Q. He speaks as an innocent.
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: Yes – I got the idea from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Q. What about the dakini choruses that you use in your poetry?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: The dakini choruses . . . yes . . . I don’t know exactly how they started, they just started. I was just halfway through one stanza and I wrote…the dakinis sing…
Q. Did the use of the word ‘critical’ also come from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘crit’?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: No. Critical Mass is a term used in atomic fission. Critical Mass occurs when two pieces of uranium are propelled at each other and they combine to form an excessive mass. The mass then explodes. It’s that idea – the quality of juxtaposing unlikely words to create poetic fission that is Critical Mass Poetics. Critical Mass also carries that idea of density – because what I write is that density.
Critical Mass Poetics moves in and out of linear sense. Words are used for their sound values and for how they affect each other. In that way, I have some means of assessing the quality of the work. I tend to edit poetry over years which is why the first volume of my poetry is just coming out now that I’m 66. I never felt it was worth publishing it before. It takes a long time for a piece of poetry to be finished. It’s finished when I look at it and I can’t change it anymore. It’s at the point when I don’t want to move a comma or colon that it’s finished.
Q. Is there a subject that you explore repeatedly?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: People's bad behavior.
Q. Can you give me an example?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: She said “You told me the Granola Gaye dropped 50 megatons of fried muesli on Hirohito – but that’s not true.” “Most amusing.” Chögyam replied “I said nothing of the sort – I just said, I sometimes enjoy lox & bagels for breakfast.” She said “You said Wensleydale Churchill said ‘We shall fight’em in the bleachers, we shall fight’em for the coffee grounds.”
However, when I want to seriously lampoon something (spoken in Cockney accent) I might start writin’ in a East Lunun accent and leavin’ the g’s off the end words. I wrote one about going to an art exhibition recently. It was called ‘David Cockney visits the Aldofini Galley:’
Yeah, right, so I took the day off di’n’ I – an’ went t’Bristle t’see some Art—y’know—paintin’s an’ the like.
So I goes t’the Adophini, an’ first thing I see’s this huge bloody phota of a fella dressed like Dame Edna Everadge Riding some-sorta Mary Poppins bicycle (there should be a law, shouldn’t there?) So, I thought ‘This is ‘Art’ then.’ But ’e wasn’t Barry ’umphries—naaah: got that all wrong f’starters—’e was Graceland Presley or Greystoke Perrier Or somethin’ like that – but ’e looked nothin’ like Tarzan Lord of the Apes; ’e was more like Lord of the Ringlets Lyin’ there with ’is kit off—weddin’ tackle lookin’ like a bunch of chipolatas—an’ thruppnies better’an Meatloaf’s. So this is what gets yer Turner Prise, then? And the Dakinis sing ‘Once a jolly artist so camp upon his bicycle, Well over-paid by his Arts Counsel fee, an’ ’e botched as ’e blotched an’ daubed ’is willy-nilly coils, you’ll come A-waltzing Matilda, with me. Waltzing Matilda—schmaltzing Brunhilda—you’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.’
The Three Terrible Oaths are a statement which places the practitioner in the entirety of his or her own situation. There is no ‘nicer’ spiritual world to which the practitioner can retreat. Whatever happens; may it happen, means that we do not make attempts at surreptitious deals with reality in which we delude ourselves that our practice will allow us to ‘live happily ever after’. Whichever way it goes; may it go that way, means that when we fall from the towering cliff of birth – we do not pretend that the end result of that fall is not death. There is no purpose, means that there is no one overriding, overarching, all inclusive – ‘purpose’. God is not working ‘His’ purpose out. There is no such ‘God’ and no such ‘purpose’. Reality is simply the dance of emptiness and form and compassion is the recognition that everything is its own purpose of itself. Each moment of reality is perfect as is.
in conversation with Ngakma Yeshé Zértsal
1st of September 2018
Wesley Hills, New York.
Allen Ginsberg's Length of Breath
with Ngakma Yeshé Zértsal
There is no purpose!
Q: Did he speak English?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: No. I always had an interpreter—splendid man—a Newari Buddhist by birth, called Karma Lama. ‘Lama’ is a common Newari surname – so it does not betoken that he was a teacher. He was a real Blues buff and loved talking with me on the subject. I sang a little for him—which pleased him—and even taught him some songs on guitar. He managed to find a 12 string—which pleased me—an Indian Givson. Yes – you heard me right. There’s an Indian guitar manufacturer that goes by the name of Givson.
My own death doesn’t concern me a great deal – but my connection with my teacher exists in its own category of experience. The loss of a beloved person goes hand-in-hand with the loss of empowerment and transmission – at least in the human realm. I have experienced the passing of my mother and father—and also of extremely dear friends—so I am familiar with grief in that sense. I take it for what it is – and in that sense I probably have adequate equanimity. The passing of my teacher however, is different in a way that words cannot adequately describe. The three months it took to write wisdom eccentrics however, had returned me to equanimity. Now Künzang Dorje Rinpoche is a living presence in my life – beyond life and death.
