on a financial front - even when there is a celebrity (be it Hugh Fernley Whittingstall, or Kate Humble) heading up the operation. It's going to be interesting watching how how Kate Humble's project develops over coming months. I certainly plan to pay a visit once the doors open and see what we can learn that can be applied back into Drala Jong - just as we did down at River Cottage HQ in Dorset.

BTW The Forest of Dean Review (yes, THE Forest of Dean Review) has their own article here:

The Drala Jong Interview - Part II

Q: What sorts of teachings would a residential centre allow – would there be something new that isn’t currently possible to teach to the public at present?

NCR: It is not so much about providing something new, as being something that gives enough time for certain practices. There are things you cannot teach in an evening, or day – or even over a weekend. gCod, for example, needs an extra full day dedicated to the teaching – beyond a single weekend – and hence there have hardly ever been the right circumstances where I’ve been able to teach that.

There is also the issue of giving the best opportunity to get something from a practice – of being able to have the chance to practise together, for a sustained period of time. On a residential retreat, after an evening empowerment for example, everyone practises together at the end of the dBang. Then they go to sleep in their rooms – without leaving the space in which the empowerment was given. When we wake on residential retreats we remain in silence and then practise together before having breakfast as a group. There is continuity there. On a non-residential event, after the dBang people go out into a high street, and are faced with – the bus ride, the drunk in the street – or whatever. Not that this should make a difference, but if you don’t get the chance for that intensity of practice it can be more challenging.

Q: And how about teachings for apprentices and disciples, like the moving element practices?

NCR: Certainly yes – there can be longer retreats. What I envisage in the end is a summer encampment every year that lasts for maybe a month. All the Lamas of the Aro Tradition would come and teach. Students from all the sanghas would be able to attend, and people could elect to attend sections of it. It would also be especially good for things like the vajra dances, because you need time for that. For example we’ve been teaching the Vulture Dances for years, in tiny blocks. We can teach parts over the years, but you need time and space to do that, otherwise each time you gather again to learn something new, you have to revisit what has been learned before. There is limited time available to add to what is known.

There are also larger scale projects like the creation of appliqué thangkas, or monumental phurbas. Appliqué is best made all at once, and not left hanging around – well not until the thangka has been completed anyway [laughs].

Q: Do you have any sense about what Drala Jong would ideally be like?

NCR: Well, it would be nothing like a hippo [laughs]. I suppose my ideal place would be something that would lend itself to our own work. It can’t afford to be too big for cost reasons, but it needs to be expandable. There was a farm near Llantrisant in South Wales that we used for a while. It had a whole space the owner didn’t use; the attic was the entire extent of the house and was suitable for a shrine room. It also had a lot of outhouses – one of these sprawling Welsh farms, that stretched all over the place. And somewhere with a bit of its own land which it would be possible to stretch using tents, and yurts. There were all sorts of wonderful semi-permanent structures at Pennant Valley where we used to hold the summer yogic encampment retreats. It needs to be a little bit elastic like that.

It would be lovely if it had some woodlands and fields for the outdoor practices we have. It would be really great if it had one of these long rambling drives, so you were a decent distance from other people and didn’t have to worry about disturbing the neighbours.

Sunday 24 July 2011

The Drala Jong Interview - Part 1

Q: What will Drala Jong be used for?

Ngak’chang Chögyam Rinpoche [NCR]: Buddhism!

Q: [Laughs] Sorry, silly question. What I really meant was that we already hire venues for both non-residential, and residential retreats. Why is buying our own place better than hiring places?

NCR: Well, there’s simple pragmatics for a start. If we added up how much money we’d spent hiring venues – just paying someone else to use their space – over the years it would be a scary number. . .

Q: We spend £12,000 a year just for apprentice retreats in the UK, Rinpoche. . .

NCR: Whoa, so over the last ten years, with all the other venues too, that must be maybe £150,000 that we could have spent on our own space.

Well, aside from all the financial reasons the key thing is if you own a space you can actually create an environment. Given the limitations of hired venues, we’ve actually done well in the past doing this by creating something wherever we go. It starts with the clothes people wear – with people prioritising the yogic colours of red, white and blue – because this creates an atmosphere. The sangha has always been good at that. It creates a sense that people are doing something together, and creating something. This also includes the emphasis on people owning their own practice equipment. I’ve been to an awful lot of centres in the West where people have nothing that is theirs; perhaps that is because all their money is sunk into the costs of keeping the centre open! In our sangha, every apprentice has a shawl, bell and drum, and can have many other things too. It is great because what is owned becomes part of the environment. But still, with a hired place it is someone else’s place, and, well, in our current venue there is a bar at the other end of the main shrine room. Elsewhere there will be something else. We had a place once that had a wonderful space to use as a shrine room, with lovely light blue walls. Then one day the owners decided to get into organic paint, and they repainted it the colour of a discarded nappy – it was horrible. Wherever we go, the owners have to hire the space out to lots of other people, so the space is never designed for us. We make the best of what we can, but we could make so much more if it was our own place.

