When he was in film school, Khyentse Norbu wore pants. He liked to befriend people who didn’t believe in Buddhism. He liked to argue with them. He also liked that they didn’t treat him with any respect.
Photos and film stills by Pawo Choyning Dorji
When he was in film school, Khyentse Norbu wore pants. He liked to befriend people who didn’t believe in Buddhism. He liked to argue with them. He also liked that they didn’t treat him with any respect.
It was 1994, and Norbu was in his early 30s, attending the New York Film Academy. The course was an intensive one: three weeks to learn to use a 16-millimeter camera and edit. Classes started early and ended late. The pants he was wearing, khakis, replaced his traditional crimson monk’s robes. A non-Buddhist friend who resembled Wallace Shawn came to see him every day, as soon as class got out. Sometimes “Wally” came over before Norbu got back from class, and just hung around the condo Norbu was borrowing, a pied-à-terre owned by one of Norbu’s Buddhist students. So Norbu would be in school all day, and then he’d come back, and Wally would come around to argue.
In addition, a public defender from Louisiana was traveling with Norbu—yet another student of his. She slept on the couch. She wrote his papers for him sometimes. Mostly what she did was watch TV all day and smoke cigarettes and chew Nicorette gum. And I was there. I was 18. At this time, though I had been raised as a Buddhist, I had decided I was not one. I had come up to look at colleges, and I’d asked if I could sleep on the couch. It was one of those long sectionals, so Norbu said fine.
So here was this famous Bhutanese lama, in pants, in film school, and it was around 6 PM. He had Wally the Skeptic, Public Defender the TV Watcher, and me. I had just gone and cut off all my long hair for $400 at a salon I’d read about in Vogue. I’d been given a short, conservative haircut when what I’d wanted was Christy Turlington’s shaved head. The public defender and Wally—for reasons I can’t remember—were at each other’s throats. It was one of the craziest arguments I have ever witnessed. “You’re just an old fat woman,” Wally said, and the public defender snapped back, “You’re a short, bald man!” It was loud and ongoing, back and forth, and fast like that, and for some reason I—with my 40-year-old woman’s glossed hair—had climbed onto the windowsill and started crying. Norbu came home to this scene.
He started laughing. He ran to get his tape recorder and raced back and forth to catch everything that his furious, shouting students said, laughing joyfully.
Twenty years later, at 9 AM in February of 2014, Norbu sat on a cushion at the Kalachaya Cultural Center in Pune, India. The cushion was on a stage raised a foot off the ground. Seventy-five people, most of them Indian college students and academics, were in the audience. It was the first day of a course on the eighth-century Indian philosopher Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva.
Norbu had the flu. His secretary hopped onto the stage. The young Indian woman, dressed in a turquoise salwar shirt and red cotton salwar suit pants, poured him a glass of water, then skipped around to his other side to hand him some homeopathic pills. He tilted the pills from the cap into his mouth, then checked the cap before returning it to her. He coughed and looked around.
After thanking the head of the college for his introduction, he commented on the circumstances. He was a Buddhist rinpoche teaching at a college. The shrine set up on the stage was actually modest, but he acknowledged it, saying, “I did study in London, and there I had experience with Buddhist studies. Years later, I had the opportunity to lead one semester at Oxford, teaching Buddhist philosophy. For some reason, we in India and larger Asia, we also have adopted this attitude of studying ancient wisdom in the context of what they call objectivity. So the whole manner and ritual—the flowers, incense, statues, and all that—probably is a bit alien to the academic world. Of course, we have to appreciate critical study. In fact, it is important to know that 2,500 years ago Buddha was one of those few great beings who emphasized critical thinking and critical study. He himself said that his teaching should never be taken at face value, that it has to be analyzed and thought about, and if it is good, then you should take it as a path.”
He suggested that the scholars in the audience regard the incense and flowers as a “study and an analytical case.” He spoke a bit more about the history of Shantideva’s text, and then he began to go through it line by line. He began with the first seven words: “Homage to all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.”
In a very traditional form of teaching, just like a philosophy seminar in graduate school, Norbu began to go through the text word by word. He began by defining the word homage, and then he distinguished this homage from others and praised its particulars.
He said, “The gesture of offering homage indicates the humility of the author, but in this particular case, the stanza of the homage really embodies what it is that we are looking up to, our role model, what it is that we are trying to achieve.”
