Pictures from the Past – Memories of the Subiaco Retreat 1976

This article is part of a series recounting memories of experiences, retreats, travels and other moments spent with Dzogchen Master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu during his travels and teachings across the globe.

 Costantino Albini

subiaco retreat 1976It was towards the end of June 1976 as my mother Laura and myself drove through the scenic entry avenue of the Villa dei Carbonari near the hilly town of Subiaco in central Italy. We had been shopping extensively for preparing the house we had rented to accommodate all the participants of the first retreat with Namkhai Norbu, Rinpoche, that was due to begin in the second week of July. The house, although old and a bit rundown, was sufficiently spacious for a number we reckoned would be of about 20-30 people.

The property must have belonged to a wealthy family back in the eighteen hundreds, and because of its name we assumed that at some point some members of the family must have participated, as members of the “Carboneria” secret society, to the upheavals that preceded the campaign for the unification of Italy.

The estate had a rather ample garden with tall trees, a large sunny terrace with a very nice view over the hills and valley (which later proved optimal for yoga) with some more secluded, shaded corners and a wooded glade to provide shelter from the summer sun. My mother had asked Rinpoche indications about how he wished us to organize for the retreat, and since he had not indicated a span of time, when we found this place on a quite reasonable seasonal rent, after some consideration we ended up renting the place for the whole summer.

So here we were, with a lorry chock-full of sleeping gear, berths, brooms, refectory-style multi-hollowed trays, simple silverware, pots and pans, and food supplies for some time. With the help of some of the youngest participants and our formidable family housemaid Pasqualina, we proceeded with a thorough cleanup and the setup of the sleeping spots for everyone in the various bedrooms. Under my mother’s direction we roughly established a system of shifts for the various chores during the retreat. After a few days of work, everything was ready and July had started.

Most of the group was already there the 7th/8th of July and Rinpoche arrived soon after, with little Yeshi accompanying him.

subiaco retreat 1976A good number of us – myself included – were quite young, in the mid-twenties, and barely aware of the extent of maturity needed for setting off on a travel of such depth as the one before us. We were used to being rebellious to good manners and imbued with a general disapproval of the “adult” world around us; and although somehow lacking in inner discipline, we all were in search of something that could prove valuable enough to justify our commitment to a better way of life. We didn’t yet know how much our deepest and wildest needs would be met.

That evening he gave us a speech over dinner, explaining a little about how we would do the retreat, while explaining the importance the Guardians of the Teaching for Dzogchen practitioners.

subiaco retreat 1976

Guruyoga practice written by Rinpoche.

After dinner we practiced a simple ritual for establishing a relationship with the Lamas, Yidams, Dakinis, and the Guardians for beginning our retreat. He gave us the Lung transmission of a Serkyem rite that his Master, Rigzin Jangchub Dorje, was in the habit of chanting every evening as he was retiring for the night.

The following morning over breakfast, Rinpoche started at once giving us teachings and he continued uninterruptedly for the whole time the retreat went on (which ended up being well over two months), whether in formal sessions or at any moment, answering all of our questions with unwavering patience and without ever keeping anything back. Most of those who had had previous experience of receiving Dharma teachings in other ambiences were utterly overwhelmed by his open, informal style and by the extent to which he was showing trust in us.

subiaco retreat 1976Every time we asked him a question, his answer would reach far beyond our expectations (and often our ken!) and reveal wide, deep and subtle connections between various and seemingly unrelated aspects of the Dharma.

From the very start, simultaneously with – and in connection with – the “Purification of the Six Syllables” he taught us the Yoga of Dream, with precise instructions on how to prepare during the day, how to fall asleep, how to deal with dreams in order to “recognize” them.

Throughout the time though, whatever practice he taught,  he would gradually dispense some explanation on the deeper teachings of Dzogchen, taking all the time needed to make sure we had gotten some understanding.

At breakfast then, he would suddenly ask one of us: ”Did you have any dreams last night?” And if we had, we would happily report our dream, expecting that he would tell us some meanings or interpretations, perhaps in an esoteric or psychological fashion. But soon it became evident this was not his intention.

After we finished telling, invariably we would keep silent for a while, waiting for an answer. Invariably he would let a long time pass, and then either say nothing and/or change completely the subject of conversation, or at times, just utter: “Interesting!” And that was all.

On an auspicious day Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche gave us the transmission of the Chetsun Nyingtig. There were 21 of us. He formally bestowed on us the Four Empowerments, including the Rigpai Tsalwang.

subiaco retreat 1976In the first part of the retreat he gave teachings about various purification practices connected with the Introduction he had given, furthermore he deepened our understanding of the Serkyem offerings, transmitted the longer ritual for the Guardian Damchen Dorje Legba – with a beautiful melody and a system to play ritual Tibetan rolmo cymbals – and mainly the three types of Rushen, and the central verses of the Chod that we still practice today. He also transmitted a special Guruyoga with Guru Samantabhadra. Every afternoon on the terrace, Rinpoche taught us the foundations of Yantra Yoga, demonstrating personally the various movements and breathing exercises.

When not illustrating a specific item of the Teaching, he was continuously narrating historical recounts of Tibet and Shang Shung, of his family, his Masters, stories about the different Masters of the three Transmissions, and the rising in the Tibetan world of heavy problems like sectarianism, thus unfolding before us an unforetold, amazing and variegated world of culture and spirituality of extraordinary richness and depth.

As days went on, we were each facing sudden moments of surprising “opening” in our minds; it was like we were discovering new perspectives to everything. At times, casually meeting in the garden, we would see in each other’s eyes a look of wonder…

We were slowly beginning to see the unfathomable value of what we were receiving. And the value of he who was giving all this to us. With what I know now, I think this was the spontaneous dawning of true, inner devotion for our Guru.

subiaco retreat 1976In the middle period of August Rinpoche went away for a few days with his family, leaving us with  much work to do in retreat, especially purifications and Rushen practices. For a little over a week we remained there, each practicing on our own, trying to overcome our many heavy habits of distraction… And reuniting in the evening for the Guardian practice.

On his return he taught us the Semzins, the Four Chog Zhags of Khregs chod and while mentioning the Body of Light achieved by his Masters, he even intimated the existence of the practices that lead to this special realization, the supreme Four Lights of Thod rgal.

The majority of the participants in this retreat were from Rome, with a few from other towns. We received one day a visit from a group of Rinpoche’s students from Naples, who had been following his teachings on Yantra Yoga.

As the ending of the retreat was approaching, Rinpoche summoned us all for a meeting, on the topic: how to continue. But of this I will tell another time.

Photos courtesy of Andrea Dell’Angelo and

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