How I Met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu

by Cvetko Jovanovic

Boudhanath-1986-2.400 cropMy mother and I met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu together, when I was only four years old, so it would be difficult, almost impossible to separate our stories.

My mother, Zeljka Jovanovic, was born and grew up in Belgrade, in ex-Yugoslavia, and because she grew up without her mother, she was a particular child. She was practically raised by servants because my grandfather was rich and there were constantly two or three women-servants at home who took care of her, cooking, cleaning and playing the role of the nanny.

From a very young age she started having visions and signs of what was going to become the most important thing in her life, Dharma. From the age of twelve she started having clear and very strange signs that she couldn’t understand at the time, but that were as an omen of what was to come.

My mother was a very talented and curious person, and as she needed answers to questions, she studied philosophy and was acknowledged as one of the most gifted students of her generation. At the time of her studies there were very few books published about Buddhism in the west in general, and even less under the Communist regime of ex-Yugoslavia. At the end of her studies she realized that she couldn’t find answers in philosophy and that western sciences and spiritual ideas were lacking the capacity to satisfy her thirst for real, authentic knowledge and experience. She didn’t know what she was searching for, but she knew that she couldn’t find it in the west.

Shortly before giving her exams, one of her friends decided to go to Africa and invited her to tag along. She accepted and never presented herself for the exams. During the trip she split from that person and continued alone, which was quite a courageous thing to do at the time for a white woman. She went all the way up the Nile, through all the countries until Tanzania. Of course, she didn’t find what she was looking for.

Upon return, she spontaneously joined a group of friends who were going by bus to India. At that time it meant going through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. When people ask me about her life, at this point they consider that she was a hippie, but it was not the case and she never took drugs or drank in her life, unlike many who went to India at that time. As soon as she arrived to India she met a person who immediately brought her to Lama Zöpa and Lama Yeshe’s place. She remained with these incredible Gelugpa teachers for a couple of years where she was trained in Hinayana, Mahayana, Kriyatantra and Yogatantra. She asked them to give her vows and make her a nun but they refused and always sent her on personal retreats, unlike their other students who were either ordained or kept to study together and practice in group.

She would come back from retreat, receive a couple of initiations and essential instructions and then they would send her back into retreat. She spent a couple of years like this. Unfortunately at this time, Lama Zöpa and Lama Yeshe were following the cult of the gyalpo spirit so she started to have signs of that and thought that she should leave. After some wrathful visions and strange aggressive signs Lama Zöpa sent her away and told her to go to the Lake of Padmasambhava. Of course, she immediately thought of the lake of Tso Pema, where Guru Rinpoche meditated with Dakini Mandarava.

Somehow instead of going to Tso Pema, she went to Nepal and ended up in Parphing, where there is a sacred lake of Guru Padmasambhava called Yanglesho. There she met Lama Ralo, a tantric teacher who had spent twelve years in the Asura cave doing Vajrakilaya, Dorje Phurba, and had become pretty famous. He was a very special teacher and one of the closest students of Chatral Rinpoche. Lama Ralo was my mother’s teacher for another couple of years during which she did a lot of Dorje Phurba practice. He was always very hard on her and treated her in a very wrathful way. Later on, when she left India, he was telling all his students that they were worth nothing and that “she” was a good practitioner, he never told this to her personally. In that time period she met Chatral Rinpoche, the greatest living Dzogchen master.

The way she met him is actually quite interesting. One morning Chatral Rinpoche sent one of his western students out and since they were planning a big picnic, this student was to invite the first person she met for the picnic. And, of course, that person was my mother.

She became a close student of Chatral Rinpoche and spent many years following both him and Lama Ralo. During that time, she met my father who is from a very poor part of east Bhutan called Dechen Ling. When he was about twelve years old he was sent to a monastery to study, the only one from his family who learned to read and write. He had the great fortune of having Trinley Norbu as his teacher in school. Trinley Norbu was one of Dudjom Rinpoche’s sons, officially recognized as a manifestation of Longchenpa. He also became his Dharma teacher and my father followed him for about twelve years and became his personal assistant. He learned calligraphy, painting, making mandalas, tormas, rituals, everything. Then he met Dudjom Rinpoche, and recognized him as his root teacher and became his personal assistant for another twelve years.