I had always intended to write the teaching-stories Rinpoche related to me – and the exchanges that took place concerning them. He encouraged me to commit them to writing them in a story-telling style which would be understandable to Western people. I did write them down from the notes I took at the time but never went forward to publishing them until Rinpoche’s passing. Khandro Déchen then encouraged me to do so, as it was high time they appeared. She felt that writing this book was what I needed in terms of relating with Rinpoche’s death – and she was right. Writing this book enabled me to accept the reality, and to make the legacy of his wisdom available to others. Fortunately, from having written an odd boy, my monothematic memoir of the late 1960s and early 1970s—I’d gained experience in writing dialogue and narrative. So, when I came to rewrite the material I found myself able to do so in a way that would not have been possible before. So, the four volumes of an odd boy were crucial training in terms of being able to write wisdom eccentrics. Without that experience the stories would have been rather dry.
Q: What do you mean by a teaching story?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: A story about a realised master from which there is something to be learned. Lamas often use stories to illustrate points in the teachings they give. Künzang Dorje Rinpoche employed such stories with me. He would recount a story and then interrogate me on different aspects of the story – and when I say ‘interrogate’, I mean that in the most dramatic sense. I had to answer questions as to the motivation of the people in the stories – I had to decipher their intentions and the reasons for their actions.
Q: That’s quite interesting.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes. It was utterly fascinating. It was also completely horrendous at times – especially in the first week. Rinpoche’s initial view of me, was that I was ’thom yor – an idiot. That conception did change over time – but he was in no way in error. I was a ’thom yor. I still am a ’thom yor in some ways – but at least I’m not so much of a ’thom yor not to know it. Anyhow, I was always on trial as to whether or not I would actually be able to study with Rinpoche. This naturally didn’t put me at ease when answering his questions – because it was a life-and-death issue as far as I was concerned—the idea of being told to go away.
Every time I was told I was a ’thom yor I felt I would be thrown out. It was a tense situation – and certainly not a conventional method of encouraging a person to have greater confidence in their natural perceptive qualities. Be that as it may, he always encouraged me to trust my own perception rather than relying on standard Buddhist responses. Adherents of all religions can fall prey to jargon and clichés – and I was not without that tendency, with my Lamas at least.
It took Rinpoche some weeks to get across to me, that he did not want to hear statutory answers. He didn’t want to hear answers that I thought he wanted. I had to give the answers from my own perception. Sometimes he would even say “Your answer is as good as mine, there’s no difference in terms of how you see it or how I might see it. Although you come to a different conclusion, your conclusion is fine. There’s no one answer as to why Dza Paltrül may have done something.” What he wanted me to do: was see what was there in each story. It became exciting, in the end: not simply his telling of the story – but his interrogation of my responses.
Q: It sounds radical—a radical way of engaging.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: All my teachers—apart from Kyabjé Düd’jom Rinpoche and Kyabjé Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche—have been radical in that way: Künzang Dorje Rinpoche and Chhi’mèd Rig'dzin Rinpoche – but the most radical was Künzang Dorje Rinpoche.
It wasn’t a matter of being right or wrong: it was a question of answering like an ’thom yor – or not answering like an ’thom yor. When I stopped answering like a ’thom yor to every question, it actually got worse for a while. If someone shouts at you all the time, it’s somehow better than when they shout at you intermittently. Oscillating between approval and disapproval is worse than continual disapproval. That made me into even more of a ’thom yor because I wanted always to get back to being viewed with approval. Whether Rinpoche wanted to make me tense deliberately, I don’t know – but whenever he shouted at me, I’d become rigid with fear. He was really quite violently loud sometimes.
Q: Did he treat other students like that or was this a particular method for you?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: I would not know. I never saw him with another student. When I was with him, I was always on my own. I know he had other students – but I never saw them and none of them were Injis; that is to say Westerners. He had no Western students in the 20th Century.
Q: How did you get to study with Künzang Dorje Rinpoche?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: I was sent by Kyabjé Düd’jom Rinpoche. He was the head of the Nyingma Tradition and I had studied with him since 1971 – but he ran out of time for me as his duties increased. Künzang Dorje Rinpoche didn’t want to teach me. He didn’t want any Western students at all at that time, especially one who was a ’thom yor.
Q: What would not-an-idiot have looked like?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: That is not an easy question to answer. Someone not like me? You see . . . a Western person has to learn how to be with Tibetans: how to be polite and socially acceptable. If you don’t learn how to be acceptable you’re not accepted. But in learning how to be acceptable you can falsify yourself. You can learn just the outer signs of being a Tibetan Buddhist but that is not enough.
Q: What would that have looked like?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Absolutely courteous. I would always couch my answers in what I imaged to be the correct way. When he asked me why Paltrül did something, I would give him a stereotypical Buddhist answer. But that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted my answer. I had learned how to be polite in Tibetan terms. I am the English son of a rather Victorian English father, after all – so I tend to be unusually polite anyway. With Rinpoche however, I had to gain the courage to say what I thought. I gradually gained that confidence – and, in the end, we had a wonderful relationship: one in which it appeared that I could do no wrong. In the end he decided I wasn’t a ’thom yor.
Q: You describe your father as Victorian? Can you say more about that in the context of Künzang Dorje Rinpoche?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: I think a lot of different things occurred as a result of my upbringing . . . my father was rather bad tempered – so it was interesting to have to deal with someone who appeared to be a bad tempered Lama. One thing I noticed however was that Rinpoche’s anger was different from my father’s. Rinpoche’s anger was completely transient. It was there in the moment. Then it was gone – as if it had never existed. If I gave voice to my natural perception—from a position of openness—he looked genuinely pleased. The anger of the previous moment completely evaporated. I was aware that Rinpoche’s anger was a display.
