The Cremation of Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche Notes from Nepal, November, 2023

First whiff off the plane was the damp, earthy blend of post-monsoon air, somewhat moldy still, and jet-fuel pollution.

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Photo of Thrangu Rinpoche, 1980 - by Blair Hansen
Many years back, at the time of the first visit of Thrangu Rinpoche to Boulder, Colorado at the invitation of Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Trungpa Rinpoche was asked what code word we could use for Thrangu Rinpoche when communicating the logistics of his transportation, arrival at events, etc.  Trungpa Rinpoche replied with “Khedrup”.  “Khe” refers to a person of immense learning and knowledge, a pandit. “Drup” refers to someone who is accomplished, who has gained direct awakening. So it was with Thrangu Rinpoche, a person who combined immense learning with direct realization in every aspect of his being and his teaching.

Photo by Clarke Warren

Arriving four days before the cremation of the remains of Thrangu Rinpoche, the smells and sights of Kathmandu revived my spirit after thirty hours cramped into the metal tube of jet airplanes.  First whiff off the plane was the damp, earthy blend of post-monsoon air, somewhat moldy still, and jet-fuel pollution. Then, after arriving in Boudha and taking our first walk, the odors deepened, the indelible blend of excrement, sewers, night-blooming jasmine, and juniper smoke. After having lost my sense of smell for a couple of months following a bout with COVID in the spring, all these smells were delectable sensory awakenings for me!  I can smell again!  Then also, having lived in Nepal for nine years, the collage of odors was a wonderful welcome home. I am home again! Distinctions of good or bad smells are irrelevant here, it is the co-emergent blend of human life at its most raw level, the dance of the elements, ancient life continuing, and the precarious presence of “progress”. Except for the pollution, Tilopa, Naropa, and Marpa took into their Mahamudra nostrils these same smells!

Then, a few days later, it was the smell of the funeral pyre smoke, the thick columns billowing from the cremation stupa of Thrangu Rinpoche. This smell was shocking and deeply saddening, the last tangible traces of a great teacher known to so many from so many cultures and walks of life. The final glints of a smile that warmed the hearts and minds of countless beings, a cosmic yet utterly human smile as wide as the Ganges! And this was his final smile and teaching, dispersing into a bright, sunny, cloud -adorned Himalayan sky, helped along by bursts of wind and gliding birds above. And also, amazingly, a squadron of three camera-bearing drones surveying the ceremony from above!

Photo by Clarke Warren

On the day of the cremation, Nov. 4, 2023, hundreds of vehicles converged on the narrow roads winding up toward the magnificent hilltop monastery of Thrangu Tashi Yangtse at Namo Buddha, Nepal.  Cars and trucks were perched along the edge of the roads for long distances, and masses of people made their way by foot down a steep incline to the cremation area, a good ways down the hill from the monastery buildings. The monastery stands on the hill where the Buddha, in a previous life as a prince, felt great compassion for the starving cubs of a starving tigress, and offered his body so the tigress and the cubs could live on. This was one of the great acts of merit that propelled the previous lives of the Buddha toward his birth, spiritual quest and awakening as Shakyamuni. I could not help but think that in like manner, Thrangu Rinpoche had offered his body and mind totally for the benefit of beings, and their spiritual sustenance.

Over 5,000 people attended the cremation that day. The cultural spectrum included lamas, nuns and monks from multitudes of nunneries and monasteries, lay practitioners, yogis, sadhus, Sikhs, Nepali peoples from all over the mountains, hills, and valleys, each ethnicity in distinct tribal dress, westerners of all flavors, Africans, Tibetans, Indians, Chinese, and probably people from all other south and east asian countries.  Much of the world was present. It was a great quilt of peoples all of whom had some or a great deal of connection to Thrangu Rinpoche. This was his extended family, come to say farewell. Despite the vast diversity of peoples, everyone felt familiar. Everyone felt like sangha.

Photo by Clarke Warren

One of the most poignant presences of people was a large group of pilgrims straight out from Shigatse, Tibet.  Looking rugged, weathered, travel-weary and yet immeasurably happy to be on pilgrimage in the sacred land of Nepal, their appearance struck one to the heart.  It was like a miracle that such a large group had been permitted to travel out of Tibet!  And for spiritual purposes!  At the end of the day, as they were leaving in a long single-file strand along the road toward their bus, my wife Pemba, amazed and delighted to see these people straight out of the place from where she and her family were exiled long ago, called out from our moving car as it passed them, “Tashi Delek! Welcome here from Tibet!”…again and again as we made our way past the line. Their smiles lit up like strands of holiday lights.

