Greetings everybody. It look as though this might the right time for me to post a little of the story of my relationship with the Aro gTér tradition and forums such as this one, e-sangha for example. I became interested in the Aro gTér tradition before I knew of any criticisms of its authenticity. I enjoyed very much the articles I’d read on the internet by the Lineage Holders. I attended an Open Retreat and enjoyed it immensely; there was much humour and the sangha were very down to earth. Further, I found Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen impressive in a variety of ways. Afterwards on deciding to do some research into the tradition I came up with a big fat zero; that is to say when I tried to find anyone else talking about the tradition there was nothing, no reference to Khyungchen Aro Lingma on any other web page whatsoever. That made me suspicious.
Then I found e-sangha (Tricyle was already defunct I think) and that made me more suspicious, although in both directions, so to speak. Some of the criticism seemed on the level, genuinely concerned and serious. Some of it was purely ad hominen, and, to be frank, some of it was pretty crazy. I had different reactions to these different types of criticisms and the reason I’m writing today is because I did have a serious reaction to the serious criticisms and addressed them to Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen, and had to work this stuff through for myself. (At this point in the story I was a probationary apprentice in the Aro gTér tradition having applied to be a student. Probationary means that I was testing to see if I wanted to stick around, that I liked the tradition basically, and also that my Lamas could see if they thought I was a good fit for them and the Lineage.) Also, I’m not the only person who’s been affected by such forum conversations. Most people though, it seems, change their minds upon interacting with the Lamas and the sangha, that is to say that even if they don’t become students, or end up leaving for other reasons, they quickly realise that most of what’s been said is way off the mark. A lot of other people have no issue at all with this stuff.
In reverse order: the crazy criticism were just obviously wrong; they said all sorts of stuff took place behind closed doors like wild parties on retreats, women dancing for the Lama’s pleasure, and people being systematically distanced from their families, other stuff too which was just not my experience at all. The crazy criticism was pretty absurd to be honest; way off the mark and seemed like a lot of it was just made up. Our tradition encourages family life as a central part of practice in relation to being an ordained non-monastic sangha, for example. The crazy stuff made it all sound so insane and ‘culty’ (not a word I’m sure), but the reality was very different, not only were the sangha down to earth they generally seemed like pretty well rounded types, to me. I’ve never seen the Lamas being anything other than down to earth, kind, and reasonable.
The ad hominen criticism was, like most ad hominen argument, pretty silly and weak, and thus ineffective as a tool to warn people. For example, and please remember this is not a personal attack on whoever has said this, when it is said that ‘these folk just like dressing up as Tibetans’ it’s obvious that that opinion isn’t based on any personal contact with the tradition because nothing could be further from the truth. The robes have a very specific purpose and only those who have tested the Lama and Lineage for a minimum of around seven years can make that sort of commitment. Some of the other ad hominen attacks were also inaccurate and so I felt safe in dismissing them.
The serious criticism. This was different, this made me question my involvement. I knew the importance placed upon the continuity of transmission in terms of lineage, and so I asked one of the ordained in the sangha who (which Root Lama) had transmitted the Aro gTér to Ngak’chang Rinpoche and she said that none of them had. She then mentioned a little about Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s early experience and how he related it all to Dud’jöm Rinpoche and so on. (If you want to hear more you should check out David Chapman’s Approching Aro website). She also mentioned the online criticism and said that I should check it out, though I already had. Still being sceptical I continued to look further, at the nature of determining authenticity for example and to see which Lamas were accepting of either the Aro gTér and/or Ngak’chang Rinpoche. The former was far more difficult than the latter; and the latter was really quite easy.
I should mention at this point that I wrote to Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen to ask them about the issue and to ask for their advice on how to proceed. Basically they said they couldn’t really help me. They suggested that if they tried to in some way influence me this could always be interpreted by me as coercion on their part. Instead they suggested that I talk to one of their disciples who was veteran of the web, so to speak, and thus of the various criticisms. This I did and it opened up the whole question of how the student attempts to figure out if their Lama and the tradition are kosha. It opened up some aspects of the process of legitimisation which are interesting to me still, such as to what extent is my own opinion worthy of attention, how useful traditional guidelines are, and, other aspects which aren’t generally discussed, such as the dynamic of what can be said in public and that which is said in private, namely, politics.
