Biographical Sketch of Jhampa
Our life is what we make of it, no matter what the events. I have had an interesting life and some of these events may never be repeated. That does not stop the potential for any of us to strive to find new dimensions to lifeâ€™s expression. I hope by sharing these stories you may feel inspiration to pursue your own spiritual goals. I never saw myself becoming a Buddhist monk, but it happened. Some of you perhaps will spread the wings of your imagination and do something similar. I was born on September 23rd, 1950 at 1:34 PM in Duncan, British Columbia, Canada. I am a baby boomer and the son of a dairy farmer, yet I will end up in India as a Buddhist monk. There were significant changes ahead of me.
My personal image as a youth never included the desire to become a monk. I had no particular spiritual aspirations that I could recognize during those years. I was confirmed an Anglican at my motherâ€™s wish, but found the classes did not speak to me. I enjoyed music, dancing and social activities in the sixties. In my 19th year I started to find things hollow and dissatisfying. I became more and more unhappy and was unconsciously searching for meaning. My family luckily comes from a line of world travelers. When I decided a trip to Europe may help and the family encouraged me to go out and find myself. I started in England with a trip to the Isle of White Rock concert of 1970. That was where Jimi Hendrix performed for the last time. I continued to Europe and partied on the southern coast of Spain. After some time, I was again unhappy and started to look even further abroad.
When I returned to London I purchased two books. One was the I Ching and the second was Introduction to Meditation by Christmas Humphrey. I decided I was going to go to the Middle East to live in the desert and meditate. I did not know quite what that would entail, but I knew I was missing something from my life. Going inside with meditation was going to fix that. Just before my 20th birthday, I found a truck going to Afghanistan and purchased a seat. My departure from London and western civilization was on September 20th 1970.
My Introduction to Buddhism
I arrived from Afghanistan at the Indian border at 6 PM on November 12th, 1970. It was personally a special event. I can distinctly remember powerful feelings as I drew closer and closer to the Pakistan Indian border. It was like returning home to my mother. Possibly this is why people refer to India as Mother India. I felt an even stronger sense of peace and harmony once over the border. India was wonderful. The locals exhibited open warmth and many of them could speak English. There was also a distinct air of spirituality among the people. A Sikh man beside me on the train explained he was on a pilgrimage to Delhi. He planned to attend the Full Moon celebrations and birthday of Guru Nanak the following day. I traveled directly to Delhi and spent two weeks enjoying new sights and sounds.
I had the opportunity during this time to attend a huge spiritual service with Guru Charan Singh, the leader of Sat Mat. This group has a large following in the Sikh tradition. There were over 15,000 people seated in a large field that was covered with massive canvas pavilions. It was my first experience of a religious event that involved thousands of people, a common occurrence in India. The organizers even served lunch of curried vegetables and chapatti to everyone attending. I was truly uplifted by the whole event and even managed to see Charan Singh for a brief private interview. He was pleasant to me but I felt no special connection with him.
My search for spirituality continued and I left Delhi on December 23rd. Some of my friends were living in Goa and I wanted to celebrate Christmas with them. There I met an American woman who said we should visit a Tibetan refugee camp in Karnataka State. I had no knowledge about the Tibetans, but she said His Holiness, the Dalai Lama was giving the Kalachakra initiation and that sounded interesting. Although we arrived at the correct refugee camp, we missed the initiation by 2 weeks. This trip did set me on the path to Bodha Gaya though, as my friend explained I could meet many Buddhist teachers there.
Bodha Gaya is a very sacred site for Hindus, Moslems and Buddhists. Many of their saints have received realizations in this area. Buddhists revere it as Lord Buddhaâ€™s place of Enlightenment. I arrived shortly after the New Year and was told the Gandhi Ashram was a good place to stay. There were other westerners there and a Zen monk was giving Buddhist teachings. This seemed perfect, so I registered at the ashram and started to learn to meditate.
The main focus of Buddhist teachings is to become self-aware. This entails looking at the world in a more realistic manner. Zen Buddhism expresses this view clearly. The purity and simplicity of their technique is powerful, and so with the guidance and blessings of Zengo, the Japanese monk, I discovered my spirituality. The first few days I stayed continually in this environment and was full of exuberance. I even decided to be a monk like Zengo.
On the third day, a friend said a Tibetan Lama was to give some lectures at the main temple. We were all welcome to attend. We went to the main Enlightenment Stupa to find the meeting place. It was in a small stone temple at north side of the 150â€™ tall main stupa. It was called Nagarjuna’s Cave. I sat down and promptly placed my feet up against the edge of the altar. It was a small uncomfortable space and there were too many of us in the little area.
When Lama Yeshe arrived, he took a seat at the doorway. The room was so full he could not get to the front. He sat there with a lovely smile and blissful presence. Lama quickly informed me it was disrespectful to point feet at an altar and I should sit cross-legged. In the west we often lack awareness that appreciates sacred space.
Lama Yeshe gave the lecture in an unbelievable manner. He spoke very poor English, but communicated something far beyond the words. He was both deep and insightful about what he talked about, but he also laughed uproariously at his own jokes. I was so moved by what he talked about, which was actually very basic ideas, that I quickly decided to change camps and follow him. He was so alive and had a very infectious laughter. I felt that if I were to become a monk, it would have to be a monk like him.
Monks have shaved heads and so I went to the village and had my hair cut off. The barber shaved everything but the tuft of hair on my crown. My hair was quite long, so I had the remaining hair braided into a pigtail and then went searching for Lama Yeshe. He was staying in the upper assembly room of the Tibetan temple. When I found him he was sitting with a young monk at the end of the room. I did a Zen prostration and asked him to be my teacher. As this happened the young monk burst into laughter. I thought he was being rude as I was serious at that moment. Lama smiled and accepted my request. Later I realized the young monk was Lama Zopa Rinpoche and they had been discussing me just prior to my arrival. I left for Nepal and Kopan monastery shortly after that with Lama Yeshe and a small group of western devotees.
