In the morning of Tuesday February 9th, 2016, our Vajra sister Christina von Geispitzheim passed away in Castel del Piano, near Merigar West in Italy, after a long illness. The Merigar Community will be doing Shitro practice for her on Thursday February 11th.
Christina was one of the first members of the Dzogchen Community in Europe and had many memories of the first retreats with Rinpoche in Italy. In the summer of 2008 The Mirror published the story of ‘How She Met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’ which we are pleased to republish here in memory of her.
How I Met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu
or, How I found my Family
by Christina von Geispitzheim
Many of the stories of “How I met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu” end up being small life stories. In a certain sense the meeting with the Master is a culminating point to which one’s whole life is pointing, only that in the early stages one maybe does not know why he or she feels compelled to go in a certain direction. Then one starts to glimpse a direction, maybe starts to think concretely that he or she is looking for a Master, than they have to go on, some the hard way, and some the smooth way. All in all, it is really a big adventure!
As a child I was living in Vienna, Austria, and somehow I often had the idea that I was Chinese, in reality for me Chinese meant ASIA or the Orient as a whole, and I saw myself with almond eyes on the part of the globe where I had seen China written. Obviously my parents did not take any of those ideas seriously and meanwhile sent me to the French school to study, or even better, to soon meet and marry a nice young man from some exclusive family. (Maybe it would not have been so bad after all, who knows?)
As soon as I finished college, I decided to leave my home and family and go to Paris. I did not tell anybody of my plans, as I was still legally a minor, and I was sure they would not let me go. Luckily I had a passport from previous holiday trips. I left a note on the table saying I would visit friends in the mountains and went to the national highway going West, from where it took me three days and three nights to arrive in Paris as I had no experience of hitch-hiking and did not even have a road map. I did not really have a plan or a project. The decision to go to Paris was intuitive, a short cut to be on my own and to take my life in my own hands.
Paris in the early summer seemed enchanting to me, it was in the sixties and there were less cars than now and one could just walk around for hours, so that’s what I did. I explored the city on foot and landed in the Quartier Latin, the Boulevard St. Germain, and got a small room at the Hotel de Sports on Place de la Contrescarpe, which seemed a really very interesting place. There were people living there from all over the world – painters, writers, musicians, actors, British, American, Swiss, German, Scandinavian, Irish and many others from all the neighboring European countries. Paris was fascinating for a teenager like me, and so I decided I would stay. I wrote a letter to my parents to inform them of my whereabouts so they would not worry, in fact they were not, and I received a reply saying ok, stay there if this is what you want.
So now I had my freedom; nobody to tell me what to do or what to think. I had found a corner in a new type of society, much more adapted for shedding a bit of cultural and social conditioning; in short I was at the “starting gate”. I spent the following five years in Paris, in the summer I would go to St. Tropez where the scene moved, and enjoyed the company of international friends, just listening to their discussions on philosophy, politics, religion, psychology and you name it. A new world opened to me – before that it had never occurred to me that there could be more than one vision or point of view to explore. I listened and listened, nearly never said a word for months and years, just listening to the discussions of these people from all over the world. I had the opportunity to observe many types of manifestations of human nature; this was quite different from what I had known from Vienna. I tried to make myself more international, sometimes through books, even already in the sixties in Paris libraries and bookshops all over had books, even second hand, on all topics, which in Vienna would be available only to a small academic elite. I started to read all the books I could get on philosophy and religions from all parts of the world. Some of those books quite impressed me, but most did not touch me too much and seemed a bit complicated to me. Then I discovered the booklet “101 stories Zen” compiled by Paul Reps. This one I read hundreds of times, and I loved the stories and had the feeling that there was something in these stories that touched me deeply. My preferred was the one of the dirt road:
“The monks Tanzan and Ekido are walking together on a dirt road. It rains. After a turn they see a young girl, nicely dressed in a silk kimono. She could not cross the road because the mud was too deep. ‘Come dear girl’ said the monk Tanzan, who took her in his arms and carried her like this over the mud hole. Ekido didn’t say anything until evening when they reached the temple where they would stay overnight. Here Ekido couldn’t keep it to himself anymore: ‘We monks do not go near women, and less to young women who are good looking, it is dangerous, why did you do it?” “I left the girl there on the road, are you still carrying her with you?’ replied Tanzan. I thought about that over and over, and there is actually a lot to this koan about compassion, attachment, and clarity, to mention only the most obvious.”
Now my reading focus took an Eastern direction. I discovered the books of Alexandra David-Neal and Anagarika Govinda, and in a certain way they showed me the direction of where I wanted to go, to travel to these fascinating places like David-Neal and study the way of life of the people there. Probably it came also from a longing for adventure to project my thinking so far from my origin, but I definitely felt drawn to these people in the Himalayas and on the roof of the world and wanted to meet them.
In the meanwhile I had married Stan Tomshinsky, a New Yorker of Russian origins, in Paris. He had quit his journalistic career to become a painter. He also had great interest for Buddhism and for Zen. After a few years in France and traveling around in Europe, we settled in Milano, Italy, in the artists’ quarter of Brera. I organized shows at art galleries throughout Italy and abroad, traded the paintings of my husband, and as this was the pre sixty-eight era, the economy was prosperous, people in Europe still had faith in the future and bought art work and paintings, and so in those years life was fairly agreeable.