When my mother and father met they were still quite young, and even so my mother was a Yogini and my father a Yogi. When she discovered she was pregnant with me she was desperate because she had the idea that her life as a tantric practitioner was finished. She went to see a couple of masters with whom she had contact and in the end she went to see Chatral Rinpoche who listened to her, laughed and said: “Yogis like you and me make children.” Then he continued: “If you really insist, I’ll take the child once it is born and make tulku.”

I was born on the fourth of January 1983 near Kathmandu, in a small clinic, so it was a very peaceful birth.Of course, once I was born my mother decided to keep me and, because for her I was like a flower blossom in winter time, she named me Cvetko, which literally mens “Flower” or “Florian”, as “cvet” means flower in Serbo-Croatian.

My parents and I in front of their dharma wares shop

My parents and I in front of their dharma wares shop

Some months after my birth, Chatral Rinpoche met my father and gave him my name written in pink ink on white paper. A very beautiful name – Jigdrel Tutob Wangchuk Dorje.

Then I have another name that was given to me by Lama Ralo, my mother’s tantric teacher, which is one of the names I have in my passport – Kunsang Rigdzin. This is the name I use when I go to the East.

We stayed for a while longer in Nepal and, with time, the relationship between my parents deteriorated. When my maternal grandfather died my mother had to come back to Belgrade to take care of the situation and after that, we all went to France because Dudjom Rinpoche, my father’s teacher, was there.

We all went to Paris, to Dudjom Rinpoche’s place but they wouldn’t let my mother see him, even though my father and I were allowed.

I got quite ill and because the situation with Dudjom Rinpoche’s Sangha was not that good we decided to go to Italy, to Tuscany, to meet an interesting, non-traditional teacher of Dzogchen who lived and taught in the west. This teacher was Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. The evening we met Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche there was a nice dinner at the Yellow House on the veranda, in the yellow house. We arrived at night after a long trip and entered this place. There was a long table with Rinpoche sitting in the middle and all the older practitioners around him, eating, drinking, singing, laughing. My mother said that as we entered it looked like the painting of “The Last Supper”, by Leonardo da Vinci and that she immediately knew that the charismatic Tibetan dressed as a lay person in the middle was one of her teachers.

We stayed for about six months in the area and my father was helping Rinpoche with different things he needed help with. My father is a very traditional person which Rinpoche wasn’t and he never really got interested in Rinpoche’s teachings, but my mother finally met a teacher whose teaching she could practice in normal life, having children and living in the west. She became Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s student and followed his teachings until her untimely death. She was one of the twenty-five practitioners studying for the fourth level of Santi Maha Sangha, did millions of mantras and many personal retreats, trying to integrate practice with her daily life, raising three children alone.

Cvetco passed the SMS exam for children

Cvetco passed the SMS exam for children

While my mother was becoming more and more involved in the Dzogchen Community and translated more than twenty of Rinpoche’s books into Serbo-Croatian, I was growing up in Belgrade in a place where I was the only Asian looking boy, so my childhood was not always easy. I was always different. I grew up in a very interesting artistic environment because most of the people who were interested in the Dzogchen teaching were actors, musicians, and artists. It was a very alternative scene and it was, to say it lightly, an interesting life.

Until the age of twelve I was a perfect child, reading four or five books a week, studying piano and Aikido. As I learned how to read on my own at the age of six, I really loved reading and learning, with my mind traveling and enjoying in worlds that were not like mine. Piano, solfeggio and Aikido lessons were activities I accepted as a part of my life without even questioning the necessity of it all. Until I was about twelve or thirteen, I had no time for myself – I was always busy.

At that time the war in Yugoslavia was starting to become very heavy. It started in 1990 and it lasted until about 2000 so there were about ten years of war. We left in 1998 so we had eight years of living in terrible conditions and even though there were no bombs falling on our heads, the situation was very heavy. The shelves at the supermarkets and in the shops were empty. Even if you had money you couldn’t buy any food.

