A great amount of material has been recorded and printed regarding the Master’s teaching and his activities since the founding of Merigar, the first Dzogchen Gar, in the eighties, but there are far fewer sources that actually recount the early days of Rinpoche’s life in Naples and his first teachings in the 1970s before the Dzogchen Community was established in Tuscany. In this issue of the newspaper, we are pleased to offer you some personal accounts by some of his first students from Naples and an interview with Adriano Clemente that covers the time that Rinpoche was in Naples up to the founding of Merigar.
Some of this material was originally published in issue 111 of The Mirror, August 2011, and has been revised.
Meeting the Master
An Interview with Adriano Clemente
The Mirror: Adriano, as one of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s earliest students, we would like to ask you about how you met Rinpoche in the 1970s when he was teaching Yantra Yoga in Naples, and some information about his activities until the time when Merigar, the first Gar, was established in Italy.
Adriano Clemente: I was not there when Rinpoche started teaching Yantra Yoga in the original group in Naples because I did not meet him until January 1975. What I know is that starting in the sixties, Rinpoche was sometimes invited by different cultural associations or by ISMEO to give lectures on Tibetan yoga or tantras, and after some of these lectures people asked if he could teach Yantra Yoga.
In Naples a certain Procaccini, who was organizing courses such as Japanese martial arts, Akido, Tai Kwando, and so on, requested Rinpoche several times to teach Yantra Yoga and at one point Rinpoche accepted and started to teach in the Palazzetto dello Sport in 1971. At the time Rinpoche was living in Torre del Greco, a small town near Naples. When he started to teach many people came to his courses such as Nicoletta Liguori and Roberto Ventrella. He made friends with them and went to live with Nicoletta and Roberto in a villa in Gaiola in Naples.
Rinpoche continued to teach at the Palazzetto dello Sport for a couple of years. In November of 1974, when I had entered the dharma in some way, the first thing I wanted to learn was yoga but at the time the only kind of yoga in Naples was hatha yoga with an Indian swami called Satyananda. This means that in that year Rinpoche was not teaching, although he resumed the following year. In January 1975, right after I met him, he started to give a new Yantra Yoga course from January to June.
M: And you took that course?
AC: I did not attend the whole course, but some of my friends did and I would sometimes go there and ask Rinpoche questions.
From 1972 to 1974, especially when Rinpoche was living at the Gaiola with Nicoletta and Roberto, there was a small group of people who started to receive some teachings and explanations from him as well as practices such as the Vajrasattva purification practice. It was a small group with around six or seven people including Gennaro Anziano, Antonio Morgione, Sergio Campodonico, Ciro Marolda, Natale Musella and others.
The time I really entered Rinpoche’s circle was October 1975. He was living in Pozzuoli at that time, a place near Naples, and every Saturday we would meet at his home, he would offer tea and everybody would ask him questions. Usually there was a stable group of ten to twelve people including Ramon Prats, who had met Rinpoche in 1972 or 1973 and had come from Spain especially to meet him and to study Tibetan at the Università Orientale.
Rinpoche would reply to all kinds of questions about Tibetan Buddhism, spirituality, Christ and Buddha and some of these questions and answers he wrote down in a book called Introduction to Dzogchen in Sixteen Answers. Eight of the questions came from this period. Whenever Rinpoche thought the questions and answers were interesting for the future, he would write them down which is how that book was born. (This book has recently been reprinted with the title Dzogchen: Our Real Condition)
The only thing that Rinpoche was teaching at that time and that people were practicing was the Vajrasattva purification practice, so when I got there I learned how to do that practice. From November to February 1975 we met at his home where people would ask questions and Rinpoche would explain. At some point there was a change and the meetings took place at Ramon and Antonio’s house at the Riviera di Chaia in Naples. Instead of going to Rinpoche’s house we would go there on Fridays and our meetings continued as before. Then everyone asked Rinpoche if he would start to teach, and he would reply, “Next time I will start.” But he never did and for three months, from November to February, he went on in this way.
