The following is an excerpt from Lama Shenpen’s life story book Keeping the Dalai Lama Waiting & Other Stories – An English Woman’s Journey to Becoming a Buddhist Lama, that’s available now from Amazon.
In the video below Lama Shenpen introduces the story of Karma Thinley Rinpoche and the Snake, and describes how she likes to leave some of the stories in her book open ended, in order to ask the reader, what would you have done? What spiritual teaching would you have received if you were in Lama’s place? What have you taken away from the story? Read the full excerpt below:
“One afternoon, a nun ran up to me and anxiously asked me to fetch Karma Thinley Rinpoche because there was a snake in the children’s room and the Indians were going to kill it. Since I had not been in India long, I had no idea what one did about snakes. What would Karma Thinley Rinpoche know about it? I hurried off down the cobbled village path in the afternoon heat, and as I passed our house, Rinpoche called down to me from the shady side of our upstairs veranda, overlooking the street. I told him about the snake, expecting him to leap up and follow me back up the hill. ‘What they doing to it?’ he enquired suspiciously. I didn’t know. ‘You mustee save it. It your mother in past life. You mustee save it.’ I hesitated. His manner told me he meant to be taken seriously, but I couldn’t quite believe it.
I asked him how I should save it. ‘You get a box and a stick,’ he explained, ‘and you push it in with stick and then close the box and take a long way away.’ I argued that it might become annoyed and shoot off somewhere and bite someone. He suggested a sack instead of a box. I protested further, but I was still not sure he wasn’t joking. I thought about how the Buddhist teachings say that we have all had every possible relationship to each other during the course of our endless past lives, and so all creatures must have been our loving mother in some life or other. I didn’t like being accused of just standing by, letting my own mother be killed, but to rush up the hill brandishing my stick and tell the milling crowd to stand back as I single-handedly saved the day seemed like the latter-day heroics of a sun-struck English memsahib. Whatever I did it was going to be either dishonourable or foolish. Why wasn’t the lama sensitive enough to see my dilemma and let me off the hook? I wanted him to direct me in the way my reason told me he should. Couldn’t he point out some deep spiritual meaning to justify not interfering in the situation?
He did nothing to lessen my discomfort. I didn’t know what was worse, to stay here with him or rush off to try to save the snake. I looked at him helplessly and longed for him to clarify my moral dilemma. ‘You mustee go quickly or they kill it – they kill your mother, you mustee help!’ He screwed up his face in agony and horror. ‘Also they Indians make bad karma killing the snake. They Tibetee nuns they do nothing – they pretend not want it kill but hope Indians kill for them. I know them. They very big lie and not compassion. You mustee help – quickly.’ I realised that in spite of all my high aspirations to be a good disciple and do all the guru ordered, I was not going to obey him. I was puzzled and asked him, ‘Why don’t you save it? It’s your mother too.’ His eyes opened wide as with disarming honesty he replied, ‘I frightened – you do it.’
I gave up. What else could I say? It was not my way to admit to being afraid. It was not how I had been brought up. I turned away and walked slowly up the hill. The Indians were crowded around the door of the little mud house where the snake was lurking, discussing what to do. The Tibetans were huddled along the edge of the green with their backs to the proceedings, muttering the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, and were clearly very upset. They kept looking over their shoulders to see what the Indians were doing, but nothing happened for a long time and I followed the nuns down the hill to the kitchen.
Later that day, the nuns told me the Indians had killed the snake. They were shaking their heads at how wrong it was for them to have done that, yet clearly relieved that the snake had been dealt with. They didn’t want to be implicated in the killing of it, any more than I did. I could sympathise with that, in spite of the hypocrisy, but I was not going to let myself off the hook so easily. Karma Thinley Rinpoche was right. I should have done something. I hadn’t even tried to find another solution. Subsequently I discovered the villagers knew perfectly well how to remove snakes without killing them. Had I not been so afraid of making a spectacle of myself, I would have found that out.
That night I tossed and turned and took a good long look at myself. I hadn’t had enough compassion even to open my mouth to try to save the snake. I hadn’t had enough faith in my teacher to give it a try. What kind of student was I? Here I was giving up everything and coming all this way thinking I would be the perfect, devoted disciple and yet at the very first hurdle I had shied away like a frightened horse. It was humbling, but at least it was forcing me to be a bit more honest with myself. In so many ways Karma Thinley Rinpoche was like a mirror reflecting me back to myself. ”
From Keeping the Dalai Lama Waiting & Other Stories – An English Woman’s Journey to Becoming a Buddhist Lama, copyright Lama Shenpen Hookham 2020.