A Russian princess named Zena had established Kopan monastery. Kopan was on a small hill on the north side of the valley. It had been the home of the kingâ€™s astrologer in olden times. Zena had purchased it especially for western people to learn Buddhism. It was here I attended the very first meditation course of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe’s star pupil. I formally became a Buddhist after that course.
I discovered Zena had invited the Zengo, the Zen Monk, to teach his style of Buddhist practice immediately after Lama Zopaâ€™s course. This was wonderful as I could compare two varieties of Buddhist practice. The style of Zen tends to be simple and clear compared to the great variety of methods in Tibetan Buddhism. Although I preferred Tibetan practice just for that reason, I actually ended up spending two more months under the daily guidance of Zengo.
Zengo arranged for the use of a small abandoned nunnery on the side of Shivapuri, a mountain overlooking the Kathmandu valley after the course. This was a two hour walk up the mountain above Kopan. The monastery had a small temple for meditation and in front two rows of 2 storied huts on each side of the courtyard. It was picturesque, high up on the mountain and facing south over the valley. It was like Shangri-La.
There was one event at Kopan that was both insightful and yet inappropriate. This happened before the move to the nunnery. Several women from the United States befriended Zengo. These women were staying at Kopan and asked Zengo to go for a morning walk up Shivapuri. Everyone was to have breakfast together and then start the walk. What they didnâ€™t tell Zengo was they were mixing his porridge with peyote buttons. I did not actually accompany them but heard the full story that afternoon.
The group left after breakfast on a small trail that wound up the shoulder of the mountain. They stopped mid morning to rest under some huge round boulders. The weather was hot and they all started to feel the effects of the peyote. Zengo had not been talking and as they sat there, he quietly disappeared. When they realized he was not in sight, they started looking around. Suddenly, above them on top of the huge boulder, they saw Zengo, his two arms stretched above his head, shouting, â€œI have the power!â€
The poor fellow thought it was a satori experience of phenomenal proportion. They had to help him climb off the boulder and explain it was the effect of a drug. Later that evening, when we had our regular sit with Zengo, he was composed and quiet. The next day he confessed it was a powerful experience but did not last. He preferred meditation as there was more control and he had no interest to take drugs again. Shortly after, we made the move up to the abandoned nunnery.
I continued to receive weekly instruction from Lama Yeshe during this time. Lama lived a very humble life at Kopan. He had a small room in the old building and that particular room had a leaky roof. His prayers and Buddhist texts were all stacked neatly into the fireplace of the room. It was the only dry area during the monsoon season. Lama gave me a couple of hours instruction once a week. Lama also made arrangements for me to meet his teacher in India that summer. I had asked him repeatedly for ordination and he said I would take a novice ordination from his spiritual senior, Geshe Rabten. The ordination date of July 4th, 1971 was set.
June arrived and I had to leave Nepal. My visa had expired. The easiest direction to go was directly South and into Bihar State. Accompanying an American(,) I went to the yoga ashram of Swami Satyananda. The swami was busy establishing an international organization, the World Yoga Fellowship, and so I was taught yoga by several of his students. I spent three weeks in the ashram. As monsoon rains started I left the plains of India and traveled to Dharmsala in the Northwestern province of Himachel Pradesh. There I reunited with Lama Yeshe and took novice vows as a Buddhist monk from Geshe Rabten.
The ordination inadvertently became a humorous event. Geshe Rabten was a meditating monk and lived outside the monastery on the side of the mountain. He was the main teacher for several monks who were also in retreat. A total of 5 monks are required to perform an ordination. Three meditators came and met Lama Yeshe at Geshe Rabtenâ€™s hut on the morning of July 4th. Lama was the translator as no one else spoke English. I was dressed in maroon robes with a shaved head. The room was incredibly small, dark and with a dirt floor. I entered, made three prostrations and knelt before Geshe Rabten. Geshe Rabten looked serious and the four monks along the wall to my right were all somber and quiet. It was a meaningful moment.
Lama Yeshe sat close to me and guided the ceremony. I had to repeat a multiple lined prayer three times after Geshe Rabten to receive this ordination. Lama explained all this to me and then I started to repeat whatever Geshe Rabten said. On the first repetition, Lama interrupted me to correct my pronunciation. I was trying my best, but Tibetan is a tonal language and difficult to distinguish at the best of times. When the second repetition was completed, Lama started to grin, but did not interrupt me. As we moved to the third repetition, Lama could not control himself and started to laugh. Geshe Rabten carried on as if nothing was wrong, but by the time I finished the last line of the ritual, all four monks were almost rolling on the ground with laughter. Lama was crying tears as he tried to control himself. Finally even Geshe Rabten lost it and started to laugh.
I had no idea what the monks were all laughing about. I just knelt there looking at Geshe Rabten, thinking this must be a secret part of the ceremony. Maybe I was getting a profound initiation from them? When Lama Yeshe calmed down he explained to me what had happened. My pronunciation was so poor that I was saying, â€œI go for Refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to yogurt, I go for refuge to the spiritual community.â€ The refuge in yogurt was too funny for Lama, who had a good sense of humor anyway. What made it worse was that he had to laugh discreetly, as Geshe Rabten, his own teacher, was right in front of him. The monks were nice to me after that and said I had made a big impact of Geshe Rabten.
At this point, I was totally broke and so a western student of Lama Yeshe, Sister Max, gave me the funds to purchase my first robes. She also paid for my accommodation in Dharmsala for four months. Sister Maxâ€™s kindness helped keep me in India and continue to study with the Lamas.
