A trip to Chengdu and back
Chengdu, the thriving capital of Sichuan Province in China, is a city with more than two thousand years of history. The city has always been famous for its prosperity and is home to mathematicians and poets, many temples, museums, and nature reserves and is actually well known for pandas.
This city is significant for me because my teacher, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, worked in Chengdu for a year (in 1954) teaching Tibetan at the Southwestern University for Nationalities. Many people asked me to tell them about my trip, so during the quarantine it was a perfect time to take up the pen.
In 2019 I decided to go to China to work, although this story actually began earlier when a job vacancy in China caught my eye. I was planning to go somewhere and then it became clear that the vacancy was in Chengdu. I had many doubts, but the precious brothers and sisters in the Dzogchen Community gave me some important parting words. In particular Svetlana Shavronskaya, from Sochi, who had worked in China for about three years, dispelled the last shadows of doubt.
On the flight to Chengdu I met Julia Artamonova, who was Geshe Rinchen Tenzin’s translator and considered it to be an auspicious sign. My adventure had begun.
The office of the company I worked for was located right next to the University for Nationalities where Chögyal Namkai Norbu worked. Many Tibetans study there and I was very proud that young Tibetans were studying the history of Shang Shung and Tibet through his books. I would meet Tibetans later on.
On my arrival the first thing I wanted to do was to find a sangha, or at least someone I could connect with. While I was preparing for the trip, even though I couldn’t speak Chinese, I was able to find information about retreats on the Samtengar website thanks to modern web-translation systems. I was really excited about our Community spread all over the world, although Chengdu had no sangha or Vajra dance group to practice with. Fortunately, in a small town called Deyang, about 60 km from Chengdu, I found both: a mandala and a dancing sangha.
On the way to Deyang I found the high-speed train amazing. I had just gotten comfortable and taken out a notebook to make some notes when I saw everyone getting off. The trip took just 20 minutes! The main thing is to book a ticket in advance because people in China tend to move around a lot, especially on weekends. On my way back from the retreat I booked a ticket in business class, the last one.
Tracy Ni, an international Vajra Dance instructor, led the course. Those who wanted to learn this invaluable method came to Deyang from different cities. A cheerful woman called Moon (the Chinese use European names) coordinated the retreat and I really fell in love with her, even though we couldn’t speak a word to each other without an interpreter.
I had a lot of help from Lucy, an architect by education who had studied in Europe, so her view was more European and her English was good. In general, I was lucky with Lucy and later on we even went together to Derge, the place our teacher was born. We did the trip in October. Those days it was just the beginning of my experience of living in China. Was I homesick? No, I wasn’t.
I spent all my time in Chengdu and my new friends from the Community, Yushan, Wangyao, and Sherry, cared for me like a guest. Yushan worked in the city and she always tried to find time to go to the cafe and take a walk with me. One day we met two people from the Community at a tea-house – Niccolo, a Yantra Yoga instructor, and Justin, a Gakyil member from the Beijing Community – both of whom had just returned from Eastern Tibet. The two of them spoke Chinese very well, which I didn’t. We spoke mainly in English, because except for “thank you” and “hello”, I couldn’t say anything in Chinese. For me that meeting was a turning point and it became clear for me that traveling to our Teacher’s birthplace would not be as difficult as I had feared and so the tempting idea to travel to Derge was born at that time.
I finally made some connections in the city. Wangyao kindly walked with me to the University for Nationalities and also helped me with advice. Four of us did a Ganapuja together only once, on Rinpoche’s birthday. I was used to doing Ganapujas in Rinchenling in Moscow with up to 100 people, but I was happy to have company.
Since I was used to practicing in a group, practicing alone became a practice in itself. It wasn’t easy to connect to the webcast practices. The only way to connect in China is to use VPN, which tended to crash most of the time. China has its own social networks and its own communication channels, which is terribly annoying. But the local messengers work very well in China. Now I have more distracting groups in WeChat, but also a lot of good contacts.