Then one Friday I could not go there and later someone called and told me that Rinpoche had said he would start to teach at the next meeting, but only to those who were present that previous Friday when I was not. On Friday I went there with a friend of mine and when I arrived someone told me that I could not stay because Rinpoche had said only people who were here at the last meeting could attend. Of course, I did not move a millimeter from my place until Rinpoche said, “Ok, we’ll start with the people who are here.” He started with a Vajrasattva empowerment and something happened, a vase fell down and there were some signs. That meeting was held at Ramon’s house and from that time on we would meet at the Palestra Palasciano. This gym was the place I had met Rinpoche the first time when he was giving a lecture on Bon in January of 1975 and it was the place where Rinpoche had taught Yantra Yoga from 1975 onwards. Prior to that he had taught at the Palazzetto dello Sport, an enormous building with many gyms.
M: Was this in 1975 or 1976?
AC: It was in February 1976 when he gave the first complete cycle of Dzogchen Teachings. From February until June 1976 every Friday he gave Dzogchen Upadesha teaching including outer and inner rushen, tregchöd, bardo, tummo, phowa and many others. There were about twelve of us, and also a dog, in a small room in an old Neapolitan building with gym equipment. We received this complete teaching and in June Rinpoche said, “Now we have to go and apply something with practice, and we should go with a tent somewhere on a mountain to have some real experience of the practice.”
In the meantime, since the previous year, Rinpoche had been in contact with Laura Albini in Rome who was a reference point for the Karma Kagyu Center there, a center for the Karmapa and Kalu Rinpoche. They had repeatedly asked Rinpoche to teach but he had always refused. Rinpoche had once or twice gone to Rome to meet Laura and at one point decided to start giving teaching to some of the Karma Kagyu people from Rome, from Milan, like Guliano Casiraghi and Aldo Oneto, and also from Sardinia who were more Gelugpa oriented, like Mariano and Anna Dessole. Laura Albini organized everything to do a retreat in Subiaco. That was in 1976. The Subiaco retreat went on for a long time. A group of five of us from Naples went there for only three days because Rinpoche was giving a Rigpai Tsalwang and had told us we should come for those three days. There was Ciro Marolda, Antonio Morgione, Eugenio Amico, Enzo Desio, and myself.
When I went to Subiaco I was a little puzzled by the impression I had from these Buddhist practitioners, because the way that Rinpoche had taught us in Naples was completely beyond any traditional framework. He was direct and did not use any invocations or prayers, or a single word of Tibetan. He taught experience through practice and we didn’t do any Guruyoga formal practice, nothing at all. When I was in Subiaco and saw all the people chanting mantras and using malas I thought what is going on here? In fact, I met Rinpoche on the stairs and I said, “Maestro” – we used to call Rinpoche Maestro – “Why is this different, why all these things?” He told me that the circumstances were different, something like that. And then I thought, maybe these people need this, but this is not how it should really be. But of course I was not right in my understanding. When Rinpoche taught the first time it is interesting to see and understand also seeing how Yeshi teaches now, how he is with people, there is something, there is a connection.
After the Subiaco retreat Rinpoche came back to Naples and in 1976 Giacomella Orofino and I and several others enrolled at the University of Naples to study Tibetan. Until that time Rinpoche had never had enough students at the university, and he was not happy about that, because other professors did not consider him academic enough. At that time he was happy because we were a group of students who were also following his teaching. So from three or four people who were studying with him at the University in the seventies, the group grew to about 20 people. We would spend a lot of time together with Rinpoche, especially a small group of us, and after lessons we would go to his house and he would cook for us. It was one of the best periods of my life.
In October 1976 his dharma activities continued with classes of yoga and others on medicine and astrology. At the end of 1976 a small group from Sardinia, some of whom had attended the Subiaco retreat, invited Rinpoche to give teachings at Costa Paradiso at the end of 1976 into 1977. I didn’t go there. Then from February to June 1977, we had three classes a week: on Monday he would teach Yantra Yoga, on Thursday kumbhaka and tsalung, and on Friday Dzogchen Teaching. The Dzogchen teaching was more or less the same as the year before, with upadesha, rushen and other practices like before. The Monday Yantra Yoga classes were the only full Yantra Yoga course I took with him.