Q: Would you please explain what you mean by display?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: A display is… if you go to see a play or a movie, the emotions you see are not real, they are acted. The actors, for example, are not experiencing the arrogance, rage, passion, suspicion, or bewilderment they are exhibiting in their faces and via their body-language. The display a Lama manifests is like that—to a certain extent—but there’s a vast difference. It is something more real than an actor’s anger – but the way that it’s felt is not personal, as it would be for the average human being. It flashes – and then vanished without a trace. There’s no build up. There’s no residue. Display in that sense is merely momentary. It also has a precise function.
Q: Is that called compassionate activity?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: You can call it that. I don’t particularly like to call it that – because that seals it all in a box. Once the idea has been placed in a Buddhist box – people relate to the box rather than what the box contains. I’d say Rinpoche was being exquisitely, excruciatingly direct. He was relating in terms of the Four Buddha Karmas.
Whatever happens; may it happen!
Whichever way it goes; may it go that way!
Q: The Four Buddha Karmas?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes. Enriching, Pacifying, Magnetising, and Destroying. These relate to the elements: Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. Space is the ground of each Buddhkarma. So Rinpoche was destroying my position.
Q: Now of course that could only work on a person who is open to it.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes.
Q: And he knew that you were open to it?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes. I wasn’t going to go away. I felt that he knew that. Actually . . . something I didn’t know at the time—although I should have known it, if I hadn’t been a ’thom yor —was that Düd’jom Rinpoche had instructed Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche to teach me. Künzang Dorje Rinpoche was absolutely obliged to teach me. He didn’t have a choice – which is funny in hindsight. We were stuck with each other. The only thing Rinpoche could do was be so wrathful with me, that I’d leave. He didn’t ill-use me in any way – but maybe if the ’thom yor could be frightened away . . . Still, that is spurious conjecture at best.
I think Rinpoche gained various impressions of me. One was that I was timid. Then he discovered that I wasn’t actually timid – but rather polite and quietly spoken. He gradually got to know what kind of creature I was. I was from an alien culture. He’d never dealt with a creature like me before –so he had to find out how many fingers and toes I had. On one of Rinpoche’s first investigations, he loomed across the table brandishing his fists and shouted “Maybe we fight!” Fortunately that made me smile – because . . . well, it was Pythonesque in a way. When he saw my smile he smiled back at me, laughing “This is better! This is much better!” That was an entire surprise! The antithesis of anything I would have anticipated. I thought he would see my smile as offensive or disrespectful.
Q: Why would that be?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Because I would not be taking him seriously. One always takes one’s Lamas seriously – and I’d shown that I saw through his pantomime. In Tibetan culture you don’t do that. You see . . . I’d previously interpreted his anger as real – as if he was angry in the ordinary sense of the word. But he was never angry in that way. He changed immediately he saw me smile – and . . . I was congratulated. Anyhow – for a while, I didn’t understand his responses. Sometimes he would be seriously annoyed with me and sometimes he would play act. It was an incredibly effective means of denying me any means of double-guessing him. There was never any ground upon which I could stand and no defence mechanisms I could employ – other than being natural. He simply wanted to be natural – and to apply my innate intelligence.
At the same time, of course, he was having to understand me as an alien entity. We got to know each other through the stories – and, in the end, there was a story where he was obviously fascinated by my interpretation. He kept saying “ . . . and you can say more?” This was a story about Paltrül and a thief who stole the golden gyaltsen from the roof of the gompa in which he was a visiting Lama. I had all kinds of things to say on that subject in terms of appreciation. When I explained my view of compassion as appreciation in this story, Künzang Dorje Rinpoche said “Ah, this is something I have not seen.” He was keenly interested to hear to hear what I had to say – and that utterly surprised me. I was shocked that I had anything worthwhile to say to Künzang Dorje Rinpoche – and almost felt he was teasing me. But he wasn’t. It was Surreal. It was also the basis of a new confidence that I actually understood something of Dharma – from out of my own perception. It wasn’t an answer learnt by rote and regurgitated. It was then that I learned that Dharma is not fabricated – it really is ‘as it is’. That is what Dharma means: as it is. Rinpoche was also fascinated that there was things I could understand easily and other things that were entirely opaque to me. Later in our relationship—when Rinpoche had become utterly cordial—he asked me how I came to be as I was in terms of psychological astuteness – as he saw it.
Q: Do you think it was cultural that he didn’t think of things the way you presented them because he did not have the same cultural experiences?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Quite possibly. I told Rinpoche that when I was at Art School there was a great deal of intellectual and psychological discussion between students. We would talk about the meaning of existence and perception. That was quite common in Art School during the 1970s. In any case, I’d always questioned the nature of reality – so certain things seemed quite obvious to me.
Q: What made you question reality?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Because it was there—I was in it—and, of course, because I saw it as Surreal. I think . . . having a father who was highly concrete in his thoughts, made me question everything. It became obvious to me that he had no sense of logic – and that there were actually few people who could follow a logical argument.
I found throughout my life that people don’t have a grasp of logic—not that logic is highly complex—but people won’t look at things and consider: if this is true, what are the implications in terms of that? What are the ramifications of holding this idea as true? People will often hold this as true—and that as true—whilst failing to comprehend that this and that cannot be true at the same time. People seem unable to perceive the ramifications of their conflicting views and unstated needs.
