How I Met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu – Tshering Choden

Tshering Choden with Rinpoche

I was born in Bhutan, in the region of Bumthang, in a village called Tang Ogyen Choling. It was a place founded by Longchenpa [ed. the Nyingma philosopher]. Later Dorje Lingpa [ed. a Nyingmapa master and terton 1346-1405] was there and made it his main seat so his descendents are still there and managing the place.

As a child I lived a very simple life in my village. Since we had only one school near the village that was a two-hour walk, my family decided to send me to boarding school when I was six. However, my grandmother didn’t want me to be on my own so she put up a little hut close to my school and lived there and took care of me until I was eight.

At school we had an English curriculum, everything was taught in English and our native language, Dzongkha, was a second language, so I grew up bi-lingual. Dzongkha has the same grammar as Tibetan but the way we pronounce and write it is a bit different. Spoken Tibetan is different from the classical language and in Bhutan we study the classical form of Tibetan, not spoken.

Then, unfortunately my grandmother got pancreatic cancer and was taken to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, and decided that I should go there with her. Thimpu was the first place that I encountered the modern world, travelled in a car, discovered electricity and electrical things. My grandmother was quite ill so I decided not to go to school but just to take care of her. I quit school for one year and looked after her until she passed away.

Before passing she had made my uncle promise that he would take care of me. I was her favorite grand-daughter and as I was the eldest daughter in a family with numerous children she was sure that if I went back to the village I would not be able to continue my education. So I remained in Thimpu and used to see my family once a year.

I was nine years old when I went to live with my uncle who was a monk living in his own home, but with monastic rules! I would have to get up early in the morning, at three o’clock, and do all the prayers like they do in a monastery. I also had to do the nöndro, which I actually finished by the time I was twelve years old. I would go to school at eight in the morning but then in the afternoon, from three to eight o’clock I would do things like invocations, the nöndro with prostrations and so on. At that age I really didn’t enjoy it because it was all forced on me. My uncle used to check to see if I was doing everything properly and not cheating. If I saw he was sleepy I used to make my mala go a bit faster so instead of one prostration I used to indicate three!

However, when I was twelve Bhutan started to open to the West and Western culture and we used to love everything that came from the West – speaking English, Western clothes and so on. Since I had been brought up in a monastic way, I used to be shy in front of my friends. When we had classic Buddhist teachings at school I already knew everything but would pretend I didn’t because I was ashamed in front of my friends. Buddhist studies were not fashionable. My uncle had brought me up in a very traditional way and I lived a nun’s life because he was very strict. He didn’t like anything that was connected with Western culture so it was a struggle for me to hide from him the fact that I did.

I lived with my uncle until I was eighteen and graduated from high school but my life was very difficult with him and I was growing up and wanted to be a little bit different. So I decided to go for a training course at the First Institute of Technology and was accepted. It was there that I saw a computer for the first time and also decided that I wanted to travel and see the world.

Up to that time all my travels had been connected to spiritual paths, going on pilgrimage to India, Bodhgaya and places linked to Padmasambhava. But one weekend I was talking to my uncle and his best friend, another monk, telling them how much I wanted to travel. That was quite unusual for a Bhutanese person to want to travel and they considered me to be quite strange. My uncle’s friend used to collect business cards from anyone from outside Bhutan, because in those days not many people visited our country. If he would see anyone visiting, he would stop and ask for their business cards and had a collection of at least 200 cards. When he heard my wish to travel he brought his collection of business cards and practically threw them at me saying that if I really wanted to travel perhaps one of these people would help.

Going through the cards I found one with “Professor Namkhai Norbu” on it and decided I would write to him. The address was in Naples which I thought must be somewhere in Nepal. The monk had received the card from Andrea Sertoli who had been working in Bhutan and had taken some lessons in Tibetan from him. I thought that if it was my karma to go, Professor Namkhai Norbu would help me.

I sent the professor a letter and got a reply after about two months. He said that he received a lot of letters from Tibetans asking him to help them come to the West but he had never helped anyone up to now. However, he said he would help me. He asked me when I wanted to come and said that he could help me come to Italy. I was very excited and replied that I would come right away.

I had absolutely no idea where Italy was but just packed my bag and headed for the border town in the south of Bhutan. I was very naïve and thought I could get a bus ticket to Italy once I got there. Of course I couldn’t and discovered that I had to come back to the capital, make a passport, get a plane ticket and make other preparations.

