Wisdom of The Hills

Features Issue 102 Jul, 2010
Text by Justice K. Reeves / Photo: Justice K Reeves

In November 2009, I was offered an incredible opportunity to work as a volunteer at a remote Nyingma monastery in Okhaldhunga District, located a day’s walk from the Solu Khumbu border. My friend Lakpa Sherpa, a mountaineer of great acclaim from the region, had been requested by the Head Lama of Kilkhordingma Monastery to recruit an English teacher to come and tutor him and the other lamas there. Since I had been living in Kathmandu for nearly 19 months with only one short trip outside the valley to India, I couldn’t wait to “hit the hills”.

For 50 days, I adhered to a strict meditation practice, studied the pujas practiced in the Gompa, and conducted English classes for the lamas for three or more hours a day. My special class, tutoring the Head Lama, Duba Lama Rangdul (“Rinpoche”) every morning, soon turned into something quite different from what I had expected. I became the recipient of a vast wealth of knowledge unheard of in my university courses back in America. During my stay at Kilkhordingma, I obtained enough information to fill three notebooks, far more material than necessary for this interview. Lama Rangdul lectured for two to three hours at a time on a variety of topics, including puja commentaries, stories about the life of Guru Padmasambhava, the Pureland of Amitabha Buddha, and the Dembaji divisions of Buddhist practice. Lama Rangdul pitched the notion of using me to further his English skills and, instead, he recognized an opportunity to fill my notebooks with valuable teachings. How could I complain? The arrival of Lama Rangdul’s granddaughter, Lakpa Andi, from Kathmandu, “an excellent translator”, made recording Lama’s teachings quite orderly. Hence the interview was conducted in the aforementioned way.

Duba Lama Tenzin Rangdul, 71, is the son of the late Duba Lama Sonam Chottar and mother Jin Ma Sherpa. Duba Lama is a title given to a lama who has spent his entire life practicing meditation. Last year, Lama Rangdul’s wife, Ung La Mu, passed away. Lama has one daughter, Pherba Kundi, in Kathmandu, and one son, Lama Nawah Kun Ken Rinpoche, who currently lives in the United States. Daughter Pherba has two sons and two daughters. Lama Rangdul is joined at the monastery by his younger brother Paljor and younger sister Jan Mu. He is planning to go to America to visit his son later this summer.

Lama Rangdul has lived in monasteries his entire life; he was born at Narwar Monastery in Solu Khumbu near Peekeye Mountain. Lama’s children were born at Kilkhordingma Monastery in Okhaldhunga.

Lama was married at the age of 21; in his opinion it is easier to be a domestic lama. According to Lama, there are many types of monastic religion. In Maha Yoga religion, Padmasambhava taught that monks could marry if they so wished. In Hinayana/Therevada, Buddhist monks and nuns are not permitted to marry. In Kriya Tantra, the same rule prohibiting marriage applies. In the other Tibetan sects, only the Gelukpas prohibit lamas from marrying. Occasionally, lamas in the Karma Kagyu sect marry while lamas in the Sakya sect are free to choose if they wish to marry or not. Lama does not encourage the lamas at Kilkhordingma to get married. He told them that “after Shakyamuni Buddha left his wife for monastic life, he never returned to married life. However, in the case of Guru Padmasambhava, he had two wives; so I tell them to make up their own minds”.

Lama Tenzin Rangdul is a very busy man indeed; he wakes up at 4:00 am every day to pray for his teacher, Trilshuk Rinpoche.

LR: “I meditate on the form of Guru Padmasambhava, who is manifest in my teacher. I pray for the other lamas of this monastery and my family. It varies; sometimes I do mantras, sometimes other practices or pujas for Tara or Chenrezig. Very heavy people, the Dalai Lama, Karmapa, Trilshuk Rinpoche, Chatral Rinpoche, Tenga Rinpoche…, they are all manifestations of these powers, ‘Bodhisattvas’. So we pray, meditate and remember them. They understand the suffering of sentient beings, which motivates them to be reborn as gods.”

