How did Lama Shenpen become a Lama?

The Following is an extract from Lama Shenpen’s life story book Keeping the Dalai Lama Waiting & Other Stories describing experiences that sowed the seeds for her new book ‘The Guru Principle: A Guide to The Teacher-Student Relationship‘, published this month by Shambhala.
Lama Shenpen teaching students wearing the robe Khenpo Rinpoche gave her and the special jacket given to her by the 16th Karmapa.

“When the 16th Karmapa sent me back to England to teach, I was not convinced that the way I had been taught Dharma was either suitable or possible in the West.  I needed time to think deeply about how to share what I’d learned.  However, having to translate Gendun Rinpoche’s instructions pointing out the nature of mind was almost like having to give them myself.  I was looking for words to express what I had understood experientially from the Lama.  This meant I had to reflect deeply both on what I had understood and the words I was using to express that understanding.  In other words, I was reflecting on how best to teach Dharma in English. 

Originally I had not intended to become a Dharma teacher until I was Enlightened so I am pausing here to consider what happened exactly to change my mind.  Thinking back, I realise that it was my teachers who had brought about this change.  From my earliest years in India first Karma Thinley Rinpoche, then Kalu Rinpoche and later Bokar Rinpoche had talked to me as if it were a given that I would be teaching and helping to spread Dharma in the West.  When Bokar Rinpoche was giving me instructions, he surprised me by saying, ‘You should practise like this for three years before starting to teach.’  It seemed far too soon to me.  Yet within a couple of years of his saying that the Karmapa sent me back to England to teach ‘all I knew’.  A few years later again Khenpo Rinpoche told me to study so I could answer people’s questions obviously on the assumption I would be teaching.  All this led me to conclude that it is enough to be able to glimpse and have confidence in the true nature of mind in order to help others on their way, at least to some extent. 

When Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche had told Rigdzin Shikpo and me to teach he said, ‘I don’t really know the best way to teach Westerners, because I don’t know the language and culture the way you do.  You are going to have to work it out for yourselves.  Don’t get bogged down in problems inherited from the complexities of Tibetan history and culture.’  This made sense because I understood what it was like being a Westerner from the inside and could be a bridge between two radically different languages, cultures and world views.  There were so many wrong assumptions that my Tibetan teachers kept making about their western students, and vice versa.  One of the last times Khenpo Rinpoche visited Wales, just as he was leaving, he called Rigdzin Shikpo and me into his room, where he had laid out two sets of his robes along the back of the couch.  Then rather shyly he said, ‘Please don’t think I am just off-loading old clothes on you.  We Tibetans have a custom where the lama gives his robes to his disciples and it is considered an honour.’  It did indeed feel a great honour and an affirmation of the trust he had in us as Dharma teachers.

After I had been teaching my own sangha for a while, one of my students came to me and said, ‘Are you a lama?’  She had just returned from a weekend course on Mahamudra where it had been stressed that for this kind of instruction you had to have a lama, hence her question to me.  ‘It is true that you have to have a lama,’ I said, ‘But I don’t know if I can say I am one.’  Did I count as a lama?  In those days the term ‘lama’ was almost synonymous with being a Tibetan monk and more particularly a monk who had done a three-year retreat in a retreat centre.

At the next opportunity I asked Khenpo Rinpoche what I should answer my student.  He said, ‘Say “yes” of course.’  It was as simple as that.  So you could say that is how I became a lama.  I didn’t use the title but did allow the fact to be known that Khenpo Rinpoche had said I was able to fulfil the function of a lama in the context of teaching Mahamudra.  My students needed to know it.  Eventually some of my students talked amongst themselves and decided they wanted to call me ‘Lama Shenpen’.  They thought it accurately reflected their relationship with me and would help other people understand the opportunity I presented as a teacher.  I didn’t encourage them, but I didn’t stop them either; their thinking made sense.