In terms of my memory of where I’ve lived in the past it doesn’t cost a lot to transform a place – such as painting a room the shrine room colours. It has always had a powerful effect to do this. From the very first time we created a shrine room in our home, every visitor has always been struck by it. Journalists are always stunned by the effect, and there have been articles about our shrine rooms in the British and Welsh press over the years. If you describe the colours we use it just sounds dreadful, but when people see it for the first time they say ‘You know this really works’. [You can see this style of shrine room at Aro Ling www.aro-ling.org/meditation-space.html.] And when you practise in such a space you find out it is supportive in its own right. I don’t particularly want to get esoteric about this, or fanciful, but people certainly get something from it. Our own shrine room colour scheme comes from Ögyen Tobgyal. He was Kyabjé Düd’jom Rinpoche thangka painter and is the source of this scheme. It was first used in the Ögyen Chöling Centre in London, and we’ve used it within the Aro Tradition ever since.

Of course we’ve got a fair few things to put into a shrine. Some are on display, for example at the Aro Ling centre, but others are stored because there is no space for them. In terms of thangkas alone we have enough to cover three times the amount of wall space we have at Aro Ling. And in terms of travelling to hired centres, we just can’t carry the amount of items we own to every residential retreat. We’d need one vehicle for the people, and another for the luggage. We’ve built up a lot over the years that could be placed in a permanent home, so many things that we’ve managed to save from being lost into private collections, or preserved, or commissioned from Nepalese craftsmen over the years.

In addition to the space itself, there is also the time that having our own space would free up. When you hire a place the cost is so great that you have to make full use of the time available for everyone who is there – there is never space and time to stay on an extra day and give interviews to people. We could just remain at our own place and have chats and give interviews to people at the end of an event – to be of value to those especially who have travelled a long way. People used to like that opportunity in the early days when we had retreats in private homes, and that was possible. The possibility is there also to be a lot more flexible such as having much longer retreats. . .

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Book Review - Planet as Self - An Earthen Spirituality

Sky McCain is a long-time supporter of the Drala Jong project. Later this year his work Planet as Self - An Earthen Spirituality will be launched.

Having had sight of a sneak preview of the text, herewith is a review of his work.

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One definition of stupidity is 'Doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting a different result'. Sky McCain explains how we participate in a form of cultural stupidity by believing that our thoughts and ideas about the planet upon which we live are truly our own. In reality - he demonstrates - they are the result of a philosophical shaping that has been driven for centuries by the thinkers and spiritual traditions that have come before us. In taking us through a literature review that spans more than two millenia of thought, Sky demonstrates that this process is a natural one - a cultural, societal process - yet one that can lead to the most unnatural of conclusions. The conclusions that we accept, unchallenged, have resulted in a disharmonious way of being - a dissonance - a persistent act of mass stupidity in which we all participate, that fails to appreciate the poetry of being. Recognising that we are unconscious slaves to the ideas of others is a vital first step if we are to break free of preconception, and develop a real, open, communicative relationship with the world around us and the very earth upon which we walk. As Sky puts it '. . . out-dated beliefs can linger. . . if they are not consciously examined'. Planet as Self makes that challenge, and suggests some steps that can be used to sustain that challenge and avoid falling back into inherited ways of thinking.

It is important to be clear - this is not a Buddhist book. The conclusions drawn from Sky's challenge lead him to what he describes as an Earthen Spirituality. Readers will find that spiritual view compelling - or not - depending on their personal proclivities and passions. However the deconstruction of the cultural processes that have driven our corrosive effect on the environment is something valuable for everyone to understand. The author's passion for his subject sings out of the pages.

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Planet as Self - An Earthen Spirituality is published by O-Books (http://www.o-books-com/) and will be out 27th January 2012. You can learn more on this subject at http://www.earthenspirituality.com/

Tuesday 28 June 2011

The Books are Closing on Question Time

Dear readers - thank you for your interest in Question Time with Ngak'chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen. We now have a range of questions to put to them on the subjects of Retreat and Retreat Centres in general, and Drala Jong in particular.

I'll be closing the books on questions by mid-July, and aim to have the interview conducted and up by the end of August - so - last chance to submit questions please.


Sunday 5 June 2011

Question Time

As part of trying to find ways for our donors and volunteers to participate fully in the life of the Drala Jong fundraising project, we'd like to invite your participation in a 'Question Time' session with our Spiritual Directors, the Lineage Holders of the Aro Tradition. We are currently formulating a list of questions to put to Ngak'chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen about their vision for Drala Jong, and why in particular they feel a Residential Retreat Centre is important in this age of web-courses, Skype transmissions and soundbite Dharma.

As well as providing further insight for Drala Jong supports, this will be of particular interest to those involved in the Aro Ling Centre in Bristol (www.aro-ling.org), as the interview provides an opportunity to explore how a street-front non-residential city centre venue fits with a rural seculed residential centre like Drala Jong.

If you have any questions please don't hesitate to get in touch.