I was Lama Yesheâ€™s first male westerner to receive ordination and one of the very few at that time to be in the Tibetan order of Buddhism. Lama Yeshe had also arranged an audience with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Originally, Lama Yeshe was to accompany me but at the last moment he had to leave for Nepal on unexpected business. I had to meet His Holiness on my own. I was only 20 years old then and rather naÃ¯ve. There were so few westerners in India at that time studying Buddhism. I decided to pick a line from an English translation of the Lankavatara Sutra and ask for His Holinessâ€™s commentary.
The line read, â€œEverything is a reflection of the mind.â€ The subject material was on the ultimate nature of reality. I was ushered into the audience chamber, made 3 prostrations and sat down with His Holiness and Tenzin Geyche, the translator. I politely asked what the sentence meant. His Holiness paused for a long time and then asked me, â€œDo you know when you are going to die?â€ I went into shock. Did His Holiness know I was going to die soon? It was a very uncomfortable moment for me. His Holiness then smiled and said I would have to study for a few more years before I could understand that sentence. He then asked me several pleasant questions and the interview was over.
I was fortunate that my arrival in Dharmsala coincided with His Holiness opening the Tibetan Library. This was to facilitate teachings for western students of Buddhism. The instruction was to be given by a qualified Geshe, a title given to someone who had mastered the full extent of the Mahayana Buddha Dharma. Geshe Ngawang Dhargaye was the teacher. The classes were six days a week, five days teachings and one day of prayer and meditation. Each day had two hours of lecture and the rest of the time for study and meditation. I moved close to the library to attend these classes. I was an oddity within the Tibetan monastic community. There were only three western monks in Dharmsala at the time and two of them were in His Holinessâ€™s monastery. Lama Yeshe wanted me to be independent, so I was allowed to live on my own and study as best as I could.
The fall is a pleasant time in Dharmsala. The weather becomes dry and clear. I had just turned 21 and life was interesting. I managed to stay under the guidance of Geshe Dhargay four months and then decided to return to Nepal to be with Lama Yeshe. I missed his love and laughter. This was an error. I was informed upon my arrival in Nepal that Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe were going to Dharmsala to attend special teachings from His Holiness. I missed receiving teachings from all of my teachers.
In February 1972 both Lamas returned from India and we made plans to travel to Mt. Everest. Lama Zopa had a small monastery there. This was exciting, as I strongly desired to practice meditation. My teachers had stressed that one needed to study prior to meditating, but I wanted to gain greater depth in what I had already received as teachings. Lama Yeshe was always telling me to meditate. He would say, â€œThe words of a scholar are like sawdust, they have no flavor. The words of a yogi are like chocolate, even the smallest piece tastes wonderful.â€
Lama Zopa’s small monastery was called Lauduo Gompa and was situated at an attitude of 14,000 feet. It was beautifully placed with a southern side of a valley that ran east-west. It was three days walk from Mt Everest base camp or one day from Namche Bazaar. When we all arrived there, Lama Zopa arranged for me to stay in a small hut that his uncle had used for retreat. It was placed in a gorge that ran south into the larger valley and was one mile west and 1000 feet higher than the monastery.
The peaks of the mountains that created the Thame valley were 20,000 feet high. There were glaciers and snow peaked mountains all around. My hut was placed at the base of a 100-foot cliff that was one side of the gorge. No rain or wind could reach the hut because of this. The room was about 8 feet by 6 feet and only had a mud fireplace and a sleeping box in it. Tibetan practitioners both meditate and sleep seated in one of these boxes. They are made of wood planks about 3 feet square, with a low front and sides and a tall back to lean against. I attempted to sleep and meditate in this box, but soon found it impossible. At the monastery I found an unused door and moved it up to the hut. By placing it flat up against a wall over the fire pit I had use of the limited space during the daytime and at night I could fold it down to sleep on. I think westerners will always have trouble trying to duplicate the seated style of sleeping that is particular to Buddhist asceticism.
The back wall of the hut was the vertical wall of the cliff. My meditation box was placed against that wall facing west and if I leaned forward I could look out a tiny 18-inch window to a 20,000 foot peak across the valley. It was gloriously white with a huge glacier. This sight was especially inspiring early in the morning as the first sunlight reached it from the east. Pigeons would sometimes fly into the gorge in the morning, their flapping wings making great echoing sounds in the narrow area of the gorge. The wedge shaped gorge had cliff sides that rose up about 100 feet above the flat floor. Huge boulders were scattered throughout the area and the gorge seemed to pour them out into the larger valley.
My first serious attempt to retreat was a perfect site. I only had to walk five minutes to get my water from a small creek and wood could be gathered from juniper trees that grew everywhere. I decided, being young and idealistic, I needed to discipline my desirous and wandering mind. This comprised of a 100 day vow not to speak and eat only what I minimally needed. I had the good fortune of several supports for this retreat. One was a Sherpa lady to bring me food. She came once every 2 weeks and gave me bags of real Tibetan stampa (roasted barley flour) and yak butter.
I had no money to repay this kindness and so I rationed myself strictly. I used to take a small mug and fill it full with stampa. I then took the water from my 8 offering bowls and boiled the water in an old pan. I added one tablespoon of yak butter to the boiling water and mixed it together with the stampa. This is all I ate each morning for 100 days. In the afternoon I had one cup of hot milk made from Swiss milk powder. The Swiss milk powder was part of a nutritional health program offered to mountain people of Nepal. I was supplied this by the monastery.
My daylight hours were spent sitting and meditating on the basic teachings of the Buddha. This included exercises to build my visualization power. To accomplish this, I suspended a picture of Buddha from the ceiling on strings about one meter in front of my face. I then closed the small window with wooden shutters and lit a small candle sat below and in front of me. This was screened so I could not see it directly. This made the picture of Buddha Vajradhara appear to float in the space. I spent many hours focusing on this picture and closing my eyes trying to generate the image. After 100 days I had not been overly successful, but I had fun working at it. I then returned to Thame monastery. I can remember an Italian friend visiting at that time expressing her shock at my emaciated state. I was 6 feet tall and weighted about 110 pounds. Although I must have looked skinny, I was happy.
