||A conversation with Torben Ulrich about a Tibetan praxis,
the purpose of which
is to give to your surroundings, as opposed to Western athletics, where you always make yourself stand out
by Poul Albret
Translated from Danish
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There seems to have been three standard questions on the whole trip, two specific ones and one unspecific.
"Is it a bet?"
"Is it for the Guinness Book of Records?"
"What the hell is this all about?"
Such have been the reactions along the 150 kilometers between the Buddhist center on Svanemøllevej (in Copenhagen) and a similar center near Rødby (on the island of Lolland).
A distance that Torben Ulrich, with someone helping him, has traveled by quite literally covering the distance with his body.
"Glidefald" (prostrations) will be the term here for the forthgoing repeated movement, for want of a better word, since the respectful bowing is without that gliding aspect that you find in the more static version, which is also part of (Tibetan) Buddhist practice.
This can seem a tiny detail, but when you have to respond to the questions that this "journey" has given rise to, it is important to know what we are talking about quite concretely. And when Torben Ulrich stresses that these "glidefald" are not really "gliding falls," it is because these are not the "gliding falls" of the so-called Preliminary Practice (ngondro), and that physiologically speaking, you are dealing with another set of muscular movements.
That way in which the trip has given rise to associations of an athletic nature on the part of the " spectators" is reflected partly by the three questions above, but also by a fourth one, which has appeared after Torben Ulrich came back to Copenhagen: " So, how many prostrations did it amount to?"
However, this traditional athletic way of thinking, with its start and finish, distance and result, is not an adequate description of what happened, as seen by Torben Ulrich's reply:
"I have not counted them, because it was important for what it was all about that it had nothing to do with counting."
In many ways, it is by and large easier to talk about what it was not than what it actually was. Even if the starting point – and the immediate response to the l0, 20, 30, 40 curious observers per hour throughout the trip – seemed to be simple enough:
"It's an old Tibetan practice which we are trying to transfer to Danish soil."
You're not a little crazy, are you?
– That doesn't sound like an answer which is particularly easy to relate to.
"Yeah, you're quite right, but people were pretty quickly satisfied. Even if the formulation – as in an instance with a lady who was out walking her dog in the evening fog – was: 'Excuse me for asking, but you're not a little crazy, are you?'
"But perhaps it was also about this, that most people maybe were not particularly inclined to get into the meat of it, but rather wanted to have it somehow 'placed.' There were also some who asked if it was to be understood as a purification or a penance, but it wasn't those either."
– Did you ever get to talk about what it actually was?
"One of the more interesting aspects of the trip was that, in fact, we didn't know that ourselves. There's a tradition for what it is in Tibet, but we didn't quite know how that was to be transferred to Danish soil. In which way would one completely, necessarily or spontaneously, alter the rules – with all possible respect for the tradition? Which would correspond a little to the Buddhist way of thinking, in which through the centuries you have adapted the structural language and praxis to a given culture and time period, without giving up in the least this fundamental respect for this tradition.
A kind of street theater
– And yet there are probably some who take the stance that there has been quite a measure of exterior theater – with plenty of crowds and media attention – in this whole thing,
and that it has tainted the religious practice. Also because it has been brought into an athletic context.
"It could be true that sometimes it came pretty close to looking like a street theater, because there were so many good people who came to ask, and also because there were so many
who lined up in their cars to see what kind of funny stuff was going on. On the other hand, it was one of the pre-conditions of the trip that my Tibetan teacher, Tenga Rinpoche, himself
had given the green light and on several occasions over several years had given advice about the concrete praxis. And Rinpoche also knew my situation in relation to Danish athletics.
"I don't think we could have known, either, that it would develop in such a way. But what we were trying to say, then, was that beyond the street theater there was also an inner praxis, which was not necessarily disturbed by the people who came to visit, or by the traffic as a whole. On the contrary, one could say that it was a praxis in itself that the outer disturbances continuously challenged this inner practice – a little like in an athletic context, where the question might be if you can keep an inner calm in spite of all the bottles that are being thrown onto the field..."