He meant the “Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,” whom he defined as people who have realized the truth. He said, “What is truth?” And the analysis continued.
He went through the first chapter: 36 four-line stanzas. He recited each stanza in Tibetan, quickly, before reading it in English from his text. Then he discussed the meaning, which often led him off on tangents and reminded him of stories. At this pace, we spent about seven hours on 144 lines of verse. He kept saying, “I’m going very quickly through this.”
Norbu was born in Eastern Bhutan in 1961. His father was a Tibetan refugee, and his mother was Bhutanese. They didn’t have much money. When Norbu was seven, he was recognized as the reincarnation of the lama Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö. His main guru, Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, accompanied him from his parents’ home to a monastery in Sikkim, India, where his training began.
In the room in Sikkim where Norbu stayed as a little boy, there are still scratch marks he made in the paint. He used to throw temper tantrums and claw the walls because he didn’t want to be a lama. He wanted to be an ordinary boy. At age 11, Norbu was traveling with his mentor and attending teachings and transmissions. Norbu didn’t have any money, and his attendant asked a Western Buddhist nun, Ani Jinba Palmo, for help fund-raising for his tuition. Palmo is a scholar, a translator, and the author of a biography of one of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist masters from this century.
She explained, “I was living on a shoestring budget and had no idea about fund-raising. Those days everyone was so poor that we didn’t have money to get recording equipment. That’s why so many precious teachings were lost—nobody had any money.”
According to Palmo, Norbu’s guru received some money and some land, and he gave both to Norbu. The money paid for his education at Rajpur’s Sakya College, a monastic training center renowned for the scholarship of its teachers, the discipline they impose, and the rigorous training its students receive. Norbu gives varying accounts of this time. Sometimes he says he read by butter lamps. Sometimes he claims he spent the entire time reading Tintin comics and sneaking off to movies. But Palmo says that he was very serious, always studying, and always asking questions. He says that he had an unusual training as a rinpoche, because his teacher recognized that he was better-suited to philosophical study than to other forms of practice.
I asked Palmo about Norbu for this article, and she sent a note detailing the things she could remember. She wrote, “During the late 80s, [Norbu, in his late 20s,] once came to visit me in Holland. I think he had never been there before… He especially wanted to visit the red-light area in Amsterdam, so we spent a whole afternoon/evening there, while he was trying to drag me into a live sex show. During those days he didn’t have many students and would just travel on his own, and one day spent an entire afternoon making a beautiful clay [statue] for me, which is still on my shrine now.”
A still from Vara: A Blessing, by Pawo Choyning Dorji
Shortly after I was asked by VICE to profile the guru, my husband and I were driving on the highway. He had been reading Patrul Rinpoche’s book The Words of My Perfect Teacher, and he said, “You know, I think, if I had to imagine the perfect teacher for me… he would be philosophical, intelligent, creative… I mean, he would be just like Norbu.”
“I think so too,” I said.
He said, “The title of the book, Words of My Perfect Teacher, always sounded like an Asian formality, and I never thought about the meaning. I never realized it was personal. Like, he’d found the perfect teacher.”
I met Norbu when I was 11 years old. For some reason, my friend Claudia, also 11, and I ended up traveling with him and a group of lamas in the summer of 1987. I asked him to be my guru when he returned to the United States a couple of years later. But he declined, saying, “You are young, and you should be young.”
When I went to college in New York, at Barnard, I was introduced to nihilist philosophers and thought, Oh, this is good. I can have all the wisdom of Buddhism without any of the Buddhists. My New York friends appeared sort of intimidated when I said I’d been raised as a Buddhist; they thought it was corny. Also, some of the Buddhists I had known in Houston were eccentric. I thought, I can seem normal.
Twelve years later, when I was an editor at the Onion, a good friend of mine bought me tickets to a screening of Norbu’s second film, Travelers and Magicians, at the Rubin Museum. She managed it in kind of a tricky way, by sending her daughter to stay with me for a week, and then telling me, once her daughter had arrived, that she had bought us two tickets. I had known her daughter since she was a baby and felt like I had to be an adult around her, so I couldn’t say, “You go to a movie alone in New York City for the first time, and I’ll stay here and sulk.” I felt obligated to go. I thought, These Buddhist people are so crazy, and I went. The moment I saw Norbu, I remembered him as he is: kind, sane, gentle, and simple. And so I wanted to know him again.
