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.