Nothing is finished
– But if we're talking about the inner praxis, then there wasn't anything either that had to be gained/reached?
"In the weekly magazine 'See and Hear' I was quoted as saying something like this, 'I had to try it on Danish soil. I did it, and now the soul has peace.' That's quite fantastic, and I don't know where they got that. For it is important that one hasn't made anything by making it. For instance, there were also some who asked if it wasn't a good feeling that now it was all over. But the trip is not over in that sense, and that praxis of which the trip consisted is of course still ongoing. There's nothing left behind, there's nothing finished and there's nothing achieved, either."
– You have not moved up in the next Buddhist class?
– What is the inner practice about?
"First of all, it was meant as a respectful bowing for Tenga Rinpoche, and that was the reason we specifically went from the Svanemøllen center, where I met Rinpoche for the first time, to the center near Rødby, where he has erected this stupa, which is also expression of the enlightened/enlightening mind. It is such that Tenga Rinpoche's principle meditational practice is founded in White Tara – a female embodiment of compassion (also your own compassion). And as Tara at the same time is the one who gives long life, it was quite natural to make it a kind of long-life walking journey ('langtlivsvandring'), in which one wished a long life for all people on this earth and also – from an ecological point of view – wished a long life for the earth itself, understood as a living being. And in that way, it became very rich, in experience and in teaching, both as trip and as praxis."
Different from athletics, traditionally speaking
– Does one expect that this wish comes true?
"One does not expect anything. That's the first.
"Secondly, one could say: That depends how strong you are able to express that wish. The nearer one gets to Tara's essence, the more one would be capable of influencing the circumstances, meaning giving a helping hand. In some sense that's what the practice is all about: that the outer frame has a possibility to establish an inner training which again can unfold an outer activity, which again, etc. – and now perhaps can form a more and more unselfish articulation of these wishes for everything living.
"And this is of course different from athletics in a traditional Western sense, where one is trying to stand out at the expense of the surroundings.
"Tara also expresses that which is called the six paramitas, which could be translated as the six transcending activities, where that which is transcended is the missing understanding of the dynamics of emptiness – roughly said. These six paramitas are therefore emptiness in union with generosity, discipline, patience, energy, concentration and wisdom. Were the last one grows out of the five preceding."
Getting into the deepening of repetition
– You have also mentioned repetition as an important element.
"There were also several who asked, 'The same and the same. How can you stand that for months on end?'
"By going deeper into the repetition, it is as if the apparently monotonous is gradually replaced by a new understanding of the unending renewal of everything living: the fields, the harvest, the playing rules – and one's own steps.
"In this way, also, there can be no talk about the goal or finish line as something a good ways down the road. It's at all times right at hand, just like the obstacles and the disturbances."
– Which sides of the Tibetan practice were not transferable to Danish soil?
"There were primarily three aspects that were quite different. In the first place, there was weather and wind, where in Tibet, for much of the year you do not have any problems with rainy weather and the daily showers. In Denmark, however, you easily get drenched when you lie down, and after that you get thoroughly blown through when you get up. And you cannot continue long because you get chilled through and through, unless one is pretty up on tummo, an advanced inner yoga. Then we tried with rain-proof clothes, but that only resulted in the wetness coming from the sweat of the movement itself, so that didn't seem to make much difference.
"The second thing was the traffic. Where in Tibet you might have avalanches or bandits, here in Denmark on parts of our stretch the traffic proved to be of a proximity and degree
of danger that we had not imagined. After Herfølge, you had neither sidewalk nor bicycle paths, so that you had to get all the way out on the road itself because the shoulder was full of broken glass. Out there, the cars were going 80 to 100 kilometers an hour right by your elbows and we had to, to some degree, adapt to that, so that when we reached Rønnede, where Køge Landevej becomes E4, we chose as much as possible to go by roads that were less busy. It was simply too dangerous – not only for us, but also for the others in the traffic.
"The third aspect was the police, where the question was if they would permit it at all, when we reached the highway. And if they wouldn't, how long would the trip then take, if
you would get locked up or were taken through court proceedings. This last point didn't become a problem at all. The police were extremely helpful."