He would teach in a particular way. First we would do warm-ups and then the nine purification breathings, followed by rhythmic breathing before everything else, and then we would do the eight movements and different yantras, and at the end he would do special pranayamas or things such as nauli [massage of the internal belly organs]. He was very skilled and could do everything such as jump into lotus position. Sometimes his son Yeshi would come, and he and Yeshi had the same color tracksuit in red. Yeshi was like a miniature of the Master.
In July of 1977 we had what I considered as the real start of the Dzogchen Community: all the groups united in a retreat in Prata, a small place near Avellino, on the hillside, where Rinpoche owned a piece of land. All the people from Rome who had attended the retreat in Subiaco were there. Many of them were already following Rinpoche’s courses at the university, like Enrico and Andrea Dell’Angelo. The retreat in Prata was like the merging of all of Rinpoche’s students, so there were 50 to 60 people, which was a lot for us at that time. There were also Barry and Nancy Simmons, Fabio Andrico and Tiziana Gottardi.
Right after that Rinpoche went to teach in Austria where he met Andrea Leick who was organizing the teaching courses and gradually the Dzogchen Community became larger and larger as Rinpoche started to go abroad.
In 1977 at Christmas time, we had this wonderful retreat at Lu Cumitoni in Sardinia where Rinpoche gave for the first (and last) time in his life the trilung of a whole tantra, the Kunjyed Gyalpo, which is a large tantra, and also many amazing teachings. That was a really special retreat. At each retreat we were more and more people.
In 1978 Rinpoche continued to teach at the university and in the same year went with Andrea Dell’ Angelo, Mario Maglietti and some other students to shoot the Arura movie on Tibetan Medicine for the RAI in India and Nepal. After that we had a retreat in Campomolino, which is in the Italian Alps.
In April and May of 1979 Rinpoche was seriously ill with an ulcer and after that a group of practitioners did a retreat in the mountains of Formia.
M: Did Rinpoche stop teaching for some time when he was ill?
AC: Rinpoche was ill between April and May of 1979, but he resumed teaching that year when he recovered. At that time he was still teaching at the university so he mainly gave teachings at the holidays, Christmas, Easter and the summer, so he didn’t really stop teaching. And so it went on like this renting places where we could hold retreats until we started to think we should find some land. Then in 1982, some of Rinpoche’s students started to search for some land until they finally found this place, Merigar.
M: Thank you very much Adriano.
Originally published in The Mirror issue 111, August 2011
The Presence of the Perfect Master
Camprodon, October 3, 2020
I had the immense fortune to meet the Precious Jewel, the King of Dharma Namkhai Norbu towards the end of 1972 when he and his family had very recently started living in Naples, in a beautiful place called Posillipo, in a villa overlooking the sea in the Baia di Trentaremi. Currently this area is the Pausilypon Archaeological Site and has been the subject of great archaeological discoveries and is profoundly different from how it was in the seventies. Back then the house was a beautiful Pompean red with a magnificent portico with columns that flanked the entrance to the house and everything was surrounded by greenery. At the entrance there were flowerbeds with roses personally cared for by the Master and his wife.
I was an ordinary person among many, lived in a typical alley in Naples and had never left my neighborhood or my city. I had no idea that a country called Tibet could exist in the world. But I was fascinated by yoga, which I only knew from the covers of the books I saw in the windows of the bookstores in Via Foria near the National Museum.
I had many unsolved questions and none of the people I knew ever had the answers that would satisfy me.
I attended, without enthusiasm, the faculty of architecture and there I met a student of the Maestro who was at that time teaching yoga at the sports hall in Naples. That kind person told me that his Master was a yogi, a prince who came from Tibet and lived in Rome, then in Torre del Greco and then in Posillipo.
It was not easy for me to get to know the Maestro up close because I did not have the opportunity to enroll in the courses at the gym. I made friends with this person who was a student of the Maestro and as soon as I learned that he was also meeting him at his home in Posillipo, I asked him to ask the Master’s permission to go and visit him at home. I was told that I could go one afternoon with my friend. Great happiness!
