There really was no choice.
Confirming that my precious root lama, HH Penor Rinpoche, had entered into the final meditation of this apparent life, I typed a quick email to send my regrets to the Buddhism in Mongolia conference at Smith, tossed a few essentials into the car, and hurtled south to my home temple, Kunzang Palyul Choling. Bending, I confess, a couple of local speed regulations, since the major highways were miraculously clear I managed to get from my mother’s home in Vermont to KPC’s driveway in 7 ½ hours. Seemed like the car went through a worm hole, and I arrived 30 minutes ahead of the scheduled start time for our first major ceremony, the Guru Yoga of Rigdzin Dupa’i, with tsog offering, from the omniscient Longchenpa’s treasure cycle. I felt a compelling need to be with my brothers and sisters, my sangha, at this potent juncture, and it has helped me immeasurably to stabilize and deepen into my first experience of a close lama’s passage.
I walked into the temple to such warm greetings from everyone. Many had no idea I was in the States (international monk of mystery), and after hugs all around, I went to make prostrations in our two main shrine rooms. All was fine in the first, but as I entered our Prayer Room I dissolved into sudden sobs. Nearly two decades of memories flooded back.
When we want to create an auspicious circumstance by offering the pithiest expression of the entirety of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching, we chant the two lines with which one of the Buddha’s earliest disciples, Ven. Asvajit, summarized the teaching for Shariputra, provoking his instant realization: “ ‘Everything that arises, arises from a cause. To prevent the result, eliminate the cause.’ That was taught by the Tathagatha, who since he teaches that, is called the Great Sage.”
This may seem simplistic, but if the meaning is understood, the entirety of the path to enlightenment, the unborn state beyond suffering, is contained right there.
Looking back, I feel that I must have but few pure causes in my own mindstream from previous lives, and whatever excellent circumstances have arisen for me have been guided on the currents of my own teachers’ oceanic merit and compassion. Here is the smallest drop from my superficial perspective:
HH Penor Rinpoche told us that as a young tulku in Tibet, training to become the 11th Throneholder of the Palyul lineage, he held and heard the story of the kapala (skullcap) relic of the great 17th c. yogini Genyenma Ahkon Lhamo (full story towards the bottom of the page here), sister of Palyul’s first throneholder, Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab. At that time, he made the aspiration that if there were an incarnation in the world of a practitioner who could leave such an astonishing relic, that he might be the one to find her.
Who could have imagined that there was in fact an incarnation, born in Canarsie, Brooklyn, and that neither time nor space would prove any obstacle to his finding her on his first brief North American visit in 1985, and then fearlessly announcing his recognition of her incarnation status in 1987, and enthroning her as a Palyul lineage holder, Ahkon Norbu Lhamo, in 1988?
This enlightened drama set the stage for one cranky young man from New Jersey, determined to leave what he saw as his degenerate land, to show up at Ahkon Lhamo’s temple in August of 1990 at the suggestion of a friend, to see if he could get a little cultural information about Buddhism before traveling to India and Nepal. It turned out that Jetsunma, as her students were now calling her, was giving a full day of teachings. I decided to stay.
But I didn’t stop being cranky. I was steeped in the punk rock culture, determinedly anti-religion. To be honest, I didn’t care at all for what I saw as the New Age trappings of KPC, and I was perplexed by the ordinary Western appearance of Jetsunma, Americans in robes offering prostrations to her, my inability to manage the Tibetan chanting, etc., etc.
But then she sat down, and she started to teach.
Growing up where I did, I was immediately caught by Jetsunma’s light Brooklyn cadence, a kind of music for me. After ten minutes, however, it was the content that stunned me. This lady knew the truth, and was speaking the truth. It couldn’t have been clearer. In that one day, I went from skeptic to true believer. Six weeks later, I joyfully attended a ceremony in which Jetsunma conferred the Refuge and Bodhisattva Vows, the gateways through which one enters the general Buddhist path, and the profound Mahayana path, respectively.
Yesterday, I heard something I hadn’t heard before. I had the honor of leading the morning Shower of Blessings tsog, and afterward was relating the story of Penor Rinpoche and Jetsunma to the large assembly. I talked about what I heard concerning Holiness’ week-long stay with Jetsunma in 1985. I said that at the end he had surprised her and her group, who were not officially Buddhist, with conferral of the Refuge and Bodhisattva Vows. My dear friend Yeshe, who was actually there, spoke up and said that was not exactly the case. She said that Jetsunma was so deeply impressed with Holiness that she requested of him some means through which she and her students could be spiritually connected with him in this and every future lifetime. That’s when he said he would offer these vows, and did.
