Like a Dream, Like an Illusion . . .

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Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche; Photo by Trudy Sable

After a two-hour wait in the line at the Kathmandu airport for our visas, Trudy and David Sable and I tried to connect with the promised driver from Tek Chok Ling, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche’s nunnery, who was supposed to be holding a sign for us—and there were many drivers holding many signs—but the police kept telling us to move along, but move along to where was a mystery. We were in Nepal on a pilgrimage that started out as Trudy Sable’s solitary Six Dharmas retreat in Khenpo’s nunnery and grew to a three-person entourage of mixed goals, but focused on paying homage to a teacher whom we love.

Unable to find the promised shuttle, we decided to hire a taxi from the long line of old, small, banged up, and unknown makes of cars and vans. The driver consulted with another driver who spoke some English and he wrote down some notes on the back of a map of Boudha that we showed him.

“How much?” I asked, having been warned to always get the price ahead of time.

“Twenty dollars,” the English speaker said, and we agreed. We found out later that five or six dollars would have been a fair price.

The men loaded our bags into an ancient beat-up van, and we began to experience our first taste of Kathmandu. The streets around the airport were congested with vans, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians and we turned out onto an intense city street. Within a few miles (which seemed longer), our driver—a non-English speaking native—turned into a maze of narrow streets and crowded alleys, that we found out later is Boudha, Nepal. We also found out quickly that the driver had no idea of where we were going. I thought that Khenpo Rinpoche would probably laugh at our predicament and maybe sing a song about the innate equality and undivided nature of the apparent web of samsara and the openness of nirvana.

The streets of Boudha, Photo by Jim Lowrey

Eh-ma-ho, the amazing maze—this crowded labyrinth of cobbled paths filled and overflowing with pedestrians and motorcycles—was walled by shops of crumbling brick and painted concrete squeezed together by some force of survival like the need for commerce or the search for food or the voluntary coming together of confused tourists from far away who just needed to have their preconceptions of pilgrimage shattered by the power of poverty and the efforts needed for survival.

I was sitting in the left front seat—what would be the driver’s seat in North America, but was a passenger seat there—without a seatbelt and wedged between the stick shift in the floor and a flimsy door with no lock. I was holding the relatively useless piece of paper—a colorful and accurate “Boudha Map” with neat numbers and letters matching an index locating dozens of gompas, hotels, restaurants, and coffee shops. All in English. Did I mention that our taxi driver did not read English?

Photo by Grant MacLean

Three or four times, the driver pulled over in heavy traffic, stopped the engine, and got out with the note that had been scribbled in Nepali at the airport by the man who had arranged this ride for us. The note, on the back of the Boudha map said “Dhondrup Guesthouse, Tekchokling” in Nepali. Apparently the map itself was of no interest. Our driver would show the note to someone on the sidewalk, followed by a few minutes of conversation and the shaking of heads.

Back in the car, squeezing through narrow, crowded passageways that would not be called streets in the West, we took a U-turn against the traffic, then a left, then a right, in an apparent attempt to follow the most recent suggestion. From the back seat, David said, “That’s Shechen, we’re close,” but the driver ignored him and we wandered on through the maze of the human expression of poverty and resilience.

Trudy asked, “Jim, are you all right?”

Boudhanath Stupa, Photo by Grant MacLean

I did a quick inventory and answered, “What’s the choice?”

I noticed that the street scene seemed somehow Tibetan, though, with the storefronts sometimes flying dream flags or displaying copper or gold statues in familiar forms—an earth-touching buddha, Guru Rinpoche, or Tara—and some of the pedestrians wore maroon robes.

“Maybe the next right or the one after that,” David said, looking up from the map. I gestured and the driver turned into a narrow alley without as many shops, a more residential-looking area of walled courtyards behind iron gates.

“Guest House,” the driver said, but it was not the Dhondrup Guesthouse that we were looking for. He pulled over to the left wall and stopped to question a pedestrian, who listened and shook his head.

Then the miracle. A small, black jeep—actually an Indian Mahindra SUV—pulled up next to us, inches away from the driver’s side and a voice called out, “I was at the airport waiting for you!”

We looked at him and each other, baffled. Where had he come from? “Follow me,” he shouted and pulled ahead, leading us slowly a few hundred meters to a large green iron gate, with no name or other identification. He pulled over and stopped, pointing, “In there.” The apparition’s name was Yeshe, the word for wisdom in Tibetan. We had arrived.

