Meeting Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche

UK Female Buddhist Teacher Lama Shenpen Hookham
An excerpt from Keeping the Dalai Lama Waiting & Other Stories – available from Amazon as paperback, Kindle & audiobook

‘Did you see Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche?’ someone asked as I emerged from the crowded temple.  ‘He turned up unexpectedly and is sitting alongside the other lamas.’  I found myself flushed with excitement just on hearing his name.  I didn’t have a white scarf to offer him but someone kindly handed me theirs and I dived back in against the flow of the crowd and offered it to him.  He greeted me warmly and said he had heard about me from Karma Yangzom and wanted me to translate for him.  I was thrilled.  Almost immediately someone else came up to me and said, ‘We weren’t expecting Khenpo Rinpoche to be arriving with the others and there is no room prepared for him.  We are quickly commissioning one of the retreat huts for him to stay in, but could you serve him?’  This was even better – a dream coming true.

He was about forty at the time, small in stature, with the walk and presence of a samurai warrior.  There was something very direct and yet very kind in everything he said or did.  Having shown him into his room, I sat down in the semi-darkness of the gathering dusk to listen to him talking and felt an immediate sense of rightness and connection.  There was something in the way he was that made me think, ‘So that is what not-self means.’  It was an intuitive, not a reasoned, observation.  Something was communicating itself to me through how he was more than what he said.  I had never met anyone like this before and yet he felt strangely familiar, as if I had always known him.

I surprised myself by saying to him, ‘I have faith in you.’  He said, ‘We will see.’

LS KTRG 72 dpi
Khenpo Rinpoche with Lama Shenpen as a young nun shortly after arriving at Dhagpo Kagyu Ling, France 1977

Twenty years or so later he said to me in Oxford that I was a good student because I had always done what he said.  So I guess that is what he meant when he said, ‘We’ll see.’  It is now almost forty years later, and I still have great faith in him.  It is like meeting someone and knowing you have really met them and they have really met you.  It is more real than anything else in one’s experience and makes all other experience irrelevant.

At the first opportunity, I told the Karmapa that I had a lot of faith in Khenpo Rinpoche and wanted to be his student.  He looked thoughtful for a few moments.  Then he said, ‘Khenpo Rinpoche is…’  He was silent again as if searching for the right word.  Then he said ‘Khenpo Rinpoche’ again, somewhat wistfully.  He looked at me opening his eyes wide in wonderment, then as if he had finally found the words he was looking for he said, ‘Khenpo Rinpoche has very deep compassion.’  Khenpo Rinpoche had many great qualities that the Karmapa might have named; I was very struck that what impressed him most was his compassion.

The Karmapa told me that I should start my three-year retreat again and that Khenpo Rinpoche would direct me.  I went to Khenpo Rinpoche to tell him what the Karmapa had said.  Khenpo Rinpoche told me quite simply that if I was his student I was not to do a three-year retreat right now but should study instead.  I was puzzled.  All I could say was, ‘But the Karmapa…’  His reply was very clear.  ‘It is up to you then.  You have to choose who is your lama.  If it is me, you do what I say, and if it is the Karmapa you do what he says.’  I was clear in my mind that I wanted Khenpo Rinpoche to be my lama, so I asked, ‘What shall I tell the Karmapa then?’  Khenpo Rinpoche made no reply.  There was a long, perplexed pause.  ‘Should I excuse myself?’ I asked, using an expression I had heard Khenpo Rinpoche himself using when he declined to follow the Karmapa’s instruction to stay at Dhagpo Kagyu Ling.  ‘If that is what you want,’ Rinpoche replied.

This was the first time I had heard a Karma Kagyu lama say so openly that one’s first allegiance is to one’s own lama.  Although the Karmapa is the nominal head of the Karma Kagyus, there is nothing in the Buddha’s teaching to suggest one owes allegiance to a head of an institution.  To give one’s allegiance to a lama is a matter of personal choice.  Luckily for me, when I returned to the Karmapa to excuse myself from the three-year retreat, he simply nodded his head in assent.

I was so clear that I wanted to be under Khenpo Rinpoche’s direction that it didn’t occur to me to ask Gendun Rinpoche what he thought.  Yet Gendun Rinpoche had every reason to expect me to consult him. Up until then I had been in retreat under his spiritual direction and I had been his translator working closely with him for years.  I could certainly have broken the news to him more gently than I did.  I heard he was so upset that he wrapped his robe around himself, covering his head, and refused to talk to anyone for twenty-four hours. By the next time I went to see him he had recovered enough to say to me, ‘You have done nothing wrong and neither have I.’ That is when I realised how upset he was.  I had elevated him into a class above other beings who have ordinary human feelings – it didn’t occur to me he would care whether a student came or went.  Yet we had a close Dharma connection.  The way I had announced my departure must have sounded like our relationship had no meaning for me, in spite of all the time we had spent together, let alone all the teaching and guidance he had been giving me over the past few years.

KTGR Gendun Rinpoche France 72dpi by Peter Mannox
Khenpo Rinpoche & Gendun Rinpoche at Dhagpo Kagyu Ling, France, 1977. Image courtesy of copyright Peter Mannox

Gendun Rinpoche warned me that I was being seduced by my pride and ambition, hankering after learning so as to be like the rest of Khenpo Rinpoche’s students.  Maybe he was afraid that I would start to neglect my meditation in the way Karma Yangzom had feared for Karma Ozer.  He had become Enlightened by simply following the special oral instructions of his guru, the Karmapa.  He had complete, unwavering faith in the guru – he glowed with an inner light whenever the Karmapa was mentioned.  Faith in the guru and oral instructions were enough for him and he simply couldn’t understand why that was not enough for me.  Why would I need to study?  Years later I asked Khenpo Rinpoche about Gendun Rinpoche’s attitude and he smiled in a special way.  Then he said, ‘If you have faith like Gendun Rinpoche then of course that is all you need.  But if you have doubts, you have to study in order to understand the Dharma more deeply.  Faith develops from that.’

I had left my three-year retreat very suddenly on receiving Gendun Rinpoche’s message to come out and meet the Karmapa.  Now that I wasn’t going to continue the retreat, I needed to bring it to a formal end with the proper concluding ceremonies.  I invited a number of the lamas who were present at Dhagpo Kagyu Ling at that time to come and take part in a feast offering in my retreat hut.  When I asked Khenpo Rinpoche to come he said, ‘I will come in my mind.’  I thought this was his way of politely declining the invitation.  The other lamas came, and at the close of the ceremony a rainbow appeared in the field by my retreat hut, which seemed a very auspicious sign.  The next day I took Khenpo Rinpoche his portion of the feast offering.  As I offered it to him he said, ‘Is this the portion of the feast for those who were not present at the time?’  I said it was.  ‘Well I don’t need it, do I?  I was there in my mind.’  That left a deep impression on me.  When he said something, he meant it and he remembered it.  I was to discover subsequently that he always remembered what he’d said, sometimes after many years, even decades, had elapsed.”

Lama Shenpen Hookham

An excerpt from Keeping the Dalai Lama Waiting & Other Stories – An English Woman’s Journey to Becoming a Buddhist Lama – available now from Amazon.

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

Khenpo-Rinpoche's-summer-retreat-72dpi-by PeterMannox
Lama Shenpen (L) as a young Nun with Khenpo Rinpoche centre, 1977