It wasn’t easy to get to the house inside the park. From Posillipo you had to go down a narrow road and then climb over the entrance gate trying to avoid the guardian, who was not a very nice person, and his dogs! Then you had to go along a stretch of dirt road through the countryside until you could see the little red house where the Maestro and his family lived.
The Master sat on a sofa at the entrance to the house with his wife. His youngest daughter was sleeping in a crib and his son was able to crawl. His friend greeted him. To me he said, “Take a seat” and I stood at the entrance amazed and excited. I was in front of a real yogi, a prince with a proud and penetrating gaze but a kind person in the company of his wife who smiled at me. I always carry that moment with me!
From that day on, I often went to the Master’s house and I also often went to the Oriental University Institute where he taught Tibetan and Mongolian language and literature. But I went to see him and not to study. Any conversation with him and any silence satisfied me fully, and all my whys were answered! Even in apparently mundane things the Master shone with knowledge that satisfied all doubts and uncertainties, like water that stops the boiling of a pot and calms it down!
I often sat next to him in a silence that was filled with communication. I believe silence is a form of listening. When I went to visit him at the Oriental University Institute, after a while he would always ask me if I had had breakfast and, since I never had, he would take me to the cafe and offer me a cappuccino and croissant and then tell me that in the morning we should have breakfast to start the day well.
I also used to accompany him around Naples to shop or to do different chores or to take the subway or the train. When we were in Montesanto (a popular neighborhood in Naples) he always told me that the neighborhood reminded him of some parts of India. I was almost always with him and since he always asked me what I had done that day, I told him everything I did.
I often stayed at his house and sometimes babysat his two children. And above all I played with his oldest child, Yeshi, carrying him around piggyback. Yuchen was too small.
Life at home flowed serenely and the Master was always studying, writing and reading and preparing lessons for his students. Furthermore, I sensed that he had a close correspondence with his relatives and with fellow countrymen around the world after the exodus from Tibet. I often saw him absorbed in reading the letters but I did not understand their importance. He also had a bookcase in a closed doorway and inside there were many Tibetan books wrapped in colorful materials folded in a particular way. Sometimes I helped him sew these book covers and learned how to fold them to protect books that I had never seen before. I knew about Western books but not Tibetan ones.
In his free time he cooked and I was amazed by the fact that in five minutes he was able to prepare a meal for everyone and, as if by magic, everything in the kitchen was already tidy and clean. He would cook and talk to me about presence while he rummaged around for the kitchen instruments.
The following summer we often went for a swim in the bay below the house, going down the steep cliff of yellow Campanian tufo. He was a very good swimmer! On fine days we would picnic in the garden above the house and, after eating, rest in the hammock that he had set up between the two Neapolitan pines in the garden.
I would tell him how I had spent my day and my problems as a rebellious Neapolitan boy always looking for a job to “get by”, my head full of confusion and conflicts with my fairly traditional and fairly rigid authoritarian family. The Master would look at me and ask me questions such as: “What did you do?” I would answer him and he’d laugh a lot and I would be very happy! He often gave me advice on how to resolve my daily problems.
University professors from the various faculties often came to the house to ask the Master for explanations regarding his studies on ancient Tibet. Many asked about medicine, astrology, architecture, art, literature and history and the Master patiently explained everything, often introducing them to the principles of the teaching.
The Maestro often went to Rome because he had an important position at the ISMEO institute and with its founder Giuseppe Tucci. At the time, a highly educated Tibetan scholar named Sanghe also worked at the institute. He and the Master were very close friends and treated each other as brothers and were always happy and playing and joking. Since I often accompanied him, once with the Master and his family I went to Sanghe’s house in Rome and saw a room in his house all set up just like a temple. It was beautiful and beautifully decorated!
The Maestro liked playing pranks a lot. Once he was in a neighborhood bar in Bagnoli with his son Yeshi having breakfast and some neighborhood bullies came in and began being rude to him. Giving a fierce look to the bullies he said to Yeshi: you know that dad is a kunfu master. Do you remember that time he sent four big men who were very rude to the hospital? And Yeshi who immediately understood answered yes that he remembered. In a flash the tough guys disappeared from the place and were no longer seen around those parts when the Maestro passed by. The Master told the story and laughed!