Tek Chok Ling nunnery and Dhondrup Guesthouse (Tekchokling) is a compound of four main buildings and a courtyard that cover about half of a city block (if there were city blocks) in Boudha, the Tibetan enclave of monasteries and craftspeople in the general area of the great stupa Boudhanath. It is surrounded by an eight foot-high stone wall topped with a steel rail with sharp spikes on top. In the courtyard is a stupa, containing a statue of Tara, surrounded by lush, well-tended bushes, trees, and flower gardens.

Khenpo Rinpoche’s connection with buddhist nuns began in Tibet. In 1959, while in retreat at a place called Nyemo, a group of nuns approached him and asked for help to escape the Chinese. Khenpo led them and others over the Himalayas to safety in Bhutan, and established the Karma Drubdey Nunnery, retreat center, and school in 1968. One of those nuns was Ani Jampa Chozen, who is now the head nun at Tekchokling in Boudha, which Khenpo established in 2006. The nuns sixteen and under attend Shree Mangal Dvip, Thrangu Rinpoche’s children’s school, which is just a few blocks away.

The Tekchokling shrine hall is a maroon building with an ornate white and gold roof. It is four stories high with four shrine rooms, counting the smaller roof-top Machig Labdron shrine room. The entrance to the ground floor, where the nuns practiced regularly, is guarded by the Four Guardian Kings, painted large in exquisite detail on the walls of a concrete porch on either side of the double doors. We called the second floor, where we practiced sometimes, the “Tara shrine room.” The main shrine statue was a large gold Tara, surrounded by 21 other Tara statues. Pictures of Teachers, including Khenpo Tsultrim, Karmapa, and the Dalai Lama are also on the shrine.

In the four-story Dhondrup Guesthouse where we were staying, are a dozen or so rooms. With the help of Steven, one of the Guest House employees, we carried our luggage up three flights of stairs to the fourth floor. Each of our rooms had a bathroom, bed, closet, chair, small refrigerator, and a desk with an electric water kettle, a reading lamp, and a television on it. Slow Wi-Fi is available in all the rooms. The furniture is all nicely made of solid wood, and the stair and entry floors are pink marble.

The building is solid and very clean, but the walls are bare white-painted concrete, with no art or color, and the rooms are empty of any signs of Buddha, Rinpoche, or Tibetan culture. It became an entertaining part of the first few days of our stay to shop or borrow cushions, puja tables, shrine bowls, brocades, and images to provide us with a comfortable place to practice.

Sleeping at the Tekchokling gompa was a challenge. The Kathmandu time zone is nine hours and 45 minutes later than Halifax, so day and night are pretty much turned around. During the day (if one were inclined to take a nap), the hammering and drilling of construction in the building next door makes sleep an intermittent affair. The honking of horns, as cars warn pedestrians of their presence, and the roars of motorcycles revving up are constant, but farther away.

After dark, beginning at about 7:00 pm, hundreds of dogs, apparently awakening from their daytime naps or released by their owners for security reasons, begin to bark and howl, in a cacophony that flows in waves, beginning with a solitary voice and spreading and rising in intensity to a screaming pitch, then sinking back to a few lone calls and responses.

Throughout the day and into the night, jets from Indigo Air, Air India, and other airlines fly above Tekchokling on their way to and from the airport, but these subside as the night progresses, about the time the dogs begin raising their voices. But the dog chorus also subsides in the early hours of the morning, about 4:00 am, the time that the gong begins to sound for the Tekchokling’s nuns morning pujas. As the practice begins, the nuns beat their drums in time with their morning chants and blow Tibetan horns as offerings to the three jewels.

Breakfast is included with the cost of the rooms and begins at 7:00 am. The first morning, after our monastic breakfast of a fried egg white and corn flakes with warm milk, we went back to our rooms and awaited our audience with Khenpo Rinpoche. Ani Khenrab Palmo said she would call us in an hour or so, if we could see him. And she did.

Jim Lowrey offers a khata; Photo by Trudy Sable

Khenpo Rinpoche sat on a low throne-like chair, on brocades and bed pillows, in the front room of his suite at the nunnery. He looked older and thinner than I remembered, and quiet—somewhat distant and perhaps slightly bemused. Trudy went first, doing a half-prostration and presenting him a scarf. After he blessed her, I approached him and presented my scarf. Khenpo placed a protection cord on my bowed neck and returned the scarf I offered by twisting it lightly around my neck and pulling on it. Then he whacked me on the side of my head with his open right hand—forcefully, but gently, playfully, and affectionately at the same time.

Khenpo Rinpoche assistanted by two nuns; Photo by Trudy Sable

When I said “I love you” and “Eh-ma-ho,” he said, “Eh-ma-ho,” and we were dismissed. With tears in my eyes, I realized that now my pilgrimage was complete and I could go home. But I had two more weeks before my flight back to Halifax.

