In Search of Chatral Rimpoche


Siliguri was place I vowed to avoid if at all possible. Overcrowded, over-polluted and under-facilitated. I’d always hated it. Its one saving grace had been on account of a room I’d shared with a young Christian Japanese traveller in 1986 with whom I’d talked about the nature of revelation. Yet here I was again, this time with two friends, in a taxi negotiating our way through a horrendous traffic-jam on the busy and polluted highway into the city. We were looking for Chatral Rimpoche and there was an off chance that he might be residing at a nearby gompa. When I spotted a Tibetan monk disappearing down a side road my first impulse was to jump out and find out if he knew the whereabouts of Chatral Rimpoche’s Gompa but the taxi driver, suddenly finding a space just large enough for his vehicle to get through, lurched forward. The opportunity was missed.

Some way further on when we had bundled out I left Amarajyoti and Padmakara to look after the luggage while I set off in search of a cheap hotel. Down a back street I could see a sign — ’Hotel Apsara’. It was here that I found the same Tibetan monk standing in the doorway speaking with the Apsara’s house manager. We formally greeted each other with bows and it soon unfolded that he was a Kagyupa monk heading for Chatral Rimpoche’s little gompa where he intended to stay for one month. He hoped to be given some instruction by Rimpoche but, he told me, he might not be successful as Rimpoche was very tough. Within minutes I was back on the highway telling Amarajyoti and Padmakara I’d found a cheap hotel with clean rooms, found out that Rimpoche was nearby and had got directions to his gompa. They were suitably impressed by the speed with which everything was sorted out.

Late that afternoon we found ourselves entering the gate to Rimpoche’s gompa in a small village some way out from Siliguri. There were five main buildings: near the gate a small stupa-like building housing a large prayer-wheel; set back, near one edge of the compound, a new looking white-faced low building which was to be the new gompa; a two storied house at the far end of the compound, which was Rimpoche’s own quarters; near that a large silver painted stupa; and next to that another low building which served as kitchen-cum-eating area.

Inside there were a few people milling about, both maroon-robed and lay people. As we wandered in a fine looking Tibetan woman soon greeted us. She was, perhaps, in her late fifties and had a lovely round, moon-like face. Her black hair was drawn up into a bun in the style of Nepalese women and was a contrast to beautiful white teeth and pearly-white earrings. Though she was small in stature she had an upright bearing giving her quite a dignified look. Though she greeted us in soft welcoming tones I could see nevertheless she was a woman of some authority. She was the ‘Khandro’, the wife of Chatral Rimpoche. She explained that Rimpoche had not been in good health and had been suffering from high blood pressure. His doctor in Kathmandu had instructed him to leave the higher altitude and descend to a lower and warmer place for a few months. Since it was late in the afternoon and Rimpoche was resting we could not seem him. However, we were told, if we returned the early next day we could see him. In fact Khandro told us that it would be very good to come the next day since it was a death anniversary of Dudjom Rimpoche, another of Bhante’s teachers, and we could join in with Rimpoche for the whole day.

The next day we rose and duly arrived early. Although I had met Chatral Sangye Dorje twice before this was to be Amarajyoti and Padmakara’s first time and they looked forward to it very much. We readied our gifts and offering scarves and incense. We were ushered up the steep stairs of the corrugated iron roofed house at the far end of the compound into Rimpoche’s room. There sat the grand figure of Chatral Sangye Dorje, his intense eyes and large fleshy nose splayed across his weather-beaten, walnut-coloured face. A huge bushy beard framed the face in a silver aura and a russet coloured knitted woolly cap sat like a tea cozy atop his head. He was just as I remembered him two years previously. He looked more than ever like an old sea-dog than a guru. He wasn’t wearing the maroon robe of the monk but an ochre patterned Tibetan chubba lined with unspun sheep’s wool tied at the waist with a belt of orange cords. Round his neck hung a dark beaded mala with white bone beads marking the quarters and bell and dorje markers hanging on orange threads. Over his lap a broad checked fawn and brown travelling rug kept him warm.

We made our prostrations and each offered our scarves. Padmakara, Amarajyoti and I each offered an incense packet and Rimpoche received them with every mark of graciousness. Rimpoche took a stick from Padmakara’s packet and from my packet and, putting them together with the three sticks Amarajyoti had offered he endeavoured to find a match. No match! Everyone was hunting for a match — his wife, his daughter and his attendants. Still no match. Amarajyoti produced a lighter from his pocket and the incense was lit, fragrance filled the room. Usually when one offers a box of incense to a Lama it is accepted and lain to one side. This was the first time I’d seen it accepted it and used on the spot. I also gave Rimpoche a framed photograph of a painting of Padmasambhava, which I had just completed a few weeks previously. After taking a close look at it he proceeded to recite Tibetan verses over it and dropped grains of rice on it. After a few minutes he gave it back to me. I was a little taken aback as I had intended it for him.

