We said farewell to the Bhikku as we called him then, in the monastery in Rumtek in 1971. He gave us his last talk at the end of the retreat and said that he had given us ‘everything necessary for this life’ and we had the choice of either working on it and advancing or just sitting idly on our buttocks. He said he was staying on to do some studies and retreat.
He did not speak of what lay ahead for him, that he was recognized by the Dalai Lama as being a very High and enlightened teacher and that he will be given a title etc. We all had our turn, as he sat there on the terrace in the sun with the Himalyas framing the setting of our departure and we came up one by one to thank him and say farewell.
It was the last I saw of him, but his teachings, his smile, the things he said to tease me about my being a Christian and yet diving into Buddhism, all this I could never forget.
A few days before leaving, he lent me a book “The opening of the Mind’s Eye” , written by the Dala Lama. It pertained to the vow one takes to return again and again to this life as long as there were beings to be saved. I wonder, ‘has he returned? and will we ever meet again? I remain always in gratitude for the teachings and for the memory of his compassion. It was a short time to have known him now but I know one day, maybe in eternity, I will get the chance to look into his eyes again or to hear his laughter.
“It was not long before Namgyal Rinpoche was recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and a close friendship developed between His Holiness and Rinpoche. The Venerable Dudjom Rinpoche, the late head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, also declared his respect for Namgyal Rinpoche, confirming the earlier assessment by the Gyalwa Karmapa that this man born in Canada was in fact the reincarnation of the renowned Tibetan saint Mipham Namgyal.
Namgyal Rinpoche continued to teach vast numbers of students for many years, most frequently at Dharma Centres established by his students in North, Central and South America, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, New Zealand and Australia, not to mention various places in Canada. His root teacher, H.H. the 16th Karmapa, passed away on the 5th of November in 1981 (the Tibetan Iron-bird Year), and has since been both reborn and re-enthroned in Tibet, as the 17thKarmapa Urgyen Thinley Dorje.
As the Tibetan tradition in America gained in popularity in the late seventies and early eighties, Rinpoche began to notice how far too many of his students were being attracted, not by a genuine desire to seek personal Enlightenment, but by a need to immerse themselves in what was an exciting, exotic foreign culture: the colourful culture of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. He questioned why were these young Westerners so enthralled by the outer trappings of Tibetan religion, and is this was this really a healthy situation. That enquiry led Rinpoche to take a number of fresh tactics. On more than one occasion he berated his students for being entranced by the form, while missing the essence of the teachings. “You people are fooling yourselves,” he said, “copying and imitating all things Tibetan, while missing the real point of Buddhism!” For a time he dropped all visible manifestations of the Tibetan tradition from his teaching and even preferred to be known simply by his family name, George Dawson. In doing this, he wanted to cut through the artificiality and pretense which so often surrounds religion.
Namgyal Rinpoche also wanted his students to see that Dharma was universal. That is, Buddhism is not something contained in an ethnic tradition or culture. The Dharma is not something Japanese, Tibetan or Burmese any more than it can be said to be uniquely Indian. Dharma is a teaching, the teaching stemming from the Buddha, added to by innumerable enlightened Saints throughout the centuries, which has spread throughout the world in a thousand forms. Truth is simply Truth. We cloak it in so many forms, but the forms are not what Truth is. He wanted his students to grasp the heart of the Teaching, and make it their own. In this, he certainly succeeded!
Having then weaned his students of their cultural and religious myopia, Namgyal Rinpoche was able to re-introduce the Tibetan teachings to them in ways which could open their eyes to the real essence. He gradually brought back more and more of the rich tradition that we are able to inherit from Tibetan Buddhism, but now more than ever from a perspective that his students could genuinely use in the personal transformation their lives.
As Doug Duncan says, “Awakening isn’t about finding a better culture or religion. In fact, it isn’t even about meditation. It’s about waking up; its about becoming free from being subject to suffering. It’s about learning to look at our experience directly, with honesty and integrity. In the final analysis, it’s about freedom, and anything that gets in the way of that goal is counter-productive, however great its potential.”
Rinpoche displayed an unique ability to encompass and bridge the traditional methods of old-world Buddhism and modern Western science. As a Westerner Namgyal Rinpoche was able to transmit the path of Enlightenment in universal terms according to people’s own interests and proclivities. Like his root teacher, the great Karmapa, he transcended sectarian boundaries, opened the teaching in a manner accessible for Westerners, and became a leading beacon for the Dharma in the world.
There were many occasions when Rinpoche startled his students by doing something quite unusual. At one time he and some students were traversing the side of a mountain when a landslide began. The area they were skirting consisted of loose gravel, stones and broken rock. Suddenly the ground around them began to tremble, and large boulders started to give way. In seconds it became obvious that the small group would be engulfed, as the landslide crashed towards them from above. Rinpoche immediately told his disciples to recite a specific mantra well known to them, and while thrusting his hand up in a sudden pointing gesture, it was as if he commanded the sliding mountain to stop its dangerous assault. With amazement and shock the students witnessed the falling rubble part around them, as the landslide divided into two separate streams, one to the left, one to the right, just barely sparing their lives.
A true knower of the hearts of men, a living saint to whom is attributed a host of miracles, but most of all a truly loving human being, the great Namgyal Rinpoche has inspired hundreds of dedicated students. His generosity and kindness flowed forth without ever wearing him down, as he served all who came to him for guidance, comfort and encouragement on the Spiritual Path. Brutally fierce with some, his actions were nevertheless always suited to the requirements of those with whom he dealt. With me he was excessively kind, gentle and patient. More than ever, as the years pass by, in reflecting on what a great being he truly was, I am reminded of the qualities and attributes of the Buddha himself.
Rinpoche gradually trained his most senior students to become meditation teachers in their own right. His longest standing disciple, Sonam Gyatso, and his attendant Terry, both of whom practically spent their whole lives in close proximity to Rinpoche, need special mention. Other senior students of Namgyal Rinpoche include Karma Chime Wangmo, Cecilie Kwiat, Doug Duncan, Tarchin Hearn, Sherab Lodro (Paul Curtis), Lama Lodro (Jeff Olson), Bonni Ross, and Karma Lekshe Yondu, who today are responsible for perpetuating Namgyal Rinpoche’s lineage.
Our most beloved teacher passed away in Switzerland, October 22, 2003, having giving his final instruction to his many students the world over.
For more information about Namgyal Rinpoche please visit the website of theDharma Centre of Canada.