I approached him at the reception in the museum, after I had drunk six glasses of wine. I hit him on the arm and told him I wanted to talk. I felt it was time that I tell him he was a big fraud, actually. I thought he needed to hear that. He said, “OK.” I chickened out, even though I was drunk. I said, “I’ll give you my email address.”
About two months later he wrote me a short email. It came to me right after I’d spent an afternoon swimming in the ocean. He invited me to come to India for a week for a drupchen, an intensive group practice, and suggested I consider staying in India for a few months after that. I accepted and quit my job at the Onion.
In India, on the third or fourth day of the ceremony, Norbu asked me to proofread the manuscript of his first book, What Makes You Not a Buddhist. The book is about the Four Seals:
- All compounded things are impermanent.
All emotions are pain.
All things have no inherent existence.
Nirvana is beyond concepts.
The book is written simply, almost conversationally, but expertly lays out the basic philosophy behind Buddhism, stripped of any religious or guru talk. He basically says, if you believe these four things, then you aren’t not a Buddhist. You may not want to call yourself one, but you are at least walking the same line as the Buddha. About halfway through, I recognized that I was a Buddhist, and that I had never stopped being one.
It was the afternoon of the second day of Norbu’s class in Pune, and he’d just completed his discussion of the first chapter of The Way of the Bodhisattva.
He said, “This is something I don’t need to be mentioning. The purpose of the path is to get out of the delusion. To be free from the delusion is what is called nirvana, and that’s it. As simple as that. And when we talk about delusion, we are not talking about some mystical, inherently existing evil, some externally existing creature or problem… We are basically talking about a mistaken idea, or a mistaken habit. And there are a lot of those… for instance, even though everything we encounter isn’t permanent, we always consciously or unconsciously take it as permanent. That is a mistaken habit. It might give us a temporary satisfaction, but one way or another, it always leads us to disappointment.”
He asked whether anyone had questions.
A woman raised her hand. She asked how she could ever have aspirational bodhicitta, or the wish to enlighten all sentient beings. She said that when she looked at the way people were, she didn’t think it was possible to help one person. How could she pretend she would enlighten every person, every turtle, every insect? She said it would take forever and still not be done.
Norbu said, “See, the thing is, Buddhists don’t really believe that there’s something called forever. Forever is a concept, right? Because when we talk about forever, we usually think in terms of something for a long, long, long time. That’s about all we think of.”
He referred to a sutra by name, and he summarized it, saying, “There’s a discussion between a bodhisattva and the Buddha. This bodhisattva comes, and he says he’s just so tired that he can’t do this bodhisattva business anymore… Even just to liberate one sentient being requires a limitless amount of emotional effort. One sentient being alone is exhausting him.
“So Buddha gave this example: Let’s say a mother dreamt that her child was drowned or killed by a very strong tsunami. She would do everything to save this child, and in the process of saving this child, every second would feel like hours, or years. And then the mother wakes up, and her child is in her arms, peacefully sleeping.
“This is how things are. From the time a being took a bodhisattva vow, and he went through all this bodhisattva training, and at last he reached what we call the tenth bhumi bodhisattva—that’s a really long time, something like almost three countless eons. The bodhisattva, the one who is asking Buddha, complaining about how long it takes? Budddha said on the tenth bhumi, when the Bodhisattva gets on the tenth bhumi, the duration of three countless eons is as much as a spark coming from a fire, the duration of that. So time is totally relative. So yes, it is a process; it is a path. But duration, time, continuity—all this in reality does not exist. So it’s very much a path of really combining the wisdom and the act of discipline. Am I answering your question? OK.”
As it often does, the theoretical discussion reminded him of a personal anecdote, about a student of his.
He said, “For 20 years, I have been working with this gentleman. I won’t mention his name, but that is partly because it’s my own fault. As I work with the gentleman, I have my agenda. I have my set definition of the result I am expecting from him. That indicates my understanding of the wisdom is not so good. So I will also break down after a while, because there are certain definitions of success that I am stuck with. I am imposing those on him. I don’t think it’s going to happen realistically, but my emotion is not letting me go. So every time it’s like this. Whenever he is not with me, I tell myself, See. Look. You are setting up this definition. You are so stubborn. He is such a totally different human being. You can’t do that. So then I say, OK!
“The moment he enters—I don’t know. Maybe the way he hasn’t shaved his beard, the messy sort of hair, the way he wears his jacket. All that preparation of telling myself? Completely down the drain.
“Immediately I say, ‘Why didn’t you shave?’
