In the land of Nepal’s famous Sherpa guides, the Lawudo Lama, Kunzang Yeshe (1865-1946) was a beacon of inspiration due to his spiritual attainments. His life provides fascinating insights into the culture of the people who live in the shadow of the world’s highest mountain. His reincarnation, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, is now well known as a Buddhist teacher in the West and as the spiritual director of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT).
The Lawudo Lama is an amazing tale recounting the lives of both the internationally known Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche and his previous incarnation, Lama Kunzang Yeshe. Unlike numerous other studies of “Sherpa Culture, Religion and History,” The Lawudo Lama offers an account from within the tradition, as experienced by the main protagonist, “without feathers or abuse” as the Tibetan expression goes (neither self- aggrandizing nor insulting of others). Author Ani Jamyang Wangmo, as one of Lama Zopa’s early disciples also among the few foreigners to have spent long stretches of time in solitary retreat at the cave hermitages of the Lawudo Lama- is uniquely qualified to write about the subject.
This fascinating book presents a unique perspective on Himalayan religion and the threads that link past and contemporary practices. A feast of information about the extraordinary Lawudo lamas, and on many aspects of Sherpa history, cultural and religion besides.
Jamyang Wangmo (Helly Pelaez Bozzi) was born in Salamanca, Spain, in 1945. After obtaining a degree in Law and spending two years in art school, she traveled to India and Nepal, where in 1972 met the Lawudo Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. She is a fully ordained nun, and has spent long periods of time in retreat at the Lawudo Cave and other hermitages of the Khumbu region. She currently lives in Nepal.
Stories of the lives of saints, great practitioners and realised beings have been a source of inspiration in all religious traditions down the ages. In the Buddhist tradition, the story of our precious teacher, Buddha Shakyamuni, continues to have a great deal to tell us, even although it is two and a half thousand years after he lived and taught in India. The Buddha showed that enlightenment is possible, that the mind can be purified and that ignorance and suffering can be overcome. However, he did not find enlightenment because he was a prince or because he had the help of some higher force, but because he was clear about his goal, steady in his effort and never gave up. Similarly, the great Tibetan meditator and poet Milarepa is celebrated for attaining .enlightenment 'in one lifetime, not because he practised an especially quick path or found a shortcut, but because he did the necessary hard work.
This book focuses on the story of two individuals, the first Lawudo Lama, Kunzang Yeshe, and his successor, Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. It is also to some extent the story of the development of the Sherpa community living in the region of the border between Nepal and Tibet. It is a place where even the conditions for ordinary life are very hard. Food is sparse, the climate is harsh and although the people have great faith, they traditionally have had little education. Under the circumstances it is remarkable that an individual like Kunzang Yeshe could seek out the Dharma, receiving teachings when the opportunity arose, but even more important that he would retire to his cave to put them steadily into practice. As a result he was able to bring real benefit to the community in which he lived and in turn commanded great respect.
His reincarnation, Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, has continued his predecessor's work in a similar spirit. This book tells how difficult it was for him to receive the education and training he sought, first in his home region, then in Tibet as it succumbed to Chinese occupation. This was followed by many years in which, despite being a Nepalese citizen, he shared the hardships experienced by many Tibetan refugee monks. In due course he has been able to return to his native region and establish a monastery and other facilities that will make it much easier than it was for him for the young to engage in spiritual study and training. He has also, of course, played a pivotal role in the growth of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition with its branches all over the world contributing to the spread of the Buddha's teachings.
I have no doubt that readers of this book will find here encouraging evidence that, even in this day and age, where there is real faith, good motivation and a great deal of hard work, the Dharma will flourish and grow.
In October 1972, I was staying in a Nepali farmhouse (Ram's house) on Kopan hill near Kathmandu, waiting for the third kopan meditation course to take place. The assembly hall of the new Kopan Monastery was being quickly finished under the supervision of Lama Thubten Yeshe and Ani Ann McNeil, but the lama who would teach the course was not in Kopan. I was told that he was still in Khumbu in the Mount Everest region at a place called Lawudo, where he had a cave and a small gompa, or monastery. The Lawudo Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche was expected to come down at any time in the next few days.