Once, on a crowded underground train, a pickpocket tried to steal the Master’s wallet. He made sure to make it easy for him! As soon as he had the wallet the Master took his hand and the thief was dumbfounded and frightened but he apologized to the Master and went away amazed. Then the Master commented that he had understood the whole movement of the thief and had placed himself near him on purpose and then began to laugh jokingly. I hadn’t noticed anything and yet I was next to him.
I helped Maestro to move things around and do maintenance work in the house. He knew how to do everything and always very well! I still remember a famous wardrobe that we disassembled and reassembled three times and in the end after Formia it was thrown away.
You could say that until 1975, the year in which the Master and his family moved to Bagnoli, I lived in contact with teaching and practice in a “spontaneous” way without having any specific culture or preparation of any kind. On the other hand, Dzogchen is the state whose revelation is direct and inexpressible. The presence of the perfect Master is everything!
I asked the Master if he could teach me Tibetan and did a few lessons with him but I think I put his infinite patience and compassion to the test because I didn’t understand much and messed up a lot. Finally he told me it was better if I learned Chinese! I am not a scholar and, on the other hand, I have no literary training, I only went to art schools and I have no special skill for studying.
But sitting in silence beside the Teacher while he was driving the car I learned many things that are now a base of practice for me. And I’m not talking about driving school!
In the very early days, his cousin and sister frequently came to visit the Master. I was often there with them and listened to their conversations in Tibetan in silence and, sometimes, he also gave them Teachings in Italian. There was always an air of joy and happiness around him.
The Maestro was often invited to give talks and once I went to listen to him in a large bookshop in Naples. I remember he spoke about the difficulty of being born as a human and of a turtle emerging from the ocean and managing to find a hole in a piece of floating wood. The turtle was there and had found the hole in the wood! After the conference there was a crowd around him and his wife and I only had time to catch his eye and that was enough for me!
Then gradually many people started to come and ask for teachings from the Master and, so I remember, the public teachings and the first retreats began after his meeting with H.H. the Karmapa. Then came his plans for the Dzogchen Community to which the Master gave great importance by planning and studying how to realize it.
I have not changed since then. I have always worked and remained as I was as you can hear from my strong Neapolitan accent. But it can be said that I have found, thanks to the deep kindness and compassion of our precious Master, what always lies in our hearts.
Although over time I see myself getting older and more tired, the fresh and limitless presence of the Master is always alive in me, his eternal student among many. I am a member of the Dzogchen Community and extend many thanks to all my Vajra brothers and sisters who, together with the Master and the Teachings, have always supported me throughout my life. Many thanks to all!
The Red House at the Gaiola
I met the Master in the spring of 1971. A friend of mine and I had joined the Budo club, a judo gym, in Naples in via Mezzocannone, near the Università Orientale, where I was studying. One evening my friend told me that the judo teacher had discovered that there was a Tibetan master in Naples who taught yoga at the Palazzetto dello sport in Fuorigrotta. She very excited and motivated and told me that she really wanted to meet him.
So of course, I immediately told her that she must be mistaken, that he must be an Indian master because I was absolutely positive that there was no Tibetan master in Naples. But in fact the day after I went to the Palazzetto dello Sport and what did I find – a Tibetan master! It was ‘Norbu’, and Mr. Procaccini, who was his manager, introduced me to him and after a couple of days I started yoga classes there.
The Master was very friendly to us and treated us as equals, although he seemed quite decisive and didn’t hesitate to drive us home in his bright red Fiat 850 Spider convertible if we needed a ride and if he was going our way.
There were already several people studying Yantra Yoga with him including a well-known Neapolitan astrologer who was the most able in doing the asanas. But the most remarkable thing about those lessons was that at the end of the Yantra Yoga sessions while many of the students would leave, a small group of three or four people would remain and the Master would give teachings to them. For me this was absolutely extraordinary because he would speak about Dzogchen teaching. I had no idea that beyond this physical form of yoga there was something to learn that would work at the level of body, voice and mind, as he explained. Most of the people would ask him lots of questions but I was always silent, trying to understand what he had said.
