At Dzamling Gar, Tenerife, after the Mandarava Retreat, March 2023
Nina has been a student of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu since 1980 and in 2002 was authorized by him to teach the Mandarava longlife practice. Since then she has led many retreats in various parts of the world.
Mirror: Nina, could you tell us how and when you first connected with Buddhist teaching?
Nina: I met the Buddhist teaching before I met Rinpoche. Because I was suffering from migraines a lot I was going to an acupuncturist. When he went on holiday he recommended a woman friend, an acupuncturist, who was from the East. And I asked her, “How is it you’re so calm and collected at nine o’clock at night when I’ve arrived late and you’ve been working all day?” She said, “Oh, maybe because lately I’ve been going to this Zen meditation, just round the corner from you”. So the next morning, I was there.
When I first went there, it was February, and it had snowed in London so it was all silent and beautiful and a five minute walk from my house. When I knocked on the door they answered and said, “Oh, you want the orange people down the road” because I looked a bit of a hippie. I said, “No, I don’t. I want the Zen center”. The Zen meditation was mostly sitting for two hours from 6 till 8 every morning and 6 till 8 every evening.
After four days of that I was just a flood of tears – I couldn’t stop crying – so the friends whose house I was living in with my kids said, “Oh, we’re attending the Buddhist Center. You should come there”. So I went to the Buddhist Center to study The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, who was a close disciple of Milarepa, and I started reading the songs of Milarepa.
The Jewel Ornament of Liberation was first translated by Guenther, who was a very clever translator, but he had to use a whole long phrase of complicated words to explain rigpa because there’s no equivalent in our Western languages. So I thought I have to learn this language because it uses words for states of mind that we know nothing about, and I began to learn a bit of Tibetan. I’ve made an aspiration in my next life to learn Tibetan.
Alf Vial, the person who was leading the group at the Buddhist Center, recommended that we take Refuge from Ato Rinpoche, who was living in Cambridge. Apparently the Dalai Lama had asked Ato Rinpoche to make a Buddhist center in England but he preferred to keep his days free for any students who wanted to learn about Buddhism and he spent his nights working in a mental hospital for old people.
He used to lead discussion groups in various places and somebody invited him to Canterbury University to answer questions from the sutdents. Somebody asked him, “What do you think of these Buddhists in Vietnam who are setting themselves on fire.” He said he had no opinion. That he didn’t know the people, and he didn’t know what their motives were and so he didn’t have any opinion. That was a real first lesson for me. That was really a teaching, in just a few words. So Ato Rinpoche was my first real Tibetan Buddhist teacher.
Alf Vial was my Cockney Buddhist teacher. Somebody once asked him how he could call himself a Buddhist teacher since he drinks beer and smokes cigarettes. He replied, “Yes, but I don’t malign anybody’s character”. That was another lesson because we always used to go to the pub after our meetings and have a half pint of lager and a cigarette.
Through knowing Ato Rinpoche, I met Colin Ellar and John Renshaw who told me on Monday that they were going to Italy on Saturday and invited me to come with them. I said, “I can’t, I’m a school teacher and I’ve got three more weeks at school before the end of the term”. But I went to school the next day thinking what am I going to tell them? In the staff room I told them that I was going to Italy Saturday and I wrote a letter to the headmistress saying, “I hereby give my notice.” That was Monday; by Saturday I had passports, airplane tickets, everything – because I had to take my daughter as well because she was only 16 – and we were off.
John Renshaw, Colin Ellar, Guido Innocenti and his family were on the plane. We all went to a retreat before Merigar was even found. Rinpoche was collecting money to buy a permanent place for the teachings at that retreat. He had a book and his damaraja stamp and every time somebody gave a substantial amount of lire, he put the photo of the person in this book and the stamp next to their photo. One day, a few years ago, we found that book at Merigar and guess who was the person with the most stamps next to their photo? Fabio Andrico.
The retreat was near a village called Volpago, near Monte Belluna, about 60km north of Venice, and there were about 200 people there. It was in June 1980. It was a very hot summer and I got a bubbly heat rash because I wasn’t used to being out in the sun.
Mirror: Was this retreat the first time that you met Rinpoche?
Nina: Yes, it was the first time I saw him or heard him speak, and there was just no going back. I went to every retreat I could after that. That first retreat was in June and in August I was already in Norway for another retreat. And at Christmas in 1980 I was at a retreat in Sardinia.
The Mirror: And what were the circumstances that brought you to move to Italy; to be near the Merigar Dzogchen Community?
Nina: Well, I had always wanted to live in Italy right from when I was much younger because my husband at the time had won a Rome scholarship from the Slade School of Fine Art to study art in Italy and while we were there I thought how can anybody leave this beautiful country?
When I came to the first retreat in Merigar, I was there for a month. There were no buildings there yet except the yellow house; the floor of the basement was deep in manure because it had been used as a stable for race horses. The grass was left to grow high and it was full of flowers that were swarming with butterflies. It was beautiful and it was wild.
Rinpoche fixed up the first ‘gönpa’, which was just a length of canvas cloth, with a frame of blue cloth around the edges. He took a mallet and two stakes from the car and hammered them into the ground at the top of the hill above the woods. He tied two ends of the canvas to the trees of the woods and the other two ends to the stakes to provide shade for the people listening to the teachings.
