My experience of Ngak’chang Rinpoche

Ngakchang Rinpoche and Khandro Dechen

Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen

It is difficult to describe someone you know well. The better you know someone, the more sides of their personality you see. If you have met someone only a few times, you might be able to say “he’s angry a lot” or “she’s kind and cheerful.” But when you get to see them in many different contexts, over a period of years, you find that the anger was a passing phase, or she is kind and cheerful in company but sometimes bitchy and depressed with close friends. In fact, all of us possess all human qualities—and all those qualities are ultimately empty.

It is especially difficult to describe an accomplished Vajrayana practitioner. The more you practice, the more obviously empty your personality characteristics become. Ultimately, in a fully realized master, there are no characteristics—only communicative “personality display.” I am not qualified to say whether Ngak’chang Rinpoche is a fully realized master, but I do believe that much of his apparent personality is display. So anything I can say is a description of some ways he chooses to appear, rather than a description of him.

what he is not like

Actually, most of what I can say is what he is not like. I hope a sense of what he is like will emerge by subtraction. In my experience, Rinpoche is not charismatic, humble, arrogant, wrathful, or intellectual, and has no persona.

Not charismatic

Rinpoche does not seem to be charismatic. I say “seem” because I personally found him fascinating from when I first met him. On the other hand, I have mostly had no emotional reaction to the supposedly charismatic politicians, entertainers, and gurus I have met or seen working a crowd. So I am probably skew when it comes to charisma. In any case, Rinpoche’s talks do not attract crowds. A hundred people, most of them “regulars,” is the most I have seen.

a paradoxical mix of repellent and delightful

To magnetize large numbers of students, you have to tell people what they want and expect to hear. A crowd wants a consistently upbeat, mostly-familiar message that reassures them that they are good people (if they obey the rules) and suggests that “if you follow me, everything will come out right.” Rinpoche has no interest in that. He would rather tell people something unexpected. Something that has a paradoxical mix of repellent and delightful aspects. That does not appeal to a crowd.

To gather students, you have to teach “Introduction to Buddhism” over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. Rinpoche mostly leaves that to the Aro teachers-in-training. He would rather talk to a small committed group who have studied with him for many years. Then he can teach more advanced material, and have some hope that we can keep up.

I have slightly mixed feelings about Rinpoche’s non-charisma. I believe that many thousands of people could benefit from the Aro teachings. It is a pity that only a few hundred of us are able to. If Rinpoche were a charismatic figurehead, perhaps the thousands would recognize that the Aro tradition is indeed the best fit for their spiritual goals and capacities.

On the other hand, charismatic figureheading is a full-time job. If Rinpoche did that, he might not also be able to offer his small group of apprentices such depth. That would be a severe loss for me personally.

Not humble or arrogant

Rinpoche is not humble. This upsets some people.

Because of the emphasis on non-self in Sutric Buddhism, some teachers adopt an exaggeratedly humble personality display. This is useful when teaching Sutra, as a way of modeling behavior and magnetizing students who wish to become selfless. It is irrelevant to Vajrayana. Because Sutra is all most people know of Buddhism, it may seem shocking for a Buddhist teacher not to appear humble.

When teaching Tantra, some teachers adopt an exaggeratedly arrogant personality display. This is an outward manifestation of “vajra pride,” the certainty that one is the yidam. Such display shocks most people, but it is useful when teaching Tantra, as a way of modeling behavior and magnetizing students who wish to become powerful. It is irrelevant to Dzogchen.

Rinpoche appears neither humble nor arrogant. I have seen his non-humility upset Sutric Buddhists. I suspect that some Tantric Buddhists regard his non-arrogance with contempt. He may seem very ordinary in comparison with powerful Tantric lamas. Their students might not understand why anyone would take such a sane, down-to-earth guy seriously.

It might seem paradoxical to say “neither humble nor arrogant.” Don’t you have to be one or the other? No. Both are attitudes towards oneself, in relationship to others. It is not necessary to have any such attitude.

Rinpoche seems to have “unconditional confidence.” He attempts a vast number of peculiar, difficult projects. Many of them work out well. Many of them don’t. When he succeeds, it is no big deal. When he fails, it is no big problem. He doesn’t seem to keep score, or measure himself on the basis of his ratio of successes to failures.

Not wrathful

I have written about “wrathful teaching” elsewhere. Rinpoche is not a wrathful lama. At most I have seen him look mildly irritated. That was when someone at a public talk was asking hostile, clueless questions. I’ve never seen him appear angry at an apprentice. He expresses disapproval by looking vaguely doubtful and asking something like “Hmm . . . do you think it might be better to . . . ?” He says that he is “more direct” with ordained students, but I’ve observed that only once or twice. (I am not ordained.) I am sure he is capable of appearing massively wrathful if he chose to—but he doesn’t.

are you going to become real?

Despite this, I found Rinpoche frightening for several years. I was not afraid of what he might do. It did not take long to decide that he was not going to do anything harmful. I was afraid of what he was. It was obvious that he’s the real thing. The real thing is frightening because it is a challenge: are you going to keep behaving like a schmuck, or are you going to become real too?

I also had the idea that I ought to be afraid of him. That was part of the way Ngak’chang Rinpoche related to his own teachers. But those were wrathful teachers, and he is not.

He told me that being afraid of him wasn’t functional and I should stop. So I did.

