How I Met My Perfect Teacher – Karin Koppensteiner

“A Guru does not only give Teachings. A Guru gives himself.” This famous phrase was the first that came to my mind when I was asked by The Mirror to write about how I met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. There are so many aspects of the relationship between a Master and disciple. Eventually the example of the Master will manifest in the disciple. Then, that is what I feel, Teacher and student really meet.

Before I started to write this article, being a professional writer for 35 years, I asked myself, “WHEN did I REALLY meet the Guru?” Short and longer memories of events before meeting the Master started to appear.

Even though Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche was transparent like a jewel he had many quite normal aspects of a Tibetan person in exile. He was a working person, a famous historian, father of a family, a husband, a professor in University, although some of these aspects were not so relevant for me, as his disciple.

When my precious Master died in September 2018, I met his precious human body in a glass casket in a Stupa at Merigar West, completely surrendered to the future. Two months before, at Adzamgar in Kham/Sechuan in the old Gönpa I had seen a figure like this one, also in a class casket, sitting on a throne, wearing sunglasses. “Must be a wax figure”, I had said to my family, while we stood in awe before the throne. Now, at Merigar, just two months later, my precious Master looked quite similar, the skin a little greyish, preserved for future faith and trust.

“In questo Thigle unico non c’e ne separazione ne unificazione.” I heard the words of my precious Teacher when I left the Stupa that held his remains. When I circumambulated the Stupa, this Thigle opened. I walked alone, empowered and with deep trust. Was it then, that I had finally met my Master?

After Rinpoche’s passing, my vision of him started to change, becoming more pure. Slowly, slowly he manifested as one of the thousands of male and female Buddhas in the huge Buddhafields.

Nearly 40 years before, on a cold winter morning, I was in a cafe in Campo dei Fiori in Rome/Italy, where we had a stage at Teatro di Trastevere. One of my Viennese friends, a Tibetologist, but also a musician in the theatre group I was touring with, told me about his Tibetan Master Norbu, who was living not so far away.

Had I met the Teacher already in his Vajra Song, the first time I heard it, sung by some of Namkhai Norbu’s early disciples in a beautiful garden in Vienna 39 years ago? Was it when, with determination, I said, “I want to learn this song!”

The small Sangha of Vienna adopted me and I learned Yantra Yoga and Chöd in the following year. I wanted to meet this Tibetan Teacher they called “Norbu”. I liked the idea of calling someone by the name “Jewel”, but I did not know what it really meant. I started to read books about Tibet, although there were hardly any about Dzogchen at that time. Meanwhile the Tibetan Teacher I wanted to meet, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, was working at the university in Naples/Italy, had an Italian family, spoke hardly any English, and gave Retreats only in his free time on holiday.

In Vienna, my native city, I lived with my little daughter, Elisha, who was in kindergarten.  At that time I had stopped working in theater and arts, preparing for a good job in Austrian radio to earn enough money for a comfortable life for the two of us.

I sat in the office of the head of this radio department, in front of the huge print of a strange wrathful looking being, half-serpent, all covered with eyes. Immediately afterwards I decided to leave for Tuscany and finally meet the Teacher.

One day in early June 1982 I headed for Italy in my small car, with my daughter and a friend of a friend, who needed a ride from Vienna to Varese. Exactly four years later I would move to Bagnore close to Merigar, but, of course, I did not know that yet. I stayed for some days in Varese and met a group of Rinpoche’s students, some becoming life-long friends, like Tiziana Gottardi and Fabio Andrico. We did Ganapuja together and there was a lot of wine-drinking.

Finally I arrived in Tuscany and picked up my boyfriend and dharma-friends from Vienna at a train station. Leaving the main road at Paganico we could already see Monte Amiata. Merigar was supposed to be found somewhere on the slopes of this huge mountain – “Just ask in Arcidosso”. Hardly anyone there spoke English at the time and I did not speak Italian, but a friend did. The road the locals had indicated was a small dirt road, so steep at the beginning that it took us a few tries to get up the hill. Everybody had to get out of the car and walk, while I drove the small car uphill. Somehow we found this hidden land of Merigar, full of shrubs and bushes, a few trees in the distance, accessed by a small road leading to a huge old house, partly without roof.

We found a few people, some already camping in the distance below the house, and put up our tents not far away from the others. “Beware of vipers!” some people, who seemed to be a little in charge and spoke English told us. Where was the Tibetan Master everybody called Norbu?