“‘Why are you using this cologne?’
“‘Why are you sitting like that?’
“Immediately! And we just become kind of—you know. Over the years, this has become a separate problem. Now I’m not even trying to help him. Now I’m trying to achieve my goal. So I’m actually calling him to prove I can let this go.”
He joked, “I will tell you his name, and I will give you his email address.”
A still from Vara: A Blessing
One of Norbu’s students, Maggie Westhaver, wrote to me about his time in London. She wrote so well that most of this should really be in quotation marks, but I’ve decided against them for ease of reading.
A student of Norbu’s from Hong Kong had real estate ties in London. She found and rented a two-bedroom apartment for Norbu off Bayswater. Phuntsok Tobgyal was Norbu’s attendant, and he got some training in Toyota maintenance from a local garage. Norbu got a job passing out leaflets, and he said that this was a good experience, standing on the corner. He was 29, and his attendant was 18.
Norbu invited Westhaver to spend three months with him. She answered the phone sometimes, but she didn’t have any other assigned duties. She lived in a small apartment in Notting Hill, very close by, so she did her ngöndro (the first set of meditation practices a Buddhist completes before moving on to other kinds of practice) every morning until Norbu came home from school, about 2 PM. In those days the phone hardly rang; there was rarely, if ever, a fax. Cell phones didn’t exist. Tobgyal did much of the cooking. Norbu ate out with his students (Westhaver and four others, mostly) all over the place. Once, a teenage boy tried to take his wallet. Norbu took the boy’s hand, and the boy said, “I’m hungry.” Norbu said, “You could ask.”
He was supposedly in London to study English. He started out with one language school and later changed to one near Russell Square. He hung out with friends from his schools, going by the name of Lawrence or Larry. Once, he had a group over. They didn’t know he was a lama. Someone suggested tea, and one of his students—who did know he was a lama—said, “Why doesn’t Larry make it?”
Norbu went to the kitchen. A few minutes later, he called out for assistance: He had never made a cup of tea before. He didn’t know how.
Norbu liked to photograph people. His bureau, which was also his shrine, was always a mess, and Westhaver wanted to clean it up but didn’t dare disturb it. Norbu told his school friends that the picture of the man on his bureau (his guru, His Holiness Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche) was his grandfather. He took to wearing glasses with window glass in them. Westhaver knows because one day she picked them up and tried them on, confirming her suspicion. It was 1990, a World Cup year, and Norbu was and is a huge soccer fan. The TV was on all the time, and Norbu and the European sangha seemed to be in a state of bliss. “Italy must have been in the finals, because for weeks all you could hear around London was Pavarotti singing the theme song for the games,” Westhaver said. Norbu found a video store nearby, renting stacks of bad movies and carting them back and forth almost every day. They went to see plenty of shitty movies in the theaters as well, though Westhaver wrote, “I was introduced to Pedro Almodóvar that summer and have been a big fan ever since.”
On one occasion the doorbell rang, and Norbu kicked all of his students out, telling them to go across the street to the private park that came with his building. Westhaver wrote, “I think it was me, Ruth, and Indra, and perhaps Phuntsok. We got kicked out for about 30 to 45 minutes. The door opened and in walked two movie people, Italians, associated with [director] Bernardo Bertolucci. The woman was immaculate; she was wearing an incredible suit and gorgeous shoes. I’m not sure what, if anything, Norbu said to us after they left.”
Shortly thereafter, Norbu attended film school and then apprenticed with Bertolucci, and advised him, on Little Buddha. Norbu’s first film, The Cup, is set in a monastery in Bir, a Tibetan colony in India, and in the very nearby land—given to Norbu before he began his studies at Sakya College—where he and his monks built a monastery. The film is about a young monk, a soccer fanatic, who manages—against all odds (a very mindful disciplinarian, a broken satellite dish, bad reception)—to sneak out of the monastery and go into a bar in town to watch the World Cup. It was released in 1999, distributed by Fine Line Features, and received the Audience Award at Sundance. I think the title has two meanings, because at that time, Norbu was often irritated by students of his who never meditated but dressed like Tibetans. He found a polite way to correct us. He said we were confusing the cup (Tibetan culture) with the drink (the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha). He said the cup you drink from doesn’t matter—you could drink from your hands. A nice cup, he often said, might help you, but at the end it was the drink that mattered.
