Chogyal Namkhai Norbu examines the sprirtual path from the viewpoint of Dzogchen.
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My Birth, Early Life, and
Education; and How I Came to Meet
My Principal Master
From the very beginning
all the infinite number of beings that exist
have as their essential inherent condition
the perfectly pure state of an enlightened being;
knowing this to be true also of me,
I commit myself to supreme realization.
Lines on Bodhicitta, written by Longchenpa (1308-63),
expressing the concept of the Base in the Anuyoga
When I was born, in the village of Geug, in the Kongra districtof Derghe, eastern Tibet, in the tenth month of the year of theEarth Tiger (December 1938), it is said that the rose trees outsidemy parent's house bloomed even though it was winter. Twoof my uncles came at once to visit my family. They had beendisciples of a certain great master, Adzam Drugpa, who had diedsome years before, and they were both now Dzogchen mastersthemselves. They firmly believed that I was a reincarnation oftheir master, both because of things that he had said to thembefore he died, and because he had bequeathed certain specialpossessions to a son who he said would be born to my parentsafter his death. When I was two years old I was officiallyrecognized as a reincarnation by a high trulku of the Nyingmapaschool, who made me a gift of some robes. I don't remembermany of the details of what happened then, but I do know thatafter that I received an awful lot of presents!
Later, at the age of five, I was also recognized by the sixteenthKarmapa and by the Situ Rinpoche of that timeas the mindincarnation of another great master, who was in turn thereincarnation of the founder of the modern state of Bhutan,and whose lineage had been the Dharmarajas, or Chögyals,the temporal and spiritual rulers of that state, up until the earlytwentieth century. As I grew up, I was thus to be given quite afew names and titles, many of which are very long and grandsounding. But I have never used them, because I have alwayspreferred the name my parents gave me at birth. They calledme Namkhai Norbu, which is rather a special name in its ownway. Norbu means jewel, and Namkhai means of the sky, orof space. It's unusual for the genitive to be used in Tibetannames, but that's what my parents chose to call me because,although they had four fine daughters, they had been longingfor years to have a son.
So strong had been this longing, in fact, that they had engagedthe services of a monk to perform an invocation of Tara [seeillustration on p. 22] on their behalf for a whole year, asking forthe granting of their wish. This monk also became my sister'stutor. Eventually, he had a dream which he interpreted as afavorable sign. He dreamed that a beautiful plant grew up rightin front of the hearth of my parent's home. The plant put fortha beautiful yellow flower that opened and grew very big. Themonk was sure that this indicated the birth of a male child. Later,when I was born, my parents were so happy that they felt I wasa gift from the heavens. So they called me 'Jewel of Space', andthat is the name I have always stuck to.
My parents were always very kind to me, and I grew up intoa little boy as mischievous as any other, and learned to readand write at home. As a young child, I often dreamed I wastravelling at great speed inside what seemed to me to be a tiger,a strange roaring beast. I had never seen a motor vehicle, asthere were none at that time in our part of Tibet. Later, of course,I came to travel in many cars, and then I recognized them asbeing what I had seen in my dreams. When, as a teenager, I didcatch my first sight of a lorry, I was on horseback on a mountainside at night looking down at the vehicles passing on the newChinese road below.
The tail lights glowed red on the giant trucks thundering by,and I thought they must be on fire. I also dreamed of strangeflaming flying objects that exploded causing terrible destruction.I now know that what I saw were the missiles that were beingdeveloped far away in other parts of the world.
I sometimes played such pranks on our neighbors that I wouldbe in serious trouble when my father came home from the travelsthat his work often involved. He would beat me, and I would bevery angry, and try to retaliate against the neighbors who had toldmy father what I had done by playing even more pranks on them.Then, of course, I would be in more trouble again. I began tobecome more considerate largely as a result of my grandmother'sinfluence. She had been a disciple of Adzam Drugpa, and shetook a great interest in me. She sometimes managed to keepme from being punished by preventing my parents finding outwhat I had done. I remember that I once found the dead body ofa large rodent called a marmot. Unnoticed by anyone I spent ablissful afternoon playing with the dead creature, even filling thebody up with water and whirling it round my head. But when Itook my plaything to bed with me my grandmother noticed it.She knew that my mother would have been very upset if shehad known what I had been doing, and would have worried thatI might become infected with some disease, so my grandmotherdidn't tell anyone. I thought this was very kind of her, and infact I loved her very much. So when I saw her quietly weepingto herself about my behavior when she thought I was asleep,I was deeply moved, and resolved to mend my ways. But Ican't say that I ever completely succeeded in overcoming mymischievousness altogether.
