What happened?

Chime Rigdzin Rinpoche teaching with Ngakpa Chogyam

This page describes the history of interactions among Ngakpa Chögyam, Chhimèd Rigdzin Rinpoche, and others of his students. This history is useful background to understanding things people say Rinpoche said about Ngakpa Chögyam, why he may have said them, and why they may have said he said them.

Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche as a wrathful lama

Rinpoche was particularly known for his “wrathful” teaching style. If you have not already, it would be helpful to read my pages on wrathful teaching and jealousy in the sangha. They are key to understanding why some people believe Rinpoche was critical of Ngakpa Chögyam, and why some of his former students are hostile to Ngakpa Chögyam.

Here is Tulku Thondup describing him:

Rinpoche possesse[d] an amazing quality, incredible power and strength, and astonishing confidence. Yes, sometimes he was rough, tough, and showed his temper. But you would always feel his amazing love and kindness no matter what he said or did. The wonderful thing is that in one moment he could be scolding or angry at someone, but the next moment he would turn around and smile with the greatest kindness and love. For us, when we get angry or upset, it takes time to calm down and become peaceful before we can smile. But he could be wrathful and compassionate at the same time. From one side he would be manifesting his wrathful form; from the other side, his compassionate, loving, and peaceful form without a trace of real anger . . . . For Rinpoche all things are just a display, like acting or a show. All are in equality, like a Buddha with wrathful and peaceful heads united in ultimate peace. He was not angry at heart or in mind but was acting at the surface for a purpose, displaying images like a wrathful Buddha.

Much of what a wrathful lama says is meant to confuse, shock, or enrage. Such statements are not information. They are jokes, provocations, or tests.

Khandro Déchen describes an occasion on which Rinpoche announced that a man present, who was plainly in the final stages of terminal cancer, would not die. The audience was severely confused. She thinks that this was probably a test. She believes Ngakpa Chögyam passed, and she failed. However, it might also have been a bilingual joke—one which nobody got at the time.

Jokes are a key part of wrathful teaching. An outrageous statement is simply a joke—if it is recognized to be a joke. If it is taken seriously, it becomes a provocation—and the provocation is a test. If the listener allows the emotion provoked by the outrageous statement to take over—then he or she has failed the test.

Rinpoche was known for saying anything about anyone, to their face. He had complete disregard for status. He would say outrageously insulting things about even the four Heads of the Tibetan Schools, in their hearing. I wish I could tell you these jokes. They are both extremely funny, and wonderful capsule descriptions of the most famous lamas of the time. I am afraid that it might not be considered discreet to repeat them.

He also said warmly positive things about each of the Heads, and about many people he seemingly denounced on other occasions. He threw many of his senior students out of his sangha at one time or another, in an apparent towering rage. He welcomed them back warmly at other times. (Ngakpa Chögyam was not ever thrown out of his sangha.)

In the end, it was impossible to know what he actually thought about anyone or anything. I have described Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s broad sense of humor. Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche’s humor was much drier. You could never know for sure whether something he said was a deadpan joke or something he passionately believed.

Assistant teaching

Ngakpa Chögyam became Rinpoche’s student in the late 1970s. This was about the same time he was starting to teach, on the advice of Düdjom Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche.

Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche made many visits to Europe, including Britain, throughout the 1980s. Ngakpa Chögyam organized some of his British teaching events, and also travelled to events with Rinpoche on the Continent, particularly in Holland.

Rinpoche stayed at Ngakpa Chögyam’s house for periods of several weeks on several occasions. During these periods, he taught informally. Ngakpa Chögyam had a couple of dozen students then. He encouraged them to spend as much time with Rinpoche as they could, and many did.

On several occasions, Rinpoche used Ngakpa Chögyam as an assistant teacher, and some students attracted to events with Rinpoche also formed a relationship with Ngakpa Chögyam.

The result was a fluid joint sangha with no clear divisions. Some people were clearly students of Rinpoche or Ngakpa Chögyam; some were effectively students of both.

Undoing Lama Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche

Lama Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche visited Britain in 1986, and told many people that Ngakpa Chögyam had lied about him. (I cover this in detail elsewhere.) In particular, he told people that he had not authorized Ngakpa Chögyam to teach, did not write the Foreword to Ngakpa Chögyam’s book, and did not perform the takdröl ceremony that recognized Ngakpa Chögyam’s mastery of Tröma Nakmo and therefore his qualification to teach.

Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche knew the truth, from several sources. (There is a letter from him to Ngakpa Chögyam discussing the matter.)

He therefore undid each of Lama Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche’s denials: he wrote a new Foreword for the revised edition of Ngakpa Chögyam’s book, to replace the one Lama Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche wrote; he confirmed Ngakpa Chögyam’s authorization to act as a lama, both in the Foreword and verbally; and he repeated the takdröl ceremony.

Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche visited Britain in 1988, and stayed with Ngakpa Chögyam for several weeks. He held a large public empowerment at Ngakpa Chögyam’s house. It seems to have been particularly dramatic, and had a profound effect on all the witnesses who have described it to me.

Immediately after the empowerment, Rinpoche performed the takdröl ceremony, and said “Now you have all seen me do this. I do not take back my words, or what I have given. Now let no one question his right to wear this.” He also explicitly said then that Ngakpa Chögyam was an authorized teacher. Among the many witnesses to this are two who have never been students of Ngakpa Chögyam, and who have kindly allowed me to mention them by name. One is Johannes Frischknecht, whose letter describes the event; the other is Mary Finnigan.

A detailed account of the takdröl, with photographs, is spread over four pages on the Aro web site: 1, 2, 3, 4. I find this event significant not for itself—it only confirms that Ngakpa Chögyam had completed Tröma Nakmo, for which there is other good evidence—but because it shows that Rinpoche thought it important to publicly reverse Lama Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche.

Revealing the Aro gTér

Düdjom Rinpoche had told Ngakpa Chögyam to keep the Aro gTér secret until 1988, and then to teach it. During Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche’s 1988 visit, Ngakpa Chögyam recovered the Aro lineage history in vision, and soon began teaching it.

When someone starts talking about their religious visions, there are two likely possibilities: they are crazy, or they are lying.

No one seems to have thought Ngakpa Chögyam was crazy or confused. From the outside, this might seem odd. It would be my first guess about anyone explaining the implausible details of their past lives. However, it is obvious to anyone who has met him that he is thoroughly sane.

So, many people thought that he was on an ego trip. (This is a main danger in advanced tantric practice.) He was making up a fake terma, and claiming to be the holder of a lineage no one had heard of, whose history seemed to have no basis other than his own claims. Presumably he was trying to gain special status and become a famous rock star lama.

Of course, there is a third possibility: that the religious visions are meaningful. Some people did believe this was true of Ngakpa Chögyam’s visions. I believe it now.

His revelation of the Aro lineage history split the joint sangha. Students increasingly felt that they had to take a position on whether the visions were authentic, whether Ngakpa Chögyam or Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche was their teacher, and whether they wanted to practice the Aro gTér or Rinpoche’s Khordong Tér. The split was never complete, though. Some continued to be students of both lamas up until Rinpoche died.

In retrospect, from a publicity point of view, the lineage history might not have been the best part of the Aro gTér to present publicly first. None of the rest of it is as likely to give the impression of an ego trip. On the other hand, to a sympathetic audience, the lineage history is helpful background for understanding the overall tone and direction of the terma.

Who gets to teach?

The partially-joint sangha appeared non-problematic until 1988. However, it seems that jealousies were building quietly beneath the surface. Rinpoche was preparing several other senior students for a teaching role—but they did not yet have students of their own. With Rinpoche confirming Ngakpa Chögyam as a lama, and apparently supporting his claim to be the holder of the Aro lineage, they were concerned about their futures.

Some became overtly hostile to Ngakpa Chögyam. They believed the Aro gTér to be a fraud, and recruited students away from Ngakpa Chögyam, actively working to split the sangha. This reminds me strongly of the split in the Shambhala sangha after the revelations concerning Vajra Regent Ösel Tendzin.

Rinpoche enthroned one of the senior students around this time. That may have been an attempt to defuse the situation—or, as he was a wrathful lama, he may have been attempting to worsen it. It did provide an alternate pole to Ngakpa Chögyam within the formerly fluid sangha.

Some questioned whether either was ready to act as a lama. However, Rinpoche seems to have had enormous confidence in several of his senior students. I am reminded of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who

placed tremendous trust . . . in all his Western students. At the same time, of course, he was not naive about us, being only too well aware of all our hindrances, ego-trips, and potentially serious obstacles . . . (Warrior-King of Shambhala, p. 133)

Testing Ngakpa Chögyam—and others

The atmosphere around Rinpoche was extremely crisp—because students knew he was testing everyone, all the time. Here is one example, from 1992.