Lama Yeshe was visiting the monastery at this time. He was organizing a trip to India so I requested him to arrange for my full ordination as a monk. He said that I had to return to India and meet a special Lama for the full ordination. We left the mountain monastery and returned to Kathmandu city. I was one of the few people who managed to spend private time with Lama Yeshe in those early years. Later he became very successful and was not easy to visit. It was a great privilege to walk along the mountain trials of Nepal with Lama telling stories.
Walking with Lama was quite special. Here I was following a jovial Tibetan monk in burgundy robes through the high mountain valleys of the Solo Kumbo. The sky was clear and sunny as we wove our way along paths that were thousands of years old. I can still see in my mindâ€™s eye the rich green of spring on the land. Lama had a heart problem and so we had to slowly. He had been diagnosed the year before as only having 6 months to live. That story deserves a few comments.
Just before the trip to Lauduo Gompa, Lama had gone into Kathmandu to see some doctors at the American hospital. He returned with a very subdued look. He was living in the back room of the Kopan building at that point. I brought some tea for him from the kitchen and he said the doctors had looked at his heart and were in shock. They said his heart was twice the size of a normal one and overworked. The damaged heart was due to scarlet fever. The doctors were so concerned for him they treated Lama like an invalid as he got off the table. He was withdrawn for two days thinking about his state of health. He had dreams to fulfill and this was a huge setback. Finally he must have come to a profound resolution because on the third day he dropped all the sadness and started to laugh again. He said, â€œWell if I am to die so soon, I might as well enjoy myself before it happens! Why be sad?â€ He lived for another 12 years a very full and active life establishing the Federation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, a worldwide Buddhist organization.
Back in the Solo Kumbo valley Lama rested every hour as we walked. He would tell me everything was fine and the walk and altitude were not a problem. He never used his illness as an excuse to not be active. When we rested, he would tell me stories of his family in Tibet. He had 7 or 8 siblings, I was never that sure of the number. One funny thing was the way he referred to his brothers and sisters. He would say, â€œThis one is same mother different father, that one is same father different mother.â€ It was very confusing. The story goes like this. The original mother and father had 3 children. That mother died and the father remarried. That woman was Lamaâ€™s mother, and she had several children also. Then the father died and Lamaâ€™s mother remarried and had several more children again. It was a large extended family.
We arrived in Kathmandu on the Full Moon day of September 23rd, which was my 22nd birthday. I still marvel at the beauty of that moment. There I was standing in Buddhist monkâ€™s robes on the crest of Kopan hill as the Full Moon rose in the east. This was a life I could not even have dreamt of in Canada.
A point of interest about Kopan Hill is the Nepalese Kingâ€™s astrologer used it in earlier times for nighttime consultation. He could lie here on his back and watch the movements of the night sky and look for special signs. The last portion of the hill is a perfect cone and the top has been leveled off flat. There seems to be a subtle aspect of interconnectedness to everything, as I am now a Buddhist astrologer.
Lama Yeshe gave me some good advice at this point. I had asked him how could I best preserve my experiences of the last few months in retreat? Lama responded that to remember the experiences was the important thing. By the power of memory they remain fresh and inspiring. This later becomes the wisdom of past experience, a powerful tool to help make decisions. This is part of the wisdom used when dealing with astrological influences. Although I wanted a highly profound answer from him, I can now see there are no easy tricks to gaining realization.
Leaving Kathmandu, Lama Yeshe and I traveled to Delhi and north to Dharmsala. It was fall of 1972 and the weather was beautiful. There was added excitement on this trip as Lama was to purchase property in Dharmsala. Lama wanted to establish a meditation center in Dharmsala. Arriving in Dharmsala, we spent a week living in a hotel as Lama bargained over the price. When the offer was finally accepted, we moved into Naroji Koti. This was a large house built in a similar fashion to houses when the British Raj was in power. Lama renamed it Tushita Retreat Center.
Lama placed me in charge of the retreat center. It had been exciting to buy the house and Lama was scheduled to return to Nepal. Lama told me to prepare to meet the senior tutor for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I was unfamiliar with who were the important Lamas in our tradition. I had only met His Holiness and the teachers related to Lama Yeshe. Thus on a sunny afternoon in October Lama took me for an audience with Kyabje Ling Rinpoche.
Ling Rinpoche lived in a similar koti to Tushita Retreat Center. It was on the same ridge as Tushita, and overlooked the village of Dharmsala and the palace of His Holiness. This gave both houses a spectacular southern view from 6,000 feet down and southwards to the wide Kangra valley. With a southern exposure, the sunshine was unobstructed all day and flowers grew in abundance all over the mountain. The area is the first range of the Himalayas. The first peaks are 16,000 foot just behind Dharmsala and the mountain range run east and west. This sets the scene for arriving at Chopra House, the residence of Ling Rinpoche.
One feature of Chopra House is the incredible marigolds blossoming all around it. These were the largest golden marigolds I had ever seen and they flank the house on two sides. This gave the house a beautiful sense of being completely in another realm.
Arriving at the house we were greeted by the manager of Ling Rinpoche, Kungo La. He escorted us to a waiting room and then after some other guests left, we were taken into the audience room. Ling Rinpoche was seated upon a seat at one end of the room and Lama and I took lower seats to his left. Lama acted in a very humble manner during this interview and as I understood no Tibetan, I just sat beside him and tried to look comfortable. The interview carried on for about an hour and then Lama informed me that Ling Rinpoche had accepted my request for full ordination. I was also accepted to attend a special set of tantric initiations that winter. All this was to transpire in Bodha Gaya, on the central plains of India.
At that time, I was given permission to visit Ling Rinpoche whenever I wanted. That was a great privilege as Ling Rinpoche, aged 68, was in semi retirement. He was still active teaching periodically at monasteries, but he maintained his seclusion by offering only certain people freedom to visit him regularly. As the years passed, Ling Rinpoche became my chief mentor for tantric instruction.