Q: And you’ve always had a sense of that? From what age?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: That is not so easy to say . . . but . . . I would imagine that my first philosophical musings must have started to appear at around the age of five. I think that logic just made itself apparent. I think that happens as soon as you start to see contradictions. My son Robert saw contradictions from about that age. He never had any time for the idea of god. God, to him, is nonsense. He says “It doesn’t make any sense. If God is supposed to be a benevolent being, how come all of this pain is here? You can’t just that god works in mysterious ways? What was mysterious about Nazi Germany? What was God achieving with the whole history of atrocities in the world? If God created the world he can change it.” Robert thinks in that way without having had any course of logic to make him come to that conclusion. I’ve not coached him – in fact Khandro Déchen and I have tried to show him the value of religions that believe in a creator God. Once you question reality – you keep questioning because it’s preferable to know how things actually are.
Q: So the book. You wrote the stories down. Were you compiling them all along?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes. I wrote them down at the time. I’d write the stories every day as accurately as I could—including the exact nature of the interrogation.
Q: Can I ask you why did you stayed with Künzang Dorje Rinpoche when he shouted at you so much?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Why did I stay? I’ll tell you why. Because Düd’jom Rinpoche sent me to him. That’s why I stayed.
Q: You had faith in Düd’jom Rinpoche.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes. Who wouldn’t? I know that’s not an answer – or rather it’s only an answer for a Vajrayana Buddhist. However . . . even in ordinary terms, he was a wonderful human being. He was absolutely kind all the time – utterly benevolent. I had known him since 1971 and when I went to see him in 1975, he sent me to Künzang Dorje Rinpoche. It wasn’t a matter of getting rid of me – he simply didn’t have enough time available to work with me. His rôle as Head of the Nyingma Tradition had grown enormous. I did get to see him again of course. It wasn’t that I could no longer see him – but his responsibilities had grown to such a point that there wasn’t time for the personal training I needed.
Q: What inspired you to write wisdom eccentrics?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche . . . The passing of my teacher came as a terrible blow – even though I knew that day would arrive. A Buddhist is supposed to come to terms with impermanence and death – and, in some sense, I have.
During a silent sitting period on an apprentice retreat some years ago, I casually glanced at Ngak’chang Rinpoche as I often do, but this time things were different.
Wearing the robes of a Ngakpa, the shawl of a Lama and his round rimless glasses, hands placed palms down on his knees, all was usual except there sat Dorje Tröllo. Not the iconographic Dorje Tröllo painted on thangkas—a larger than life, maroon colored, enraged lip-biting meditational deity, but rather Dorje Tröllo as Ngak’chang Rinpoche.
Here was the full embodiment of the Three Terrible Oaths and more disconcerting still, my relentlessly uncompromising Lama who by his very presence conveys the laser exactitude of reality.
Q. Rinpoche, you once told a fascinating story about Allen Ginsberg.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes… I was introduced to Allen Ginsberg by Eleanor Johnson, an experimental filmmaker. It’s always difficult to be introduced to anyone famous because everything depends on who introduces you. I don’t think Eleanor Johnson was quite famous enough to introduce me to Allen Ginsberg – or at least not in his perception. I don’t blame Allen Ginsberg for his approach to me. He was actually most kind to telephone me as he did. Be that as it may, he proceeded to give me a crit on my poetry. I had not asked for it – but thought ‘Who am I to turn down a crit from Allen Ginsberg?’
So … I listened. He insinuated that I had emulated Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in my style. I hadn’t read Trungpa Rinpoche’s poetry at that time. It was accidental that in my earlier poetry I refer to myself in the third person—Chögyam does this, Chögyam does that, et cetera. That was an aspect of his style. I’m not sure whether Allen Ginsberg believed me or not.
Q. Why is that motivating?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: Because it’s humorous — both in itself and in my reaction to it. However, poetry written about bad behaviour needs to age so that the person involved is not really playing a major part. The piece has to stand on its own without knowing whom it concerns. I have to leave it for some years – because after a couple of years I will discover the lines that are flaccid. They no longer carry the charge that I thought they had on the initial wiring. The flaccid lines have to be ruthlessly discarded. The charge has to be vital all the way through the canto.
Q. But why bad behaviour?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: Bad behaviour is interesting. There’s not much you can write about good behaviour. Good behaviour stands on its own to be admired – so I don’t need to write about it. Occasionally, pieces of poetry are simply about delight. Lampooning samsara is always my favourite subject – because it’s not merely bad – it’s bad that is a distortion of primordial goodness. It’s also bad behaviour that is occurring in tandem with world events. I find reflections in everyday life—something else is happening in the same time frame. Someone is assassinated somewhere. Someone releases a song with certain lyrics. Some animal becomes extinct. A new animal is discovered. Someone has a barcode tattooed on his forehead. A whale appears to be singing a phrase from La Marseilles. An escaped giraffe canters down the highway. Streaking comes back into fashion along with bell-bottom trousers. A lost song of Robert Johnson is discovered. Architects decide to listen to Prince Charles and stop building atrocities. Bathyscaphes go down further in the sea than they’ve ever been and they find something bizarre down there. The world is full of events that are occurring—events occur simultaneously—and word-picture emerges from that magnificently maniacal melange. If the picture that emerges seems to have a vector, then that’s enough to start writing poetry.
Poetry can’t merely be based on bad behaviour. There have to be co-emergent phenomena. Frequently the co-emergent phenomena echo Shakespeare. Then Shakespeare echoes the Beatles. The Beatles echo an Icelandic saga. As the associations proliferate, so the puns proliferate. Words, homonyms, antonyms. These are the fuel and the raw material.
