Rigdzin Shikpo’s 3 Year Retreat – A new excerpt from Keeping the Dalai Lama Waiting & Other Stories

UK Female Buddhist Teacher Lama Shenpen Hookham
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The following is a fascinating excerpt from Lama Shenpen’s life story book ‘Keeping the Dalai Lama Waiting & Other Stories‘ about Rigdzin Shikpo’s three year retreat, how he received the name Rigdzin Shikpo and an explanation of ‘guru yoga’. Shared in memory of Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche who recently passed away.

“Khenpo Rinpoche had told Michael [Michael Hookham/Rigdzin Shikpo] and me to do a three-year retreat together in our home in Beechey Avenue.  We couldn’t work out how, in practice, we could do a three-year retreat at the same time, so we arranged for me to help Michael on the understanding I would do a three-year retreat later. 

Friends and neighbours were intrigued to learn that Michael was doing a three-year retreat in the back bedroom of a suburban semi.  It caught their imagination as much if not more than if he had gone off and done it in a remote cave somewhere.  He came downstairs at night to stretch his legs a bit and when he was not in meditation sessions he and I talked more or less as usual, which I think made it more challenging for both of us than if he had stayed completely in silence.  However, it did enable me to keep alive the link between him and his students and to discuss with him what I was teaching them. 

Khenpo Rinpoche had expected me to be practising alongside Michael during his retreat, which I did to some extent, but most of my time was taken up with bringing in the money, running the household, developing a distance course for new students, looking after our existing students and finishing off writing my thesis as a book.  In other words, I was very busy and in retrospect I wonder if I should have been bolder and tried harder to find a way that we could both do the retreat together.  It was a unique opportunity to be directed in a three-year retreat by Rinpoche, and I would have learnt more and translated Rinpoche’s teachings much better had I been practising more alongside Michael. 

Writing the distance course for new students was however an invaluable learning opportunity in its own right.  The idea started with an eight-week so-called ‘beginner’s course’ Michael had given in the weeks running up to his retreat.  He was experimenting with a new way of presenting the experiential essence of the Dharma in terms of the three qualities of openness, clarity and sensitivity.  These three words in English have rich resonances that relate to our immediate experience and what is important and meaningful in life.  I like to point out that were we to say to our non-Buddhist friends we were going to a retreat to learn Buddhist practice, they might feel alienated.  If we were to say we are doing it in order to become more open, clear and sensitive, I think they might encourage us enthusiastically saying ‘Yes – do that for all our sakes!’

It had taken me by surprise when Khenpo Rinpoche had told me I needed to learn Dharma in my own language and now I was beginning to understand how right he had been.  Subsequently he said, ‘The truth may lie beyond words, but words emerge from it and point back to it.’  How words express meaning is quite magical! 

Michael was not unaware of how problematic teaching Dharma can be.  Before he began his three-year retreat, he had said to Khenpo Rinpoche, ‘My students already say I am talking way over their heads.  How is it going to be after three years in retreat?’  Rinpoche laughed understandingly saying, ‘Yes, there is that, but don’t worry about it.’  I took that to mean the benefits of his going deeper far outweighed his present concern and I for one was satisfied with that. 

Rinpoche directed Michael’s retreat by coming once or twice a year to stay a few days at Beechey Avenue as our honoured guest.  There was not much room to spare, but somehow, we managed not only to host him, but also to clear the downstairs living room into a big enough space for him to give teachings to a room full of people crammed together, mostly sitting on the floor.  This was at the same time as, unbelievably, Michael remained quietly in retreat upstairs. 

Rinpoche’s visits were joyful occasions.  Many extraordinary things happened, often in the form of weird coincidences.  One day he told Michael that he should test his realisation by going into scary situations.  ‘Have you a roller coaster in this country?’ he asked.  ‘Yes, in Blackpool,’ we replied.  ‘Turn on the television,’ he commanded.  We did and our jaws dropped.  On screen was a documentary about a man doing a record-breaking ride on the Blackpool roller-coaster for weeks on end! 

Lama Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche, Lama Shenpen and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche in Wales c2005

Each time Rinpoche came he would ask Michael to tell him what experiences he had had since he was last there.  Michael wouldn’t know where to begin.  What was significant and what was not?  I was struggling as the translator.  How can one translate another person’s experience?  I did my best and somehow Rinpoche picked up on what Michael was saying and vice versa.  I say ‘somehow’ because whatever it was they were talking about was way beyond me!  Most of the time I think Rinpoche and Michael were communicating directly mind to mind in some way and the translation was simply acting as an affirmation of this.  Rinpoche sometimes told me to just relax and simply to listen to Michael and that would be enough.  It was if he just needed me there to enable him to interject at the right moment.  This became evident when I found myself between Michael and Rinpoche speaking to me at the same time, making it impossible for me to translate.  Yet when I listened, I could tell they were both saying the same thing simultaneously in Tibetan and English respectively.  It was as if their minds had completely merged and mine with theirs. 

