How I Met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu – John Groeneveld

Dear Vajra family,

Some readers might remember me as a monk living in Pomaia from 1998-2014, a time when I regularly attended teachings at Merigar. This aspect of my life perhaps made me more visible in the community and I hope a small slice of my life story might help you pass a few minutes. I will try to stay present while I am writing it! 

In 1993 – before “t’internet” as they say in Lancashire, the county in England where I mostly grew up – I set off from there to India to search for a guru. I didn’t know there were some lamas in England at the time. I only believed that there was a path, reincarnation was a fact, and I wanted to find someone who could tell me how to “destroy my ego” and get enlightened. I had £1500 in travellers’ cheques in my money belt, a certificate in teaching English as a foreign language, and a rucksack full of India kit.

I ended up in Dharamsala, and followed some teachings and met some Gelukpa lamas. When my money ran out, I asked one of them for a mo [divination], and he said Taiwan was good both for work and for my practice. I went and lived there for a few years, and earned my living as an English teacher. I also took refuge, met Lama Zopa Rinpoche in person for the first time, and received practice advice from him. I used my savings from work to travel twice to India and Nepal, follow teachings and do some personal and group retreats.

I naturally also met some dharma friends. One of them gave me a book by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, called “Dzogchen, the Self Perfected State.” He thought that I would like this style of teachings, which he considered freer than the Gelukpa style. The book had a light green cover. On the back I remember a photo of Rinpoche from the waist up, wearing a yellow silk chuba and a matching hat, I think it was in the Mongolian style. I remember being very impressed by his face, especially his cheeks, and thinking something like “What an amazing-looking person. I’d like to meet him.” I still have the book, but now that I look at it again, I see that the photo is inside, full length, black-and-white and no hat! Is this the “Mandala effect”, or some trick of memory? In any case, perhaps I planted a seed back then for a future meeting.

I read the book, but couldn’t understand much, except that it was important to get a direct introduction to the nature of the mind. I made a mental note to do that sometime, and then maybe I would be able to understand what he was talking about.

13 years later, in 2006, I had been a monk (Getsul [novice], for those who know the term) for about four years, and was doing my best to follow the advice of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, my first teacher. I was living at Nalanda, a small monastery in the idyllic countryside of Tarn, in the south of France. I began to become aware of the possibility of something known as “spiritual bypassing”, whereby you take the decision to follow a path, change your name and recite all kinds of mantras, for example, and then you think that you have made a spiritual great leap forward. But in fact, you might not have made any progress in healing your childhood wounds, for example, because it might need some culturally specific methods. To quote an older monk I knew, “The dharma won’t work if you haven’t solved your Mummy and Daddy shit!” I was lucky enough to meet a skillful psychoanalyst who I believe was also a realized practitioner, and she helped me a great deal with my mental disturbances, and also to distinguish between healing the person and going beyond the person. It was at her urging that I first attended one of Rinpoche’s retreats in Barcelona in 2006.

Shortly after arriving at the retreat, I was blown away by the sound of a couple of thousand people singing along with the Song of the Vajra. It seemed that the coloured cloth hangings behind Rinpoche were visibly vibrating, like ripples on water. I saw people dancing on mandalas that reminded me of mats from Twister, a game for kids. It didn’t seem like any dharma scene I had already seen. Walking along the beach later, I found myself sitting staring at the pebbles on the ground for a long time, feeling quite happy and without feeling the need to do anything else. 

My next encounter was in 2008, after transferring to the monastery in Pomaia, in Tuscany. A group of people was going to a teaching and I took the chance to go again. The subject was the sound of the five elements. What sticks in my mind was the drive up to Mount Amiata, and seeing a bird of prey wheeling above the car in the sky. The bird had what I am sure was a snake hanging from its beak. I realized later that that’s what Garudas do. 

Monk at Merigar

Evidently, I kept coming. By the time I had finished the FPMT Masters’ Programme in Pomaia, I was also sure that I wanted to return to lay life. I understood that to be a monk is a very special and virtuous condition, but also that personally it was important to me to be able to have a successful, harmonious relationship with a woman. My relationship with my mother was terrible, and this was an unresolved issue that I had simply avoided by becoming a monk. I noticed that my attention was always drawn more to the women around me in the gönpa than to the teachers on their thrones. I learnt a lot from Lama Zopa Rinpoche and still have friends from his sangha, but from Chögyal Namkai Norbu I understood that one can develop in the path without having to renounce ordinary life and relationships. I have discovered that that is also not easy, but I feel that I am no longer in a role which shows an aspect that is incongruous with my inner desires. I now feel that I am in the right boat for this part of my journey. The crew is a bit more wild, perhaps more like pirates than the navy, but that makes for an interesting ride. 

I hope that my brief account doesn’t bore you, but I have left out the sex, violence and drugs to avoid shaking anyone out of their contemplation.

John Groeneveld (formerly known as Losang).

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