This is the story of my life, and it is also an intimate portrait of my husband, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The two things are quite intertwined for me. My husband was a Tibetan Buddhist lama, the eleventh incarnation in the Trungpa lineage and the abbot of Surmang, a major group of monasteries in Eastern Tibet. Rinpoche (pronounced RIM-poach-eh), the name by which I usually called him, is a title for great lamas and incarnate teachers, which means "precious one?' Rinpoche leftTibet in 1959 because of the communist Chinese invasion of his country, and after spending a few years in India, he came to England. I met him there when he was twenty-eight and I was fifteen. We were married when I was sixteen, which was quite shocking to both my family and to Rinpoche's Tibetan colleagues. We loved each other deeply, and we had a very special connection. However, our marriage was highly unconventional by most standards, and it was not without heartbreak or difficulty In the end I have no regrets.
Rinpoche was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers in the West and one of the very first to teach Westerners in the English language. The time that he spent in the West-between 1963, when he arrived in England, and 1987, when he died in North America-was animportant period for the transplantation of Buddhism to the West, and I hope that my viewpoint as his wife may offer a unique perspective on that period. A lot of what my life was about during those years was about him and what happened to him. So a main objective for telling my story is so that the memory of him and of all those things that happened can be preserved.
I also want to talk about our life together and our relationship because it was so human and so intimate. Ultimately I think that this is the essence of the Buddhist teachings: they are about how to live our lives as human beings, intimately, moment by moment. So I will try to share with you what it was really like to love such a person. It was quite extraordinary.
The first time I saw Rinpoche was in December of 1968, during my Christmas break from Benenden School, an elite English boarding school for girls. I was fifteen at the time, and I was spending the holidays at home with my mother and my sister in London. The previous summer, my sister Tessa and I had traveled with Mother to Malta. At that point in my life, I couldn't communicate at all with my mother, and I felt claustrophobic around her. While we were in Malta, I withdrew more and more into myself, and I read many books about Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism. When we got back to London, I started to go to lectures and other events at the Buddhist Society in Eccieston Square. Buddhism was not particularly popular at that time, and none of my friends were interested in it. However, my father had had an interest in Buddhism and after his death, when I was thirteen, I began to question and explore my own spirituality first reading about comparative religion and then focusing on Buddhist writings. In the autumn of 1968, I read Born in Tibet, Rinpoche's book about his upbringing in Tibet and his escape from the Chinese. I thought it was an exciting and somewhat exotic story. However, the book was nowhere near as thrilling as meeting the author proved to be!
Over the Christmas holidays, I went to St. George's Hall to attend a rally for the liberation of Tibet, sponsored by the Buddhist Society. The program went on for several hours, with one speaker after another. I found it quite boring. One of the last speakers on the schedule was the author of Born in Tibet, ChögyamTrungpa Rinpoche, who appeared onstage in the maroon and saffron robes of a Tibetan monk. I looked up at him from the audience, and much to my amazement, I felt an immediate and intense connection. Before he could say anything, however, he collapsed and was carried offstage. We were told that Rinpoche had taken ill, but I imagine that alcohol may have been involved.
Although he was only onstage for a few minutes, I knew that I had a very deep and old connection with him, and it stirred up a great deal of emotion for me. The only way I can describe this experience is that it was like coming home. Nothing in my life had hit me in such a powerful way. I said to myself, "This is what I've been missing all my life. Here he is again." This wasn't just some exciting, powerful experience. I knew him, and as soon as I saw him, I realized how much I'd been missing him. From that moment on, I wanted desperately to meet him.
Since the age of thirteen, shortly after my father's death, I had had several very vivid dreams about previous lives in Tibet. I didn't tell anyone about them because I didn't know what to say about them, and I thought that people might misunderstand. I didn't really understand these dreams myself, although somehow I knew that the location was Tibet and these were about previous lives. When I saw Rinpoche, I knew that he was connected to the world that I had encountered in my dreams.
In one of the most vivid dreams, I lived in a nunnery on a large white lake in Tibet. At first I lived in a dormitory with other nuns, but then I was given my own living quarters in a large room dominated by a huge white statue of a Buddha. I stayed in the nunnery for several years, practicing meditation and studying. Then, I left to go on retreat in a cave in the mountains.
In retreat I wore a heavy woolen nun's robe, which is called a chuba, and it was lined with fur. The furnishings in the cave were spartan, with a small bed in one corner, an area for cooking, and a simple shrine in front of which I practiced, seated cross-legged on a small raised platform. At one time, I could remember the deity that I visualized in retreat, although that memory has faded now. Later, when I described this to my husband, he knew exactly what practice I was doing.
I was terrified of wild animals in the vicinity. I started building a fire near the front of the cave every night to keep the animals away. Eventually, people from a nearby village raised the money to build a white facade to the cave, and then I felt safe staying there alone.
Once, I saw some Westerners passing through the area. I was amazed and fascinated by them. They had boots that were like nothing I had ever seen before, hiking boots, I suppose. When I ~recall them, the memories are as clear as any part of the past.
To get water, I had ~to walk down the valley to a little stream. It was peaceful there, and I enjoyed these outings. One day, I was sitting by the water holding a pomegranate. I have no idea where I got it. Pomegranates grow in Northern India, and perhaps they grew in this part of Tibet as well. It's quite tropical in sonic of the valleys. I distinctly remember the feel of the fruit in my hand. Then, suddenly, I died-just like that. I think I must have had a heart attack. Then I saw my body from a long way away. I felt as if I were in a vacuum hose, being vacuumed up and out of this world through a tunnel. That is the last thing that I can remember.