We arrived along the route of the procession to the cremation ground at a perfect time.  The road was lined from the monastery above all the way down with people holding white scarves.  Across from us was an assembly of nuns singing an exquisitely sweet and longing prayer, for the rebirth of Thrangu Rinpoche.  A short while later, the procession approached, led by a very long line of monks playing various musical instruments or intoning chant. Everyone was dressed in the finest monastic attire. Then the kudung, the body, carried in a palanquin, came up the hill and in front of us.  At that moment, tears welled up among everyone…this was the last meeting, the last interview, the last touch of this precious teacher, passing one final time.  It was incomprehensible that inside this brocaded box was the last of Thrangu Rinpoche for the last time.

Once the procession passed into the cremation ground compound, where representatives of all four principal schools of Tibetan Buddhism had already been preforming rituals in preparation, the long lines of people along the road coalesced into a throng that edged toward the entry gate.  Occasionally, dignitaries were ushered through the crowds into the compound by volunteers wearing special blue shirts and staff lanyards. At some point the grounds inside became saturated with people and further entry was blocked.  People then found whatever vintage point they could clammer up to, finding grassy ledges to sit on and look down into the cremation ground.  We has decided not to hazard the tightly packed, surging mob, so climbed a stone stairway and found some steps to sit on, overlooking the cremation stupa in the near distance. Even then, for the duration of the cremation rites, people were streaming up and down past us.

Photo by Clarke Warren

At 10:35 am, at the conclusion of preparatory rites, the pyre was lit.  Smoke, at first in wisps, then with increasing intensity, started to spew from the stupa openings.  Speakers broadcasted the synchronized chanting of the mantra of Amitabha Buddha and other prayers.  Monks surrounding the stupa fed the flames with wood, butter, tormas and other offerings.  At some point flames shot out the sides of the stupa and the smoke grew darker and thicker. It took around an hour for the flames to start abating and evidence of the consumption of the body by fire to be witnessed. The cremation ceremony went on for another 30 minutes after that.

We were not able to see the main lama officiants on their thrones from our vantage above, as the areas where they sat were covered by flat awnings.  I knew Rabjam Rinpoche was in one direction, representing the Nyingmapa lineage.  From the Kagyu, Gyaltsap Rinpoche, Surmang Garwang Rinpoche, and many others were present.  A member of the royal Sakya family represented the Sakya School, and a representative of the Gelugpa lineage was in the other direction.  It was an experience of stark contrast knowing Rabjam Rinpoche was there in this completely traditional setting after having visited and taught in Boulder, Colorado just several days before. Both of us had beaten a speedy path to Nepal for this occasion.

Although we were not able to be seated in the immediate yard with the cremation stupa and assemblies of chanting monastics, we knew close friends were there, their having arrived a few days earlier.  Chuck and Ellen Knapp, and Julia Sagebien were there, and we will be gathering our different perspectives together to present to this and other online audiences.

As we left the cremation area and climbed back up the steep hill, we then ascended stone stairway after stone stairway leading to the various stations of the Namo Buddha pilgrimage route, including the spot where the prince/prior birth of Shakyamuni offered his body to the starving tigers.

Just when I thought my aching knees could stop and recover, there were more narrow stone stairways!  And these ancient, oddly-tiered stairs were not designed for my size 13 feet!

The throngs had made their way up there and we were awash in a sea of pilgrims.  Finally, an interminably long course of stone stairs and paths led down to the road on which the cars were parked.  It took us another 40 or so minutes, and additional walking, to finally find our driver and collapse into the car for the long ride back to Kathmandu. It felt like sailing away in a great sea from the grand continent of Dharma that was Thrangu Rinpoche, slowly dissolving into time.

Back in Boudha, the brightly lit eyes of the Great Stupa of Boudhanath against a black sky, gazed out with that inscrutable stare that is both timeless, having seen so many generations of practitioners pass by, and immediate, seeming to pierce to the core of one’s being on the spot. On that evening, the Stupa also wore the broad, splendidly toothy smile of Thrangu Rinpoche.

Clarke Warren
November 5, 2023
Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal

 

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Clarke Warren became a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1970. He has taught Buddha Dharma and the Shambhala teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche for many years, and was a core faculty of the Nge-dön School for Higher Learning. Clarke directed the Naropa University Study Abroad Program in Nepal and Sikkim, India, for thirteen years. He is president of Ri- mé Society (www.rimesociety.org), dedicated to the preservation and continuation of the Vajrayana teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche and the non- sectarian Buddhist movement. He is now a student of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. He and his wife Pemba Dolma Warren live in Erie, Colo.