The Master shied away from promoting his own merits and it was only when I met him while he was coming down the stairs of the Orientale, in an elegant black suit, that I learned that he was a professor of Tibetan and Mongolian there.
At the time we had a close relationship with ‘Norbu’, as we called him then, who was living with his family in Torre del Greco. In that period his son Yeshi was a few months old. Rinpoche never used to speak much about his own situation, but when I met Roberto, my future husband, through Rinpoche, he told me that Rinpoche and his wife Rosa would be having a little girl in August. So in August we went to Rinpoche’s home to hang up garlands for the new arrival and after the birth I helped Rosa with the little girl and we spent quite a lot of time at their home.
The Master’s family life was based on maximum mutual collaboration. He never avoided participating in household chores and carried out most of them with competence and serenity. He helped his wife Rosa in the kitchen and looked after the children. He often delighted us with his preparations of typical Tibetan dishes, momos and tsampa and, when the ingredients were missing, the Master would solve the problem of dinner with a simple spaghetti with parsley pesto, garlic and soy sauce.
Then in the autumn, Roberto and I invited the Master and his family to come and live with us at the Gaiola, which was a wonderful Mediterranean villa that had been built over a Roman villa and previous to that a Greek one. It was also the house where Oscar Wilde used to stay when he was in Naples. In that period there were also lots of young people coming and going at the Gaiola.
The “red house”, as we had baptized the villa at the Gaiola, turned out to be a special and ideal place to raise children and meditate. In fact, the Master discovered ravines, caves and unique places that none of us had noticed. Sometimes he would tell us about his dreams that brought back to him ancestral teachings and memories of his life in Tibet. He told us about the travels of a tea expedition led by his elder sister, and how he managed on more than one occasion to thwart attacks from bandits with the help of the simple sound of a bell and by evoking the protective Guardians of the teaching. We were almost never alone with our families with people constantly arriving from everywhere. Some young people moved into our house, like Claudio, while others, like Antonio, visited the house almost every day.
Once a week Norbu gave us teachings in the huge hall of the villa and we would all gather to listen with respect to his words of wisdom. The Master’s sister, Janzon, who lived in Switzerland with her husband, paid a very welcome visit to the villa and there was a joyful period when his cousins Sonan and Kundè visited. The presence of Norbu at the Gaiola also attracted the curiosity and interest of illustrious personalities, artists, poets, and musicians. One of these special guests was Paul Buckmaster, a young musician and arranger FOR many Anglo-Saxon and Italian artists, who, one evening, was struck hearing the sound of the songs of a practice that Norbu and his cousins were performing. Paul, excited about it, confided to me that he had never heard sublime music like that and set out to record part of it.
The birth of my son Asad was a much awaited event in the family especially by Yeshi and little Yuchen, who, enthusiastic, immediately called him Pupito as soon as she saw him.
But in 1973 something special happened. The owner of the Gaiola asked us to leave the house. If we had wanted to buy it we could have continued to live there but we didn’t want to do that even though the Master had pointed out many wonderful places in the garden around that house that were really suitable for practicing, such as a patio containing an ancient Greek column from the fourth century BC that overlooked a large Greek theater from the same historical period
and a terrace overlooking the sea in view of the island of Capri.
The Master didn’t lose any time and as soon as he knew we had to leave the house, he did so. His sister was there at the time and she helped Rinpoche and Rosa with the moving.
Rinpoche and his family found temporary accommodation in a house on the outskirts of Naples, in Bagnoli, and later moved to a particular house in Pozzuoli also located on the slopes of the Solfatara volcanic crater. That place became the destination of all of Master Norbu’s disciples for many years.
Roberto and I managed to put off moving for a few months and when we did we went back to live in the centre of Naples for a few months and immediately after we started to put into action a plan that we had decided on the year before to leave Naples and get a house in the countryside with some land. And that is what we did.
For months and months, we went looking through all the surrounding countryside until we found this beautiful piece of land in Prata with a stone house. The Master found another piece of land adjoining this with a small house. We got this house but it wasn’t habitable so first of all we had to restructure it. At the time there was no electricity, no water and no road to get there. It was really a wild place and we had to bring water from a well a little way off. The house in Prata was very important for the simple reason that we did the first inter- national retreat of the Dzogchen Community there.
