Reflections of Dza Paltrül

Tales of the high plains drifter

Dza Paltrül Rinpoche came from the remote valley of Dza-chukha. He was born in 1808, the earth dragon year, into a ngak’phang family of the Mukpo-dong clan – from which Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche later sprang.

Dza Paltrül became one of the most revered Lamas of the Nineteenth Century. Yet most people failed to recognise him due to his non-conformism, his aversion to institutions, and his beggarly appearance. He was often taken to be an itinerant vagabond, lacking even the air of religious mendicancy that would prompt dispensation of alms.

Dza Paltrül’s lifestyle was quite extraordinary for a Lama of his lineal status. He wore nomad clothing and the sheepskin coat of a high plains drifter, rather than the white skirt of an ordained ngakpa. He wandered the mountains and valleys of Kham and Golok, sleeping rough, carrying practically no possessions. He taught through haphazard contact with whomever he happened to meet. In this way he manifested secret activity for the benefit of everyone who came in contact with him. Secret activity is a method of teaching which is extraordinarily powerful – but extraordinarily inaccessible. Only those who are completely ripe for such teaching, in the moment they are given, can be benefited by them. The stultified ecclesiastical pedants who required their high Lamas to conform to the conventions of monastic institutions never met the celebrated yogi they so venerated. They could easily have passed him in the street, or thrown him a copper as he sat in the shade of a tree.

Dza Paltrül’s extraordinary life and teaching are testified to by the many tales of his encounters. His behaviour sometimes seems odd—even nonsensical—but as an enlightened master, everything he did had a point. Rather than teaching from books, he allowed the situations in which he found himself to manifest teaching. The outcome often had the piquant edge of dramatic irony. These tales serve as teaching stories, functioning in some respects like the koans of Zen. If we rest non-conceptually in the space of puzzlement concerning Dza Paltrül’s behaviour, we may be rewarded with flashes of insight.

In this section are collected stories of Dza Paltrül – as told by Ngak’chang Rinpoche. The stories are traditional – and it is traditional that every Lama tells them differently, in his or her own style. Ngak’chang Rinpoche was told these same stories by Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche, who instructed him to pass them on in a way that people in the West would most easily understand. Ngak’chang Rinpoche writes that

“It may be offensive to those who prefer their Tibetan stories expressed in archaic honorifics – but I cannot pretend that Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Beat poetry, Roger McGough, or Ted Hughes never existed... The Khamba and Golok Lamas I have met in the United States have invariably commented on the similarity between their culture and that of the cowboys of the ‘Old West’. I have been inspired accordingly to make use of the closest forms of speech I could find to what may have existed in Golok and Kham – where I believe Zane Grey would have been quite at home.”
Call me whatever you like
A brocade prison
A village ngakpa
that's f'sure and f'certain
The best kind of practice
Paltrül receives an offer of marriage
The Golok stand-off
Your mother is your real teacher
Damn right Nyoshul
What sort of king are you, anyway?
Just look, Nyoshul!
Come just as you are
Growl like a wolf
Screaming black wind
When did you last see a Lama?