At this point a quite important event was to happen. One of the French connection, Betrand, came to visit us. We had left him in Paris very sick and miserable and here he was in good health and like new. He had cured himself with Yoga and a Zen diet. Obviously it was macrobiotics, but at that time macrobiotics was totally unknown in Italy. I knew that I had to try all that out, this was for me: Yoga and a Zen way of living. I tried it all out on my husband and me, luckily he liked that too, and then I stocked up in books on those topics.
After experiencing and studying, I followed stages of macrobiotics in various countries. In Gstaad (Switzerland) I met my first Master, Itsuo Tsuda. He was Master of Aikido and Seitei and also introduced us to Zazen. Seitei, known in the western world as “Regeneration movement”, is a marvelous practice to keep body and mind in a natural state and balances disequilibrium. I did a six-week retreat with Master Tsuda on the Cote d’Azur to deepen the knowledge on Seitei. We also did Zazen sessions every day and chanted the Sutras in Japanese. Itsuo Tsuda certainly was a great master, but it was clear that he did not want pupils. He always answered all questions of technical nature, but general questions or such on philosophy only got some sort of smile but no comment. When Master Tsuda left, to my surprise, he authorized me to teach Seitei in Italy. So now I had a Master, but one who did not want pupils. Here I was now connected to the “oriental” world, the Far East, like I had seen myself as a child.
It was quite interesting; after I started macrobiotics and Seitei everything was on the move. I met many new people, all looking for something to improve their life style. The many connections I had in the art world were interested to regain their health and youthfulness. I met Francesca San Felice and family who were also interested in working with macrobiotics and had opened a macrobiotic center in Milan where I could give talks, cooking lessons and personal advice and where I also conducted sessions of Seitei. I wrote a book on how to practice macrobiotics European style and knew that it would be much in demand, be- cause so many people needed to go back to a more natural way of eating. The after war economic boom and abundance had made people forget the quality of natural food.
In the Brera quarter in Milan I hade met a few interesting people who would help determine the next events to come. Piero Cerri and Claudio Cipullo, young men from Milanese families, sometimes came to visit us and told us about their meeting with a Tibetan Lama in Nepal and that they were going back there to deepen their knowledge on Tibetan Buddhism at a retreat center. From then on I tried to convince my husband that we had to go to India and Nepal soon. After a few months we were on our way to a big pilgrimage through northern India to visit all the holy Buddhist places. Then we went to Kathmandu, because Piero and Claudio, who later on were the co-founders of the Tsong Kapa Insitute of Pomaia, had given us the address where we could find their Master, a Tibetan Lama. All it said was Bodanath, Kopan. We had to ask our way many times, Kopan was not known yet, and finally after about one hour of an uphill walk, we arrived on top of the hill and could see a few houses and a nice garden with Bodhi trees. A few people were sitting around two tables.
I went straight to one of the tables where I saw a man who seemed a monk, and it was Lama Thubten Yeshe. Lama Yeshe smiled to me and said: “Hello, do you want a cup of rice?” This was it, for me it was the coup de foudre, I was feeling so happy, and Lama Yeshe emanated such joyfulness that it seemed contagious. He had such warmth and understanding and I never had met a person like this before so I just felt wonderful in his presence. I felt that I had found what I was looking for. Somebody brought rice and tea and there I was sitting next to Lama Yeshe having a comfortable and relaxing lunch. Lama Yeshe asked a few questions on our whereabouts and after a while, after we had finished lunch, he got up and went into one of the houses. I would never speak to him again.
After three months our visa expired and we went back to Italy. Somehow the priorities for my husband and me were drifting a part. I was weary of the art scene and galleries, and we separated, remaining good friends for all the years to come. My macrobiotic lessons were always on demand and I decided to open a vegetarian restaurant. I bought a Pizzeria in the center of Milano and with the help of a few sponsors, people who had found better health thanks to the cooking lessons, and of my now ex-husband who mobilized for me architects and suppliers of furniture, I succeeded in raising the capital and re- structuring the place completely. It became quite cozy. The name of the restaurant was called, “Il Dorje Tibetano” (The Tibetan Dorje). I did not know that the place would be host to a number of great Masters in the years to come. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche gave teachings and Yantra Yoga lessons there in September 1977. Khamtrul Rinpoche and Drugu Choegyal Rinpoche came to visit and have meals, Itsuo Tsuda, and Baba Bedi as well, and many of their pupils. The Dorje Tibetano was a bit the information center for a number of spiritual groups operating in Milano.
Piero and Claudio, who in the meantime had become monks, announced the First Tibetan Meditation Course of Italy that was to be held near one of the lakes north of Milan. Lama Yeshe would give teaching. At this retreat I met some of our Vajra brothers and sisters who are now students of Norbu Rinpoche too, like our vajra brothers the Dessole family from Sardegna who soon after would organize Retreats with Norbu Rinpoche in Sardegna (Costa Paradiso, Lu Cumitoni).