The Community had already been formed in 1976 with the first statute. The first meeting we had was at Nuria and Antonio Morgione’s house. We were 12 people and put down in writing the basics of the Dzogchen Community.
In the same year the first retreat was held in Subiaco. It was a small retreat with a few people, mostly Italians. Afterwards, the Master suggested doing a retreat in Prata, which was the first ‘official’ retreat with 60–70 people from all over the world. It took place for three weeks in July and August in 1977. At the beginning of the teachings Rinpoche told us that although Tibetan teachers traditionally sit on high thrones to teach, he would sit in the middle of us so that there would be no distinction between us.
What the Master taught in Prata was the fundamental lesson of our existence in which he generously gave teaching without reserve or limits, making us feel part of a community of Vajra brothers and sisters. He taught us to consider ourselves each the mirror of the other, to not enter into judgment, and to pursue the common good without distinction and practice overcoming our passions and finally becoming free.
The Master and Nicoletta
The Story of One of the First Yantra Yoga Practitioners
Translated by Alessandra Policreti
The Master Norbu wore a red tracksuit, he was strong and slim, his oriental eyes were piercing and alive. He assisted those who had difficulties in performing the yoga exercises and often his mouth opened with an encouraging smile. With an imperceptible but effective pressure, his hands lightly touched the students’ bodies in the places where he meant to correct them.
I was particularly attracted by the Master’s feet. Though small, they seemed to be firmly placed, as if stuck to the ground, when he performed the asanas on one foot only, you couldn’t notice even the slightest oscillation. The sense of stability and lightness marked his movements.
The first indication given by the Master was to exhale in the phases of contraction, closure of the body and to inhale during the expansion. Yantra Yoga, he explained, is made up of the combination of movement and breathing, therefore each gesture has to be accompanied by a precise phase of breathing. He said that ‘inhaling’ is a natural and spontaneous function, but ‘exhaling’ is not as spontaneous and he explained that this action, especially here in the Western world, has become a forgotten practice. We inhale and we hold the breath without exhaling.
Our breath remains in the upper part of our lungs, creating a toxic surface in our lungs and in the other organs because of the failure to dispose of the waste substances. A correct breathing can provide oxygen to wide areas of the body, sweep up the residue of carbon dioxide and other toxic substances and, through a thorough exhalation, carry out all the waste.
The Master was extremely kind, he had infinite patience, he told us that there was nothing to worry about if we could not sit in the lotus position but only with crossed legs and for this reason he explained one by one the positions we could sit in without effort, according to our possibility. Then he went on to explain the nine breathings, which should precede any practice of Yantra Yoga and later on also any other practice. A necessary condition in order to perform the nine breathings was to sit in a position with the back controlled but not stiff, the thumbs and ring fingers exerting a light pressure on the sides of the knees, the tongue resting on the palate, eyes half closed and directed towards the tip of the nose, the chin slightly bent and tucked back, the shoulders lowered.
The Master expressed himself in a peculiar Italian, but the concepts were very clear and opened up a boundless world of knowledge. For the first time in my young life I became aware of the breathing and of the infinite potentialities that this awareness allowed me to develop, of my body, of how much attention we should give it, and of the mind’s infinite potentialities.
The Master gave us the impression that he was speaking to each one of us and he addressed each one of us as a unique individual, rather than a group of people.
I felt the strong authority radiating from him. In his presence I felt a sense of peace and at the same time an eagerness to learn this absolute and yet undefined knowledge.
Lesson time seemed to pass incredibly slowly, and yet I had the feeling that it was never long enough, and neither of the two sensations dominated the other.
The asanas we were yearning to learn were only studied at the end of the lesson and they didn’t seem to be so relevant within the whole yantra yoga system. The yantra course I had the privilege to follow in those years was attended by students who had achieved a considerable skill in performing the most difficult exercises. One of them was called Ciro and he found it easy to perform the most advanced positions.