By that time the Shang Shung Institute in Italy had sent me an invitation and I got a flight to Delhi. Fortunately on the flight I met my friend’s father, the Portuguese ambassador to Bhutan, who explained that my invitation was not a visa. In Delhi he invited me to their home and the ambassador took me personally to the Italian ambassador who gave me the Italian visa on the spot. When I discovered that my one hundred dollars was not enough for a plane fare to Italy, the ambassador kindly bought my ticket. I was totally unaware of how the world worked but everything manifested spontaneously and perfectly without a struggle, what Rinpoche calls lhundrub.

When I arrived in Rome, however, I was totally shocked because everyone at the airport seemed to be shouting loudly. Bhutan is a very quiet place and people never shout and the noisy yelling at the airport made we want to return home. Laurie Marder picked me up and took me to Merigar 2 in Tuscany where I stayed for a couple of weeks before I finally got to meet Rinpoche.

I was a very devoted Buddhist and in Bhutan had been told that Rinpoche was a type of black Bonpo. I come from a traditional Vajrayana family, everyone is a practitioner, and for me Dzogchen meant something that is very far off and you have to do a great many steps to get to that stage. When I heard that he gave Dzogchen teachings I thought he might not be a genuine teacher. I had so many doubts.

He invited me to meet him in Rome but when I saw him I had this instant feeling that I knew him. He asked me to wait until he finished teaching and then we would talk. He was giving teachings in a theatre in Rome but I didn’t listen to anything because I was so eager to talk to him. When he finished teaching I thanked him for inviting me but said that I didn’t want to stay in Italy because I was very lonely at Merigar 2 and wanted to go home. He told me that when he came to Italy he had the idea to stay for only one or two years and then go home. But while he was here he thought that he should learn something because Italy is a special country. He suggested that I try to do something like study language. So I decided I would stay for a year. Then I didn’t see him until the following summer.

With Rinpoche in Bhutan

The year after he invited me to go to Sardinia and there our relationship changed. He is such a great Dzogchen teacher and gives so simply and easily to everybody. Most teachers are greedy and make you sacrifice a lot of your time without understanding much. In Sardinia something clicked and I realized that here is the one. Up to then I had understood nothing. Everything I had done all my life, from age 9 to 19, I had never understood. Up to then I had done all my practices because of tradition. First I started because I was forced to, then I continued because of tradition – my mother, father, grandmother and grandfather did so I should do. After some time when I was older, if I didn’t do my practice I would feel almost guilty, so there was a type of need. If I hadn’t done all these practices for all those years perhaps I would not have understood Rinpoche’s teachings.

For Western people what Rinpoche is teaching is easier. But I grew up boxed in, everything with its own stage, and if you do not do them, you cannot get to Dzogchen.  But as I had done all those practices, when Rinpoche spoke about Dzogchen teachings, it was much easier. And then I felt this gratefulness and understood what I had done in the past.

I think that the connection I had with Rinpoche was really strong. For many years he had wanted to go to Bhutan but he had always had obstacles to travel there. When I came to Italy in 2004, he told me he was going to Bhutan but then he was unable to go. But in 2013 one day we were at Gadeling, Rinpoche’s residence in Italy, and he said to me, “Next year I’m going to Bhutan in September!” I asked him if I could come and he said, “Of course”.  When I asked him who was organizing the trip, he replied, “You are!”. I was shocked. I had no idea how to do that. He just gave me the dates.

Although I was really worried, I didn’t tell Rinpoche. I went home and thought about it and starting contacting people and organizing everything. And everything went very smoothly. It was incredible. I was expecting obstacles, last minute cancellations, but everything worked out really well, Rinpoche was happy, and 150 people participated.

In 2015 I organized a second trip to Bhutan with fewer people during which we had a three-day retreat when Rinpoche gave an introduction to Dzogchen. Rinpoche was very happy and said that Bhutan was the real country of evolution. He had been there when he was very young and he loved all aspects of the country. I think it is true because when Rinpoche was there we did not advertise the retreat – I organized everything with a few helpers who were my friends – and at the teachings there were almost all young people from about 18 to 40 years of age, more than 2000 of them!

So although I was born in Bhutan and when I first came to Italy I spoke Tibetan with Rinpoche, as time passed, Italian got the better of us and we both became Italian! Rinpoche was born a Tibetan and I was Bhutanese and we both arrived in Italy when we were 18 but, with time, we both became real Italians.

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