I hadn’t seen Khenpo Rinpoche for several years, since a trip to Seattle for that purpose in early 2008. He had cancelled his teaching schedule three years before that for health reasons, and his chief translator, Ari Goldfield, had substituted for him at the Dorje Denma Ling program in September 2005. During that time, Khenpo was taken care of by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, one of his most well-known students, whose Nalandabodhi sangha is headquartered in Seattle.

David Sable receives a blessing from Khenpo Rinpoche Photo by Trudy Sable

David Sable, one of Khenpo’s earliest Shambhala students and one of my traveling companions on this trip, told me that in the mid-1980s the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche told the Nalanda Translation Committee that they needed to find a Khenpo to teach the details of the Vajrayana teachings for his students. The Vidyadhara said he had pointed out the essence and taught the meaning, but a scholar was needed to fill in the details and complete the instructions. Eventually, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso became that teacher.

Khenpo Rinpoche first began teaching in Shambhala Centers after the Vidyadhara’s death at the request of the Sawang Osel Mukpo (Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche) to help Trungpa Rinpoche’s Vajrayana students progress in their studies, especially the Mahamudra, Dzogchen, and Madhyamaka teachings. His first program was at RMDC in 1991, I believe, and after that he taught annually at Karme Choling until 2005. He also began teaching annually at Dorje Denma Ling in 2001, where I received teachings from him for a few years.

I had scheduled three days in Seattle, staying with a friend, so I would be able to have an audience with Khenpo. He was available the first morning I was there and he was energetic and cheerful in the fifteen minutes or so that we were together. He answered my question about how a yogi should live in the conventional world and we connected for several timeless seconds of mind-to-mind transmission of nature of mind. He explained the relative and absolute views of yogic activity and told me that the most profound conduct was to recognize that relative and genuine conduct are both the nature of equality, luminous clarity.

But Khenpo Rinpoche was only in Seattle for a few months, I believe, before traveling to Boudha in Kathmandu, Nepal to take permanence residence in the Tekchokling Nunnery where he is today. His health had gotten worse and his energy had seriously weakened for a while, but he kept giving audiences for his students almost daily, if they were able to get to him in this remote retreat.

Ari Goldfield and his wife Rose had stayed in Nepal for a while with Khenpo, but eventually left him in the care of the nuns and moved to California. Ari edited and published a book, Stars of Wisdom, a collection of Ari’s translations of Khenpo Rinpoche’s talks on Mahamudra. They also began teaching and started a new sangha, Wisdom Sun, in California.

After the audience and a bit of practice, Trudy, David, and I walked downtown for lunch. That morning, my experience of the neighborhood was completely different than the day before on the same streets. There was still a lot of chaos—young boys dragging plastic bags bigger than themselves through the streets, stopping to pick through piles of garbage along the road, looking for bottles or other treasures; small noisy tractors pulling a trailer of pipe or rebar or other construction materials; and a new Toyota Land Cruiser that barely fit in the narrow street honking insistently at a cow in front of it that was moving with a slow lack of concern for human schedules.

Visible wealth and poverty were juxtaposed along the dusty streets, with ornate gold-coated carvings of buddhas and dragons and snow lions shimmering in the sunshine on rooftops above beggars with swollen faces and missing limbs sprawled on dirty blankets next to a Coca-Cola sign being used as a table by a street vendor selling garlic, potatoes, and local greens. Dogs lay curled up, sleeping by the side of the road and sometimes on the edge of the narrow road itself, adding another obstacle — along with potholes, raised manhole covers, cows, pedestrians, and motorcycles — for the brave and precise drivers to honk at along the busy streets.

But there was also a kind of harmony—people stopping to chat with shop owners; motorcycles honking and whizzing by within inches of the pedestrians, but always swerving just enough to avoid contact; women carrying babies with a calm lack of concern as cars honked and passed by—as if there were a shared mind with shared awareness and benevolence. The tiny shops the size of a one-car garage (with steel roll-down doors that were closed and padlocked at night) seemed orderly and rather clean, despite the dusty streets and the paint peeling from concrete walls. Their shelves were lined with Turborg beer, bottles of whiskey, or cookies and crackers or fresh vegetables and eggs or rolled brocade, all presented in artistic and appealing arrangements.

After an intermittent night’s sleep, our audience with Khenpo Rinpoche on the second morning of our visit was longer and the group had grown to five or six people. After the scarves, protection cords, and blessings, we sat in front of him and Khenpo gestured for questions.