A street cat slinked along the curtain of the stage, ten feet behind Norbu. A student of the university asked him to distinguish between the three main approaches to Buddhism: Shravakayana, the path of renunciation; Mahayana, the path of emptiness and compassion; and Vajrayana, the path of sacred outlook.
“Monks—we are talking about monks—gender, men. They meditate about how a woman, a woman’s body, is dirty: puss, lard, all the smelly blah, blah, blah. This is a Shravakayana monk,” Norbu said. “The attitude is more like: It’s a temptation; it’s not the right thing to do; let’s get the hell out of here. Let’s shave my eyebrows; let’s make me unpresentable; let’s shave my hair. All that comes from there, you understand?
“Now, for the Mahayana monk, it’s slightly different. There is all of that, but the main thing is, we should renounce not because what we are renouncing is something dirty, or something evil, or really evil incarnate, but because really there is no such thing as evil. There is no beautiful woman; there is no ugly woman—there is nothing. In fact there’s nothing to renounce. As long as there is something ugly, as long as there is beauty—both will bind you. Both are concepts…”
He moved on to Vajrayana Buddhism and illustrated it by telling what he called a tantric story: “A Sakyapa monk was [worshiping] Vajrayogini, a female deity, in the Boudha stupa in Kathmandu. Once this monk was coming out of the stupa, and a beautiful girl came striding toward him and said, ‘OK, hug me. Kiss me.’”
The monk ran away. He escaped, but he was embarrassed, because he felt like he had been disgraced in public. As he ran away, behind the shops that surround the stupa, the face of the woman rose, sort of like the moon.
Norbu said, “And then he realized it was Vajrayogini. He knelt down, he basically broke down, and said, ‘All these years I have tried to communicate with you, and you don’t even give one single sign. And today, when you finally give me a sign, you give me a sign this way?! Not a proper way?’ He said, ‘Please take me to Ketchari, land of Vajrayogini.’
“She said, ‘Because of that doubt, because of that inhibition, in this life, you will never unite with me, but as soon as you breathe the last breath, I will drop a ladder made out of coral, and at that time, without any inhibition, you should climb this ladder.’”
A few minutes later Norbu was making an example, and he gestured behind himself and said, “A cat.” My husband turned to me and said, “There’s no way he could have seen that cat. That’s funny: I’ve heard all these stories of him doing things like that, but that’s the first time I actually saw him do it.”
A still from Vara: A Blessing
Travelers and Magicians was the first feature film ever shot in Bhutan. It is a story within a story within a story. A Bhutanese government clerk wants to leave his village and come to America, where he can make a month’s wage in a single day by picking apples. He hitchhikes to the bus station toward the capital city, where he encounters a monk, who tells the story of two brothers. One brother is very intelligent, and the other, who is older, is a happy fool. Because he is the elder, the happy fool is sent to magic school, where he sleeps through class and fools around. But the younger peers through a crack in a wall and listens avidly. He casts a spell on his brother that sends him into a land of dreams. In the land of dreams the brother falls in love with a married woman, kills her husband, and loses her in the river. As he is crying over the water, he comes to—face to face with his brother—the tears still in his eyes.
Norbu’s third movie, Vara: A Blessing, debuted in New York in April at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film is set in a small village in India. It is about Lila, a devadasi dancer who falls in love with a lower-caste man named Shyam, whom she recognizes as Krishna. She is not like the monk in Norbu’s example—when Krishna presents himself to her, she embraces him, which causes her a lot of trouble in the real world.
What distinguishes Norbu from other writers is his ability to make a story without unhappiness and violence. The mantra of my writing teachers has always been, “Get your characters into trouble.” And Norbu does this—he writes traditional arcs—but he does it in an unusual way. When a character’s problem is that she recognizes in brief flashes that her world is sacred, and she herself is sacred, it is not really the same as, say, The Conjuring, in which the drama comes out of a family buying a house and learning that it is haunted by a witch who killed her baby.
What distinguishes Norbu from other filmmakers is the shameless beauty of his shots. I am really stupid when it comes to visual things, but even I am caught sometimes by the landscapes he creates. I asked Nanette Nelms, the producer of Vara, what it was like to work with Norbu. She said that “as a director he is never looking at the project as the most important thing in the world. His perspective is so vast and grounded in wisdom that he lacks the prevalent “obsession at all cost” attitude, which is both inspiring and at times maddening.