It was the first week of October so one English disciple of Lama Yeshe and I stayed at Tushita. It was our job to clean the house. I also returned to study at the Tibetan Library with Geshe Dhargaye. When December arrived, I left Dharmsala for Bodha Gaya to receive full ordination and tantric teachings.
These became eventful times for me. I attended the Tantric initiation of Vajra Bhairava and a 10 day commentary on Lama Chopa, Guru Offerings upon arriving in Bodha Gaya. This was more of a blessing than a teaching as the whole event was in Tibetan. I understood only a little Tibetan at that time. The teachings were carried out in the large assembly hall of the Tibetan monastery in Bodha Gaya. There were about 600 monks in attendance and the teachings went from 1 PM till 5:30. This required sitting for two and a half hour stretches without being able to stand up or stretch. At 3:30 Ling Rinpoche would casually mention it was pee pee break and everyone would dash outside to the adjacent field and empty their bladders. We were allowed only 10 minutes for this and then returned to our seats until 6.
At the completion of the teachings the ordination date was set. This took place on January 27th, 1973 at 2 PM. I was a fully ordained Buddhist monk. Having completed all these events I returned to Dharmsala with Peter Kedge, an English engineer. He was to become the new manager of Tushita Retreat Center.
Since Peter Kedge was the new manager of Tushita, I took the opportunity to enter a meditation retreat again. I started the preliminary practices. These involve doing 4 different retreats of 100,000 repetitions of mantra or prayer. They are 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 Vajrasattva mantras, 100,000 mandala offerings and 100,000 Guru mantras. I accomplished three of these practices over the next 9 months. I undertook an ascetic approach to this with a vow of silence. I also locked myself into a small room in one of the outer buildings on the property. The staff would drop off my three meals daily by the door and so I had no interruptions.
The first retreat was the 100,000 prostrations. Full length body prostrations are considered the correct purification for physical negativities committed in the past. When I was young I had killed many fish and birds. At the time I was completely unconscious of what pain I had caused. Fish and animals were merely insentient. They had no feelings and so it was okay to kill them. I now regretted all the pain I had inflicted on these little creatures. I was told that prostrations were a good practice to purify negative physical karma. It took three months to complete the full number of 100,000 prostrations.
When finished I began the recitation of Vajrasattva’s 100 syllable mantra. This practice is done to purify mental defilements and takes approximately three months to complete. The retreat is not as physically demanding as prostrations. One sits for 2 hour sessions and utilizes visualization, concentration and mantras. The practice is effective on a subtle level and uses strong archetypal images. The resultant effect is intended to bring a positive shift of attitude.
The next practice is the guru mantra recitations. The practice works to establish a better bond with one’s spiritual mentors. It is either be a 5 line prayer to the teachers of the lineage or the recitation of one’s personal Guru’s Sanskrit name. It is done in conjunction with a visualization and meditation on lights being absorbed into the body. The resultant effect is a better ability to integrate the teachings. One is more receptive to the inspiration of the teacher and teachings. I finished this in six weeks, bringing to a close my silent period of retreat.
In September of 1973 I started to study with Geshe Ngawang Dhargay at the Library again. I now seriously studied Buddhist philosophy and my Tibetan language began to improve. I carried on with study, teachings and initiations for the next two years. I met many of the western people who had been drawn to Dharmsala and Tibetan Buddhism. This included some of the more famous western teachers and authors such as Glenn Mullin, Alan Wallace and Robert Thurman. I also met my future wife, although at that time I was a monk and we were only friends. I started to become ill in the later part of 1975. I had been too intent on my studies and had not taken care of my body. I weighed about 120 lbs and was physically suffering from malnutrition.
It is not uncommon for people to misunderstand spiritual practice and abuse their bodies. I fell into this category. My body was physical and I was trying to be spiritual. This had actually started in the fall of 1974. I was skinny and easily startled. Geshe Rabten became concerned and told me to live in his house for the winter. He was going to southern India for the winter. His house was just behind Ling Rinpoche’s residence and therefore appealed greatly to me. Geshe Rabten arranged I was to live with his monk attendant Pemba. This was a good opportunity to both improve my language and live with a fine practitioner. Pemba was a well qualified teacher but he was a humble man. He had decided to serve Geshe Rabten instead of teach. Pemba did offer to tutor me during this time though.
Pembaâ€™s tutoring was actually quite forthright. He would help my Tibetan language skills. He spoke no English so it was a perfect opportunity for me to experience Tibetan immersion. Being as solid as the earth itself, Pemba just lived a simple life of the Zen proverb â€œcarry water and chop wood.â€ He put me in the corner of the kitchen on a bench bed and told me to take refuge in Buddha for the rest of the winter. I did well over 100,000 prayers of refuge during this time and in between these meditation sessions Pemba told me stories of his life in Tibet.
I spent many cold snowy nights drinking hot Tibetan butter tea and listening to him. He was a subtle and effective teacher. Pemba was a quiet practitioner, living totally what he felt spiritually. One thing he quietly emanated was the belief that negativity was totally non-productive. He would say, â€œIf a person is negative towards others, why mention it?â€ Being unhappy about the person only creates more negativity. If you can do something about it, then do so. If one cannot do anything to resolve the situation, then accept it quietly. He lived this to the letter and I never knew him to get angry or be pessimistic. He was just a quiet lovable man. That was his offering to the universe.
When the winter finished, I tried again to study intensively, but my body would not take it. I became nervous and unhappy, and finally one of my teachers told me to return to Canada to recover my health. I was suffering from acute malnutrition and was experiencing nervous exhaustion. I took my teacher’s advice and flew back to Vancouver in June of 1975. I stayed there only two months. I disliked the exposure to western values at that point in my life. Luckily I had received an inheritance the year earlier from my grandmother so I was able to return in September to India a bit fatter and happier. I did a month retreat of my Guru’s mantra and relaxed back into the slower Indian way of life upon return.
