Vince’s Story – How I Met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu

Vince Li Wen Tai

I was born in Hong Kong and grew up there pretty much until I was eleven or twelve. My mom was quite a religious person and when I was a child she was a Catholic. Actually it’s strange because that is how we as a family met Buddhism because when I was nine my dad had this problem with his spinal column and we were trying to find a doctor for him. Our Catholic priest told us that he knew some qigong masters in Shenzhen who might be able to help. In China qigong was recognized and studied with a very scientific approach.

In Shenzhen we met this couple of qigong masters who introduced our family to meditation and mantra recitation. My mom was so convinced that she really got into Buddhism and eventually found a center in Hong Kong where a Chinese lama was teaching Lama Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim and she emerged herself in that world for a couple of years and would take me with her for teachings.

At a certain point the center invited a Tibetan geshe from Sera Jey to teach so my mom decided to follow him. This geshe was in Hong Kong on the invitation of Lama Zopa Rinpoche so we discovered Lama Zopa and the FPMT center. Later Lama Zopa Rinpoche sent another geshe to Hong Kong called Geshe Lama Konchog who I had a really strong connection with.

After we met Geshe Konchog we went to Tibet several times. The first year we made a family trip to Tibet, to Qinghai, Amdo where we visited the main Gelugpa monastery. Another time we went through Xining by bus, crossing the mountains and on to Lhasa doing a family pilgrimage. The third time we accompanied the geshe to Amdo and it was very nice although I don’t remember very well from this period.

Vince at Kopan monastery.

Then when I was eleven or twelve, in the early nineties, there was some talk about me going to Kopan monastery, Lama Zopa’s monastery in Nepal, to study and become a monk. My mom was really convinced by Buddhism as presented by Lama Zopa and wanted me to have a more monastic style of education while she did her nöndro training for six months at the monastery.

When we got there Geshe Lama Konchog did the hair cutting and gave me the novice vows and I jumped right into it. I had to learn to speak and read Tibetan, study English, maths, and thangka drawing. Basically for the little novice monks we mainly had to memorize texts so I quickly had to learn how to read. We used to have a morning session of chanting, then breakfast and classes. I was one of the older child monks and people who were my age were already in the advanced classes.

Then after a few months we had to leave because of our visas and had thought to come back, but instead I went to stay at the FPMT center in Taiwan. There the circumstances led me to end up as the attendant to the geshe for a few months.

From Taiwan I went back to Hong Kong and for about six months I didn’t go back to school because I was still a monk. At the Buddhist center I would wear robes, while in other places I would wear normal clothes but in particular colors such as red, yellow, or brown. It was a period with a lot of uncertainty in my family. My mom wasn’t sure what I should do even though I had started my life as a monk because in Hong Kong it was not possible for me to continue my monastic studies without a geshe to teach me. I was a little monk without a lama, a monastery, or a sangha.

At that point, we decided to go to the US to visit my uncle who was living in Seattle and during that visit we went to Vancouver in Canada and I liked it. I had this idea that I could continue with my school studies there because I had a three-year gap which would have been very difficult for me to recuperate in Hong Kong while in Canada I could. So we sent an application to a special secondary school for foreign students and I was accepted. I spent three years there.

The first year I was still a monk although wearing lay person’s clothing but then I realized that it was probably time to give back my vows which I was breaking pretty much every day. What can you do when you are 15 or 16? It’s ok if you are in the environment of the monastery but when you are by yourself it is not possible. I finished my high school in Vancouver and did my university studies in psychology at the Nanaimo campus of Vancouver Island University.

At that point I was so turned off by the idea of religion that if anyone mentioned anything about it I would ask them not to. I had just lost faith in institutional spirituality. But I met a lot of free spirited people and we made music together, shamanistic music, primitive, very connected to the ground, simplistic repetitive music that brings you into a flow during which you feel very connected to people. It was very organic and a powerful experience for me and for several years I lived in that type of community.

I was in Vancouver for about 8 years – from 1997 to 2005 – and then went back to Hong Kong and worked there for a few years still without any connection with spirituality. In HK I got this band together and in 2009 I moved with my band to Beijing and stayed there until the end of 2014. At the end of the third year I understood that I couldn’t just continue in music so the last years I spent there I was working at Vice Media who had contacted us to help them establish a base in Beijing.

In 2009 with the move to Beijing I had suddenly started to have a lot of dreams with the Karmapa, Tai Situ, and the Dalai Lama even though there was no connection. In the dreams we would have conversations and this make me think that I should start to check out Buddhism again. But very cautiously. This time it would have to be the Buddhism that was taught by Guru Rinpoche, although I had no idea who Guru Rinpoche was. So I went online to see what was available at that time and found Larung Gar, a Buddhist college in Kham. They have several Khenpos who can speak Chinese and teach to Chinese people and have different curriculums that you can follow online also as a lay person. Eventually I took part in a five-year course “Studying the Words of My Perfect Teacher”.

I finally moved to Larung Gar in October 2014, a couple of days before my birthday. The first days there were terrible because the lowest point was 3,400 metres above sea level so I had altitude sickness to the point that the owner of the hostel came to see if I had died.