I was very curious to meet the lama. Someone who had a cave in the Himalayas sounded very exciting and just the type of lama I wanted to meet. Actually, I had already spent two months in Manali, India, wandering all over the mountains looking for "my cave," the place where I could sit down to meditate for the rest of my life! Perhaps I was now getting closer to finding it.
On the day that Lama Zopa was due to fly back from Lawudo, I went to receive him at the airport with other Westerners who were staying at Kopan. We found Lama Zopa having tea in the restaurant with his attendant Lozang Nyima and a lama from Sera Monastery called Geshe Tashi. He was a thin, handsome young man, with unfathomable deep black eyes that seemed to mirror the whole world. I greeted him shyly, while surreptitiously dropping on the floor the small bunch of wild flowers I had collected on the way; my humble flower offering seemed ridiculous compared to the nice incense bundles, flowers, and so forth that the other Westerners offered. That evening, when Lama Zopa Rinpoche was performing his first ritual ceremony in the new Kopan Gompa, one of my housemates gave me a bundle of incense and a silk scarf and taught me how to perform prostrations. Together with her, I went into the temple and made offerings to the lama.
The one-month Kopan meditation course had a great impact on my life, and I decided to become a nun. After spending two months in Bodh Gaya making prostrations and then attending another month-long meditation course with Lama Zopa in March, I took novice vows in Dharamsala, India. I returned to Nepal at the end of May in order to go to Lawudo for the summer. I flew to Lukla with some of Lama Zopa's little monks, walked to Namche Bazaar with them, and a few days later, after meeting Trulzhig Rinpoche at Tengboche Monastery, I walked alone toward Lawudo.
The path went through a beautiful fir and rhododendron forest surrounded by enormous snow mountains. Then, at a turning of the path, I saw the Lawudo Hermitage right in front of me in the middle of the mountain. I had never seen a picture of Lawudo; there was nobody around to tell me that this was Lawudo, but I knew the place. That was Lawudo, and it was my home. I had not the slightest doubt about it. I felt that an image dormant in my mind had finally come to light. And from that day onward, I just wanted to stay at Lawudo.
I spent months in retreat in a hut at the Charog Hermitage, built a small house under the Dragkarma (White Cliff) above Lawudo, stayed in the Sanyerpa Cave, and finally moved to the house next to the Lawudo Cave. Over the next few years I helped Lama Zopa by organizing group retreats at Lawudo, cleaning and painting the old statues, the cave, and the gompa, and putting the English books and the Tibetan texts of the previous Lawudo Lama in order.
One day, while looking through papers and books, I came across a few handwritten pages that happened to be the biography of the previous Lawudo Lama. I then asked permission from Lama Zopa to translate it into English with the help of the Sherpa monk Thubten Tsering, and I published it as a small booklet. During that time I met the author of the biography, the Maratika Lama Ngawang Chophel Gyatso, who had been a close disciple of the Lawudo Lama and was the only one present when the lama passed away. Ngawang Chophel had been requested by Lama Thubten Yeshe to write the life story of the Lawudo Lama, and I talked to him a few times in order to enlarge and clarify some of the information therein. The biography, entitled A Garland of Devotion: The Life Story of the Supreme Liberator Kunzang Yeshe,2 was written in traditional Tibetan style-that is, with a long list of the teachings he had received but not much information concerning his life. I became very interested in finding more information about the Lawudo Lama Kunzang Yeshe and decided to rewrite and enlarge his biography.