In December of 1975 I went to Bodha Gaya to visit Ling Rinpoche. He helped me decide to go to Australia for a few years and help a new center of Lama Yeshe. It was called Chenrizig Institute and was situated in Queensland, a pleasant semitropical state of Australia. Initially there was a nun named Yeshe Khadro and myself at the center. Shortly after that Geshe Lodan and his translator Zasep Tulku arrived to start teaching. I attended the teachings and helped manage the center. I spent a total of 18 months in Australia.
It was during this time that I worked on some of old habit patterns. One never escapes from the past and I had to deal with my past at some time. The western environment allowed old feelings to surface, but the dharma center gave focus to help deal with them. The outcome was the realization that spiritual practice was of great importance to me and so in 1977 I returned to India.
Ling Rinpoche was happy to see me again and I was allowed to live with his household as we traveled to several pilgrimage sites. Ling Rinpoche gave many teachings on this trip. He was now 76 years old and I was 27. He always impressed me with his brilliance of mind. Although he was in his 70’s he never showed any forgetfulness or lack of clarity when giving teachings. This included both reading from a text and repeating from memory interesting quotes and stories. His teaching sessions lasted on average for 5 hours, 7 days a week. Sometimes he used to take Sundays off and jokingly say it was in respect for the Christians. He continued this style of teaching till 1983 and only stopped just before his passing on Christmas day of that year. It seems appropriate he died on Christmas day, as he seemed to like marking the Christian holidays.
Preparations for the Great Retreat
I asked Ling Rinpoche for permission to do a great retreat of Vajra Bhairava during my stay in Bodha Gaya. This takes about three years to complete. It requires also doing nine preliminary practices prior to the actual great retreat, and so really involves 5 years in total to complete properly. Rinpoche gave permission to me to start this and we set a schedule for the teachings and practices. I had already done the 100,000 prostrations, but Rinpoche wanted me to be successful so he encouraged me to do them again. Bodha Gaya is considered the holiest Buddhist site in the world and any practices done there are considered to be of the highest merit. I started my prostrations again but only completed 50,000 by the time it came to leave Bodha Gaya in February. That seemed sufficient and I concluded the prostrations with prayers of dedication for the success of my retreat.
In Dharmsala, I took up residence at Tushita and used a small retreat hut they offered me. It was Lama Yesheâ€™s own A frame cabin on the land. I stayed there two years. This time I did not take a vow of silence though. Instead I attended some teachings by Geshe Dhargay at the library and worked at my preliminary practices at other times. Most days I was in seclusion, only 3 days per week did I walk to the library to see Geshe Dhargay. Ling Rinpoche also gave me private initiations and instruction on the Tantric practice I was doing. When 1980 came I had received the full commentaries twice for Vajra Bhairava, once from Ling Rinpoche and once from Geshe Dhargay. I also completed 100,000 mandala offerings, Vajrasattva mantras, Vajra Daka fire ritual mantras, Guru mantras, Samaya Vajra’s mantra, refuge prayers and finally printed 100,000 pictures of Je Tsongkhapa.
This last practice, in case you are curious, required printing with a large hand stamp on paper the image of a Buddha. One prints the image while reciting a prayer to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. A large stack of paper was amassed when the 100,000 images were made. Lama Yeshe placed these in a stupa at a later date. Some people may consider this amount of practice prior to even entering a strict retreat as too much work. My teacher stressed that a good retreat needs much preparation. This includes not only physical preparation but also mental purification. There are many interferences to doing a long retreat and so the purification practices remove them. It also sets the practitioner up for speedier realizations as they are well prepared by the preliminaries.
It was 1979 when I started studying astrology. My astrology instructor lived only a few minutes walk from Tushita and so I went weekly and received a few hours instruction. This lasted for a whole year. At first I thought it might we a waste of time to study astrology, as I was in a semi strict retreat preparing for my great retreat. What motivated me to actually start the study was a dream. While I was debating the pros and cons of studying astrology I dreamt of hearing in the sky a huge clap of thunder in the sky. I took this to mean that my studies would have some profound effect on the future, so I approached Michael, my teacher, for classes.
September of 1980 was the start of the great retreat. A retreat such as this actually involves a series of retreats. The initial retreat is focused on one tantric deity and includes not only detailed visualization and prayer but also the recitation of over 10 million mantras. It takes about two years to complete and should be done in a strictly secluded place.
I decided to leave Tushita and arrange for a meditation hut higher on the side of the mountain. The hut I wanted was about 7,000 feet up and well away from everyone but local shepherds. There were a few other Tibetan meditators in the area, all involved in retreats similar to my own. All the huts on the mountain were spread out over a small area.
I started with a vow of silence. I was not sure how I would fair so I made it a period of only six months silence. The only contact I would have was with a young Tibetan monk who would come up every two weeks to deliver my food. I was lucky to have that service offered to me. The boy’s father was in retreat on the mountain also and so the son accepted to carry my food when he visited his father. The walk up from the town was just under two hours.
I managed fairly well for the first few months of retreat, being deeply involved in doing my meditations and mantras. The first session would start about 2:30 or 3:00 am and continue until dawn. I normally dozed off briefly at 5:30 and then at 6:00 got up and cooked breakfast. To make the cooking time shorter during retreat I organized a system. I cut the vegetables as the porridge cooked. When the porridge was done I placed a big piece of wood in the fire and put the vegetables on to cook. Beside the pot of vegetables I set a pressure cooker with soybeans. I ate my breakfast and then started my meditations by 7:30. As the morning session progressed the vegetables and soybeans cooked until the wood was gone. I would go for a stretch mid morning, check the vegetables and then do another session before lunch. Each session was two hours.