There was somebody I knew who would go in for almost wilfully misinterpreting me. I was looking at a packet of granola one day and I just watched something about the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. A line suddenly came to me. It had a certain pattern that could be repeated along the lines of ‘You said I said this. I saidnothing of the sort.’ Then I rang the changes with words that sounded like each other.
Dorje Tröllö is the incendiary holder of the Three Terrible Oaths:
There weren’t so many of them originally until I gave a poetry reading where I actually had a dakini chorus—actually the last one I gave in Bristol was successful. I could tell that the audience was enjoying it. The dakini chorus could really be anything. Often it’s 1940s, 1930s pop songs. I think the original idea was that educated poets or middle-class poets quote classics so I quote pop music. I don’t even have to like the song to quote it. It just has to have some reference. For example, I quote the Bee Gees, ABBA, Frank Sinatra. I don’t have to like the music. It just has to be the exactly right line in exactly the right place.
Because this worked out so well, I went back and added dakini choruses in older cantos. Now it’s a standard part of the nine-line stanza. The end of every stanza has a dakini chorus. It dramatically changes a poetry reading. It detracts from the horrific tedium of people having to sit listening to poetry. It becomes cabaret.
The Dakinis sing: Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome - fremde, etranger, stranger. Gluklich zu sehen, je suis enchante, happy to see you, bleibe, reste, stay. Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome, im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret.
The three ladies keep bursting out into song. It’s somewhat startling. People don’t know what they’re going to hear next. It could be the National Anthem of any country. It could be Wagner.
Ngak'chang Rinpoche:Certainly. Walton’s Façade, the Kaye Sisters, the Andrews Sisters, the Supremes, the Pointer Sisters, Martha and the Vandellas, the Shirelles, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Cream, the Beatles, Bob Dylan—particularly Bob Dylan—Handel, Leonard Cohen, anybody. Some old folk song, sea shanty, Schiller’s Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, anything. The whole realm of the vocal lyrical world is there. I could use any of it. The only limitation is how much I know. I don’t always quote the song precisely. Sometimes I take liberties. I change lyrics to suit the poetry. So, it’s not all direct Kaye Sisters – although it might be.
Q. Can you say a bit about the linear sense and lack of linear sense in the poetry—how there are some parts that are almost prose?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: I use prose as a poetic form within poetry. I employ standard English within a Surrealist stanza for shock value.
Q. Do you plan for this or it just happens?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: It usually simply happens – but then, I have to make it work. I don’t break lines in arbitrary places. That’s an important factor. Some people employ carry-ons — ending a sentence by wrapping it into the next line. I never do that. I might break a sentence – but it has to be in a place where there would be a comma. It cannot be an arbitrary point. In order to achieve that, I have to change the sentence until it halts at the end of a line. Even if it continues there has to be a grammatical pause before the next line.
Q. So the linear sense making and the lack of linear sense. Are they a movement between emptiness and form?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: Yes. This is very much the Buddhist aspects of Critical Mass Poetics. Sense and lack of sense move in and out of each other.
Q. Thank you very much. Most enjoyable.
In this momentary glance, there was no air to breathe, no where to go. It was not just that everything about me was visible rendering me invisible, I was so completely seen, there was nothing to see. Although there are many manifestations of Dorje Tröllo all fierce, this manifestation—my own Lama—was by far the most terrifying as he was none other than myself.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche is a proper Englishman, well read and articulate—a writer, a poet, an artist, a musician—with deep of knowledge of both classical music and the Blues. Although soft-spoken and thoughtful, he would never be missed in a crowd. Rinpoche claims that he does not have the capacity to be a wrathful teacher as were his own Lamas, but students and disciples do not feel that way. It is not necessarily words spoken but rather his mien, his demeanor that makes a just-beneath-the-skin spiky-ness a thing to be reckoned with—something that keeps us on our proverbial toes.
Rinpoche does not shout, bark rebukes or enact outrageous behaviors. Rather he is a subtle man with eccentric interests, word usage, movements, attire, facial topiary, choice of foods, choice of fragrances, just about anything and these eccentricities and careful selections have made many a person’s thoughts momentarily stop dead. He is a man with a great vocabulary who gently encourages in his students correct grammatical usage whilst expanding their knowledge of words and their meanings. Rinpoche’s judicious choice of words and their syntax, at all times, comes the closest to what he wishes to communicate.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche has been my Lama and source of inspiration for nearly thirty years. He is a teacher who has the capacity to lead a disciple through seemingly intractable, self undermining states of compulsive patterning to non-dual appreciation of all things and beings—something rarer than ball lightening, underwater rivers and Aspertus clouds.
Central to Vajrayana is the living Buddha, the Vajra Master—the Great Lama—the person who knows us without descriptions of tragic childhoods, personal predilections and tedious tales of how we spend our days. Rather the Vajra Master sees us as already realized and continuously invites us to the dance of reality. The problem of course, lay with the way we see ourselves.
Ngakma Yeshé Zértsal
Ngak’chang Rinpoche on
Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche
Interview on the 26th of March, 2012
Wesley Hills, NY
Q. Did he have any other comments to make?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes. He said my ‘writing’ couldn’t be considered to be poetry because there was no ordinance which governed its line length. This was a peculiar comment because the same criticism would apply to Trungpa Rinpoche’s poetic line length. Incidentally, after this conversation, I did meet Allen Ginsberg a few times—in passing—during the New York Kalachakra event and we exchanged friendly words on those occasions – so I presume he must have accepted the fact that I’d never seen Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s poetry.