About 60 mostly young people from different countries sat in the dry grass on a hill, not far from where the Merigar Gönpa would be built eight years later. There was a huge piece of white cotton, fixed with ropes as a roof for shade, and it was warm and dry. The next day we sat there waiting for the Tibetan Teacher. He came, wearing a big hat, accompanied by two young Italians. He sat down on a cushion in the grass. We sat around him, also in the grass, on our blankets. When the Master began to teach, in Italian, someone translating into English, tears started rolling down my face. Soon my dress was wet and someone handed me paper towels. When the Teaching was finished the tears also stopped. I felt very light and happy. We stayed in the tents, did Yantra Yoga in the morning in the grass, washed ourselves down in the Zancona River, and brought drinking water from the fountains in and around Arcidosso in big plastic containers. In the evening we did Chöd with Norbu Rinpoche, who would lead us around in the darkness through the bushes. There were many flashlights and a most beautiful night sky reminding me of the universe we were in.

Next day, at the Teaching, the same thing: tears running down without end. It was not unhappiness, it was not happiness. What I felt I could roughly describe as deep relief, as if I had been running towards an abyss and someone had caught me, just before I fell. An unknown kind of deep gratitude and relief started to grow, not only towards the Tibetan Teacher, who also became “Norbu” for me. All the practices he taught us, all the lights he spread, it was real, it was familiar, it was home beyond doubt.

This was the first time I met Namkhai Norbu in person. He was always surrounded by a small group of Italian students, which made it difficult to address him outside the Teaching and I would also need a translator, as Rinpoche spoke Italian and I did not, then. The Teacher remained distant as a person to me until the moment, maybe on the third or fourth day of the Retreat, when my small daughter Elisha, after the Teaching, which she had attended attentively, went to the Teacher, showed him, without words, some route on a map and then took his hand and went away with him. This was another moment of meeting this Teacher, again on a level beyond words.

At this first Retreat at Merigar West many of my worlds, past and present, joined to become one. I felt I was coming home onto safe ground.

I grew up in socialist-communist surroundings in a working class family. I had been engaged in politics from an early age, especially during my studies at the film-school in Berlin where I came in touch with Maoism. In Vienna we created an alternative kindergarten and school with a group of parents, with a lot of effort of time and money. Later the school would become an example for the city of Vienna changing its basic schooling system. I was a poet and journalist, had my own house with a garden in Vienna.

It was not possible for me to get into the traditional Tibetan setting of a monastic Teacher. I had tried once in the Buddhist center in Vienna, but ran away before the event started, scared off by the many red robes and strange behavior, like having to throw oneself on the ground before a red-robed person. But there, on the land of Merigar, I found a home without words. Immediately I felt an immense respect for this Norbu, a layperson without a Tibetan attitude, who introduced me in such a light way, as if it was the easiest thing in the world, into the deep knowledge of Dzogchen.

Just briefly I would like to write about another way I met my perfect Teacher. That was when he appeared at Merigar as a student of an eminent Lama, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama or of the Dzogchen Master Lopön Tenzin Namdak. Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche would get out of his everyday clothes and into a western suit. He would sit with us in front of the Teacher, very humble and so elegant. This way he also taught me how to receive and honor the Buddhist Teachings. It was around the time when the Gönpa at Merigar was built, 1990, that we started to call our precious Master “Rinpoche” or “Norbu Rinpoche”.

When the Merigar Gönpa was built and His Holiness Dalai Lama was invited for the Inauguration of the Gönpa, I was Gekö at Merigar. During the event, one person needed to stay near the telephone in the house (this was 1991 – no cell phones yet!). I volunteered, which also meant I would attend neither the ceremony nor the Dzogchen Teaching the Dalai Lama was supposed to give. Suddenly someone of the Gakyil rushed into the office of the Yellow House and said, “THEY want to have tea in the nomads’ tent!” So I made tea, took our best cups, went quickly down to the tent, while someone else stayed at the telephone for that time. Serving the tea in the tent, I somehow got caught up between some nomad artifacts. I just sat quietly beside the two His Holinesses: the Dalai Lama and my precious Teacher Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, in his best suit. Photo credit: Riccardo Dessole, 1990.

Coming back to the image of the Stupa with the precious remains of our Teacher inside, that I wrote about at the beginning: every day I think about the complete surrender of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu as a Buddha, and it mirrors my own possibilities and teaches me to stretch a little further every day. Have I surrendered to the world of beings, victorious as a Buddha’s daughter and soft as softest cashmere wool? Have I offered my continuous service to all sentient beings, like the example my Teacher showed me? This is what I ask myself every day, and some days, I really meet my perfect Teacher. Wonderful!

Karin Koppensteiner was born in Vienna/Austria 1955. She was trained as a filmmaker and journalist. She met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu in1982. After 1986 she has continuously worked in the International Dzogchen Community. Karin is married, has lived in Switzerland since 1996 and works as an artist, writer and translator. In November her latest novel Bonsai, in German language, was published.

Download PDF