Nina: Hi, Surabhi. I’m glad we are getting a chance to speak with each other. When you sent me the watercolor illustrations for the book that you’re working on, I knew I had to interview you and find out where all this inspiration came from. I knew that you were writing a children’s book about the life of Guru Rinpoche. I’ve really been looking forward to this opportunity to talk with you about how that ever came about.
Surabhi: I’m really happy too because it will help me to go back to my latest draft of my book. I usually give it a two-month incubation period, and then I go back and I revise it again. This is perfect timing for me.
Surabhi: Guru Rinpoche is manifesting in our dear teacher. When I first got the inner message from Guru Rinpoche to write about his life it was perhaps 2004.
Nina: How did it come about?
Surabhi: During our evening practice, there was a thunderstorm. Linhai, the leader of our Sangha, had two little boys. They ran downstairs interrupting our meditation to let us know they were really upset about the thunder and the lightning. We did what we could to calm them down and then we went right back to our practice. The next morning, during my meditation, Guru Rinpoche said, “You never even mentioned to the little boys that I control the elements and I control the lightning and the thunder. For this infraction, you will have to write a book for children about my life. “ I realized that I had missed the opportunity to give them a lesson about the power of Guru Rinpoche.
Nina: For real?
Surabhi: Yes. The feeling of inspiration to write a story of his life for children stayed with me so powerfully that I kept thinking, how is this going to happen? Little by little, the threads started coming together.
Nina: I’m just delighted and amused and really amazed that this because I knew that I wanted to ask you how you ever thought to write this book, and it seems like didn’t. You never had to think to write it.
Surabhi: Exactly. It really just happened to me. When I get such intuitions as these, they become indelible and I can’t not listen. I realize now in hindsight, I actually have written 60 pages of a book and illustrated more than half of it. It was not easy, to be frank with you, the inspiration didn’t always flow as I was writing it. It was really like just putting one foot in front of the other. Occasionally I would say to Guru Rinpoche, “Where are you now that I am doing this work? Why are you abandoning me now? Why make me sweat ninety-nine and nine-tenths percent?
Nina: From the look of the pictures, it certainly doesn’t look like he abandoned you.
Surabhi: Yes, initially, I did a lot of research – reading every existing biography of Guru Rinpoche that I could get my hands on. After that my imagination took over to create imaginary characters to help tell the story. As you know, I was inwardly directed to take a trip to Tibet and walk where Guru Rinpoche walked in Samye and in the mountain caves where he meditated.
Nina: Right. We have that in our first issue your story about Tibet.
Nina: It’s fabulous.
Surabhi: When I returned from Tibet at end of the summer, I continued my final research for several months. I read every possible book on his life and realized there were contradictions. During that next summer I got permission from His Holiness Shenphen Dawa to do a personal retreat on Dudjom Rinpoche’s land for the purpose of going through all those versions and intuitively selecting my own story line. While I did this, in my imagination, I became a little fairy who told his story from her perspective. Keep in mind that as a kindergarten teacher in a Waldorf School, I was writing with really young children in mind. The elemental world of fairies and gnomes is very much alive in my early childhood wing of the school. So I told Guru Rinpoche’s story from the point of view of a fairy who witnessed his birth in Lake Dhanakosha and who followed him on all his adventures. That’s how I did it during the first draft. It shifted since then.
Nina: Where is it at now?
Surabhi: Now, the fairy is still there, but I tell the story in the third person. In this way, there is much dialogue between characters to make it easier to get a feeling for Guru Rinpoche being a real person with his own personality interacting with the other characters. I felt like it was right to shift it. I think I was working with the children, too. After I made my draft, I actually had the opportunity to tell the afternoon children the story in my own words during their rest time.
Nina: That’s really a great opportunity—getting their feedback.
Surabhi: Yes, the children became my spontaneous editors.
Nina: An important thing. That’s fabulous.
Surabhi: They gave me enough feedback for me to make many changes. By the end of the year, around June, the children loved the Guru Rinpoche character, whom I called Pema. “We love Pema so much but you haven’t finished the last chapter and school has ended. This is our last class. Tomorrow, you have to give us all our own copy of the book. It has to be all done for us!” I had my doubts that I could manifest a finished book by the next day. I said, “That’s not quite going to happen by tomorrow.”
Surabhi: They said, “It has to. All you have to do is ask Pema to help you and it will be done.” I was just blown away when they said that. They believed in the magic of Pema so strongly, that it moved me almost to tears. The only thing I had to do is ask Pema and he could magically have the book in their hands by the next morning.
Nina: I love that.