Then, when I heard Lama Zopa telling stories about his childhood and youth, it became obvious that the early part of his life had to be included in my research. Again I spoke with Ngawang Chophel, who eagerly agreed to write an account of Lama Zopa's recognition as the reincarnation of Lama Kunzang Yeshe. Finally, the story of Lama Zopa's return to Nepal, of the creation of Mount Everest Center for Buddhist Studies, and of life in and around Lawudo provided the logical continuation of the Lawudo Lama's story.
During my long sojourns in Khumbu I became acquainted with many aspects of Sherpa life that aroused my curiosity and I was able to find a wealth of interesting stories about the Sherpa lamas. When the idea of writing the biographies of the Lawudo lamas began to materialize, I decided to use the lives of these two Sherpa lamas as the basis for presenting a wider account of Sherpa religious life. Many books have been written about the Sherpas by mountaineers and anthropologists, but those accounts do not provide detailed and reliable information about the lives of the lamas or the Sherpas of Khumbu.
For the benefit of those who are not acquainted with them, I have begun this book with an introduction to the Buddhist theories of reincarnation and the tulku (reincarnated lamas) system. Then, in order to set the stage for the stories of the lamas and in accordance with the traditional Tibetan biographies, I include a description of the land of the Sherpas and a brief historical sketch of the Sherpa people, their culture, and their religion.
Part One is based upon the very short biographical sketch of the first Lawudo Lama Kunzang Yeshe (1865?-1946) written by Lama Ngawang Chophel, which is divided into three parts: The Birthplace of the Lawudo Lama, How the Lawudo Lama Kunzang Yeshe Relied upon Different Masters and Performed his Dharma Practice, and How the Lawudo Lama Dissolved his Body into the Dharmadhatu. Upon my request, the original text was enlarged in 1997 by Ngawang Chophel himself with the account of how the reincarnation of the Lawudo Lama was found.
The first part of Ngawang Chophel's work seems to have been inspired by the autobiography of the founder of Tengboche Monastery, Lama Gulo or Chatang Chotar, and contains a series of prophecies about Khumbu and a brief mention of the countries situated at its four cardinal points. The second part follows a very traditional Tibetan pattern of sacred biographies, with an account of all the lamas that Kunzang Yeshe had met and the teachings he had received, as well as a short account of how he found the Lawudo Cave. I have enlarged this part with details about Kunzang Yeshe's teachers, most of whom had a great impact on Sherpa religious and cultural life. In the third part, Ngawang Chophel gives a detailed and heartfelt account of Kunzang Yeshe's death, which I have reproduced almost literally.
In order to give a portrait of the Lawudo Lama Kunzang Yeshe as lively and accurately as possible, I spent several years collecting information from elderly Sherpas and Tibetans who had met the lama or heard stories about him. I verified the information whenever possible in order to get a clear picture of his life and the society in which he lived. Details such as the actual year of the lama's birth, dates, and sequence of events have been difficult to clarify; it was necessary to piece together the story on the basis of other, well documented events. Extremely useful were the accounts I obtained from the Charog Lama Kusho Mangde, Lama Ngawang of Genupa Hermitage, the relatives of Lama Kunzang Yeshe, and Lama Zopa's mother. I have presented the life story of the first Lawudo Lama as a tale about his own life and of Sherpa society during the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. In addition to the stories narrated by the Sherpas and my own experience of the Sherpa mind and lifestyle, I have used a large number of Tibetan sources in order to document the religious life of the Khumbu Sherpas.
In Part Two, the second Lawudo Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche describes his early life and his activities related to Lawudo and the Sherpas, including the creation of Kopan Gompa in the Kathmandu Valley and his early meditation courses for Westerners. Although I have relied heavily on Lama Zopa's own words (transcripts of his teachings and personal communications), a large amount of additional information comes from other sources. In order to ensure that all the information, even that given by Rinpoche himself, is accurate, I have tried to gather information from practically everyone-relatives, disciples, benefactors, acquaintances, and friends-who could shed any light upon his life. I have kept this part as a narrative in first person because my writing style cannot compare with Lama Zopa's lively and characteristic way of telling stories.