“Typically a director might have a fancy viewfinder to view the scene at different focal lengths when rehearsing or scouting. Rinpoche [Norbu] used his digital camera quite a bit, but at a certain point, once we arrived in Sri Lanka for rehearsals, I heard him say he wanted a viewfinder. Production set about rush-ordering a viewfinder from India or Thailand, but Rinpoche said not to worry because he’d spoken to our production designer, Aradhana Seth, about it and she was taking care of it.
“I was puzzled but thought maybe Aradhana, ever industrious, had arranged a viewfinder in a shipment of props coming in from Chennai. As it turns out, Rinpoche asked her to fashion a basic rectangle with a handle out of wood. That was the viewfinder he wanted. He was so happy with it! It wasn’t long before our award-winning cinematographer, Bradford Young, began asking Rinpoche to look through it too. Rinpoche’s viewfinder is a precious keepsake for me (the memory, not the actual object, which I coveted but didn’t have the nerve to ask for), not only because it represented Rinpoche’s refreshing and singular approach to filmmaking, but also because this ordinary object through which he viewed the world he was creating served as a reminder of how easy it can be to see what’s essential, as long as we apply just a little bit of perspective.”
Once, Norbu showed me Vara when it was still a screenplay. He showed it to a lot of people; he is always asking for opinions and advice. At first, I felt all the characters were speaking way too openly and way too kindly. I crossed everything out, thinking, People don’t talk like that! But then I realized I wasn’t getting it. That this world, where people are kind and clear—and still fall in love and have problems, of course—was his particular style.
I recently asked Norbu which actors he would most like to work with.
He said, “Eddie Murphy or Danny DeVito.”
I said, “What’s your dream project? What movie do you most want to make?”
“A film on the life of the Buddha.”
Friends of mine who are not Buddhists always ask me why a guru would want to make movies. My husband, when we were first dating, looked at me skeptically once and said, “He makes movies?”
But then the first time my husband saw Norbu, in a monastery in the Himalayas on the border of Tibet, he said, “There is no question he is authentic.”
“I agree, but how do you know that already?”
Norbu was giving a lung, meaning he was giving the transmission to a text by reading it out loud at a rapid speed for 12 hours a day, every day, for a month. It was for a Buddhist monastery—for Tibetan monks—and we were among two dozen Westerners.
My husband said, “No one who wasn’t a real teacher would sit there and do that.”
I have heard that even Norbu’s father used to scold him about his filmmaking, saying something like, “You can fool them, but you can’t fool me. You just want attention and fame.” Norbu himself is often asked why he makes movies, and he gives different answers—that he loves film, that he wants to communicate the dharma in a way people can understand.
My favorite of his answers is this: He said that when he was an adolescent at Sakya College, he and the other tulkus had one movie. It was a version of Gone with the Wind, edited down to about 30 minutes long. He and the other tulkus used to sneak off together to watch it. One monk would guard the door, and another would sit beside the projector with a lens cap, ready to cover the lens if the disciplinarian walked by.
But really, I don’t know why he does what he does. I wrote to one of his Australian students, Douglas Mills, and asked whether it was true that Norbu had once asked him to wear a tuxedo to a course he was giving. Mills wrote, “Yes, he asked me to wear a tuxedo to the teachings, so I did. Strange to say some people really thought that I was doing this because I wanted to, and that I was a complete wanker. Others were merely puzzled, as it was quite warm in Sydney. Older victims just laughed.
“Once, he asked me to rent a full-body wetsuit and wear it to the teachings, which I did, and again the responses were as above. The rented wetsuit soon started to share its special qualities of perspiration and general stench from previous users to such an extent that I had to go to steam baths and saunas for weeks afterward to try to remove the smell from my skin pores.
“Another time, he asked me to stand on the street outside the teachings and shout and carry on generally about how the teachings and the teacher were fake, worthless, and a complete sham, which I did to the best of my ability. This time, some poor innocents got really upset with me and even started to argue in Rinpoche’s defense and show their horror and angst that someone should dare to publicly denounce him outside his own teaching venue.”
A still from Vara: A Blessing
I get nervous. I used to get more nervous, because I used to drink to deal with it. For that reason I was often shaky if I wasn’t drinking. I mean, I think I had a constant mild delirium tremens that would act up if I had reason to be nervous. I’d get nervous around co-workers, baristas, and Norbu. Norbu made me nervous, but in some ways it was easier to be nervous around him than it was to be nervous around a barista, because he didn’t seem to be made nervous by my nerves, or to speculate about them, or any of that stuff. It’s interesting because he can be a great neutralizer, but just when you get comfortable he can push the very button you thought you’d hidden.