At the end of May Lorenzo Mitchell came to Chengdu. His hostel and “Liberaria” project is based in Arcidosso, Tuscany is well-known in the Italian community. Chengdu was a stopping point on Lorenzo’s travels to Kham. This was also another remarkable meeting for me and one more sign that I should go to Kham. Previously I had heard about Dzogchen monastery, but that seemed very difficult to get to.
In June when the semester ended, I immediately began my trip to Gardze. My goals were: Adzom Gar and Derge, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s birthplace. That gave me the strength to go alone although I can’t say that I was totally alone. Yushan’s friend Drolma accompanied me and became my guardian. Before the trip I consulted with Justin and Vince who gave me some good advice. I really appreciated the help that they all gave me.
In Garze we danced some Tibetan dances with Drolma, had a walk in a temple, and took some photos. Before going to the temple Drolma wanted me to buy something beautiful and traditional. In her view European clothes were not suitable for visiting a temple. Everyone remembered how Rinpoche was always so nicely dressed and how he asked others to dress well and look good. Tibetans really wear very beautiful traditional dresses and even in jeans they could be elegant.
On my first visit I wasn’t able to stay at Adzom Gar because the police asked us to leave before nighttime. That’s why I decided to come another time, in October. No doubt the best time to go is summer and also autumn. In summertime it is very hot in Chengdu, very humid and stuffy. October is more neutral, although it starts to freeze in the mountains – Garze and Derge are at about 4000 m.
On my second visit I was more fortunate. I traveled with Lucy and even managed to find the area close to Rinpoche’s birth village although frankly speaking it was not the exact same place, but not far away. We felt absolutely happy to have arrived there and we sang the Song of the Vajra.
My second semester in Chengdu was connected to Tibetans from the Toastmasters Club, a very active group for modern youth. I named it “Migrated to the City”. It is also a slogan of a Chengdu restaurant, Drolmala Music Space, which was founded by Tibetans. If you are in Chengdu find time to visit it in the evening to listen to folk music and have a good meal.
The Toastmasters is a well-known club around the globe. In Chengdu it has been organized by Tibetans to practice English mostly. Could you imagine, my Tibetan teacher, Mewan, learned English in just one year. With this company my life in Chengdu became much more fun. Communicating with these people it was really great to see how much they cared about their culture: maintaining their language, wearing traditional clothes, and keeping their traditions alive.
Unfortunately, not all Tibetans speak Tibetan. Those who have grown up in the city speak Chinese. To study their native language, Tibetan, they have to go to private schools and do special courses.
Rinpoche often spoke about the importance of maintaining the traditions of Tibetan culture. He founded the Shang Shung Institute Medical School and School of Tibetan Language and Translation, Shang Shung Publications, the Atiyoga Foundation and ASIA. In the Dzogchen Community we dance Khaita dances, and sing Tibetan songs. And we should continue these traditions. Being among Tibetans I realized the necessity of knowing the Tibetan language. Dancing with Tibetans I was happy to at least know some of the movements. I made myself a promise to study some of the Tibetan songs that are so beautiful.
Rinpoche created a lot for us and during quarantine we have had many possibilities to study and practice together. With modern online conferencing and webinars we can meet virtually with people we have met before at retreats and others we are seeing for the first time. The main point is that we are united. That life is perfect. We are happy and fearless.
I will definitely come back to Chengdu and am already making plans. In the Dzogchen Community there has been a lot of focus on Chengdu in recent years, with Western teachers from the Dzogchen Community visiting and leading courses as well as trips for Western Dzogchen practitioners to visit and follow courses there organized by Shang Shung UK and the Atiyoga Foundation. In October 2019 I was invited to participate in the Dynamic Space of the Elements event organized by Migmar and his team there – a remarkable experience.
So, lets meet and travel. We have many Gars, Lings, and a large Vajra Family.
I wish everyone fearless traveling and extend my endless thanks to everyone who helped and supported me. Our Sangha is our treasure.
Many thanks to Darren Littlejohn and Marina Shapiro for the advice and help.