Trudy asked Khenpo for instructions regarding her Six Yogas retreat, particularly stabilizing the prana, and his reply, as translated by his personal attendant and secretary Tsepak Dorje, a young Tibetan lama, was:

“You should benefit sentient beings through practice of loving kindness and compassion to all sentient beings, and you should see that self and other are equality.”

Then David told him they were going to Karme Chöling and was there a message? And he gave the exact same reply. “You should benefit sentient beings through practice of loving kindness and compassion to all sentient beings, and you should see that self and other are equality. That’s the message.”

Next, Jeremy, a student from Taiwan, asked Khenpo, “How do we practice the dream yoga while sleeping?”

Khenpo said, through Tsepak Lama: “You should meditate that all is like a dream, like an illusion and equality. You should practice that.”

“Before we sleep?”

“Yes.”

Yvonne asked for further instructions.

Khenpo said, through Tsepak Lama: “May you realize your dream and from realizing that dream, may you realize the true nature of reality.”

Then in English, Khenpo said, “Oh yeah.” He looked around the room, and after a brief pause, gestured with both hands that we were dismissed and said, in Tibetan, “That’s it; you should leave now.”

I believe there was another small group from Europe waiting for an audience. I had met Mary and Christian from France at breakfast, who told me that they had just arrived and were waiting to meet with Khenpo.

At the audience the next day, about ten students received blessings. Khenpo Rinpoche was quite energetic—growling and armed with a Tibetan text—which I found out later was Buddha Nature, with commentary by Jamgön Kongtrül Lodro Thaye and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. After my scarf was returned, Khenpo pulled my hair on one side of my head and then the other. Then he whacked me with the text. He blessed others in similar ways, and bopped one of the Taiwanese women with one of the apples she offered. The students were woken up and very cheerful afterwards. It was energizing and wonderful.

Outside, one of the new arrivals said that Khenpo must have seen that she was sleepy and not connected, so he woke her up with several energetic bops to her head. She asked me what I thought was the meaning of the way Khenpo blessed me—placing the khata around my bowed neck, then twisting it and pulling on it like he was choking me. I said that I had only thought that he was being playful, but if I wanted to find more meaning, I could understand that I needed to be more conscious of my speech. She seemed satisfied with that.

Another day, a dozen or more Shambhala students, who were staying and practicing at Shechen monastery came for blessings, along with the Taiwan group and us three. The Shambhala group was part of a one-month practice and pilgrimage tour of holy places of India and Nepal that was being led by Yeshe Fuchs.

After the blessings, Lama Tsepak indicated that Trudy, David, and I could stay behind. David asked Khenpo to say something more about co-emergence, because we had been experiencing a lot of conflicting emotions since we had been here, especially since we had heard about Zoe Nudell’s tragedy.

Khenpo Rinpoche answered something like, “Samsara and nirvana are equality; happy and sad are equality … Always practice that way.”

I responded, “Thank you, but it is hard to do that.”

“Yes,” he said. “It is hard.”

One morning after a short practice session, I headed out into the world to look for Yonten, one of the men who had accompanied Trungpa Rinpoche in his escape from Tibet in 1959. Walter Fordham had asked me to find him, if possible, and give him $100 in U.S. cash, which is a large amount of money in Nepal. I had a Google Earth map print out and directions from Grant MacLean with the unnamed Monastery marked on it (along with a few other landmarks) and a note from Walter’s contact in Boudha that said, “Please tell your friend to call Dabzang Rinpoche’s secretary Tsultrim who lives next door to Yonten. He speaks fluent English and is very nice; he can guide your friend to Yonten’s room.”

Walter’s note included Tsultrim’s phone number, but I did not have a phone, nor had any inclination to try to figure out how to make a phone call in Boudha, so I set out with the map to try to find Yonten and deliver the money. Following the map and Grant’s instructions as best I could through the maze of Boudha, I soon found myself on a dead-end street that should have continued, in front of a small residence that should have been a large monastery.

I walked back and forth on that street for a few minutes, baffled, until a woman carrying a baby walked up to me and said, “Hello, may I help you?” She said her name was Deera and introduced me to her friendly six-month old son and said she spoke good English because she was from India. When I told her that I was looking for Dabzang Rinpoche’s monastery (and showed her the name in writing), she said, “Come with me” and began walking back the way I had come. When we got to a zigzag in the street, she walked over and talked to a group of men, repeating Dabzang Rinpoche’s name and “gompa.” One of the men pointed down a fork in the road that I had missed on my first pass and spoke to her in Nepali or Tibetan. The woman turned to me and said, “Follow me.”

She led me a few hundred meters down that road and up to the gate of a monastery. “This is it.”

