How I Met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu – Rowan Wylie

One day in 1980, when I was heartbroken and lonely in Boudhanath near Kathmandu, a Spanish Tibetan nun waved in a friendly way from the stupa. This was a turning point in my life.

It was in a geography class at primary school in Cambridge, England, that I first heard of Buddhism. We learned about monks in saffron robes who had no possessions but a bowl which was filled with food by grateful citizens. I was immediately attracted to this way of life. 

A few years later I saw a monk on television describing Buddhism. “It’s very simple”, he said, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good, purify the heart.” This seemed to me the essence of Christianity without the confusions of faith and dogma.

After drama school in 1968 I joined an experimental theatre company. We chanted Om lying on the floor with our heads together. We searched for truth in expression and trained body, speech and mind. 

But by the end of the 1970’s, my career and love life in England had become stagnant. Would I ever love again, would I ever work in theatre again? My highest ambitions and heroes seemed somehow empty, which might have been sour grapes but I had no sweet goal.

I followed the Dice Man, then the I Ching, read Gurjieff and Alistair Crowley and practiced yoga. Once I had a vivid dream of clear light, the ecstatic reverse of a nightmare. A meditation retreat with Friends of the Western Buddhist order was informative but not attractive.

Then through a series of apparently unconnected events I decided to go to India. It was that or therapy, and I was proud and cynical. 

Hashish was described as the first guru by the chillum babas, devotees of Shiva. I was a regular user, and had also experienced a few mind-opening acid trips in the wildernesses of Holland. In Rishikesh I was welcomed to stay with a small group of followers of Babaji and Babaji, one middle aged and bald, one younger with long hair, both small and wiry. We sat round the sacred fire and smoked chillum all day long in their little half-built temple, ate rice and dahl and learned the etiquette of those activities………I stayed with them several weeks and they never asked me for any money or reprimanded me for not getting up at dawn for morning puja.

The lasting lesson I learned from these kind men was to honor in some way each shrine I came across – which in India is often every hundred yards, every large tree or new vista – with an offering or cleaning or recognition. 

From there I went to Madras for the music festival; I learned to salute the sun and attended teachings from Krishnamurti, considering him my teacher even though he rejected the idea of there being anything to teach.

In Goa I put my money and passport in a bank to experiment with living without possessions for a few weeks. I had some silk scarves to sell for cash and one could always sleep on the beach. The tarot came to life and everything was sharp bright and meaningful – then I went down with hepatitis. 

Rowan around 1985

While recovering near the Tibetan border at Tato Pani in Nepal I slept on a sort of covered veranda above a room where some Tibetan students were studying thanka painting. Their master was most impressive and in my memory he wore a brimmed hat like Garab Dorje and emanated energy. Sometimes a young man would come to wash under the hot springs and release his long braids from their red string. Such beauty.

On several occasions I’d heard about a Hindu swami who was teaching very practical ways of discovering one’s nature, and I joined a group of about 20 Europeans and Israelis who lived in a few empty houses in the forest above Dalhousie. We chanted mantra, prostrated, walked, stayed awake, sang songs, fasted, remained silent, told the truth, meditated. Oh, and smoked chillum. It was very intense and interesting, people changed. 

After nearly two years in India I’d learned to honor each sacred image and tree, to chant mantra while walking, to cherish stillness, to mistrust hierarchies, to accept chaos.

But falling helplessly in love with the favorite disciple of Swamiji threw me back into hope and despair. Somewhere I believed that, despite decades of women’s emancipation, like a Jane Austin heroine my life would only be fulfilled when I had The Man. 

When that didn’t work out I found myself heartbroken and lonely in  Boudhanath, Katmandhu. A Spanish Tibetan nun waved in a friendly way from the stupa. A few days later I met her again, she took me to Kopan monastery where Lama Thubten Yeshe was teaching a Lam Rim course. On the way we watched a rehearsal of the Lama dances, with full masks and 360 degree turns.

Lama Thubten Yeshe, a friendly gap-toothed presence, looked like the real thing. I’d already met the Dalai Lama a couple of times and was confident in the integrity of Tibetan masters. Lama Yeshe was talking about all the cold hell realms (I’d arrived in the middle of the course). We weren’t allowed to eat after midday or smoke. After three days I left.

Then I met the lovely nun Maria again in Bodh Gaya. I was following a Vipassana course and had (almost literally) bumped into the Dalai Lama again.

She told me about her monastery in the north of England and I started imaging myself on the Gelugpa path. Giving up attachments because they hurt! But strangely, when I told her I was apprehensive about my imminent return to the West, instead of inviting me to her monastery she suggested another interesting Tibetan Lama coming to England very soon. She guided me towards the Manjushri centre in London and they gave me the phone number of Judy Allen who gave me an address in Devon. Grimstone Manor, Horrabridge, Yelverton, Dartmoor…..