In spite of all that, until we left, I had an uninterrupted education and culturally Belgrade was a very interesting place. As a small child I learned the Ganapuja practice by heart, I knew all the mudras, mantras etc. My mother liked doing Chöd and I learned all the melodies when I was very small. All of this was just normal, not something special or particular since my mother was completely involved in the teachings. For me it was normal to have rituals and practices done at my home. So I never grew up with an idea that there is something else.

Then in 1998 when I was fourteen we went to south-west France and our lives changed completely. My mother ended up alone in a country where she knew nobody, so suddenly from being an important social person she became a nobody and we lived in ghettos in France, no longer in a fantastic 19th century apartment in the very centre of Belgrade. We went to a smaller 40,000 people town called Mont de Marsan. My mother’s life became quite heavy and really depressing and probably because of all these changes in 2002 she discovered that she had a terminal illness, a type of leukemia.

While things were becoming very strange and heavy for my mother, I blossomed because I was in a place where I was no longer considered to be a strange oriental looking boy and I immediately felt, if not “at home”, certainly much more free. I suddenly had many friends, started to go out, played basketball and became a good player in the regional team.

Gradually I stopped going to Merigar. The last time was when I was about fifteen or sixteen. Then for about six years I was in France, trying to have an ordinary life, the life of an average adolescent living in the west because without even knowing it, I had been living in a totally abnormal situation, growing up as a totally different kind of being, and sometimes it was really heavy for me not to be like the others. So in France I had a kind of a normal life, even though we were very poor.

When I was twenty I had a very heavy love story and was totally heartbroken when it ended and after that I spent four or five months with my punk friends taking a lot of LSD and different kinds of drugs because I was suffering emotionally. I got very skinny at the time, and weighed about 70kg which is almost half of my present weight. Then I had some kind of accident with the riot police and I ended up not being able to chew anything for a month and had a total collapse. I stopped eating, taking drugs, smoking and almost perished.

After that I felt like I wanted to go to Merigar, that Merigar is my home. So with the blessing of my mother I packed up and came to Merigar. It was autumn and Rinpoche was there doing a personal retreat. There was Czech Medved leading an intensive Chöd practice retreat at that time and I followed it and received important instructions from him. I didn’t know how to use any instruments so I just did the practice the best I could, doing visualizations and singing.

Zeljka and Cvetco at the end of the Drubchen of Jnanadakini 2007

Zeljka and Cvetco at the end of the Drubchen of Jnanadakini 2007

The last day of the retreat Rinpoche came for the Ganapuja. With my thoughts I asked him to help me destroy my ego. As I was thinking that, he looked at me very seriously. I had organized to meet him in the afternoon the next day, just to say “hello” and “I am back.” But when I woke up in the morning I had a very strong experience of not having an ego. I felt microscopically small, like a grain of sand, but that grain of sand was not pretty, it was a piece of excrement, so I cried like a river from the early morning. At 4pm I went to Rinpoche’s house, in the same state – totally lost – and instead of just saying “hello”, I just started to tell him everything. He told me that I should remember the words of the Buddha, that everything is an illusion. Then he looked at me very sharply and asked me if I remembered the first time we met. I was a bit in shock and I said that I didn’t, that I was too small to remember.

cvetco jovanovicAfter this meeting with Rinpoche I started to dream again, after nine years of not remembering any dreams, and I gradually became a practitioner. After spending a couple of months in Merigar, I went to London to work. While I was trying to have a normal life in a big city I did a lot of Sinhamukha and started learning Chöd. After two years of working in a four-star hotel I went back to France. Then in 2007 I participated in the Jñanadakini Drubchen on Isla Margarita. It was the first teaching I really wanted to attend and was very important for me.

After that I did many personal retreats, listened to many teachings and did my best in being a “serious” practitioner. Now I’m just trying to make myself useful for the Community and I try to integrate my life with practice. For many years I tried to be a Yogi, practicing many hours every day, but now I just want to be a normal person and have a normal life.