I had come to know about the Master Norbu in a peculiar way. One evening two friends of mine who went to the same judo school I attended and who shared my same apartment came home with a mystical vibe, saying they had found out about the presence of a Tibetan Master in Naples. Driven by a legitimate curiosity but with a little bit of scepticism I immediately went to meet the Tibetan Master they spoke of. And so I saw Norbu for the first time, a young Tibetan with the red tracksuit and a big benevolent smile. At the exact moment I set my eyes on Norbu, in my heart I chose him as my Master and l was certain that through him I would give form to what I had always longed for.
For years before meeting him I had been interested in the occult sciences, magic and yoga and everything that could help me discover dimensions that normally escape ordinary perception. Looking back after so many years I ask myself what was the impulse which led a simple nineteen year old girl to look, without the slightest awareness, for something that would allow her to know her real essence. This fortunate meeting with the Master projected me into a mood which I could define as mystical-positivist. I felt ancestral memories of my being come to surface like springs pressed into an iron crate. I felt that my quest, far from being understood fully in its ultimate meaning, had arrived almost without effort to its source.
During one of the yantra lessons I took part in a funny game, almost an illusionism. One of the students had asked the Master if it would be possible to lift a body with two fingers and leave it in mid-air. The Master, half serious and half amused, answered that we could try and asked me to be the model. I had no doubts and I accepted to take part in the experiment without hesitating, seeing as I had absolute faith in the Master. He gave me a few instructions about how I should behave during the experiment. I had to close my fists at the sides of my body, align my feet and stay in a position that was controlled but not stiff. The Master joined his indexes and thumbs and placed them under my shoulders while a student did the same thing with my feet. With only four fingers holding me, I found myself in mid-air almost without realizing it. The Master made a gesture and the fingers became only four, then… none. I remained suspended for a few long seconds in total absence of weight and thoughts. I learned what it means to be in the clouds. When l regained contact with the floor, everyone was smiling incredulous and amused.
The Master Norbu taught us that yantra yoga not only contributes in keeping the body in shape, but it is effective towards one’s realization as had been the case for a great Yogi: his uncle Togden. Every morning at dawn Norbu’s uncle practiced the whole Yantra Yoga thun completely naked in the open air, in any weather.
The Master emphasized first of all the importance of mindful breathing He gave great importance to breathing, because of its fundamental function in our lives but also because of its power in channeling our energy towards total realization. The nine purification breathings, the eight movements, the rhythmic breathing, are essential practices for achieving a condition of balance of body, energy and mind.
The lesson I learned faster than any other was that of achieving the full freedom I needed and of becoming aware.
The discipline the Master taught us was functional to the achievement of a basic level of knowledge of Yantra Yoga, but it had to be totally devoid of any effort. The principle was based on the need not to bend one’s will for the execution of yoga practices in a forced way, and this principle became a code of behavior which I tried to apply in any circumstance of life.
The Master said that if we freed our minds from the reservations and constrictions which interfere with the spontaneity of our actions, we would obtain the understanding of the teachings much more quickly and effectively. Norbu said that our realization was hindered by a number of conditionings due to our culture and everything we had learned until that moment. Yantra Yoga could help us in the process of freeing ourselves from the ties of the complications imposed by such a pervading society. By freeing the body and the mind from the bonds veiling ordinary vision, we can finally enter into the real sense of our existence.
The class following those Yantra Yoga lessons in 1971 was made up of diverse and often peculiar characters. The Master certainly didn’t ask his disciples what their social class or level of education was, therefore a nurse, a physiotherapist, a pharmaceutical representative, some university students, metalworkers, doctors, engineers, council employees and artists crowded the Yantra lessons.
The peculiarity of that unprecedented event consisted in the fact that everyone could, by using mere attention, understand the high teachings the Master gave after the end of the lesson. Not all students stayed behind, in fact only three or four of us spontaneously sat on the tatami around Norbu to listen carefully to the teachings of an old lineage: Dzogchen. I soon learned that the teaching our Master was generously revealing to a few students after Yantra Yoga was so precious and secret that it had to be guarded with the same care one would have for an extremely precious jewel.
Originally published in the Merigar Letter magazine, December 2011.