Norbu was coming to Seattle to see a student of his who was dying. He stayed in my mother’s apartment for five nights, I think.
There was another Tibetan teacher with many students in Seattle. Their group had an apartment they used to host visitors, and they had prepared it for Norbu. But when Norbu found out, he told the other lama that he didn’t need to stay in the apartment, that he could stay with my mother. I was flattered by this, because the other sangha is very wholesome and attractive and Norbu’s students in Seattle were known for being—to put it politely—“eccentric.” Some people say he takes the hardest cases.
My mother, a longtime student of Norbu’s, had an apartment on Alki Beach in West Seattle. I was living there with her. I was always telling the collection agents who managed to find me in Seattle, “It’s ALK-EYE, not Alkie.” It was important to me that I didn’t live on Alcoholic Beach.
The apartment was built on a sinkhole. A couple years before, just a few months before I came to Seattle to live, Norbu had visited and cooked Indian food for his students on my mom’s stove. There were 20 people there, and it was very crowded and cluttered. Really, at that time, my mom’s apartment was absolutely fucking insane. And it often stank. It had a mysterious odor. My mom would always say, “It’s the way the dishwasher is connected to the disposal.”
But given the choice between staying at the fancy guest apartment in Seattle and my mother’s on Alki Beach, he chose my mother’s. In other parts of the world, people build houses for him when he comes, or put him up in five-star hotels. For a solid week, his students in Seattle cleaned my mom’s apartment. It was the cleanest it had ever been. I was proud of it. Then he arrived. I was in the outside exterior hallway of the apartment—it was like a four-story, beachside stucco motel—when I turned and Norbu was standing there. He said hello, and I didn’t have the time to get nervous.
We had the sliding glass doors that overlook the ocean open, and the front door open, to try to air it out and hide the odor. We were right on the beach, and it was near dusk, so the wind was whipping around—whipping my hair, making it hard to hear—and Norbu was in a chair. My mother and I didn’t know what to say. I knew I should offer tea or something—it’s just basic manners—but I felt shy. One of the other Seattle students, recognizing my mother and I were not going to do it, finally offered Norbu tea. I was relieved. The student made tea for everyone, and after we had started to relax, Norbu said, softly, “Maybe we could close the doors?”
We ended up getting Vietnamese takeout. Norbu asked us to please keep the receipt, and after he left, he arranged to pay for that. He had a credit card, and he paid for everything for us while he was in town. That night, we went to see Tree of Life. It was a very long movie, and I sat there wondering whether I should be enjoying it. I kept thinking, Is it beautiful? and Shouldn’t I be enjoying it? But I was bored.
Outside the theater, Norbu said, “That was so boring!” He railed against the movie, saying something like, “That was the worst movie I have ever seen!”
Norbu had meetings and interviews with local Buddhists in my mom’s apartment in the mornings; then he would usually want to go shopping or to the movies. On one of the last days, Norbu, my mom, and I went to see Thor with a couple other students from Seattle. I felt bad the whole movie, because I had fought to sit by Norbu—I wanted to be next to him—and then I realized that I stank.
On his last day in Seattle, Norbu went to see my mom’s friend, who was dying. My mom had been taking care of her friend for about a year. Sometimes she was a very, very good caregiver, and sometimes she irritated her friend—which is natural. You resent the one who is there. I knew, outside her door, that the dying woman would want to see Norbu alone, and I said, “We’ll wait outside,” but he said, “Come in.”
He gave her instructions on how to die. They were very precise. She was close enough to death that she didn’t understand things very well, so he said it over and over again. He spoke loudly and clearly, repeating one important thing. It had a very precise meaning, but if I repeated it here, it would kind of be like putting down the equation for acceleration: It wouldn’t mean anything.
That night we had a potluck dinner. A lot of his other students came by. They brought wine and food. They were all clearly shocked to see Norbu at my mom’s place. But the thing about him—which we all know but forget—is you could give him a Ferrari and he’d enjoy it, but you could give him a hot dog from a New York street cart and he’d be equally happy. If he has any preferences at all, it’s probably for the least fuss. Maybe this is hard to believe. I can say only that he kept telling us, and those who visited, “I like this apartment.” I knew that he meant it. When he was there, I liked it too.