Some of Lama Zopa's students have expressed disappointment at the fact that the present book does not contain the full biography of Lama Zopa. But, except in the cases when lamas themselves write their own autobiographies, it is not auspicious to write their life stories until their work in this world has been completed. Therefore, in accordance with the wishes of Lama Zopa himself, the latter part of his life will be presented in a future book.
Finally, the epilogue reflects my own thoughts about the present and future of Khumbu, as well as an account of the whereabouts of the main personalities of the book. It is followed by a series of appendices that include a "visual journey" as an indispensable help to penetrate the stories and places described in the book.
The biographies of holy beings can be written from different points of view. "Outer" biographies are basically accounts of outer events and the activities such individuals perform for the benefit of others. "Inner" or "secret" biographies emphasize instead the teachings these beings have received, as well as their spiritual practices and inner development. In most cases, however, both the outer and inner aspects are combined into just one biography with an emphasis on the spiritual side.
Biographies of Tibetan or Sherpa lamas written by their disciples tend to present the life of their teacher in accordance with the pure perception of seeing the teacher as Buddha. The lama's achievements and activities tend to be idealized and glorified in order to inspire faith and devotion. But when a master writes his own autobiography, he tends to present his life from a more pragmatic point of view. The truly accomplished masters are usually very humble and do not like to talk about their own powers and achievements, although they may mention them occasionally in order to benefit and inspire readers.
In the present volume, the life of Kunzang Yeshe has been presented as an account of both his outer and inner achievements in accordance with the pure perception of his disciple Ngawang Chophel, the elderly Sherpas who met the lama, and my own. The life of Lama Zopa Rinpoche is an autobiography; he tends to present himself as an ordinary person with many shortcomings. The emphasis there is on his external activities, with some references now and then to his spiritual life. Nevertheless, just by listening to his words we can have a glimpse of the inner wealth of spiritual treasures present within his mind; we may not be able to look at the sun directly with bare eyes, but we can certainly benefit from its light and warmth.
According to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the main purpose of writing the biography of holy beings is to inspire others to follow their example. When our mind is weak and invaded by desire for worldly life, reading how the past and present great beings practiced Dharma helps to revive our courage, inspiration, and devotion. By developing faith and admiration toward them, we will be inspired to practice the Dharma as they have done. Just by hearing about the wondrous deeds of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, we purify negative imprints within our mind and develop a strong wish to devote our life to following their example to the best of our ability. Therefore, it is extremely important to hear, read, and reflect upon the lives of highly realized beings. Particularly for Westerners, for whom role models for spiritual practice are difficult to find, it is very important to know how the great beings of the past and present lived their lives and put into practice the Buddha's teachings. From these life stories we can understand how they were able to use their own cultural background and the prejudices and social conventions of their countries to further their spiritual practice and benefit beings. Their cultural and social background may be different from ours, but the basic facts of life are similar. They encountered family problems, economic difficulties, social stigmas, frustrations, obstacles to finding spiritual friends and studying the Dharma, and many other situations which we are also familiar with.
Besides acquainting readers with Sherpa history and religion, I hope that the present book will inspire them to engage in serious meditation retreats and thus continue the valuable tradition of the Sherpa and Tibetan lamas. And I beg forgiveness for not being able to convey their marvelous stories in an even more inspiring manner.
On Past and Future Lives
The following is an excerpt from a lecture given by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche in Kopan Monastery during the November 2000 meditation course:
There are many people in the West, both young and old, who remember past lives. Because their minds are clearer and less polluted than the minds of average people, they are able to remember their life in the womb and even their own past lives and those of others. But Western society accepts only what the majority of common people remember, which is just this one life, and even though it is their real experience, people who can remember past lives are afraid to talk about it in public because others will think that they are strange. On the other hand, there is nowadays a steadily growing interest to learn about karma and reincarnation. Westerners are becoming more familiar with such topics and developing a better and deeper knowledge of the mind.
