BORN UNDER THE THIRD REICH I was born in 1941, north of Copenhagen. Denmark was conquered by Germany at that time. My parents were intellectuals and members of the resistance – they did beautiful things fighting for freedom. They were really my gods. My brother and I spent the whole time fighting (with other children) and we became very good at it. I still am today. I’m 75 and I can still handle a few people at the same time. If something happens, I can always promise: I will protect you.
SOUL MATES I met Hannah when I was 10 and she was five, in a wood north of Copenhagen. She was walking around alone and I made a little house for her out of twigs and branches. We met again when I’d just come out of the army. I’d made a lot of trouble for the officers – I didn’t like people telling me what to do! Then we went to the University of Copenhagen, and some German universities.
We came into the stream that appeared at that time, the psychedelic stream – LSD, mescaline, psilocybin. I took everything. We had incredible experiences of real transference, of seeing things from the outside of the body. Then our friends started having trouble: people who didn’t have good impressions on the inside to bring out. We thought, “There must be something better than chemicals.” We began to look into meditation.
EASTERN PROMISES We went to Nepal in 1968 on honeymoon because they had some good hash. But also because we felt like we knew it somehow. At that time, we weren’t thinking of former lives or subconscious memories. We met our first teacher, Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche. He used to come to places in the high mountains of Nepal, and he would simply make rain for the people. Of course, Denmark has enough rain – it’s not so exciting. But the methods for working with the mind were impressive.
We said, “It’s not enough just to see it, we should learn it. We have to make our lives better, more understandable, more useful for others.” We made the most important contact of our life: the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje.
The Karmapa is the first incarnate lama of Tibet, who was closely connected with the Chinese kings and emperors. He was a master of all the yogis in Tibet. My wife and myself, he took us in and he trusted us. He said we were his students from former lives; we felt it in our bones. He was incredible, and he loved us.
SPREADING THE WORD [The Karmapa] told us, “See if some of your friends want to learn to meditate.” Within a few years (of 1972), we started building Diamond Way centres. The Eastern Bloc countries were wonderful. We took them all, beginning with Poland (in 1975). We smuggled things in and out. From there we got into the smaller states, and into Russia. Today we have around 700 centres all over the world, all following the practices of the Karmapa.
Of course, I had two children (with other women) while the whole thing was going on! I’m not a monk. I’m a layman. I’m a yogi. My job was to take people who would never become monks or nuns, who would never spend a night alone if they could avoid it, take these people who had a full life, and open them up. People want to go beyond their little box of sitting in a car, going here, paying for this … They want to say, “What can my mind do? What can I experience? What is possible?”
INNER LIGHTS Everything people do is in order to have happiness and avoid pain. If we build our happiness on external things, on money and fame, it falls apart when the subject falls away. But we can find it inside ourselves, if we stop looking for all the external things. That which is between the thought, behind the thought, which knows the thought: that’s what we really are, that’s our timeless essence – that’s our mind. In meditation, the whole mind becomes aware. All our potential, all our powers and qualities come out. It is very blissful.
UNLUCKY 88TH I’ve managed a little over 100 parachute jumps. But I had a very bad accident on my 88th jump. I hadn’t slept for over a week, and I fell asleep in the free fall – and that’s not healthy! My whole body was broken on the right side, everything was smashed. But I was very lucky with my doctors. Nine months later, I was jumping again.
My enemy and the thing I’ve always worked against is fear. Not in myself, but in the people I see. You must not have fear. You must go beyond fear. You must understand that you have had 100 jumps and only one accident; on the 101st jump, you will not have an accident. And then you go on.
TAB AND SHERAB Hannah was mainly in Asia; I was mainly in Europe and America, because that’s where we fitted best. She was translating for all the Tibetan high lamas. I was giving teachings and breaking ice for new centres.
She was wonderful, but she was a bit taken advantage of. Just like me, when people asked something she found it difficult to say no. She simply wore herself down. Suddenly the (Buddhist leader) Shamarpa would say, “Now you should go here,” or “Please help there.” It was wonderful but we were happiest when we were together. Nobody likes to sleep alone.
It’s called tab and sherab in Tibetan. Tab is “method”, doing things, and sherab is the central point where things are attracted and brought together. That’s how we always worked. I was more sporty, more all over the place, and she was in her centre, taking everything in. She was a better Buddhist, and she was a better human being than I was. But she would not have been able to do all those things if I wasn’t there, breaking things so she could get through. We were like one organism.
DHARMA DESIRES My hope for the world is for less overpopulation: quality, not quantity. Educated people. And I want Islam to go very far away. I don’t like that religion. Personal hopes? To see Hannah again, of course. Also that everybody will find all the wonderful things they have inside themselves. There’s nothing more beautiful than people who suddenly understand: “I could do that.”
The Diamond Way Buddhist Centre (2/F, Wing Fat Building, 3 Jervois Street, Sheung Wan, tel: 6718 9163; buddhism.hk) hosts free introductions to meditation every Wednesday at 7.30pm. Hannah the Movie, an award-winning documentary about the life of Hannah Nydahl (1946-2007), will be screened on April 22 at 7pm at Bradbury School, 43 Stubbs Road, Mid-Levels. For more information and tickets, go to ticketflap.com.