Surabhi: It was just so fresh. One little boy had taken it to heart so much that when he was out in the playground, he would be Pema. I heard them arguing because they all were trying to take roles. He said, “No, I’m Pema because I love him.” I was really inspired by the faith of these children.
My plan for last summer was to illustrate the book. I was invited to go to Lestor Raymoor’s Red Barn Museum in Kansas which was arranged by a dear artist friend. My job was to be in a museum all afternoon where tourists could see me working and they could come in and ask me any questions.
One day, a woman who was a reporter for the local newspaper called up the museum to say she wanted to interview me about my children’s book on Guru Rinpoche. She had been intrigued by a previous article by the museum about my artist residency, and she began her own research on Guru Rinpoche in preparation for the interview. When she came and then I realized that this was a wonderful opportunity to share with the people in Kansas about Guru Rinpoche…
Nina: About Guru Rinpoche’s life.
Surabhi: And Vajrayana Buddhism. That’s what happened. She did an amazing job of writing that article.
Nina: My goodness.
Surabhi: She told me a story about a children’s author who loved a story that his father told him as a child, but when he was older he wanted to read the book for himself. To his surprise the book was stilted and boring, and he realized that it was only his father’s retelling that enlivened it. He immediately set out to rewrite the book to make it as colorful as his father had. This began his writing career. She said that when she researched Guru Rinpoche’s life, she did not find any versions that children would be able to enjoy. She looked at me and she said, “It sounds like there were many versions of Guru Rinpoche’s life but there are not many for children. Your love for Guru Rinpoche will manifest a book that will touch children’s hearts.” She inspired me.
Nina: That is a really great story to hear. I’m inspired just hearing it. In terms of your book, where to now? What do you see as the next step in your writing of it. Did you finish that last chapter for your students?
Surabhi: One boy insisted that I give him a copy of the book, so I said, “When you come back from your summer vacation in India, ask your mom to call me up and the book will be done and I will bring you the copy of it. I will show you the water color illustrations that I’ve done by then.” I got a phone call at the end of the summer. He said, “Okay, I’m ready to see your book”. I said, “Okay, I’m ready, too.” I brought him a copy of that draft.
There were also two other children who are my editors also. They’re amazing children of a member of our Dorje Phurbha sangha. I love them very dearly. The younger girl was in my nursery school class years ago and now, since then she has grown up. She’s now 10 years old. I wrote a chapter of Guru Rinpoche and Emperor Ashoka for her older brother. I gave them the draft of the book, and their mother read it to them every night. They would give comments to the mother and then the mother would call me. One comment was that at the end of the book, when Pema leaves and he goes off to the Copper-Colored Mountain, why doesn’t he speak? Why doesn’t he say a few things before he goes off? The book should end with him speaking.
Based on the comment, I did revise the book but I am still not quite satisfied with that dialogue. It just needs some tweaking to make it more penetrating for the young reader at the end. I just have to work on that, but those two children actually gave me great input for the book.
Nina: What’s wonderful is that you have actually been using the inspiration and the feedback that you’ve been getting from children to help to create the book which I think is really the best. I think that’s really is a crucial audience to have review your work.
Surabhi: The book has a lot to do with the fact that Guru Rinpoche was born on a lotus on a lake with the world of the elementals all around him. That is the thread that goes all the way to the book because when he was invited to Tibet, it was in order to help control the elementals who were giving resistance to Buddhism. Guru Rinpoche was a master of the elemental world and had the ability to befriend and charm the elementals into becoming Dharmapalas.
That, to me, is the thread. In 2008 Anne gave a lecture at Rubin Museum where she gave a scholarly account mentioning that the Tibetan culture is one with the elemental world. I thought, Wow, that’s perfect. That really goes right along with the book. I will keep on doing this book. She gave me great inspiration to keep going with this thought even though she doesn’t realize that she helped me in this way.
Nina: Wow. Now that I hear all of this, I feel that I definitely have to read the book.
Surabhi: It would be so helpful for me if someone who loves Guru Rinpoche would read my book and give me a critique, as I need to continue refining the book. Then I could be sure that the right elements are going to be retained. I have already been eliminating whole chapters of the book that I loved for the sake of making it more readable. I need to have a stronger storyline. Much as I love certain passages, they may have to go. You have to do that, right?
Nina: I know. That’s absolutely true. I’ve had to do that in the Dharma children’s book that I’m writing. I’ve canned whole characters because I felt like they were not going to the point. I’m hoping that in our next issue that after your book is published and so on that you’ll give permission for us to reprint some of it in a future issue of the magazine.
Surabhi: That would be great.
Nina: I want to thank you so much for taking all of this time to talk about your book. I look forward to finally figuring out which picture I like the best. It’s really been hard to choose. It will accompany this interview. Thank you so much. May our conversations continue!