So. Let’s follow the bouncing ball here:
Because of all of the preceding, I found the way into the Buddhist way of life. This also focused what would have been an aimless year traveling around the world.
My traveling companion and I adjusted our itinerary to go to Penor Rinpoche’s Namdroling Monastery in south India. We wanted to enter the Vajrayana path and had a meeting with Jetsunma to discuss our plans. Because she had received transmission from Penor Rinpoche, she gave us the reading transmission for the first two sections of ngondro practice, plus a personal letter of introduction requesting Penor Rinpoche on our behalf to give us the full transmission.
I remember from that meeting that Jetsunma cautioned us not to be fooled by Holiness’ humble demeanor and to regard him as a living Buddha. She also advised us to beware of the Buddhist traveler’s temptation to receive transmissions from any teacher they come across, and accumulate commitments they couldn’t possibly honor. She explained that she felt it was a blessing in her life that she first encountered Palyul, saw it provided a pure and complete path to enlightenment, and felt no need to look further. I’ve tried my best to heed that advice.
So because of her kind letter, Penor Rinpoche did in fact offer the transmissions which led us into the Vajrayana, in ceremonies for just the two of us in his living room. This was in 1991 and my two months at Namdroling started ripening the seed for my considering a monastic life of my own. He sent us to Khenchen Tsewang Gyatso for commentary teaching, and then, in 1992, made a huge sacrifice for his own students to send Khenchen to America. Over the next decade, he would be one of my most important teachers, clarifying the entirety of the Dharma and serving as a great example for me with his exquisite personal qualities.
In 1993, Penor Rinpoche sponsored the North American tour of the terton HH Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, who spent a week with us at KPC. This was one of the most utterly pure beings I had ever encountered, and though I had no intention to become a monk during his visit, his inspiration was so irresistible that I requested and received ordination on that last Saturday. Really, it was like that.
Penor Rinpoche himself came to KPC in 1995 at Jetsunma’s request to confer the entirety of Terton Migyur Dorje’s Nam Chö treasure revelations. I sat for everything, all day, every day, for 30 days. And because I learned that Palyul monastery has maintained the strict foundational discipline of full ordination, from the throneholder on down, since its inception in 1665, I brazenly organized all of KPC’s monks, myself included, to take full ordination directly from Penor Rinpoche during that month.
It was at the end of that transmission that Holiness said he had brought a relic of Terton Migyur Dorje, but it was very rare, and he was unsure whether to give it. Jetsunma personally made strenuous requests for this relic. She knew that stupas containing Migyur Dorje’s relics in Tibet and India had acquired the reputation as sites for miraculous healing, and she promised Penor Rinpoche that she would build a perfect stupa if he would consider with compassion those Westerners who had so few places to attend to the spiritual dimension of healing from incurable illness. He agreed, and the result for me was one of the greatest blessings of my life, several months serving on the work crew that brought the magnificent Migyur Dorje Stupa into being.
Oh, there’s so much more - 1996 pilgrimage to India, shedra, Kalachakra, New York retreat - but I see I’m going too long. Suffice to say that this weekend I’ve had the opportunity to consider how the spontaneous interplay of my two root lamas, HH Penor Rinpoche and Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, has time and time again, through myriad skillful means, inhibited my impulses toward defiled states of being and pointless worldly activity and, sometimes gently and sometimes less so, guided me along the path that will surely one day lead to my own awakening to the pure nature of all phenomena, and therefore an authentic state from which to bring true benefit to others.
Others may have their opinions about such matters. Mean-spirited as those might be, my experience is my experience. Upon reflection, His Holiness Penor Rinpoche and his devoted disciple Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo have unstintingly provided both the causes and conditions for everything truly meaningful that has arisen in my life (except, perhaps, for my physical body – thanks, Ma!). How can one ever hope to repay such kindness? It is my only wish that I remain inseparable from such holy beings in every lifetime.
In the Mahayana, however, we are taught the reasonableness of considering others’ welfare as far more important than our own. In this spirit, I offer the fervent prayer that Penor Rinpoche never ceases to consider with his flawless compassion those who, in their ignorance, continue to experience the suffering of conditioned rebirth. May his wisdom mind continually refract innumerable illusory forms throughout the six realms of samsara, and through this inconceivable liberating activity, may all six realms be swiftly emptied from their very depths.
Ways to Celebrate the Life of HH Penor Rinpoche