Subiaco – the First Retreat with Chögyal Namkhai Norbu

Giuliano Angelo Casiraghi

I would like to talk about and give some details of Master Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche’s first retreat that took place in Subiaco, Italy, in the summer of 1976 and which I call “the mother retreat”. I’ll start with a photo of a retreat with Lama Gendun Rinpoche, from the Kagyudpa school, which was held in Marzio, (Varese, Italy) from 16 to 27 March, 1976. The reason for this is that a dozen of the people in that photo came to the Subiaco retreat and contributed to the birth of the “Dzogchen Community”.

Retreat with Lama Gendun Rinpoche.

The Subiaco retreat formally began on 25 June 1976 with the arrival of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and ended in the first days of September of the same year.

The Master arrived in his car, a silver-gray Prinz. We were in the courtyard and garden waiting for him. When he arrived and parked the car, Laura Albini and [her son] Costantino went to welcome him. We were all curious to see what the Lama was like. Rinpoche got out of the car looking like an ordinary man: he was wearing a nice orange t-shirt and brown jeans and was holding a bottle of red wine in his hand to offer us.

Then his wife Rosa got out of the car with their two children Yeshe and Yuchen (aged 6 and 5) and Gennaro Anziano, one of Rinpoche’s first disciples, with a friendly black dog.

Forming a kind of procession we entered the house, turned to the left of the room and just before the hall where the retreat sessions would take place, there was a table on which the Master placed the bottle. The place was illuminated by a chandelier in the form of a double triangle and Rinpoche looked up and stared at it for a few moments. In the years that followed I understood that the significance of that geometric figure related to some practices.

In 1976 there were not many Buddhist schools of the Tibetan tradition in Italy. There were only two centers of the Kagyudpa school, in Rome and Milan, then a few others mainly of the Gelugpa tradition. The Kagyudpa centers were founded after the 16th Karmapa’s visit to the Vatican when, on January 17, 1975, he met Pope Paolo VI. Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche was present and acted as interpreter. On that occasion, after the meeting with the Pope, the Karmapa gave “Buddhist Refuge” to some of those who were present.

The XVI Karmapa and Chögyal Namkhai Norbu in a private audience with Pope Paul VI in 1975.

Thus the Kagyudpa tradition spread in Italy with the birth of the two “Ling” centers. The Karmapa gave auspicious names to the centers for the spread of the Dharma: “Pal Karmai Tashi Choling” for the center located in Milan, while the second center in Rome was called “Pal Karmai Chokyilling”.

In those years, the Master received many invitations from senior people in the Dharma to give important teachings. He was already teaching yantra yoga and other related topics in Naples in the early 70’s. (see article by Adriano Clemente, the Mirror N.150 December 2020)

The historical and social situation of that period encouraged the Master to officially begin to transmit his precious teachings. His first retreat was possible thanks to the commitment of Laura Albini and Costantino Albini who rented a large house with a garden and courtyard in Subiaco near Rome. We were just over 20 people and sometimes almost 30 [at the retreat], and so the “Dzogchen Community” officially began in the West.

Returning to the photo with Lama Gendun, many of the participants in the retreat with him came to Subiaco, to the retreat with Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. The Master mainly taught direct Dzogchen teachings from the Mennagde or Upadesha series.

On the morning of June 27, 1976 he gave an initiation of Chetsun Nyinthig,  a terma of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, with a rigpai tsalwang empowerment.

He taught yantra yoga, practices on Tregchod and vision, and purification practices such as internal and external Rushen, the practice of the Six Lokas and other profound practices.

He taught the very detailed text of Jigmed Linpa’s invocation, Zhi lam drebui monlam, on the Base or Ground, the Path and the Fruition, explaining the whole text sentence by sentence over several days, involving us in the translation into Italian.

With the same method he taught the “Mo”, a divination system that is performed with the mala. The mala has 108 beads and is used to count mantras, or the Mo can be done with three cords. He also explained another divination practice with the melong, the mirror.

The Subiaco retreat took place in three periods, one between the end of June and about mid-July, another about 15 days between July and August and finally the third between August and September 1976.

Back row from left to right: Laura Albini, Christina von Geispitzheim, Daniele Colajacomo, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, Poupee Brunatto, Maria Campisi. Middle row left to right: Maria Simmons, Paolo Perella, Aldo Oneto, Paolo Brunatto, Muriella Colajacomo, Enrico Dell’Angelo, Nancy Simmons, Massimo Facchini, Giuliano Casiraghi. Front row: Gennaro Anziano, Mario Cumbat, Mario Maglietti, Elio Rumma, Donatella Rossi.

Early in the morning we studied yantra yoga, then had breakfast, very often with the Master. He gave teachings in the middle of the morning and also in the afternoon, then yantra yoga in the late afternoon. In the evenings we practiced the Rite of the Guardians, sometimes staying until late in the evening and listening to him after finishing the retreat session. At the beginning of September, the Master dedicated an important Guru Yoga to the community of Subiaco.

In that year, 1976, before the Subiaco retreat, Akong Tulku Rinpoche who resided in a Kagyudpa center in Scotland, came to the Tibetan Buddhist center in Milan, Italy and gave teachings at the end of April. Then he went to Rome on 1 and 2 May, 1976, where he taught publicly and in the evening only to those who had received Kagyudpa teachings. In those days Akong Tulku was a guest of Laura Albini in Rome. She came to Subiaco for a few days at the end of June to meet the Maestro and participated in the teachings and the Ritual of the Guardians by playing the great Tibetan cymbals.

There was a rumor that the 16th Karmapa had been invited to Italy to teach and hold the important Black Crown ceremony. Akong Tulku was to evaluate whether the two centers in Italy were able, economically and at the organizational level to carry out the invitation. The event did not take place for financial reasons.

Download PDF