Lunch involved making a few pan breads as the vegetables reheated. I put the soybeans together with the vegetables, added a spoonful of miso to flavor it and ate this with two breads. A little extra food was put aside for an evening snack and that was all the cooking I had to do for the day. This was the routine for the next 3 years. Although some people may find my diet unbearable, I loved it and found the simplicity enjoyable. I did on occasion have a piece of bread with lots of peanut butter and a sweet tea in the afternoon, but outside of that I had few luxuries.
The first four months established this routine. When the 5th month arrived, shortly after the snow melted, I had my first visitor. It was Michael, my astrology teacher. He dropped in unexpectedly to see how I was doing. It was nice to see someone and I decided to talk to him. A vow of silence seemed ridiculous when one was isolated to start with. It was during this conversation that I realized I was uptight and not communicating well. All the isolation was taking its toll on me and I was nervous. I wanted to come out of this retreat as a relaxed and comfortable individual, not nervous and over sensitive. I had to maintain some form of regular communication to accomplish that. I dropped the vow of silence and every six weeks went for an afternoon walk and visited someone.
These periodic walks were not easy, as the retreat had some restrictions. The retreat required a distinct boundary and going outside that area voided the retreat. This area went from just below Tushita and Ling Rinpoche’s residence to anywhere up the mountain. I could only visit people within these perimeters. I did not want to be too lax and so I decided to choose one friend within the boundary and have tea every 6th week. My astrology teacher, Michael was now living about one mile west of my retreat hut in a place called Dharmkot Hill. I decided he would be a good person to visit. Six weeks later I casually walked over after lunch and dropped in on Michael and his wife Anne. They were delighted to see me and so it was set. Every six weeks I took a holiday for three hours to have a tea party. I knew this is not strictly within the retreat guidelines, but I felt that it was an investment in my sanity. The retreat continued like this for the next 2 years.
Aside from the social visits, I also saw Ling Rinpoche periodically. This was acceptable to retreat rules and very beneficial for me. Ling Rinpoche normally saw people for a 5 to 10 minute interview. When I came to visit he would allow me to stay for almost two hours. This was very blissful. Ling Rinpoche was considered an enlightened being and his special tutelary deity was Vajra Bhairava. It was like being able to sit and chat with oneâ€™s meditation deity. I soon learned that one does not talk about practice with the teacher. If fact I had to learn to talk about anything but the retreat. Periodically I was allowed to tell him dreams or experiences, but generally we only talked about the weather and simple things. It was a profound teaching, reinforcing the simple proverb “chopping wood and carrying water” as the right way to live oneâ€™s life.
The fall of 1982 arrived as I finished the first section of the retreat. I had completed the proper number of mantras and done my sessions according to the outlines. Four Tantric college monks were invited to the hut and helped me perform a fire ritual to conclude the retreat. They set up a special earth platform for the fire and drew a mandala on it. Firewood was placed on this mandala and special ingredients were collected for feeding into the fire. The ritual took the whole day and upon completion I had finished perfectly the first part of a great retreat.
According to the meditation outline, I could complete the retreat in a six months. I decided to continue to work at my meditation, as even two and a half years did not seem enough to stabilize a deep transformation. Although there was a shift in attitude, it was not a heart felt experience. I chose to move further up the mountain and arranged to switch meditation huts with a monk who lived one hour above my present hut. This monk normally lived in his hut only during the summer because in the winter the mountain became impassible. The monkâ€™s main problem was a lack of money for the food to weather the winter months. This was not a problem for me and we agreed to switch huts. My hut did not become inaccessible because of winter snow.
October of 1982 I moved to his hut and organized myself. It was much smaller than my previous hut. The original hut had been about 8 feet by 10 feet, whereas this was barely 6 feet by 7 feet. It was cozy and the view of the Kangra Valley was breathtaking from 8,000 feet. I was totally cut off from everyone here and no noise came from below. It was like living in another dimension. I stored away my food and started the second phase of retreat.
The winter descended quickly and it was inspiring when the first snows came. The tranquility was magnificent. Only once did I become nervous at being so isolated. It happened when two Himalayan black bears started to fight for a sleeping place. This was just below my hut. It sounded like two 600 pound dogs roaring at each other and I was in close range. After that brief scare, I spent the next five months closed off from the world.
There is one funny story to tell during this time. One day about mid December I was sitting on my favorite rock enjoying the winter sun and looking out over the valley. Suddenly to my right I heard someone calling out. It was a couple of mountain climbers trekking through the snow. This was an unbelievable feat as the snow was waist deep by then. Their story of arriving there was interesting. They had gone for a walk up the mountain paths and as they got higher they could see smoke in the distance. They were intrigued that someone would live so isolated in the mountains. I think they thought it might be a Tibetan monk. To add to the surprise, we were all Canadians. I gave them some tea and cooked them a plate of rice and pumpkin curry. We chatted for about an hour and then they left.
Later when I came back to Canada in 1984 I found out they lived in Toronto. We had the opportunity to get together to chat and laugh about that strange day high in the Himalayans.
March of 1983 finally brought my Tibetan helper to visit and bring me new supplies. It was good to see him again. He had been worried I was safe. Shortly after that the local Indian farmers also started traveling on the path above my rock. Although I cannot say that I had a lot of visitors, I did get one or two brief visits a week. The remaining six months were spent doing the final small retreats that were included within the great retreat. All the requirements except the final fire rituals were done by October.
A great retreat requires doing an elaborate series of fire rituals. I left the small mountain hut and returned to Tushita Retreat Centre. They gave me a small room to live in and I started these last rituals. Just at this time, Ling Rinpoche suffered his first stroke. I was shocked by the news. I managed to visit him once after that and he congratulated my completion of the retreat. That was important for me, as his words of encouragement meant a great deal. He had become like my father.