Rowan on the Vajra Dance mandala.

It was Easter 1981 and I’d spent a few days with relatives before joining the retreat at Grimstone Manor. The last leg of the journey was on foot up winding green Devon lanes with my well-travelled rucksack. Unexpectedly a car stopped beside me, and two smiling American women asked if I was on my way to the retreat. How did they know? Of course I was delighted to accept a lift from Nancy Simmons and Joyce Petchek.

Rinpoche was sitting talking to a few people during a break when I arrived, a large, relaxed, kindly man. I prostrated as was the custom in Gelugpa circles, and was gently told by someone that it wasn’t the practice here. There was no immediate recognition, no flash of awakening, but the informality was refreshing and I loved the singing: in those days we practiced medium Tun and Chöd every evening. When Rinpoche was teaching I understood some things and didn’t mind that much was obscure. I took notes and bought the blue books. 

What would Krishnamurti make of Norbu? Dzogchen the essence was surely what he was talking about, but I didn’t think he’d like the deities and guardians… We gazed into space leaning on a stick, dissolved the blue hung like a drop of water disappearing in the sun. When I heard about the nomadic chödpas who travelled with string bags I imagined myself in that role. When Rinpoche (we called him Norbu in those days) spoke of there being different ways of direct introduction, for instance a flower, he looked at me as he held up a flower from his vase, and I felt he was talking to me.

Returning to London to try to work out what to do with my life I thought of my experience with the Dzogchen Community as a pleasant episode. Then one day I met Colin Ellar on his bike, he lived almost opposite me. He told me about the regular Sunday Ganapujas at Nina Robinson’s flat in Hampstead, and occasional yantra sessions. 

A few weeks later Colin told me about a Dzogchen retreat in California. What an idea! On the move again! I had just enough money to go, registered somehow (how was it done in those days?) and booked a flight.

There were several adventures around this trip, my first visit to the States, but the important outcome was this: I recognized that I wanted to remain connected to this Master and the Dzogchen Community, but my path was not through intellectual understanding but by karma yoga. I’d been working in the kitchen and met all sorts of people from university professors to marijuana growers and loved the diversity and collaboration. And though drugs were discouraged, people drank wine, so renunciation was averted!

After two more years in India, and back in England a woman asked me to accompany her to Merigar one winter to help with her luggage. This was my first visit. Maybe it was 1984. Everything was in the yellow house. We slept in the dormitory like sardines, the Gönpa was what is now the office, Rinpoche and family lived upstairs. There were two toilets for us all. 

I must have liked it because I used to go most summers for Rinpoche’s big retreats, often under canvas when numbers increased. I’d turn up early to do karma yoga for the preparation and work in the kitchen for my board. Attending at least one retreat with Rinpoche every year was a kind of balm in my otherwise overactive life.

When I heard that Rinpoche was teaching a dance I was immediately interested. Gurdjieff’s description of himself as a dance master had always intrigued me. 

Rinpoche on the blue carpet

Winter in Merigar again, the mandala was painted on the blue carpet in the capannone, now the Mandala Hall. I was given the job of sleeping there to ensure the wood burning stove, a ceramic pagoda, was stocked up at night. I followed Om A Hung each evening and learned from Cristiana de Falco the first moves that were taught of the Dance of the Vajra. 

Then in Babia near Mojaca, Spain, Prima Mai drew the mandala in chalk on the carpark. I was already hooked and trying to make sense of the moves, still just the first few phrases, but the lack of color was not helping. On a walk in the desert my friend Phil and I came across a seam of bright blue chalky clay amongst the rocks and scrub. Perfect for the mandala! We took a few handfuls in a hat. As we scrambled back to path we saw another area of bright green, unlike anything I’d seen before. The next day in another area I found red and then yellow clay, which we sprinkled round the thigles of the mandala. Quite extraordinary, this synchronicity cemented my relationship to the dance. 

The next summer I was able to learn the now completed Dance of the Song of the Vajra from Stoffelina Verdonk and Adriana del Borgo, and have continued to study and practice regularly. I had the good fortune to live near Cindy Faulkner for few years and dance every week. When I had the opportunity to buy a house the first requirement was that it was near a mandala! 

My nomadic impulses are now satisfied by retreat hopping. Vajrayana practice and contemplation have brought a degree of stability to my life but remain elusive – it’s with the Vajra Dances that I remain beyond doubt. My gratitude to our Master, the teachings and the sangha is profound. 



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