On this last point I should say that several Nyingma Lamas have privately encouraged students to study with Ngak’chang Rinpoche. Privately, I should repeat. This doesn’t mean that they, or others, haven’t also privately (or publically) dissuaded people from studying with Ngak’chang Rinpoche, I don’t know. This list includes: Chhi’med Rig’dzin; Lama Tharchin; Dung-sé Thinley Norbu; Künzang Dorje, Rinpoches. What such encouragement amounts to is up for debate I suppose. As far as I am aware they haven’t explicitly endorsed the Aro gTér in these conversations, merely said yes, Ngak’chang Rinpoche, do it, or praised him in some other way. For example, I asked an apprentice how they came to become an apprentice and she mentioned how she’d seen Ngak’chang Rinpoche at Pema Ösel Ling (in the 1990’s), and afterwards asked Tharchin Rinpoche if they should study with him and Tharchin Rinpoche encouraged them to go and do so. It was also Tharchin Rinpoche who suggested that students should refer to Ngak’chang Rinpoche by that name.
A couple of other points in relation to what other Lamas have said about this issue. First off Löpon Ögyen Tanzin Rinpoche composed the Aro gTér Lineage Invocation (which has been presented to Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche incidentally; I don’t know what he thought of it). In it he describes all of the lineage figures including those I couldn’t find any trace of on the internet. He also praises Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen. He is also a Lineage Holder, of Pema Lingpa’s tradition I believe (and perhaps others). Is he a ‘major lineage holder’, I don’t know. It’s interesting that it has been mentioned that it would need to be a major lineage holder and not just any lineage holder to confirm either the teachers or the lineage; why is that? Is it because their status holds sway or because of other reasons? I’m curious. In further relation to people outside of the Aro gTér confirming stuff, I do know that a student of another Nyingma Lama was told by Künzang Dorje Rinpoche that out of the very few people in his lifetime, Ngak’chang Rinpoche was one of those to whom he gave transmission of Dzogchen men-ngak-de. So I guess that might mean that Ngak’chang Rinpoche was in fact a student of Künzang Dorje Rinpoche.
It would be wrong of me not to mention David Chapman’s Approaching Aro website in relation to many of the issues in question here. For example, only recently he published a long-life wish path written by Chhi’med Rig’dzin Rinpoche in which he confirms that he recognised Ngak’chang Rinpoche as a tulku, one who figures in the history of the Aro gTér. One of the reasons why I became particularly dissatisfied with the criticism on internet forums was that even when David published certain material no response was forthcoming, even though the material was highly significant, including written praise from Thinley Norbu Rinpoche and others.
In terms of my own involvement I have now been an apprentice for seven years (I’m 33 this month, and just completing a masters in philosophy, I have a partner with two children, just in case you’re curious about me), and I have never had or found any reason to believe anything negative about Ngak’chang Rinpoche or Khandro Déchen. In fact quite the opposite. I have my own experience of asking them practice questions, receiving tantric empowerments and dzogchen transmission, seeing their seemingly inexhaustible kindness, asking students who have studied with them for over twenty years what their experience is and, all in all, I could not wish for better examples of what it means to be a demonstration that realisation is possible. I trust them. In terms of the authenticity of the Aro gTér perhaps I’ll have to wait (a decade or three or four, after some more solitary retreat, maybe my next life) to say with real conviction that yes, you can gain liberation through these practices, and yet, so far, I’m happy to say that at least some of my negative habits and neurotic responses to the world have diminished, and my practice has deepened. I only mention this because I’m presuming that such evidence does count in testing the Lamas and Lineage, at least it does for me. Overall I’ve been glad of the push from forums to examine the Lamas and the lineage because, despite the mostly private support from various Lamas, it has made me question the extent to which I was willing to rely on my own judgement, in combination with that of others and traditional texts.
O.k., that’s all folks (and probably far too much),
all the best,