In my life, athletics and Buddhism come together
– There are probably many who have difficulties seeing that this has anything to do with athletics at all.
"That I can easily understand. On the other hand, I also don't care at all what you call it. The only thing I'm saying is that in my life, those two sides of existence come together, and therefore it could be a task to try to be articulate about this collision or meeting point.
"One of the many partitions in Western athletics is the schism or duality between training and match/fight/game ('kamp') – or, 'Now it counts'/'Now it doesn't count'. And one of the athletically more interesting aspects of this trip was that we did not start out by having prepared ourselves specifically (meaning pre-training, 'fortræning'). And then it developed in this way, that whereas we in Copenhagen at night time began with a little less than two hours per day,
it gradually became during the course of the trip 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 hours. And on the last day, which was specia1 because we were not to continue the following day, it came to 10 hours. Here we had some pretty concrete athletic experiences, dealing with how to pace or structure a course which stipulated that we were not only to continue the next day and the next, but also the next week and even the next month. That went on, even as it unfolded: The path was set, the movement was set, the repetition was formulated, but the ability itself in a more physiological sense and the consequences of the event were neither formulated nor clarified and the interesting or challenging thing was that it changed along the way.
"Another question could be if these prostrations – but not necessarily the prostrations of the trip – could make up a basic form – for instance, as a jumping board to playing
professional tennis. That I have not quite gotten a handle on yet, but I could say that I have not for a long time been in such good physical shape as right now. That pertains, however, mostly to the muscular situation, whereas the lung system has not been aired through as much.
"Yet the fundamental was that one could to a very large degree turn the attention towards these wishes – about a long life, etc. – instead of dealing with what it says on the scoreboard, whoever is ahead, who is behind – if one is up or down. Thus to disregard the result – not so much to be blind to the result as to cut the attachment to it – gives a strength which probably cannot be measured in normal athletic terms because it does not enter into the dualistic anchoring of athletic victory and defeat."
Yogis and Western athletics
– Is that a strength that you have gotten to know on the trip?
"No, I haven't – not at all. But to answer in the affirmative would also be extremely suspect."
– In the Tibetan tradition, there are some stories about yogis who after having lived isolated for 12 years in a house run around at formidable speeds ('gevaldig fart'). Couldn't you imagine those kinds of powers converted to Western athletics?
"As I see it, we're talking here about something which builds upon an intention which is not compatible with those training methods used in Western athletics. From an athletic
point of view, you probably had to evaluate it this way, that those kinds of people could not participate because some kind of cheating was involved. Seen from a possible yogic point of view, the conclusion could be that one had to abstain from using such powers in this context, because it is built into this attitude which such a strength carries with it that you do not hold it out as a virtue."
Just like the ecological situation
– If we look at contemporary Western athletics very elite level, you look into every corner for that can increase performance. Everybody has, for instance, started to tap the field of psychology.
"If you look at it from a more traditionally religious point of view, you could say that that combination could easily become ego-centered 'black magic' which, after a time, could make the whole thing tumble. So that athletics in that way corresponds to the ecological situation, where it seems we want to win over or dominate nature. Or, one could imagine that 'white magical powers' came into use, where the tradition is that the white magic is stronger precisely because it is unselfish."
– Some people presumably will find that many of your statements in this interview are too unsharp and diffuse to have any athletic-political meaning.
"Yeah, that's true enough, that it easily becomes not sharp enough, maybe too diffuse or gives the impression of being too vague. That has to do with, amongst other things, that as a rule I try to articulate it as spacious as possible. And at the same time, from some sort of zero point ('nulpunkt') which also has the momentum of a now-point ('nupunkt'), that is, that it aspires to have both something open and continuously moving, simultaneously. A little bit different is the political sharpness which in its nature is more narrow. You already have the articulation, the program, in your pocket when you leave home.
"In the politically less diffuse formulation, it also becomes difficult to get that validity on many or several levels, that 'flertydighed' which I in a way always would like to see come forth but which seldom succeeds. So that it falls unclear to the earth and stays there kind of cottonball-like – or, in the best of circumstances, as incomprehensible."