Anyhow – when I went back to Britain, I thought about what Allen Ginsberg had said. I did use one-word lines in poetry – but I did so for emphasis; as a form of dynamic punctuation – but it occurred to me immediately that I didn’t have to use that form. It was wasteful of paper – when I could simply punctuate conventionally.
It also occurred to me that many poets stagger their lines as a visual technique – and as I have never enjoyed that, I saw no good reason to continue in a mode that was in some way similar.
Q. Can you say why you don’t like poetry that is staggered or written in shapes?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Because it seems to me—entirely subjectively—to be a gimmick that has become a convention and therefore a cliché.
Q. Did anything else come from you thoughts on poetry as a result of meeting with Allen Ginsberg?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Well, Allen Ginsberg said that he had devised the merest form of ordinance, with regard to line length in poetry: length-of-breath. His line length was the length of his breath. I thought ‘I can’t really do that. If I go bymy breath length I would be writing paragraphs.’ As anybody who knows me can attest: I can hold a note for well over a minute. It’s due a history with yogic breathing exercises. So I couldn’t employ Allen Ginsberg’s technique. It would be unmanageable – so, I decided to use Allen Ginsberg’s breath length. I worked that out from an analysis of Howl. I took an average of his line-length – and that is what I have used ever since. It came out as 11 point Garamond on A4 paper with a margin of an inch on one side and an eight of an inch on the other. That was his breath-length. Although Nanao Sakaki—most kindly—considered Allen Ginsberg’s criticism of my work invalid – I found it interesting.
Q. Damn interesting if you ask me!
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Allen Ginsberg’s criticism proved highly influential in my case. It prompted me to take a different and dramatically creative direction with poetry. I decided to rewrite every piece of poetry I’d written—and kept—according to this specific line length.
Q. How did that work out?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: I joined the short lines until they were as close as I could make them to the required line-length. Some lines were too short so I had to lengthen them. There were run-ons with other lines and I either had to shorten the line – or split the line into two new lines and lengthen them to fit. That was a highly creative process of editing – and often decidedly demanding. Far from merely re-jigging poetry to fit a new pattern – it became a process of writing new poetry.
India’s like that. They have a pair of jeans called Live’s Strauss. Anyhow – teaching Karma Lama Blues was how I paid for my translation. I used to spend evenings with him. He’d translate during the day and we’d spend the evening together immersed in Blues history lessons. I’d relate stories about Delta Blues, Chicago Blues, Texas Blues … he was fascinated that I’d been a vocalist in a Blues band. It was a marvellous time.
To return to your question as to why I stayed . . . it wasn’t purely because Düd’jom Rinpoche sent me. It was a matter of consequences. What would I have done if I’d left? I’d have had two choices: go back to Düd’jom Rinpoche and say Künzang Dorje Rinpoche had shouted at me, that he has been unkind to me and I’d been unhappy. That would have been completely puerile. I could not have done that. The alternative would have been to just have gone home and never see Düd’jom Rinpoche again. That was also out of the question. Neither choice was attractive, practical or even possible – so I had no choice but to stay. There was no alternative. I had to endure whatever he threw at me. It was probably only thrown at me for a week to ten days and the rest of the three months were utterly wonderful. That first period was horribly intense. I had no idea it wasn’t going to go on forever and I would just be shouted at for months. But after a while I simply stopped being a complete ’thom yor – and . . . it all worked out extremely well.
Q: Did you feel that Künzang Dorje Rinpoche liked you – even when he was shouting at you?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes. I did. It is hard to say after all these years – but there were always hints of affection that sparkled through his wrathful mien. It would be hard to say how I picked that up . . . but . . . I feel it was probably through the genuine pleasure I witnessed when I somehow forgot to be a ’thom yor. It was then that I started to get the sense that his rage, when I was a ’thom yor, had more to do with the fact that he didn’t want me to be a ’thom yor. It wasn’t that he was annoyed because I was a ’thom yor – he actually didn’t want me to be one.
Q: It had a little Marpa with Milarépa feeling to it.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Oh dear me, no. Nothing like it! Nothing remotely close. I received the merest homeopathic dose! I had no open sores on my back.
Q: This of course speaks to the fact that you didn’t need to have open sores on your back.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: No. I cannot say. However . . . I hadn’t murdered anyone. Milarépa had actually murdered people. He practised black magic to wreak retribution on his uncle and aunt.
So . . . perhaps I didn’t require the kind of treatment Milarépa received. Being shouted at isn’t actually—so—bad. I sustained no injuries. I just sat there and was shouted at. I did almost vomit a couple of times. That was the worst. Not that vomiting is that terrible per se – but I was terrified of vomiting in Rinpoche’s room. What would I have done? Run for the door and vomit? What would I have done?
Q: Why did you take such detailed notes of these stories at the time? It seems an extraordinary thing to have done.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Two reasons. Rinpoche asking me to do so was the most important – but even if he had not asked me I would have done so. To be allowed to spend time with a Lama such as Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche is a tremendous opportunity. No one allowed such a privilege would squander it by not making a detailed account of it – besides which, there is always a great deal of time in India. I had almost every evening at my disposal to expand the rough notes I’d made when I was with Rinpoche. Of course – Rinpoche told me that I should publish these stories as a book.
Q: Why do you think he asked you to do this?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: He didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask.
