How I Met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu


Alexander (Sasha) Pubants, Santi Maha Sangha instructor

Dzamling Gar – Tenerife, Spain, January 2014

I studied Buddhism for several years with my teacher in Buryatia in the Gelugpa tradition. Then I returned to my home in St. Petersburg  [Russia] where I remained for some years. In 1992 when Rinpoche was invited by some of the people in St Petersburg, I was the study and meditation leader in one small Gelugpa group. We Gelugpas were really skeptical. We thought what is this Dzogchen, do we really need this and maybe it is something strange. But because Rinpoche was a very famous teacher, of course all the Buddhist groups from St Petersburg came. There were around one hundred-twenty people from all over St Petersburg and all different Buddhist groups, like Karma Kagyu and Gelugpa groups and whatever. I also had another teacher at the time, a Gelugpa geshe from Germany. I was a serious Gelugpa student; I learned Tibetan language and read books and lam rim, etc. – very, very precise Gelugpa study.

So we went to see Rinpoche and when I started to listen to him, it was immediately clear that Rinpoche was a teacher, genuine and precise, and it was not some kind of new age fantasy. Also my education in the Gelugpa School provided me with the possibility to recognize that this was a really genuine authentic teaching. Even though it was in other words and maybe presented in another way, but from the beginning that was my strong feeling and conviction and it was also clear that I needed to practice this.

Also before I had had special dreams, [also explaining one’s own dreams is very subjective,] but I had dreams, and also experiences as the result of very serious sitting meditation, where I asked to have a teacher. I was doing yoga and some Hindu practices, many different things and I realized that I needed to have a teacher. This was many years before my Gelugpa teacher. I was studying and practicing Hinduism and studying authentic texts of Pradyikapa, whatever, Shankaracharya, Adantavedanta, and then I had the idea that I needed to have a teacher. I sat for a long time, wishing and concentrating on this wish, that I needed to have a very good and authentic teacher.

I concentrated on this in a relaxed way and some kind of pictures came to me. It was not like a dream, it was something that continuously repeated. What did I see? I saw the teacher, sitting on the cushion with crossed legs, in normal clothes and he looked Chinese with slightly long hair that was blowing in the wind. It was very, very strange because I did not want to have a Chinese teacher, I wanted to have some subtle Hindu yogi, but this picture always came to me. Many times it happened and it was very strange. So then when I saw Rinpoche I remembered this “vision” immediately and it was exactly the experience when I met Rinpoche. So that is my story, and when I saw Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, I immediately remembered and recognized this vision.  I had made this request something like ten years before.

Of course I started immediately to practice with the Community and we did an election of Gakyil (all in 1992) when Rinpoche was in St Petersburg. Different groups were there, Gelugpa, Kagyu, and we were going around looking at each other, we did not know each other, but we understood that Rinpoche said to build a Gakyil and that the Gakyil is a form of how the Community will develop, so we started to form the Gakyil. We did not know exactly with whom we would form this first Russian Gakyil, because we did not know each other. Different people started to have some understanding and they would come to our place where we lived, which was a Buddhist house, we had a small room and we invited other people to come, we invited Rinpoche, also Jim Valby, and we invited the people there to start a Community and elect a Gakyil.

There were no students of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and no Dzogchen Community in St Petersburg before 1992. But we understood that if Rinpoche said we should form a Gakyil and therefore a Community, it would be better if we did it while Rinpoche was there. There were around thirty people there, and we invited Rinpoche, and people who wanted to be the Gakyil. I was also there as a candidate for the Blue Gakyil, everyone had to explain themselves and I said I was some years in Buryatia, I know Tibetan language, I can understand a little bit and can organize the practices. Rinpoche gave a little speech of advice, how we should do, so the first Gakyil of Russia, made up of nine people, was elected in St Petersburg. We each received a small mirror as a gift from Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and I remember this small talk he gave because he said, “You must collaborate, because if you do not, the power of the teachings is very concrete” and he told a story, an example, about Yugoslavia, and he said, “You know some years ago I was there and I told them they should collaborate. They elected a Gakyil. They could not collaborate and there were many quarrels and problems between different groups and nations, and I told them not to do in this way because it is very bad. But they did not listen to me and now it is resolved. They have a war.” Everyone was silent and a bit afraid. And then Rinpoche said, “So this is an example of the protectors of the teachings and how they are functioning. You should take care.” We were totally scared and we understood in that moment that the teaching is a very powerful thing and we should take responsibility for what we are doing and how we are doing it.

Then we started to practice and learn the practices. I remember we only had this one recording, nothing else, no texts, and so we copied some recordings from people who had come with Rinpoche, and we made photocopies of practices and we started to learn them. We had regular meetings and Ganapujas and practices and so on. Then I wrote Rinpoche a letter and I asked what I should do with my practice. There were three questions, but I only remember two. The first question was what should I do with this Gelugpa practice, because I was sure I wanted to continue Dzogchen and Rinpoche answered by hand, at that time there was no email, and he answered. The answer to this question was like this, “If you think you need to change something, then you do not understand what Dzogchen is.” But how could I understand this then? Now I understand more deeply and precisely and also it was at that time an intuitive understanding that it does not matter what I am doing, it is beyond and deeper than any kind of form. And the second question was related to the invocation of Guruyoga because in the Gelugpa tradition we used the dharma name of the Teacher, and I asked Rinpoche to please give me his dharma name so I can put it in the practice. This answer was also amazing. He said, “If you are doing Guruyoga, you are invoking me with the name Padma Todrenzal,” and that was his answer.

