December 13 is a special day for me, the day on which I remember with gratitude my meeting in India with Chadral (sometimes spelled Chatral) Rinpoche, a high lama in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, a dzogchen (inner transcendental awareness) master, born in 1913.
I met Chadral on the trip I took during my one-and-only sabbatical from Simon Fraser University, in 2000-2001, during which I traced the route of Thomas Merton’s Asian journey. The whole story of his journey is told in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1973); the account of his meeting with Chadral is on pages 142-44.
Having learned from James George, Canadian High Commissioner to India, and one of Merton’s hosts on his journey, that Chadral Rinpoche was still alive, and that he had a Canadian assistant, and having obtained his phone number from a French woman I happened to meet on a bus (!), I arrived in New Siliguri, the town nearest Chadral’s compound at Salabari, on December 12. I went to his compound the same day, and talked with his assistant, Konchok Tashi (some years later returned to his original name of Steve Brown). I had prepared ten questions about Merton’s time with Chadral, and ran them by Konchok. He said that they were fine, but that Chadral, being a spiritual teacher, expected to be asked “spiritual” (?) questions. I asked him for an example, “spiritual” being a wide category, and he told me that visitors usually asked him, “Do you have a teaching for me?” I duly recorded this below my Merton questions, and then asked Konchok what I should expect when I met Chadral. His response: “To one person he will be very tender. To another, he’ll say, ‘You’re a piece of shit; get out of my sight and never come back!’ And whatever he says, that’s what they need to hear.” OK … so I had come to India to be told … well, tomorrow I would know.
That tomorrow started at 7:00 am. I came to the compound. Chadral was seated, cross-legged on a cushion (astonishing to me for someone 87 years old), on a dais under a canopy and a big tree—grown, as I later learned, from a cutting made of the current bo tree at Bodh Gaya, itself the descendant of the tree under which the historical Buddha experienced his enlightenment. I stood in front of him, with Konchok to my left as my interpreter.
After some ritual preliminaries, including the ingesting of something that looked very much like 10/30 motor oil, a granular substance called mendrup, which I was told was “the medicine of immortality,” and a slap on the cheek to assist my awakening, I was ready to ask my first question: “What do you remember of your conversation with Thomas Merton?” Chadral spoke for three or four minutes, with Konchok translating. While he was speaking, I suddenly became aware that from the moment our eyes had met, I had been silently weeping. So when he finished his response to my first question, I dumped (le mot juste) the remaining nine Merton questions, and asked the question which Konchok had suggested to me the day before: “Do you have a teaching for me?” “Yes,” he said. “Decide for yourself what is the most important thing that Jesus ever said, and then take it as far as you can.” At this point my weeping turned to sobbing, and after a ritual parting, Konchok and his fellow student Heidi led me away and gave me tea and kleenex. “Does this happen often?” I asked. “All the time,” was their reply.
I decided immediately not to rush into a decision about what—for me—was the most important thing that Jesus ever said, but to make it a subject of long-term discernment. And so about three months later, back in Canada, the saying rose up within me: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no” (Matthew 5:37)—and yes, I have been trying to take its truth as far as I can. I have since realized that it sometimes mean saying no to an earlier yes, or yes to an earlier no.
As for the weeping, I realized later that the tears were related to the unrealized character of my relationship with my father, a sweet man who had been brought up not to express his feelings. In the ten minutes I was with Chadral, whose gaze was laser-like, and whose presence was an enfolding and paternal one, I had received a kind of fathering as never before. My sense of Chadral is that he is a Buddhist equivalent of the Christian Desert Fathers of old. It is clear to me from the AJ that Merton’s time with Chadral was significantly more important for him than his time with the Dalai Lama, who was very young at the time, while Merton and Chadral were close in age. Merton testifies to this by his comment that if he were to “settle down with a Tibetan guru, … Chatral would be the one [he would] choose”, and by their “parting compact” to do their best to “attain to complete Buddhahood” in this life, and not some future one (AJ 144).
Certainly my brief time with Chadral was the high point of my own Asian journey, the point at which I realized that my journey, as well as being a research trip, was a pilgrimage. Chadral is still alive at the time of writing, but no longer sees Western visitors. Twelve years later, I continue to cherish my memory of the day, and I continue also to struggle with taking Jesus’ saying as far as I can–an unending struggle, so far as I can see, and a life-giving one.