Q: Why was that?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: There are just certain questions you wouldn’t ask a Tibetan Lama in terms of cultural courtesy – or at least, I wouldn’t ask. Being asked to recount these stories in the West and bring them out as a book is something I would accept as a request – without need to knowing anything further. It wouldn’t occur to me to ask “Why do you want me to do that?” I had no curiosity as to why. He wanted me to recount these stories so I said “Yes Rinpoche. I will do that.” I imagine that Rinpoche might have felt that people would be interested in these stories in terms of learning more of Vajrayana in a simpler context. Maybe Rinpoche thought they would serve as material for teaching. It was accepted that I would eventually teach. Kyabjé Düd’jom Rinpoche had indicated that I would begin to teach at some point and so from Künzang Dorje Rinpoche’s point of view it would simply happen. I’d go to a place where people might be interested in Teachings and that people might eventually ask me to teach. He seemed to think it would be natural. In the end it did happen of itself anyway – and it was all quite natural.
Q: Wisdom eccentrics is not just a record of these stories, the interrogations, and your time together.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: No. It has several chapters of introduction concerning Buddhism, Vajrayana, the relationship with the teacher in the Vajrayana context. It recounts my first journey to India in 1971, stories around that, and then my journey to Tso Pema. So the book is made up of stories. There are stories that Künzang Dorje Rinpoche told me – but it’s also a book of memoirs, told as stories. In these stories various points of teaching are made – and, though I wouldn’t describe them as such, they are also teaching stories of a sort. I recount my meetings with people – and our conversations.
Q: Can you give any examples?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Conversations as to how life is in the East; how certain spiritual seekers and hippies could be obnoxious; how people respond to each other. Certain teachings come out of that. They are a series of diminutive teaching stories that reflect the teaching stories that I was told by Künzang Dorje Rinpoche.
Q: Do you feel it’s possible for people to receive transmission from just reading the stories themselves?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: There are various Lamas who have said this is possible. About this book I would not like to comment. I don’t know about transmission from books . . . especially mine. I’ve certainly gained a great deal of inspiration from photographs. I remember the first time I saw a photograph of Ajo Repa Rinpoche who was one of the teachers of Lama Anagarika Govinda. That was one of the earliest books available in the West. It was called The Way of the White Clouds. In a way, Wisdom eccentrics could be seen as a modern version of The Way of the White Clouds. It has some similarities. It also has some major differences. When looking at that book and finding the photograph of Ajor Répa Rinpoche, I was completely stunned by it. Just seeing him. His uncut hair, his white skirt, the ngakpa costume – it was fascinating. I was riveted by that image. It’s impossible to explain why I found that image so absorbing and why it remained with me. Then some years later in 1975 I found a book by Helmut Hoffman, I can’t remember the title of it now. That book contained two absolutely stunning photographs of another Ngakpa – a Lama called Ling Tsang Gyalpo who is a phurba master. In the photograph he holds a phurba: the three bladed dagger which destroys attraction, aversion, and indifference. The first photograph shows him sitting in the empty state. The second photograph shows him suddenly arising as Dorje Phurba. His right hand has moved upward and his eyes open wide. Incredibly dramatic. I suppose pictures like that . . . whether that’s transmission or inspiration of whatever. I wouldn’t like to define that too closely.
Q: Do you think transmission and inspiration are the same?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: I think they exist within the same area. I wouldn’t like to voice an opinion, other than wisdom eccentrics is accessible. I just hope people will enjoy it as a story – and maybe learn a little about the gö kar chang lo’i dé – the non-celibate, non-monastic, non-liturgical wing of Vajrayana.
Q: You said that you wrote the book really very much in the same kind of style as an odd boy.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes. It was designed for general audience – with footnotes for those who need more specific Vajrayana information. There are many footnotes in the book – but these can be skipped. It’s not the kind of book that requires the footnotes to be read. The average reader could ignore the footnotes and it would simply read as a story book.
Q: The technical Vajrayana aspect does also comes out in conversation – and some of the topics are quite profound.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: I hope the conversational presentation makes Vajrayana more accessible. Where my discussions with Rinpoche became too esoteric for the average reader I placed them as appendices. The conversational approach released me from the responsibility of being technically polished. A person asks me a question, I answer it, they misunderstand, I say something else. The way that works is useful for conveying material in the simplest possible way. It would have been far more onerous to tackle such matters in Buddhist textbook style.
Q: Why is that?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Because I’m too familiar with that style. In that framework I tend to become a little academic and that fact that the prose has to be perfect would have been oppressive for a book like wisdom eccentrics. You see . . . I’m not actually that good at writing simple Buddhist literature anymore. I was better back in the 1980s. Now I go for perfection; which is good in its way – but it leaves me with a rather limited audience. The style I employ in an odd boy is this escape clause. When I am writing dialogue I can put Vajrayana across more simply. It’s great fun for me to do that too. I can explain all kinds of things that way. If I had to write them as a regular Buddhist text it would inevitably become too . . . complicated.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes. So . . . the book is a collection of stories – with some hopefully humorous ones. Many things in life are funny. People’s responses can be funny. Even when people were unpleasant, you can recount the exchange in a way that makes people laugh. I like to make people laugh – because, when people laugh, they relax and begin to understand things.