Mirror: So you finally moved to Merigar in 1986?
Nina: I was living in an uncomfortable situation in the UK and when somebody told Rinpoche, he suggested that I come to Merigar. All I needed was that suggestion. I put all my belongings in the car and drove off. I didn’t know where I would stay or how I would live, but Rinpoche had said I should go to Merigar, so I went.
Mirror: How did the Mandarava practice become your main practice?
Nina: After Rinpoche received it in 1984, he came to Merigar and told the story of how he had received it. It seemed to me so important that I have practiced it a lot from then on. I think it was the only terma that he taught immediately after he received it, because Ekajati, the main guardian of the Rinpoche’s terma teachings, gave him permission to do so. Most of the other teachings that he received as termas he taught years and years later, after he’d been given permission. Ekajati said, “Now is the time for you to open your mind treasure, and it will be of benefit to as many beings as there are grains of sand in the Ganges”. So that’s everybody, isn’t it? Grains of sand in the Ganges are innumerable so it’s not just a benefit for the Community, but for everybody. I thought, this is very beneficial.
I was very much suffering from migraines and I thought the practice might help to overcome them. In the end it did, but it took a long time. When we were in Volpago in 1980, I asked Rinpoche for a mantra for my migraines. He gave me one and I practiced it for many years until it was there in my mind automatically.
Then in 1997, when we were in Tso Pema, a village in Himachal Pradesh in India, Rinpoche showed us the places where Mandarava and Guru Padmasambhava had practiced. He showed us all the places where Guru Padmasambhava had left handprints and footprints in the rock, which showed that he had mastery over the elements.
One day I saw that everybody was touching their heads to a place at the bottom of a cliff. I thought, “Oh, I might as well try” and didn’t think anything about it. I put my head into this place at the bottom of the cliff. Afterwards they told me that it was a head print of Guru Padmasambhava. The next morning when I woke up there was a kind of voice. It wasn’t really a voice, but it was a kind of voice that said, “You will never have a migraine again.” And I have never had one since. I think this was the result of a long series of practices, not just one event.
I consider it a miracle of Guru Padmasambhava, who, I believe, is our maestro. I feel sure our maestro is Buddha Shakyamuni, Guru Padmasambhava and Garab Dorje. Once I heard Rinpoche giving a public talk and he said, ” More than two thousand years ago Shakyamuni Buddha explained that everything is empty, everything is an illusion, but you still don’t understand”. Which we don’t, because we have all these habits of thought and so many prejudices. We believe that this table is solid, for instance. We can’t just put our hand through it. Milarepa could sit on the air but we haven’t got that capacity. None of us have that mastery of the elements.
I remember some people describing to Rinpoche how they’d been to see Sai Baba and that he could materialize things out of the air, but Rinpoche took no notice of that. Later, during a teaching, Rinpoche said, “People tell me they’ve been to a guru in India who materializes things. I’m not so interested in that. I’m more interested in de-materializing”. This is his teaching about rainbow body. He’s not materializing things, not visibly, not in front of people.
Some time ago in Isla Margarita in Venezuela, he said, “Sometimes we can control the weather. I do it sometimes if it’s necessary.” I’d never heard him say anything like that, but one year we had a two-week retreat at Merigar at Easter time when it usually snows on the cherry blossoms. It was beautiful weather with blue skies all the way through the retreat, except at the end. And Rinpoche said that there would be four drops of rain and not to worry, it wouldn’t be more than that. There were clouds and thunder and lightning all around, but blue sky above. And there were four drops of rain. Some people ran away, but the people who believed in him stayed because when he says, “They’ll only be four drops,” you can believe it. And there were only four drops of rain. So somebody had done some weather control, I think, because it’s usually raining or snowing or some terrible weather at Merigar at Easter.
The beings that could see us going towards enlightenment, being taught how to get free from them, were obviously very angry. They were furious. They were determined to rain on us, but they didn’t rain until we’d all gone from the woods and got into our cars and gone home. Then it rained. That’s what happened.
I had really deep faith in Rinpoche from the beginning, complete faith that he was a totally enlightened master. People had tried to get me interested in transcendental meditation but I thought it was all rubbish, it’s not for me. But then I found out that it’s not all rubbish and that there are different ways of teaching and getting enlightenment. Buddha Shakyamuni tried all the teachers and found they were not useful, but after he’d sat for six years under the bodhi tree, he got enlightened all by himself. So when the group of us who were in India with Rinpoche went and sat under the bodhi tree at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, he said, “Buddha Shakyamuni sat here for six years, we can manage five minutes”.
Rinpoche was sitting next to somebody whose eyes were moving strangely and Rinpoche asked him, “Do you see differently when you do that with your eyes?” And that person said, “No, I just see ordinarily.” Rinpoche said, “That’s strange because when I look in an ordinary way I see all six dimensions”. (All six dimensions: the gods, semi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings.) He could see all of them. So, we’re very, very fortunate to have such a teacher. To have even been in the same dimension for a little while. It’s an incredible fortune.