When I was five years old, I was playing outside our houseone day when twelve monks arrived, all very elegantly dressed.The place where we lived was very isolated, and hardly anytravellers ever passed, so I was very surprised to see them. Icouldn't think why they had come. They went into the house,and a little later I was called to go in after them. I was takeninto the small shrine room we had there, and they dressed mein fine silk robes. I didn't understand why I was being dressedup, but I enjoyed it just the same. I sat there, on a high thronethey had specially prepared for me, for hours and hours whilethey performed a ritual, and then they went away. I thoughtto myself, 'Well, that's the end of that'. But everyone wenton reminding me that I was a reincarnation and showing megreat respect, and I soon realized that far from being the end ofanything, everything was just beginning.
A couple of weeks later some monks came and took meto Derghe Gönchen monastery, which was a very importantplace in that region: the King of Derghe himself lived there.My father worked in the King's administration, at first as anofficial roughly equivalent to a mayor or provincial governorin the West, and later, since he loved animals so much, as thehead of a department whose function was to prevent huntingout of season or in excess in the whole of that part of Tibet. Iwas taken in to see the King, and since I was now recognized asa reincarnation, he put an entire building inside the monasterycompound at my disposal. I lived there until I was nine yearsold with a master, a teacher who made me study hard day andnight. There were many things to learn, including all the rulesand prayers of the monastery. A monk normally finishes atnineteen years of age the phase of study I undertook there, butI completed it at the age of eight, because my master was sostrict, and I was allowed no free time at all. I also had a naturalgift for memorizing things.
My mischievous side did manage to surface from time totime, however. I remember, for example, that once when theKing was involved in a military ceremony that required him tosit still on horseback for a long time in the courtyard below andopposite the first floor window of my house, I leaned over thesill and used a mirror to reflect the sun's rays into his eyes todazzle him. My intention, innocent enough, was to lighten therather overly heavy seriousness of the occasion for the King, andfortunately for me he knew me very well by that time, so that,instead of being offended, he even enjoyed the joke himself,once he had recovered his composure.
Then for a year I learned all the rules for the drawing andpractice of mandala, after which I went away to monasticcollege. A college always has its rules and regulations, and thenormal curriculum of the one I attended was that one studiedthere for five years. But since I entered at a much earlier agethan usual, I was there for six years. The normal age of entrywas at least thirteen, and I was only nine years old when I wentthere, so they didn't count my first year which was regarded as asort of trial period to see if I was capable of staying the course. Itwasn't just a matter of memorizing things any longer: we studiedphilosophy, which requires a capacity to reason well, and manypeople found the going too tough and dropped out.
Being so much younger than all the other students, life in thecollege certainly wasn't always easy for me either, and I sufferedas others do from the rigors of life in that kind of institution. Ihad to learn some practical lessons very quickly. When my fathertook me to the college for my first term, he left with me enoughsupplies for the whole three months that would have to passbefore I would go home again for a holiday. But I'd never hadto manage my provisions on my own before, and by about halfway through the period they were supposed to last I had used upall my supplies because I was far too generous in my hospitalityto all my new colleagues. When I had no food of my own left Imanaged to survive for about a week on the salty yak butter teathat was the only thing provided by the college, but then I gottoo hungry for my pride to matter any more, and I finally foundthe courage to face the humiliation of having to go to ask myteacher for help. He very kindly arranged for me to receive abowl of soup every evening, and, of course, the next term I wasa good deal more provident with my resources.
The regulations in the college were very strictly enforced, andwe had to remain in our small rooms every evening to practiceand study after dinner until bedtime. Butter lamps and coal forheating were supplied for our use, but not in very generousquantities, and I remember that once the butter in my lamp ranout before I had completed reading through the large number ofpractices I had to recite every night to maintain the commitmentsI had made in receiving the very many initiations given to atrulku like myself.
We weren't allowed to leave our rooms at that hour andthere was a monk patrolling the corridors to make sure the ruleswere observed, so I didn't dare to go and ask a neighbor if Icould borrow a lamp, but tried to read my practices by the lightof the coal fire. I knew some of the texts well enough to beable to just about manage to recite them even when the embershad burned down to a mere glimmer, but when the last sparkfinally had gone out, there I was in the dark with a pile of longTibetan pages still to be read if I was to maintain my samayacommitments. I didn't understand at that time how to maintaincommitment by applying the essentials of the practice, and Iinterpreted and carried out all the instructions that were given tome by my teachers in a very literal manner.
