Twenty-One Traditional Buddhist Tales

Cited in the Teachings of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu

An interview with Oliver Leick, director of the Ka-ter Translation Project and compiler of the recently published Twenty-one Traditional Buddhist Tales”.

The Mirror: I understand that the book that you’ve been working on for some time, “Twenty-One Traditional Buddhist Tales cited in the teachings of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu”, has just been published. How did the idea to put this book together come from? 

Oliver Leick: First of all, thank you for inviting me for this interview to give a little insight and understanding of how this book has manifested. In reply to your question, I have to go back many, many years. I met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu in 1977. I was 22 years old and had no idea about Buddhism and had never heard the word ‘Dzogchen’ before. But even though Rinpoche was teaching in such an inspiring way, I understood practically nothing, I must confess. However, he told some stories to make the content of the teaching a little bit more understandable and I really enjoyed those stories very much. They were actually the only thing I could remember from the teaching. 

Later on when I was walking with some friends in the mountains, I started to recount some of those stories, such as the story of the two sisters, one is beautiful, one is ugly, or the story of the man with small eyes who was bitten by a dog and so on. 

In 1980, I already had the idea to write down the stories that were so inspiring for me and it has taken me almost 45 years to do it. Five years ago, in 2019, I really thought that now was time to write them down. 

Mirror: Is the book intended for children or is it meant for a general readership? 

Oliver: Well, that is a very good question. It is for both. When parents read the book to their children, the children can understand what is going on especially because it is so well illustrated and children enjoy seeing the pictures so it is definitely a children’s book. But it is also a book for adults.

The book consists of twenty-one stories [told by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu] that I collected and also some illustrations. Some of the stories are traditional Buddhist stories that were recounted by ancient masters a long time ago in order to make the teachings more understandable. This is one part. The second part is stories, some of which are quite ancient stories related to animals from which we can take examples. For instance there is the story of the hare, the sheep and the wolf. This story narrates how the rabbit manages to escape from the wolf and rescue the sheep. Then there is the story of the men who rescued all the fish. 

For the last part I had the help of Dr. Fabian Sanders who found some stories that Rinpoche wrote in his book on Tibetan grammar. This book has not been published yet, but Rinpoche used it for teaching Tibetan while he was in China. It consists mainly of stories related to language – some words may have two different meanings and when a word is misunderstood then something happens and so on. So these are the three main topics. 

Mirror: I understand there’s some beautiful hand-drawn artwork in the book. Can you tell us a little about that? 

Oliver: Yes. When I started to collect these recordings of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche telling these stories in the early 80s and late 70s I understood that if I only published text in the book, nobody would like it. It needed to be illustrated. Since I’m not artistic at all of course I could not do it. So I went to Migmar Tsering, director of the Dynamic Space of the Elements, who was collaborating with some artists. 

The first artist I met was Cecilia Damiani who started to make some rough drawings. However, she didn’t have much idea about the stories and so I had to talk about them and explain how I would like the illustrations to be. 

After that other artists became involved and finally, after several talks with Migmar to make him understand the content of the stories and which illustrations would be nice, he asked some of his Chinese students, who are studying at the Fine Arts University in Rome, to work with him on the illustrations. 

In the book, there are more than 50 extraordinary illustrations which were repainted several times until we were satisfied with them. It took two years until all these illustrations were ready. 

The next question was how to put these big images into the book and for this we needed to have a good photographer. However, there was an excellent collaboration with Migmar and the team of Dynamic Space of the Elements to get the book into its final form. 

Mirror: Is the book going to be published just in English or also in other languages? 

Oliver: At the moment it will be published in English. There is already a Spanish translation, we just need to do the layout and printing. But first we are publishing the English version. If we are satisfied with that version and do not change anything, we will be publishing the book in several languages: Chinese, possibly German and French. 

Mirror: Is this publication a collaboration between the Ka-ter translation project and Shang Shung Publications? 

Oliver: Yes, absolutely. The publication of this book is part of the Ka-ter translation project because it is related to the teachings and explanations of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. And of course because it is related to Namkhai Norbu, then it is published by Shang Shung Publications, so that is a good collaboration. We are happy to present the book in June. 

Mirror: So we all look forward to seeing it very much. Is there anything you’d like to add? 

Oliver: I would really like to mention the extraordinary collaboration with our great editor, Nancy Simmons, who dedicated many months to this special book. She always discovers tiny little points to correct and I’m very grateful for her excellent work and her language skills. I’m not a native English speaker but Nancy’s excellent editing skills and language actually turned the book into a blossoming flower. 

And secondly, I want to thank Francesco Festa, who did the layout and who also worked several months on the book because there were so many changes. I would also like to thank him very much.

Mirror: Thank you Oliver for giving us a little more insight into this book and wishing you all success for this publication. 

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