It is worth mentioning Guru Yoga again here and how it relates to the connection (samaya) between student and teacher.  Literally Guru Yoga means union with the guru and for this the connection (samaya) with the teacher is vital.  By means of samaya the yogic transformation of the body and mind is mysteriously brought about.  Obviously, there is a limit to what I can say about this, but having seen first-hand the nature of that process at least in part puts me in a very privileged position.  It feels like having had a glimpse into a whole different dimension of the Universe.  I was amazed at what was being said and passing between us.  So was Michael. 

The way Rinpoche asked Michael questions about his experience showed he was checking for definite signs of what stage of the yogic process he was at.  Mostly, while Michael talked, Rinpoche would from time to time simply say, ‘Yes, and then?’  

The pointing out instructions that Rinpoche would give at such times often had quite a dramatic effect on Michael.  These were oral instructions that could not be given to or in the presence of someone unsuitable.  Not only could they be spiritually dangerous if misunderstood or misapplied, they were also a response to the specific situation that was unfolding between the teacher and student.  Khenpo Rinpoche was at pains to impress on us that he could not have given the instructions he gave had I not had the necessary connection (samaya) for him to give me the teachings too.  A translator without the necessary samaya would not have sufficed. 

Being so intimately involved in what was going on between Rinpoche and Michael taught me a lot about the stages of the yogic process of transformation on the path to Enlightenment.  Rinpoche explained that the stages can be dramatic or subtle depending on the individual and repeatedly emphasised that it was Michael’s samaya with Trungpa Rinpoche that made it possible for him to teach him at this level. 

Finally, Rinpoche said, ‘I have given you absolutely everything. I have not held anything back – there is nothing else up my sleeve.  It is now up to you to work on it and realise it for yourselves.’  That was an amazing statement.  There have been things that he taught us since that time, but I suppose he meant he had given us all the essentials.  At the end of the retreat, Rinpoche told me that Michael’s students and I should no longer call him Michael but instead should call him ‘Rigdzin Shikpo’ in recognition of his deep realisation.  ‘Rigdzin’ (Vidyadhara in Sanskrit) means someone who has seen the profound nature of reality; ‘Shikpo’ literally means ‘collapsed one’, a kind of wastrel or layabout.  There is a sense of irony here because wastrel in this context means that the yogin has achieved a state where all concepts have collapsed and as a result his mind is so relaxed that it seems completely lazy from an ordinary perspective.  This is the name by which I have addressed him ever since.  Rinpoche insisted that we never shorten his name to Rigdzin.  If we shortened it at all, it must be to Shikpo.  From then on Rinpoche always addressed us fondly as Rigdzin Shikpo and Shikmo – Shikmo being the female form of Shikpo. 

Witnessing Rigdzin Shikpo’s yogic process opened for me a dimension of what Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism was about that I hadn’t even dreamed of.  It also meant I knew I could trust Rigdzin Shikpo’s experience and realisation as authentic because Khenpo Rinpoche had recognised it as such.  In fact, Rinpoche had said that even before going into retreat Rigdzin Shikpo had the signs of yogic accomplishment.  His doing the retreat would help his activity for the benefit of others because it would give others confidence in him – it was a recognisable outward sign that he had completed his training.  In addition to this, what gives me confidence in him is that the more deeply I question him the more subtle and convincing are his answers.  This is true even when his only answer is to say thoughtfully that he is wondering about something.  It gives me the confidence to wonder about it too. 

By the end of his retreat Rigdzin Shikpo had become a tremendously important influence and teacher for me, although he never took the place of Khenpo Rinpoche as my main teacher.  It felt natural to treat him respectfully as my teacher at the same time as having a quite ordinary and straightforward marriage relationship with him.  Ours was (and is) a deep Dharma relationship and much more than a marriage.  Ultimately, as with all our heart-connections with others, it is not in time and space.  Whatever happens we are forever inseparable.  On this he and I are agreed.”

This is an excerpt from Keeping the Dalai Lama Waiting & Other Stories – An English Woman’s Journey to Becoming a Buddhist Lama – for links to more excerpts, click here.

[Words and images are copyrighted material, permission granted by the publishers/author required before sharing and reproducing]

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