Back in Milano I met a number of people interested in the Buddhist Teaching, one of them Aldo Oneto, who had connections with people following other schools of Tibetan Buddhism. They were following the Kagyupa Tradition. So together with Aldo, we went to France and made a kind of big tour of Dharma centers from Paris to the Dordogne to Aix and the Cote d’Azur. I met Kalu Rinpoche who impressed me deeply, received a big number of initiations, and I liked the general ambiance.
Somehow it seemed that the teachings tended to be a bit mysterious, or difficult to access, and not everybody could receive them. Some people I met were always looking for new occasions to get teachings or initiations; it seemed they were hunting lungs and mantras and proud to get new ones. However, the teaching we learned was not easy to realize in daily life in a city in the 20th century, and to me there seemed to be a cultural barrier. I tried to do prostrations as we had learned when back home. After a few weeks I told myself that I really did not want to go on doing prostrations, it made me feel like having to punish myself for some bad behavior, so I tried a mantra, and this seemed more natural. This was a major issue for me; they all said you should meditate, practice, make pujas and so on, but this would take hours every day. I had no inclination of dedicating hours and hours to meditation, as the priority for me was to live and see what came up. Also I had just opened my restaurant, it worked fine and I liked it and had a myriad of things to look after and organize. So I put my energy in the restaurant, which became kind of meeting place for people from northern Italy who were interested in Buddhism, Yoga, Zen and various healing practices.
Lama Ghendun held a historic meditation course of the Kagyupa Tradition at the Non-Libreria, translated from Tibetan to English by his accompanying Anila (nun) and in Italian by Mario Maglietti. We moved the weeklong meditation course for about 40 participants into a quiet little hotel of a friend of mine in the mountains, to Marzio, north of Milan. This Kagyupa meditation course would remain unforgettable and significant for most people who were there, several who are now pupils of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche: Giuliano Casiraghi, Enrico dell’Angelo, Muriella Colajacomo, Stefano Pirovano, Paolino Perrela, and Massimo Moncelesan. However, on the occasion of the Kagyupa meditation retreat in Marzio, I made the most important connection for future steps for- ward in meeting Norbu Rinpoche. I met Laura and Costantino Albini. Right away I felt drawn like a sister to Laura, she was somehow the kind of Austrian I could understand, and so I found that we had certain aspects of our education in common. I went to visit Laura in Rome and learned from her that she knew an important Rinpoche who actually was living in Italy and spoke Italian. The important Rinpoche she mentioned was none other than Chögyal Namkhai Norbu.
A few months after the Kagyu retreat in Marzio, then Spring 1976, Laura Albini made a phone call to us at the Dorje Tibetano and announced with great joy that Chögyal Namkhai Norbu had agreed to give teachings in Italy. She would rent a big villa situated in the Roman hills, the name of the township nearby was Subiaco, and that we from north Italy who were interested in Buddhism were welcome to participate. She said also that it was to be a group of 21 people, and the retreat would start the last week of June and go on the whole summer until the first week of September. Laura Albini took care of all the preparations, and wanted to construct a throne for Rinpoche as she had seen in Nepal in the monasteries. So she entrusted one of our Vajra brothers to construct a big throne before the arrival of Rinpoche to receive and place him with due honor as by tradition. The throne did not grow much in height, and somehow the wood was not enough, so when we arrived we saw just a podium about 30 centimeters high. However Laura had brought smooth carpets and furs and placed them on the podium for Rinpoche to sit on. People had arrived from various parts of Italy and everybody had high expectations. Rinpoche had arrived by car with his son Yeshi and a man from Naples named Gennaro who seemed to act as his factotum.
Rinpoche entered the sitting room on the scheduled day and took his seat, not even on the wooden seat, but on the floor, on a cushion, with Yeshi next to him. This was the moment when Chögyal Namkhai Norbu in his great compassion started to officially give teachings in Italy.
From this historical day on we had the privilege to receive teachings every day, not following a fixed timetable, but more according to daily circumstances, some- times in the sitting room, sometimes in the garden, or in the dining room, and some- times in the morning or at night. As this was such a small a group, everybody could ask questions, and they did, hundreds and hundreds of questions were answered by Rinpoche on all topics: specific clarifications of texts, questions on the history of Buddhism and of Tibet, on Rinpoche’s personal life in Tibet, on pronunciation and melody of practices, as well as questions on conduct and ethics.
After a few days I understood that now I had found my Master, the teachings and explanations were so clear and understandable, one could apply them in all possible life situations. No need to go away from society to live the Dzogchen teachings. I felt that Rinpoche knew about our actual efforts and difficulties in coping with daily life and that he could show us the possible and true path to self-liberation. I felt also that in case I would have a specific question on how to resolve some personal impasse, I could ask Rinpoche, and that his advice would be helpful and authentic. I was feeling like on a cloud and protected by a circle of fire, I knew that now nothing could really harm me any more. This was the link; I had finally found my own real family. And this was only the beginning; many retreats were to follow, from California to Sydney. For a few years now I have lived near Merigar and the adventure goes on.
Reprinted from The Mirror, issue 93, July/August 2008