Just as in a country where most of the people have goiter, someone who does not have one looks very strange, if the culture of a particular society does not include the belief in reincarnation, a person who has a real and clear experience of past lives appears to be abnormal. Generally speaking, our beliefs depend on the place and situation where we are born. We are born fresh into a new life and receive from those around us the accepted ideas .and opinions of our parents and society. But those ideas and opinions are not necessarily correct. It is important that we analyze whether those beliefs accord with reality or not.
In order to understand rebirth it is very important to define what is death. At the time of death twenty-five different forms of dissolution take place.> following which the mind becomes extremely subtle, and three different visions occur. In the last stage of the death process all the gross minds absorb at the heart chakra and only the extremely subtle, clear light mind is left. All the heat and sensations disappear and the body appears to be dead, although the consciousness is still there. Finally, the extremely subtle mind and wind leave from the indestructible seed at the heart. Afterward, if the being is going to be reborn in the desire realm or the form realm, the gross wind and mind manifest again, and the body of the intermediate state (bardo) being arises.
The type of body that the reincarnated being obtains depends on the door or part of. the body from where the consciousness leaves. If the consciousness leaves from the crown of the head, the being is reborn in one of the pure lands-such as Sharnbhala, Dagpa Khacho, or Dewachen, where the person will definitely become enlightened-or else the being will be reborn in the formless' realm. If the consciousness leaves from the mouth, one will be reborn as a hungry spirit; if from the anus, rebirth takes place as a hell being; if from the sex organ, as an animal; or if it leaves from the heart, as a human being.
According to the teachings of the Buddha, the extremely subtle mind is located, at the heart. Because of this, the negative emotions such as anger, desire, jealousy, pride, and so forth arise from the heart and not from the brain. So we can see that our ordinary daily experience is in harmony with what the Buddha taught.
The yogis who practice the meditations of the completion stage of tantra undergo experiences similar to those that take place during the death process. Using the methods of the highest tantras, they are able to achieve the unification of the clear light and illusory body and use this realization as a weapon to purify ordinary death, intermediate' state, and rebirth and actualize the resultant dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. These meditators are able to use the subtle body to visit pure lands, make offerings to the buddhas, and receive teachings; they can then re-enter their old body and perform ordinary activities just as before.
It is very important to have discussions on reincarnation and karma. In one of the early Kopan meditation courses I guided the meditation of going back to one's childhood, then to the mother's womb, and to the moment of conception. Some people who had stable concentration tried to go back even further. One person had a very strong feeling of having been a Tibetan in his previous life and was able to see clearly a house in Tibet with all the kitchen utensils, such as the churn to make Tibetan tea. If there is no reincarnation, it becomes very difficult to explain such experiences.
One can analyze by using the logical reasons found in the philosophical texts and also by considering the large number of people, both young and old, who can remember their previous lives. Besides the tulkus, or reincarnated lamas, there are many cases of ordinary people who can remember their past lives.
In the Eastern countries-India, Nepal, Tibet, and so forth-where Buddhism is alive, reincarnation is commonly accepted, but in the West the belief in reincarnation is not part of the culture. Only this present life is accepted. Nevertheless, even though many people profess to follow the ideas of their society, when they question deeply in their own hearts, they are not so sure that there is only one life.
If there is no continuity of life, why do people who have done many evil deeds have so much fear at the time of death? If there are no past and future lives, why does fear arise? That fear is a sign that one is going to be reborn in the lower realms. The Buddhist texts explain that at the time of death, beings are tortured by their own past actions and experience all kinds of terrifying visions. For instance, those who have killed many humans or animals have the experience of being attacked by the beings they have killed and they die with great fear. In Dharamsala, a Tibetan man who had been a butcher could see sheep and goats attacking him, but those around him could do nothing to help. Actually, no external beings are attacking the dying persons, but their own negative karma creates all those terrifying mental projections. And these are just the visions before death; the actual experience of being reborn in the lower realms is far more frightening.