His health declined over several months with a series of small strokes until he finally passed away on Christmas Day 1983. A few hours before his death, 4 of his closest disciples came to the house. The five of us talked quietly downstairs. At noon, his manager came and told us Ling Rinpoche had died. It was curious that we all came there spontaneously and were able to be close to this man that meant so much to us.
Ling Rinpoche seldom showed his enlightened capacity. At this time though, he did perform one miracle. In Tibet it is common for great masters to show their power of realization at the time of death. One way to show this is to remain in meditation even after they have stopped breathing. This may not seem overly profound, but there are more details to this ability. As the Lama enters into this meditation state, the body maintains its composure and color. There is no breath, the person is dead, but the appearance of quietude remains for several days. There is not even the smell of death. This is called the meditation on the clear light of death. As long as the Lama maintains this meditation, the body will remain pleasant to view and be around.
Swami Yoganada is the only other noted mystic who accomplished this feat in recent times. Swami Yoganada died in California and people commented they could smell roses when in the presence of his corpse. Ling Rinpoche stayed in his meditation of the clear light of death for 13 days. At the end of this time his head turned slightly and His Holiness the Dalai Lama said Rinpocheâ€™s consciousness had departed. In respect for this profound feat and the exemplary life he had lived, His Holiness asked for his body to be preserved. It now resides in His Holinessâ€™s residence in Dharmsala, India.
I only lived a short time in Dharmsala after Ling Rinpocheâ€™s passing. I took a few minor teachings and then received a special audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He had periodically asked after me during the retreat and in our audience he congratulated me strongly for persevering for so long. I moved to Delhi and arranged for my flight home.
Return to Canada
Over the next 2 years after my return in 1984 I went through a long period of cultural readjustment. I returned my ordination shortly after returning to Canada. It is difficult to be an ordained Buddhist monk in western culture. In Asia the culture supports the person, in North America there is very little support. One is more an oddity than a valued member of society. I was married and had adopted 2 stepchildren by the 2nd year. My wife, Maria, was a Buddhist whom had lived in India for seven years. Much of my capacity to readjust successfully was due to her kindness and help through these first difficult years.
In the 3rd year, Maria and I decided to establish a more stable meditation center. We looked for some property that would suit our needs. To qualify for a mortgage I took a regular job in a local hardware store. Prior to that I held the idea that somehow I would find employment suiting my skills. A local college had hired me as a part time instructor for some of their courses. I also received training as a hospital chaplain, but neither of these pursuits really worked out. Although I received good evaluations as a teacher, I had no degree and not really acceptable as a college instructor. I enjoyed the training as a chaplain but again could not find acceptance to work. The hospital saw it as unacceptable to hire a Buddhist chaplain for a mostly Christian society. The local hospital administer gave me an interview but concluded it by not even shaking my hand. He seemed rather uncomfortable with my being a Buddhist.
I finally decided to take a regular job. I was hired by a local lumber and hardware store in 1988. That qualified Maria and I for a mortgage and we purchased one acre of land in Duncan. His Holiness the Dalai Lama named the center Thubten Choling and it has been functioning ever since.
I found my new employment enjoyable meeting the public and became known as the Buddhist staff member. I also managed to incorporate my Buddhist practice into serving customers by saying, â€œMay I help you?â€ Although no one understood what I was really asking, it suited my Bodhisattva vow to be of assistance to others. It does not matter if they only got a screwdriver at this time, maybe later I would help them become enlightened?
After the purchase of the property, His Holiness the Dalai Lama also granted me a spiritual advancement. He gave his full blessing for me to bestow both initiations and teachings on all aspects of tantra. I look at this as particularly a great step forward for all western Buddhists. I am only one of many western practitioners who are qualified to initiate and teach the tantras. His Holinessâ€™s permission opens the door for all westerners of the Tibetan Tradition to transmit both Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings. It is one of the final steps in the arrival of Buddhism to North America.
At the beginning of this brief autobiography my intention was to share some stories with you. I have had an interesting life and by sharing some of these events, maybe some serious practitioners may feel inspired to do similar activities. I spent 7 of the 14 years I was a monk in retreat. That is not a lot of time on the scale of one’s whole life, but it is enough to satisfy me for a little while. Nowadays with so many exciting things to do, few people devote time and energy to inner transformation. Although much can be done with daily practice, periodic sessions in intensive contemplation are unequaled. I personally recommend an individual stay with a practice that develops them gradually each day. That is crucial. If each day is not an enactment of one’s beliefs, then even retreats will do little to help. Regular practice and sincere retreat time together help develop higher conscious awareness. This can translate into an expression of love, compassion and sharing.
In 1994 I had the opportunity to leave the hardware store and start Dakaâ€™s Buddhist Consulting. I had maintained my astrological practice over the years in Canada. It was the fall of 1994 while translating for Geshe Tashi Namgyal, a Tibetan lama from Victoria, that I met a psychic named Kasandra. She was impressed with my ability as a translator and then became aware I could do astrology. She asked why was I not taking astrology to a professional level? I initially felt uncertain this was feasible. After some research, I was confident enough to change my profession. I now work as a professional Buddhist astrologer. I am able to continue with both teaching Buddhism and helping people understand their astrology charts.
In 2003, differences of opinion between my life choices and my wife’s choices become evident and we separated and finally divorced. I finished construction on retreat facilities in Nelson, B.C. the following year and then started to teach in Mexico. I quickly realized that the Mexicans were very hungry for the Buddha Dharma. In Canada there were many Dharma Centers, qualified teachers and even Tibetan translators available. This was not the case in Mexico. Few teachers were there and those who did present the Dharma were uneducated. I accepted an offer to teach with a small Sangha in Torreon, Coah, Mexico. (It is between Monterray and Mazatlan and directly south of El Paso, TX) I now teach at two small centers, one in Torreon and one in Durango. Life continues and I am sure the story will grow again. I normally spend 6 months in Canada and 6 in Mexico.