In my holidays I found time to visit my two uncles andthose visits were very important to me, because they were bothpractitioners of Dzogchen. One of these uncles was an abbot andthe other a yogi, and in the course of later chapters of this bookI intend to tell some stories of my experiences with them thatI hope will bring the Dzogchen teachings to life for the reader.My relationships with them were of very great importance to methroughout my college years, and their example as practitionerswas a vital counterbalance to the emphasis on intellectual studiesthat dominated my life between the ages of nine and sixteen.
Finally, in 1954, at the age of sixteen, I completed my studiesand left college. By then I knew a great deal about all the variousforms of the teaching and was considered to be well educatedabout Tibetan medicine and astrology, too. I'd studied diligentlywith many masters, some of whom even considered that I hadmastered the subject matter they had taught me sufficiently forthem to have asked me to teach others in the college. I couldrecite whole texts of philosophy and ritual by heart, and so,as I graduated, I really believed that I'd learned a great deal.It wasn't until later that I came to realize that I hadn't reallyunderstood anything at all.
Though I did not yet know it, events were moving me towardsthe one particular master who was to bring all I had learned andexperienced into a new and more profound perspective, andthrough contact with whom I was to come to a reawakening, andto a true understanding of the Dzogchen teachings. Through hisinspiration I came to know the importance of these teachings,and eventually to teach them myself in the Western world. Thismaster was not a grand personage. Tibetans in general are usedto seeing the teachings represented by famous teachers of highrank, who present themselves in grand style. Without such outersigns, in fact, people usually can't recognize the qualities of amaster, and I myself might have been no different.
But, on leaving college, I was given my first official responsibilities,and was sent to China as representative of Tibetanyouth at the Provincial Assembly of the Province of Szechuan,the local governing body, and while I was there I began learningthe Chinese language, and also taught Tibetan. So with thesesecondary activities as well as my official job, I was very busy.But I couldn't avoid noticing how very different the socialand political structure was there, or keep from wondering howwhat was happening in China would eventually affect my owncountry and its people.
Then one night I had a dreama particularly importantdreamin which I saw a place with many white houses builtof cement. Since this is not a Tibetan style of building, but isa type of construction commonly found in China, I mistakenly(as I later learned) assumed that these houses were Chinese.But when, while still dreaming, I moved closer to the buildings,I saw that the mantra of Padmasambhava was written in verylarge Tibetan script on one of them. I was amazed, because ifthis really was a Chinese house, why would there be a mantrawritten in Tibetan over the doorway?
So I opened the door, and went in, and inside I saw an oldmanjust a seemingly normal old man. But for whatever reasonthe question arose spontaneously in me: 'Could this man reallybe a master?' And to my surprise the old man bent to touch hisforehead to mine in the way that Tibetan masters greet othermasters, and he began to recite the mantra of Padmasambhava,which seemed to answer my question. What was happening stillseemed very surprising to me, but I was by now fully convincedthat the old man in my dream was a master.
Then he told me to go round to the other side of a large rockthat was nearby, adding that in the middle of the rock I wouldfind a cave containing eight natural mandalas. He told me togo there at once to look at them. This amazed me even morethan just finding a master in such strange circumstances, but Inevertheless did as he said, and went right away to find the bigrock that he had mentioned. Then, when I got to the cave in therock, my father appeared behind me, and as I went into the cave,he began to recite the Heart Sutra, or Prajnaparamita Hridaya,an important Mahayana sutra, in a loud voice. I began to recitethe sutra along with him, and together we walked all aroundinside the cave. Try as I could, I couldn't see the whole of theeight mandalas the master had told me to look for. I could onlymake out the corners and edges of them, but with their presencein my mind I awoke.
A year after this dream, when I had returned to Tibet fromChina, a man came to visit my father in our village, and Ioverheard him telling my father about an extraordinary doctorhe'd just met. He described the place where the doctor lived,and he described the man himself in detail, and as he spoke thememory of my dream returned to me. I felt sure that the man hewas describing was the same man I had seen in my dream.
I spoke to my father about this at once. I'd already told himabout the dream I'd had in China of an old man who seemed tobe a master, and now I reminded him of the dream, asking himif we could visit this doctor his friend was telling him about. Myfather agreed, and we set out the next day. We had to travel forfour days on horseback, but when we got to the village where thedoctor lived, the old man I met there really seemed to be the oneI had seen in my dream. I really had the sense that I had been inthat village before, with its Tibetan houses made in Chinese-styleconcrete. And the mantra was inscribed over the old man's doorin exactly the same way I had seen in my dream.
Excerpted from The Crystal and the Way of Light by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. Copyright © 2000 by Namkhai Norbu and John Shane. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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