Although Rinpoche is not a wrathful teacher, he is not exactly supportive in a New Age or therapeutic way. If we do a bad job of something, he doesn’t praise us for it. He looks dubious and says “Hmm . . . Do you think you could get those corners a bit shinier?” Then we know we have more work to do. When we get upset about something minor, he doesn’t agree that it is a cosmic catastrophe and that we are being heroes for continuing to exist. He is likely to abruptly change the subject and completely ignore the plea for sympathy.

No persona

Apparently, many charismatic gurus have an “on-stage” persona, in which they appear beatific and holy and full of universal love, and a different “backstage” behavior when not performing. The backstage behavior is generally less attractive.

I have stayed with Ngak’chang Rinpoche, Khandro Déchen, and their children several times for several days. Many of their apprentices have. I have the impression that they have a student staying with them as often as not. That means we see them in the midst of everyday hassles.

It is striking that they are the same people—when talking to an uncooperative telephone customer service person, or dealing with the failure of a taxi to arrive when it is needed, or putting reluctant children to bed—as when giving a public talk or teaching an apprentice retreat. There is just no difference in the way they appear. Either they are extraordinary actors, able to maintain an on-stage persona for days on end in sometimes-trying circumstances—or their public presentation is the natural one.

no separation between teaching and life

In fact, there seems to be no separation between teaching and life for them. When the children were younger, they would sometimes come and sit on the lamas’ laps during a public teaching. The lamas could smoothly divide their attention between the children and audience. They were literally parenting and teaching Vajrayana simultaneously.

In the same way, in their home, chopping vegetables for dinner might seamlessly segue into a clarification of a subtle point of Dzogchen long-dé, and back to carrots thirty seconds later.

Not intellectual

Rinpoche displays pride in having gotten 66 when his IQ was tested. I have never quite known what to make of that. He does not seem stupid. I suspect that he took the test questions extremely literally, and gave answers that were technically correct but not what the test designers expected.

When he took his first riding lesson with Melissa, his instructor, she told him to maintain a posture, without reins, at the trot: arms extended sideways at shoulder height. He did, until the horse went around a corner and he fell off. Melissa was surprised. It should have been obvious that if he didn’t shift position, he’d keep going in a straight line while the horse went elsewhere. Her instruction was meant to implicitly include “so long as you are going straight.” Any normal person would have understood that, and avoided falling. Rinpoche explained that she had said to hold the posture, so he did. He did not consider his opinion about what would happen at the corner relevant. Melissa learned to spell things out for him extremely literally.

Rinpoche related to Melissa rather as to a vajra master (tantric guru), and she came to relate to him rather as a wrathful lama. I watched him in a lesson with her once. She had him going around a set course with a series of obstacles. When the horse jumped the second fence, he fell off. It was a ridiculously large horse and quite a high jump. Rinpoche fell about eight feet and landed in a heap, motionless. I and another student watching were . . . concerned. After several seconds, he got up unsteadily. “Anything broken?” asked Melissa cheerfully. Rinpoche patted himself all over. “I don’t . . . think so,” he said. (He has repeatedly broken ribs and his tailbone this way.) “Right,” she said. “You let him cut the corner, so he wasn’t going fast enough when he got to the first jump. That made him jump too far toward the next jump and instead of taking two canter strides he jumped again immediately. That’s why the saddle came up and sent you flying over his head. Now, force him to the wall as you come into that corner.” It appeared that she meant for him to try again. He staggered over to the horse, got up, and went back around the course.

the slowest student she ever had

Several years into their relationship, Rinpoche asked Melissa if he was the slowest student she had ever had. He was not seeking reassurance, and could not have expected it from Melissa. He was just curious. Melissa thought for a moment. “You certainly have the least natural talent of any student I have ever had,” she replied. “But you are also the most persistent, and now you ride quite well.”

Rinpoche does not seem to think in the way of academic intellectuals. He is brilliant, in some way, but not that one. He likes obscure words, but he seems to delight in their unique flavors, rather than using them to intimidate. He explains Buddhism exceptionally clearly, but he does not produce the logical, linear arguments academics admire.

I have studied, worked, and/or partied with several Nobel Laureates, Fields Medalists, Silicon Valley wunderkind squillionaires, and other officially smart people. I have a pretty good idea of what they do and how. I cannot do Nobel-level science, but I have published scientific journal articles. The difference between geniuses and me seems one of degree, not kind. I know what it is possible to create using conceptual mind.

I have no idea how Rinpoche does what he does. The Aro gTér all makes sense once it is explained, but there is nothing in my intellectual experience that helps understand how you would come up with it. Being an academic genius would not let you produce something like it.

If I were to sit down to invent a fake terma, I think I could do a pretty good job, by imitating other termas conceptually. Maybe I could come up with something that would pass the duck test. It wouldn’t be very interesting, though.

where on earth did that come from?

The Aro gTér isn’t like that at all. It is continually astonishing in making useful connections between subtle aspects of experience for which I previously had no names. Over and over, I think “where on earth did that come from?” So, I don’t think the Aro gTér is the product of conceptual mind—Rinpoche’s or anyone else’s.

I don’t worry about where the Aro gTér came from. It wouldn’t bother me at all if Rinpoche did make it up, so long as it works. But I am quite sure that he did not make it up.

In Dzogchen terminology, it appears to come straight outta tha dharmakaya.