Q: You recount some really bizarre events with Western people and how they behaved in the East.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes. Hopefully the book will be found to be both amusing and informative. I also wanted to paint a true picture. I wanted to show the amazing breadth of what existed on that strange frontier: the wonderful, the weird, and the woeful. In many ways the East is no more spiritual that the West – and sometimes far less so. It’s a mixed bag. It’s a wonderful experience – but it’s also harrowing, tedious, fascinating, bewildering . . . it’s extreme and it’s also outrageously sedate. The East was not awash with genuine western students of Vajrayana. Some were ’thom yors of a more demented order than I appeared to be. I met my fair share of ego-maniacs and egregious-maniacs – but I also met eager-maniacs: plain good people, with good hearts and high enthusiasm.
Q: For those who have a particular interest in esoteric aspects, the last twenty pages are for them?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes. The average reader can skip that section. There’s a discussion of the gö kar chang lo’i dé, the non-monastic, non-celibate wing of the Tibetan clergy. There’s a discussion of the twenty-five disciples of Padmasambhava. In terms of the female disciples: a list is given. That is highly technical. Hopefully, people who studied Vajrayana for many years will enjoy that part – as well as the interaction with the teacher.
Q: That’s something that you don’t find very often – someone actually talking about how they were trained.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes – I hope people will find that helpful in terms of how they relate to their own Lamas.
Q: Thank you Rinpoche, this has been fascinating.
Q. What was that like as a process?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: The poetry seemed to break up into two different forms: five-line and nine-line stanzas. The earlier work broke up most readily into five-line stanzas – but now I write mainly in nine-line stanzas. What I developed from this, I called a canto. The canto form I’ve adopted is nine, nine-line stanzas: eighty-one lines. If I can’t write eighty-one lines on the basis of an idea or inspiration it’s not worth writing.
Q. It’s either eighty-one lines or nothing?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: That's right. I find that valuable because it’s hard work. It forces a creative form that has more substance – and substancelessness. It’s a form in respect of which I have to experience emptiness. So, I’ve really appreciated Allen Ginsberg’s poetic criticism. It pushed me into evolving the mode that I call Critical Mass Poetics.
Q. Critical Mass Poetics?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: There’s a certain similarity with Allen Ginsberg’s work and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s work: the pairing of unlikely words which have an explosive effect on each other. This is where the idea Critical Mass originated – particularly from Allen Ginsberg’s line ‘. . . listening to the cracks of doom on the hydrogen jukebox’. The pairing of the words hydrogen and jukebox is explosive. Hydrogen suggests hydrogen bomb— and jukebox is . . . What the hell is jukebox? It’s a machine – but a machine from popular culture. It came from juke joint– a shack where you could hear Blues, schmooze, and booze . . . The cracks of doom—according to the Bible—are the sounds that heralds the day of the Last Judgment, when ‘God’ decree the fate of humanity according to their benevolence or sociopathy. Or Allen Ginsberg may have gotten it from Shakespeare where Macbeth says more-or-less ‘Thou art likethe spirit of Banquo! Thy crown does sear mine eye-balls. And thy hair, that gold-bound brow, is like the first. A thirdis like the former. Filthy hag! Why does thou show me this? A fourth! What! Will the line stretch out to the cracks of doom?’
So, ‘listening to the cracks of doom on the hydrogen jukebox' creates a wealth of impressions. You can’t really say what it means – but when you read it: a realm of images arises.
Q. I appreciate your explaining the process here. Can you say more about Critical Mass Poetics?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: It’s interesting the way that poets quote poets. It goes back a long way. I named it Critical Mass Poetics – because, looking at poetry, I had to define poetry. Why is it not prose? Some people have said that what I write is prose because of the long line-length. I would answer that it is not prose for various reasons. It conforms to a particular form. It also has density to it that prose does not have. It uses words in peculiar ways. It doesn’t make linear sense in the way that prose is required to make linear sense. It’s densely written and contains often highly condensed imagery. These are particular factors of Critical Mass Poetics. There are many people who take the quality of poetry to be based on its meaning: usually political or spiritual meaning. There’s no problem with writing political or spiritual poetry – but its quality cannot hang on the spiritual or political correctness of what is written. The same criterion can be applied to prose. I would say that poetry—to be defined as poetry—has to employ language in a way that is distinct and different from prose.
Poetry used to be defined by meter and rhyme – but, when one abandons meter and rhyme, there needs to be some other criterion to distinguish poetry from prose. I do however, use some form of meter. The words have to flow but it’s not a fixed meter. I also rhyme from time to time – but the rhymes are used in the same way one might use alliteration or assonance. They are occasional. They are not regular. I might rhyme a word several times within one line. I use rhyming as a method within the piece of poetry as I use other figures of rhetoric.
Q. Figures of rhetoric?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: Alliteration is the most commonly known. Then there is Polyptoton – as in the Beatles song Please Please Me– the use of the same word in different cases. Antithesis, as in Oscar Wilde’s ‘What is fashionable iswhat one wears oneself - What is unfashionable is what others wear.’ Mersin: superfluous verbiage that repeats a sentiment for effect – as in The Charge of the Light Brigade: ‘ . . . cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, cannon in front of them.’ Blazon: using multiple similes to describe a person, place, of object. ‘Full fathom fivethy father lies, Of his bones are coral made, Those are pearls that were his eyes . . . ’ Then there is synæsthesia – which is found in surrealism and psychedelia – where senses describe each other. There are a score of these figures of rhetoric that are used in poetry – but I have not found them employed a great deal in most modern poetry. This seems a shame because they are the fundamental tools of poetry.
That’s about it. That’s the story of Allen Ginsberg who had a profound effect on me but never knew that he had. He died before I was able to send him my revised work.
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