Living quarters at Larung Gar basically can be made out of anything: wood, cinder blocks, mud. I visited several mud houses and they are incredibly nice, not in the sense of luxury but cosy. Once after we did a job together a khenpo invited us to his tiny place with just a little stove, a pile of mantra texts and a photo of the founder of Larung Gar, Jigme Phunsok. On the floor was a little piece of sheepskin, a big bag of tsampa and a couple of bowls for tea. There were five of us cramped into that space and he gave us a little tea and tsampa and we had the best time in our lives. It was so simple. He had what he needed.

My space was a bit different and I had a bed, a shelf, and so on because I was house sitting for someone from Beijing, a banker, who had bought this cabin and asked me to house sit for him until he came back. It made me understand that if you are relaxed about things you will have what you need.

There are several spots in the valley with fresh water so you have to go and fetch your own water. There are two bath-houses so you shower about once a month and the rest of the time boil some water and wipe yourself down. The longest time I went without washing was three months during the winter.

With Yuan Sheng at Larung Gar.

At Larung Gar the preliminary course is either “The Words of My Perfect Teacher” or the “Boddhisattva Way of Life”. There is also the traditional nöndro and then on the weekends there are extra courses in which they give lungs for the texts we were studying, like Semnyid Ngalso and the likes, while every day at noon there are local trulkus who are entrusted to give empowerments and lungs.

Every morning we would start with a class from 7 to 9am then our karma yoga work for around six hours with sessions from 10 to 12 and then from 1 to 5pm. In the evening our main khenpo would give teachings and once every three months there would be a big drubchen that lasted 15 days. During the drubchens I picked up Tibetan again because we would just read and repeat.

The first few months there I was really grateful but also really anxious and I had no idea why. I was so fearful and really sensitive to all my thoughts. Searching to find out more about my anxiety problems I went to one of the trulkus who was clairvoyant and who said that I had made a connection with some demonic being and suggested that my anxiety was probably due to that. Then I recalled that years ago, when I was in Nepal, by chance we had met this reincarnation of Phapongka and through him had had this connection with the gyalpo. A few months later we had found out that this connection was problematic and we asked the local geshes what we should do. But further down the line I discovered that it is not so easy and that it is a very powerful thing.

Then somehow looking for this information online, I found an article that someone had posted by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu talking about the gyalpo and how to deal with them. In the article Rinpoche suggested that if people have this type of problem they could go to him for protection. So then I thought that I should try to find this practice to see if it works. I went to see a trulku that I used to see regularly and asked him for the transmission of Guru Dragphur but instead of that he gave me the transmission of Guru Dragpo.

Later I found out about Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s webcasts so I started to follow his teachings. The first time it was general teachings – the Atiyoga teaching retreat in Prague – and at the end of the retreat he gave the transmission of Guru Dragphur. I immediately started to recite the mantra and my nervousness and anxiety disappeared in a way that I didn’t know could be like that and I understood that this was something really powerful. Before that I thought that this condition was the norm and this was part of the reason that I had wanted to leave Beijing and that kind of life because I thought that this type of anxiety was normal. So once I had met Rinpoche and received that transmission over the internet and practiced what he taught then I understood that it didn’t have to be like that.

I was a year and a half at Larung Gar and would have stayed longer if not for the demolition in 2016, supposedly for fire safety. Then I found out that there was a Chinese Dzogchen Community in China so I went to Samtengar to learn all these things that Rinpoche taught. Before meeting Rinpoche I didn’t even know all these practices are open, because in the traditional way at Larung Gar, Vajra Dance and tsalung practices with yantra yoga are only for advanced practitioners. And Vajra Dance is not even for people to dance, only for realized beings. At Samtengar I tried to learn as much as I could. I had been doing the nöndro for some time and I really wanted to study Santi Maha Sangha.

Then at some point in 2016 during one of the webcasts I looked at Rinpoche and I understood that time was running out, that I couldn’t wait to meet him. Even though people in China were sure that Rinpoche would be coming I travelled to Dzamling Gar early in 2018 for the Mandarava retreat where I finally met Rinpoche in person.

There was the lineup to see Rinpoche after the teaching and I waited there. I had brought him a gift and was really happy to finally meet him. I told him that I had this problem with the gyalpo connection and that I had been doing Guru Dragphur practice and asked him if there was something more that I could do. And he just said, “Very good”. And it’s true. I really just wanted to have confirmation from him.

Meeting him was just to show me that I didn’t need to look for more, and to discover how it is enough. It seems that like all the teachings he ever gave were aimed at that. Nothing exists outside. You don’t need to look for more initiations or connections because he has given everything you need. And the rest is just to work on the inside. That is what I understood in the brief time I spent with him.

At the time I enjoyed my stay at Larung Gar but I didn’t understand it. I understood it after and appreciated it even more because it gave me a base to understand what Rinpoche teaches. My traditional studies there helps to eliminate the chance of having wrong understanding of things because Rinpoche’s Dzogchen teachings are very advanced and without a structural conceptual base then it is hard to reconcile a lot of seemingly conflicting viewpoints in the teaching. I’d like to say more regarding Rinpoche – I feel like I am just starting to discover Rinpoche.

At the moment I’m mostly translating courses and retranslating the oral translations of some of his retreats into Chinese, listening and going through them. And by repeating them there is something new to discover every time.

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