You can read the first half of this story on the Aro web site. Rinpoche taught a weekend retreat, with Ngakpa Chögyam assistant-teaching. (The photograph at the head of this page shows this event.) Rinpoche gave the first part of each talk, and then suddenly turned it over to Ngakpa Chögyam, telling him he had a half hour, by Rinpoche’s watch, to cover the remainder of the topic. If Ngakpa Chögyam finished a few minutes early, Rinpoche made him go on talking until the clock said he was done. This put Ngakpa Chögyam on the spot in a pointed way. If he were not capable of teaching the material, it would have been very difficult both intellectually and emotionally.

The story on the web concludes with Rinpoche telling Ngakpa Chögyam to sing the Seven-Line Song. Here is the second half.

Ngakpa Chögyam did not have with him the kind of drum that was needed for Rinpoche’s Khordong version of the Song. So instead he sang an Aro gTér version. At the end, Rinpoche asked him where this melody had come from. Ngakpa Chögyam answered, a bit evasively, “It . . . came to me, Rinpoche.” It was never wise to be anything other than utterly straightforward with Rinpoche. He seized on this and tore Ngakpa Chögyam apart. “HO!” he said. “Ngakpa Chögyam has big ego! ‘It came to ME,’ he says!” Then he ran an opinion poll: “Who thinks Ngakpa Chögyam has big ego?” Some were quick to say that his ego was easily the size of a small galaxy. Others came to his defense. Rinpoche seemed to find this highly entertaining, and set the opposing sides to debating with each other.

This reminds me strongly of the story I have told about the arrogant retreat center manager. Rinpoche was testing not only Ngakpa Chögyam—how would he stand up to being denounced in public by his lama and half his audience?—but also the audience, pro and con—would they allow their emotions to get out of control?

This story ends differently, however. When the argument did get out of control, Rinpoche put an end to it. He said “Ya, ya, ya . . .  Big ego, little ego, makes no difference. He big tantrika! He make discovery! Now what you say?” There was silence. Then he asked Ngakpa Chögyam what he thought. Ngakpa Chögyam replied “You are very kind to me, Rinpoche.” Rinpoche laughed and replied “You great joker too.” Then both were roaring with laughter, while most of the audience was entirely confused about what had just happened.

The 1990s–2002

In the 1990s, Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche spent most of his time in Switzerland rather than Britain. Both he and Ngakpa Chögyam had growing sanghas that required constant attention. Ngakpa Chögyam and his students saw Rinpoche much less often. Apart from practical difficulties, it was apparent that Ngakpa Chögyam could stand on his own and no longer needed supervision. Again I am reminded of the last years of Trungpa Rinpoche’s life:

Along with the increasing trust that was clearly being shown in myself and others by Rinpoche, he seemed . . . to be creating more distance . . . He was deliberately showing us . . . that we had to stand on our own feet. We couldn't rely on him . . . in the way we had in the past . . . He was pushing us away, or cutting the umbilical cord, you could say. In these days he began to repeat often, “You people ask too many questions.” (Warrior-King of Shambhala, p. 283)

People hostile to Ngakpa Chögyam have suggested in web postings that Rinpoche disowned him during this period. When I started doing my research, I assumed this was true. It was said so often, and several of Rinpoche’s students clearly were hostile to Ngakpa Chögyam.

I am now sure it is not true. None of the people who have posted this were students of Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche. (As I will discuss later, I believe the posters got him mixed up with Lama Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche.) I have many eyewitness accounts of Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche warmly greeting Ngakpa Chögyam shortly before his death. One of these witnesses, Mary Finnigan, was never a student of Ngakpa Chögyam. Numerous Aro students report that they were told by Rinpoche that it was a great thing that they were students of Ngakpa Chögyam, in his last year or so of life. Finally, I was explicitly told by one of Rinpoche’s former students, who is publicly hostile to the Aro lineage, that Rinpoche was “not against Ngakpa Chögyam.”

The funeral

Rinpoche died in 2002. One of his students has publicly criticized Ngakpa Chögyam for not attending the funeral.

The organizers of the funeral were mainly hostile to Ngakpa Chögyam, and did not inform him of it. For that reason, he did not feel that he would be welcome, nor that he would be able to be of any benefit there. Further, he was (and is) a man of modest means. A long flight on short notice would have been financially difficult.