So after this I continued to be a seminar leader in this Tibet House, and I did some translation of some books from Tibetan in the Gelugpa tradition. The Dzogchen Community and Gakyil would meet for practices like Ganapujas, and it was interesting because this brought different kinds of people from different traditions, the Kagyus, the students of Danderon from Buryatia, and the Gelugpas. Everyone had totally different ideas; there was the Kagyu style, which was young people who came to hug each other and enjoy, very relaxed and spontaneous, and to be together. Then there were the people who were followers of the famous Danderon from Buryatia, and for some of those people, not all, it became a problem because they were on the side of getting really drunk at Ganapujas, and having really crazy behavior. The teacher had already been dead for many years, he had also been in prison, and was Buryatian, but he had European students. It seemed because they had not really had contact with the teacher that they invented this by themselves. They were used to this behavior at their tsok offerings, which they did in Gelugpa style. Danderon was a Mahamudra master, and this was their style, their habit.

And then there was our group, very strict and precise with rules, Gelugpa style, and we were looking around at the other people and thinking how is this possible that they are also Buddhists, so all these really different people came together. Nevertheless, we tried to really do something, build a Community and collaborate. We had to practice patience and not be so judgmental; it was a really good practice.

For me being on the Gakyil was really strong, because sometimes as a very strict and correct Gelugpa, I had this feeling to run away, thinking what is happening here with these really drunk people. The people would either become really un-moveable on the floor or they would start to fight, or these Karma Kagyu people being la la la, everything is very nice. But what did they think about us? I can imagine they thought, “Oh this very proud Gelugpa who knows how to do everything”…this is also strange. So the people who could somehow change, adapt and collaborate, remained. The ones who could not do this just left the Community. It was a natural process. And those people somehow changed their extreme behavior, not that they changed totally, but the part that was not appropriate in the Dzogchen Community they changed and remained in the Community. The ones who could not left and it was a natural process.

And then the Community started to grow and ripen. We started to study Santi Maha Sangha because we had some materials; there was the first rough translation by John Shane, we had other texts and other books, we had a transcript of the Santi Maha Sangha Base retreat that Rinpoche had given in Merigar (West).  I had the Tibetan text that was not the Precious Vase but one that was before, a big book, so we studied together but not regularly until Rinpoche’s retreat in Moscow in 1994, and it was a special retreat for Santi Maha Sangha teachings. We had ten days, and Rinpoche taught two times a day, morning and afternoon. We had five initiations during this retreat! Also Rinpoche demonstrated the practices, also the practice of the 7th Lojon and how we do the breathing. We were doing the practices with Rinpoche. This was very interesting and very special.

After this retreat we started a study group for people who wanted to seriously study Santi Maha Sangha. It was more or less twelve to fifteen people. We used all this material we had and we met each Saturday, we spent all the day, from morning until evening, eating together and studying. It was very good because we also found how to collaborate and how to share our opinions and understanding with each other; it was a very creative experience. We would choose one topic and everyone would prepare something from different sources and experiences. I used this Tibetan text that we had a copy of since I know Tibetan.  One by one, we did our investment in this. So somebody was from the Kagyu tradition and said how it was connected there, and someone was from a psychology background; we accepted everything and the subject matter went from one person to another. It was very free and relaxed and then we tried to find what Rinpoche was actually saying. That was a very nice, productive and creative group.

Most of those people did the Santi Maha Sangha examination in 1996, so for two years before the exams, we met and we were not only talking but also practicing together.  We would also do something like two thuns of a practice together and then go home during the week and do the practice on our own and then come back the next week and share our experience and clarify with each other. We had no one, no Santi Maha Sangha teachers, nobody. This we needed to do on our own and actually it was very good.

Now I am a Santi Maha Sangha teacher, I try my best, and it was very natural for me because I took this responsibility in front of Rinpoche from the first time I volunteered for the Blue Gakyil. From this time, I said I was interested in organizing the practices, the study and application, learning what people need, etc. The first practices we learned were the short and medium thun, Guruyoga, Amitayus long life practice, Tara, step by step we learned many practices and as Rinpoche said, we need to use practices according to circumstances but circumstances can be different, maybe I don’t need Garuda or Amitayus right now, but my friend needs it and I need to help my friend, because he or she is ill, and I need to know this practice. Not only do I need to know this practice, but to do a retreat to put in action. It is important. Like Shitro, which we do for dead people, we need to master this practice otherwise how can we concretely help the people in the Community. Everyone has hope that when we die the Community will help us.

It just developed like this because when I started to learn the Gelugpa tradition and studied lam rim, then I started reading teachings by Chögyam Trungpa, Tarthang Tulku and other teachers who were teaching Dzogcben. I made the decision that I would combine this good and precise teaching of the gradual path of lam rim, but I needed to combine these two things in my knowledge and application, what is understood by lam rim, like precise introduction to the systematic path and the Dzogchen represented by the Nyingma tradition.  I had made this decision and it manifested. Rinpoche came and it manifested. Before this, it could not manifest. Rinpoche came and it started to develop, it started to develop in myself, in my experience and my application of the practice.

That is my story.