When I described all of this to my husband, he said that with a little more discussion he could tell me exactly who I had been but that it wouldn't be a good thing for me to know that. He thought it might become an obstacle. He told me that probably I was given my own room in the nunnery because I was the relative of an important person, possibly a high lama. He thought I might have been related to his own predecessor, the Tenth Trungpa. He never said anything further about it.
I only told Rinpoche about this dream after we were married, but he said that he'd known about my past life in Tibet from the first time we met. I have told very few people about all of this, but it seems that it might be helpful now to understanding our connection.
After seeing Rinpoche in London, I continued to read anything about Tibet or Tibetan Buddhism that I could get my hands on. Not long after the rally, I was able to attend a program that he was teaching at the Buddhist Society, which is one of the oldest Buddhist organizations in England. It was founded by Christmas Humphries, a very colorful and well-known judge. When Rinpoche first arrived in England, the Buddhist Society often invited him to teach there, and they published some of his early lectures in their journal, The Middle Way. However, at some point, the Buddhist Society and Rinpoche had a falling-out. I heard that, after they discovered he was drinking alcohol during a program, they never invited him back.
The particular program that I attended was a series of lectures on Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche, the Indian teacher who was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century. Rinpoche told us stories ~ life and the lessons that one could take from it. Frankly, I don't remember the talks that well~ I mainly remember staring at the teacher. I thought that he looked beautiful in his monks' robes, and although he had rather thick reading glasses, I found him quite good-looking.
The participants were told that we could have a private interview with the teacher if we requested one. Although I felt a bit shy and intimidated, of course I asked to see him. The lectures were conducted in a large room upstairs in the Buddhist Society, across from which was a small interview room. During the interview, Rinpoche was incredibly sweet. He gave me instruction in meditation, which I don't remember very well. I was just so hungry for him. To me, he seemed to be a very special being: so kind, so pure, so sharp. During the interview, I had the sense that he was touching my mind with his. There was absolutely no barrier in our communication. He seemed to fall in love with the mind of whomever he worked with. I felt that he had no personal agenda except to be kind and helpful.
In the interview room, Rinpoche sat on a cushion on the floor, and I sat across from him. There was a bowl of grapes in front of him, and at a certain point, he offered me some. Even though we had just met, I think there was already some sexual feeling between us, but I didn't really pick up on it. I was only fifteen and quite naive at that point. After the interview, I felt enchanted by the experience and by how close I felt to him. I resolved to spend more time with him.
In 1967 Rinpoche had co-founded a rural meditation center in Scotland, named Samye Ling. He spent most of his time there, and one could go to the center to practice meditation and hear lectures on Buddhism. Early in 1969, I heard about a program at Samye Ling that I wanted to attend during a long weekend that I had off from school. Being only fifteen, I had to have my mother's permission. When I asked her, she told me that the only way she would allow me to go was if she came too. The prospect of her accompanying me was unpleasant. Our relationship was not good, to say the least, and my mother also was extremely prejudiced against anybody who wasn't white and a member of the English upper class. She would have had a problem with Rinpoche if he were Italian, let alone an Asian who was an adherent of some strange religion-as far as she was concerned. However, I felt that I had no choice, so I told her that it would be fine if she came along. I think she was mildly intrigued by something as exotic as a Tibetan lama.
Mother, Tessa, and I took the long drive up from London to Scotland. Although I wasn't looking toward to spending the weekend with my mother, I was excited to be going to Samye Ling, especially with Tessa, with whom I was quite close. The drive took us more than six hours. Most of the roads weren't good, which made it slow going. We crossed the border from England into Dumfriesshire, in the southwest of Scotland. From the city of Dumfries, we turned northeast onto a two-lane highway, which we followed for about twenty miles until we came into Lockerbie, a town of a few thousand residents. We passed through an area forested with short pine trees and then came into a part of the Scottish lowlands with almost no trees at all. We headed north on a small country road. The countryside there feels quite empty but also quite romantic in a desolate way.
We continued north to Eskdalemuir, a tiny village composed of a few houses here and there. A few miles further north, we found ourselves at San1ye Ling. The main building was a large white stone house, several hundred years old, set starkly in the middle of its lawn. There were several small buildings spread around the property, for people doing retreats. The well-tended grounds were surrounded by barren terrain, wind-swept hills with a mixture of green and brown long grass now flattened by the wind. Little clouds in the sky seemed to niirror the scattered sheep on the hillsides.
When we entered the house, we were directed down the main corridor. On our left was a room with large windows that looked out into the garden. Sherab Palden Beru used this room as his painting studio. He was one of the Tibetan monks in residence there and was a talented painter of traditional Tibetan religious paintings, which are called thangkas. The room was filled with his drawings and paintings in various stages of completion. They depicted Tibetan mandalas and deities, some of them quite fierce. I was somewhat familiar with these images, but it must have been quite strange to my mother's eyes.
Farther down the hall on the left was the main shrine room, a large room set aside for meditation and the conduct of various Tibetan practices and ceremonies. It was painted in deep reds, yellows, oranges, and gold, and a number of shrines were set up around the room. In addition to the more elaborate central shrine there were smaller shrines in various parts of the room. There were butter lamps burning, and we noticed a number of bronze and gold statues. Thangka paintings hung on the backdrops to the shrines and on the walls of the room, and there was a heavy smell of Tibetan incense. There were low benches and cushions for people to sit on as well as a sort of throne covered in brocade. We were told that this was where Rinpoche sat, as the presiding lama. Early morning services, or pujas, were held every day in the shrine room. Rinpoche used to come down to morning puja. There were stories about him falling asleep on the throne, and people used to drive around the driveway honking the horn to wake him up...