Having the title of lama is not without its problems.  The very title itself invites projections of various kinds.  However, to say one is not a lama seems to imply that one is not qualified to teach.  There are problems whether one uses the title or not.  One reason for this is that the term is used in such a general way that it is unclear what it implies even among Tibetans, let alone among Westerners.  Although it is a translation for the Sanskrit term Guru, it is often used loosely for any monk or teacher of Dharma.  It should imply a person with good samaya connections playing the role of guru for students who have faith and good samaya with him or her.  It doesn’t have to mean an Enlightened person, even though this would be ideal.  Someone like myself with good samaya connections can play the role for students who have confidence in them to teach from their own experience.  In other words, I am good enough to link students with faith in me to the lineage of Awakening.

Khenpo Rinpoche with Lama Shenpen and her students on his last visit to the Hermitage where Lama Shenpen is based, 2005

It has not been easy trying to educate my students as to the meaning of the term ‘lama’.  On one occasion I was in a conversation with Khenpo Rinpoche and told him that my students had difficulty with the concept of lama.  ‘That is a problem Westerners have made up for themselves,’ he said.  ‘It is nothing to do with us Tibetans.  We don’t have a problem with the term lama.’  I was shocked by his response and the sharpness with which it was delivered.  It triggered such a reaction in me that I couldn’t contain myself.  This was a serious issue that I as a Western teacher needed help with.  Tibetan teachers needed help with it too if they were to teach Westerners.  What did he mean by saying it was nothing to do with the Tibetans?  In retrospect, I realise the strength of his reaction was a sign that he had been triggered too.  He must have had a lot of trouble with Westerners misunderstanding what ‘guru’ or ‘lama’ meant.  He was probably as frustrated about it as I was.  I didn’t think that at the time though.  Oh no!  I was just triggered.

I stood up and stormed out of the room.  I stormed downstairs into the hall and when people asked me what was the matter and where I was going I simply brushed them aside and strode out of the main door.  I charged off down the nearest lane and kept going with my mind more or less a blank – blank with rage and frustration.

At last, after five or ten minutes, I cooled off.  I came to my senses.  I realised I had been rude to walk off like that and so I had better make reparation.  I was still upset.  Nevertheless, I needed to apologise for my rudeness.  I walked slowly back to Rinpoche’s room.  I knocked and he called out to say ‘Come in.’  He was standing by the partition door and he looked at me attentively.  ‘Yes?’  ‘I have come to apologise for my rudeness.’  There was a moment of silence as he continued to look at me attentively and then said, ‘Right.  Now you know what ego-clinging is.’  How did that land with me?  Well, it caused me pause for thought.  The guru is there to cut through our ego-clinging and that is what he did.

Later in the day he gave a Dharma talk to all of us and in it clarified many points in regard to the guru or lama.  He had heard me and he tried his best to help, but there still remains a whole nest of interrelated issues around language, culture and assumed conceptual frameworks that needs sorting out.  It is true that we need the guru to cut through our conceptual grasping, our fixed ideas, habitual patterns and ego-clinging, but not all our teachers know us well enough to do this.  Furthermore we need the guru to play a good many other roles for us as well.  Over the years I have written reams and reams about the guru-teacher-student relationship and yet it is only now that I feel I have enough understanding to write a book on it.”

Lama Shenpen Hookham

The new book – The Guru Principle: A Guide to the Teacher-Student Relationship’ is published by Shambhala Publications on 17th August 2021 and will be available direct from the publisher in the US or from all online booksellers and book shops – ISBN: 9781611809268.

For more details about Lama Shenpen’s latest, acclaimed book The Guru Principle, including reviews from eminent Buddhist teachers, click here.

UK Female Buddhist Teacher Lama Shenpen Hookham

This is an excerpt from Keeping the Dalai Lama Waiting & Other Stories – An English Woman’s Journey to Becoming a Buddhist Lama – available now from Amazon as a paperback, kindle or audiobook. More information and links to more excerpts here.

[Words and images are copyrighted material, permission granted by the publishers/author required before reproducing]

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