Even though intellectually you do not believe in future lives, at the time of death you have the intuitive feeling that you may have wasted your life and that some very heavy things are going to happen. So, if you sincerely check your heart, the answer about reincarnation is: not sure.
These questions are very important. You may not accept reincarnation because it is not your experience to remember past lives, but that is just fooling yourself. If that were the case, what about the things that you did in this life that you don't remember? Would you say that you did not do those things? As a child you did many things that you do not remember now. You do not remember coming out of your mother's womb, but you have been told that you were born from her and you believe it. So, using the same logic, you should not believe that either.
Some people argue that since the body disappears after death, reincarnation is not possible. This is a misunderstanding based on the lack of differentiation between body and mind. The body has form-color and shape-whereas the mind is a formless phenomenon that has the ability to know objects and whose nature is clarity. The body is a substantial phenomenon, while the mind is not. What goes on to the next life is the mind, not the body; the body does not reincarnate.
In short, not a single person has realized that there is no such thing as reincarnation. Some people have such an assumption, but they have no direct realization. On the other hand, there are numberless persons, even just ordinary beings, who have definitely realized the certainty of reincarnation.
The recognition of tulkus (literally, "emanation bodies") seems to be a special feature of Tibetan Buddhism. The first official recognition and enthronement of a tulku took place in Tibet iry 1288, when the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339) was recognized and enthroned as the reincarnation of Karma Pakshi (1204-83), who in turn was the tulku of Dusum Khyenpa (1110-93). There had been cases of reincarnated lamas before the thirteenth century, but they had not been officially recognized as the reincarnation of their predecessor Soon all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism adopted the tulku system, and enthronements became elaborate ceremonies, during which the monastery and property of his (or in very few cases, her) predecessor were handed over to the newly recognized incarnation. Although the tulku system has many shortcomings, it also has many advantages. In a society where proper education, even in the monasteries, was restricted to those who had sufficient means and social status, recognized tulkus were assured the thorough education and training that for an ordinary boy would be difficult to obtain.
A tulku can be defined as a being who has achieved a certain level of spiritual development and power and has consciously chosen to take rebirth in order to benefit beings. Despite their presumed spiritual achievements, tulkus have to undergo their education all over again. Most of them are able to learn much faster than ordinary children, and they usually show a certain maturity of character and a kindness and concern for others that are absent in most children.
Generally speaking,• tulkus are born after the death of their predecessor, but according to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, "reincarnation does not always depend on the person' being dead. Bodhisattvas can manifest everywhere." (A bodhisattva is' a being who has developed the wish to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit others.) According to Chokyi Nyima Rinpocbe, highly realized beings are endowed with power, wisdom, and compassion, and are able to transmit their wisdom to others. According to the Buddhist scriptures, bodhisattvas on the first level have attained the ability to manifest hundreds of versions of their own bodies. It can happen that a bodhisattva emanates another being to continue his or her work even before passing away. In such circumstances, according to Denma Locho Rinpoche, it is very important that others be informed about the appointed successor. This is a difficult topic that even learned Tibetan lamas find hard to understand. They all agree, however, that highly realized bodhisattvas have the power to do almost anything they wish, and that their actions can be beyond the comprehension of ordinary beings.
There are many examples of holy beings manifesting more than one emanation simultaneously. For instance, shortly before his death, the great yogi Milarepa (1040-1123) manifested various bodies in- different places. Thangtong Gyalpo (1361-1464) appointed his close disciple Tenzin Choje Nyima Zangpo as his tulku, and the Sixth Dalai Lama (1683-1706 [-1746?]) is believed to have been alive while the Seventh Dalai Lama (1708-57) was already occupying the thrones Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-92) manifested five different tulkus, Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-87) was born before the death of his predecessor (Dudjom Lingpa, 1835-1904), and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche was born two and a half months before the Lawudo Lama Kunzang Yeshe passed away.
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