Rimpoche put questions to us through his young and beautiful daughter. It was established that we were disciples of Sangharakshita and we passed on Bhante’s best wishes and respects. Padmakara gave Rimpoche a photograph of Bhante to look at but seeing his obvious delight Padmakara decided to let him keep it. We also showed Rimpoche a copy of Bhante with all his eight main teachers. This excited a lot of interest in Rimpoche, his family and his attendants. ‘Ya, ya! Dudjom Tulku,’ Rimpoche called out in recognition. ‘Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche. Ya, ya! Dingo Khyentse. Dhando Rimpoche. Ya, ya! Kachoed Rimpoche. Ya!’ But who was the Chinese man? We told him but he hadn’t heard of him. The same with Jagdish Kashyap-ji. But, then, who was the other one on the second row. ‘It’s you!’ we chorused. He peered even closer at the picture of himself as he must have looked 35 years ago. He looked up at everybody in surprise, looked back to check and then laughed heartily at himself for not recognising the photograph. ‘Ya, ya! Ya, ya,’ he rumbled over and over to himself in his deep bass voice. We all chuckled to ourselves.

When Rimpoche had recovered himself I showed him a copy of Dhardo Rimpoche’s biography and told him that I had been preparing it while Dhardo Tulku was still alive and that I had completed it for the anniversary of his death. Rimpoche expressed appreciation saying that Dhardo Tulku was a good Lama. It seemed to me that he liked the look of the book. It was now I took my opportunity. I related to him that Venerable Sangharakshita had told me that he would like a written biography of each of his eight main teachers and that I was taking this opportunity to request Rimpo ≥che to tell us his life story. Looking very pleased he announced that if we were going to have a biography of him then we should take a photograph now and put it on the cover of the book. Chatral Rimpoche pulled himself up, straightened his cap, teased out his beard to its full magnificence, arranged his travelling rug a little more carefully, pulled his beard once or twice more and announced he was ready. Padmakara and I photographed him much to his and his attendant’s delight.

The conversation then drifted elsewhere and this confirmed my impression that it wasn’t going to be easy. I brought the conversation back again and asked him politely but directly if we could arrange a convenient time when he would tell his life story. The answer was so off-the-point that I can no longer remember what it was. I asked again but the same happened. I wasn’t the least bit surprised by this. I clearly remember Bhante telling me that Chatral Rimpoche was a very unusual figure and very hard to figure out. Even he, Bhante, had not been able to understand some replies he had given to questions he had asked. He’d been left to wonder if there had been some mistranslation of his question or whether Rimpoche had given him a ‘teaching’. I was left in no doubt — this was no mistranslation. Clearly Rimpoche like the idea of his photograph on the cover of a book but when it came to divulging his life story he was, for some reason, singularly reluctant. I decided that a seed had been planted and just to leave it there. If Rimpoche wished to cultivate it, it was up to him — that was his responsibility.

Two weeks later I was not so convinced. We had travelled to Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Gangtok and we wanted to see Rimpoche once more on our return journey. We had bought him a gift from the three of us — a small butter lamp for his Gompa, which had been newly painted by artists from Darjeeling. Through the gate we could see Rimpoche sitting in the compound before his residence. He called out greetings to us as soon as he saw us and we approached and bowed to him, offered scarves to him and our gift of the butter lamp. It was quite a modest butter lamp, really. It was wrapped in newspaper and wound round with an offering scarf. Rimpoche took hold of it and asked through an interpreter what this was. We told him it was a gift of a butter lamp for his new gompa. ‘Na, Na! Don’t want it. Take it back. Take it back!’ This rather astonished us and we had no choice but to take it back out of his hand before he dropped it on the ground.

Despite this shaky beginning we got to talking through the interpreter and I eventually thought to myself — well, it’s now or never! I asked the question again — would he consider telling his life story at some point. He answered off the point. A second time I tried again. Same thing. The third time I thought that this really must be the last chance. I told the interpreter that I sincerely apologised if I was being spiritually impolite by asking such a question but that I really didn’t know any other way to do it and that I really wished a direct answer. Rimpoche listened carefully. Rimpoche took a deep breath and proceeded to speak through the interpreter and I knew at once that this was a direct reply. ‘Look, it’s this way. Padmasambhava was famous. He had a biography written of him. His twenty-five disciples were famous. They had biographies written of them. Of me? — it will never be done!’ We all thanked Rimpoche and accepted his position. Despite having forced him to reply on a point he would rather have avoided it didn’t sour the remainder of time with him. Chatral Rimpoche was very much his own man, a character of noticeable independence but, at the same time, a man with no sense of self-importance — humble.

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Autumn Issue Two (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 1999).

You can find out more about Sangharakshita's teachers on the fwbo website.