“Thank you,” I said, realizing that I had erroneously zagged instead of zigged at the zigzag in the street. I offered her some money for her help, and she said, “No money; I will get robbed. But you could buy some milk for my baby.”

I tried to argue, saying that she could buy milk with the money, but she said that men drink and take her money. She just wanted some milk, she said. I agreed, so she led me to a nearby shop and she spoke in Nepali to the shopkeeper. He produced a large sealed box of milk and set it on the counter. Deera asked, “Can I get two?”

“Okay,” I said.

“And some sugar?”

“Okay.”

“Can I get two?”

“No, no, that’s enough; no more.”

“Please? My baby needs.”

“No more,” I said. “How much do I owe?” I asked the shopkeeper.

“Two thousand six hundred,” he said. The amount seemed excessive, but I was a bit confused and unfamiliar with the currency and prices and wanted to get on with my mission to find Yonten. So I handed the man three 1,000 rupee bills and took the change. Deera said that she would come back for the food after I got to the monastery, and we walked back to Dabzang Rinpoche’s gompa.

On the way, she invited me to her home for tea. I refused. She insisted, and I refused again, and began to wonder if she were offering sex or planning a robbery or something else. “How about tomorrow?” she asked.

“No, I can’t; I’m with a group,” I said and entered the monastery gate.

A group of boys in maroon robes were playing in a large courtyard in front of a beautiful Tibetan-style building, obviously a shrine hall. I asked where I could find Tsultrim, and one ran off and brought back an older boy, who understood me when I repeated the question. He led me across the courtyard, up a flight of stairs, down an outdoor hallway, and turned me over to a man who greeted me in English. It was Tsultrim. I explained my mission, and showed him the envelope that I had prepared with the money in it. I had written, at Walter’s instruction, “To Yonten, from Gesar Mukpo and friends.” Tsultrim read the words on the envelope and asked, “Trungpa’s son?”

“Yes. I am here from Canada and brought a gift for Yonten from Gesar and some students of Trungpa Rinpoche.”

“Come,” he said, and led me to one of the doors that lined the courtyard. He knocked and Yonten came out. Tsultrim spoke to him in Tibetan, introducing us, and explaining what was happening as I handed Yonten the envelope of money. Yonten seemed to be hard of hearing, but gradually understood. He said something to me in Tibetan, and Tsultrim asked if I would like to join Yonten for tea. I felt overwhelmed by my day so far and declined the invitation, but thanked him for helping my Guru escape from Tibet. Tsultrim translated this and Yonten smiled.

After a pause, I said to Tsultrim, “I have to run,” which he translated for Yonten, as I stood embarrassed at my Americanism. Then I bowed to Yonten and Tsultrim and walked back across the courtyard, out through the gate, and onto the street.

Walking back to Tekchokling on the main street, labeled Phulbari on my map (although there were no obvious street signs), a woman carrying a baby walked up to me and said, “Please, milk for my baby.

Khenpo Rinpoche teaching in the West some years earlier

No money, just milk.” At that moment, I realized, if I had not known already, that Deera and the shopkeeper had tricked me. I realized that 2,600 rupees is worth about $26 U.S. dollars, and the groceries were probably worth about $5.00. I had been scammed — an American sucker in a foreign country.

Later, I remembered what the shuttle driver from the airport to our hotel in New Delhi had said, when Trudy had asked about the beggars we saw on the streets there. “Most of the begging is commercial.”

I also remembered Khenpo Rinpoche’s teaching about the equality of happy and sad. In 2010, at Tekchokling, as translated by Jim Scott, Khenpo said it like this:

All appearances are an equality of appearance emptiness
Each and every sound is an equality of sound and emptiness
Feelings, all of these, are an equality of bliss and emptiness
So, rest then evenly in the equality, free of thoughts complexity
Go about the city, and do it like this, be open, spacious and relaxed
Resting evenly in the equality free of all complexity

So all my emotions, whether happy at helping Yonten or unhappy about being scammed, are equal in the essential nature of mind. Like a dream, like an illusion. . . .

© 2013 James Lowrey
Jim Lowrey
Jim Lowrey became a student of the Vidyadhara in late 1970, along with the other members of a hippie commune in Boulder, Colorado, which was called Pygmy Farm. He attended the first Vajrayana Seminary in Snow Mass, Wyoming in 1973, and joined the Dorje Kasung when it was formalized in 1976. With Will Ryken, he was co-founder of Shambhala Sun Summer Camp in 1983. He currently lives in Halifax and edits the Kasung journal, The Iron Wheel. Jim is the author of Taming Untameable Beings: Early Stories of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche with the Pygmies and Other Hippies.