Lama has been practicing this, the same as his father, since he was 15 years old. He started learning Tibetan at the age of four.

Lama Rangdul first met his Guru, Trilshuk Rinpoche, in 1958 at Tameh Monastery; he was 19 years old at the time. Trilshuk was 34 then and had just escaped from Tibet. Trilshuk is 87 now, and has been ill for about a year. He came to Kilkhordingma many years ago.

When Lama Rangdul was young, there was a great demand for knowledge about Buddhism amongst local Sherpas. At that time, in the Everest region, many people went to Narwar Monastery to study Buddhism. Lama Rangdul wanted to go far away to learn, but his father told him, “It will be difficult for you to go far away for this knowledge, and it will bring you sorrow.” So Lama and his father came to Okhaldhunga to build Kilkhordingma Monastery. The monastery was established in the Nepali year 2013 (1956). Eleven local people helped to build Kilkhordingma.

Lama Rangdul’s great grandfather studied Karma Kagyu and Nyingmapa traditions; he passed those teachings on to Lama’s father. According to Lama, Nepali Buddhism is not exactly the same as Tibetan Buddhism. All of the sect delineations are more like a history lesson of Tibet; they are not necessarily applicable to Nepali Buddhism, which was established here many centuries ago. The Big Lamas in Nepal all came from Tibet and, therefore, they hold lineage in Tibetan schools. At Kilkhordingma, there are practices from all four schools, and all four schools have “Luk” in their names. Lama refers to the combined practices at Kilkhordingma as “Thun Mong Tekpi Luk”, or, “Thun Tekpi”. Lama also gave me teachings on the exact origins of each of the Tibetan schools along with textual references. One day, he presented me with two enormous 300-year-old books that were brought many years ago from Tibet. The texts contained historical information about Atisha, the great Buddhist scholar who came from Nalanda University in India (circa 1050 A.C.E.), as well as other great teachers from that period.

I asked Lama why he doesn’t carry the title of Rinpoche—all of his students refer to him as Rinpoche. He told me that he doesn’t carry the title because he is not a reincarnation of a Lama, and he doesn’t have a high education from a big monastery. I personally think that Lama is being far too modest; he must be a reincarnation to have had a Duba Lama as a father.

When I asked Lama how an inexperienced person begins a Vajrayana Buddhist meditation practice, his answer surprised me. He told me, “A person should practice single-pointed concentration on a random arbitrary object for a period of time and then be able to move that focus to another object―for example, a religious icon, statue or painting.”

 I was expecting him to tell me that a person should repeat, “Om Mani Padmé Hum”.

Lama then added, “The constant repetition of mantra can relieve tension and stress and make a person very happy all the time. If a person wants to be happy, he will never be bored of praying.”

Lama has been to the United States before, and he is preparing to go again in a few months. He has spent time in Hawaii, where about half the population is of Asian descent and practices Buddhism. When it comes to American religion, Lama has a very liberal pluralistic attitude and he firmly supports the American theistic point of view.

LR: “Some people would like to pray but don’t have the time, but nobody likes to suffer pain. The people in America have lots of facilities, ‘development’, (universities, hospitals, security, infrastructure, etc.), because of which many people don’t seek a religious practice or religious point of view. The people of Nepal don’t have these things and, therefore, use their religious traditions very intently to fulfill their needs. Religion is necessary when there is a marriage or a death. In America, there are no monasteries to the extent of Buddhist tradition in Nepal or Tibet. So I don’t think that American people in general understand the power of prayer in the context of monastic life. Lord Buddha was born here in Nepal. In Nepal, there are three major religions―Hinduism, Buddhism and Muslim. Within the Buddhist religion, only the Tamang and Sherpa people worship God. Some Nepali people are converting to Christianity. That is not a wrong path that they should worship the Christian God. Many people have their own feelings or reasons to worship God or hold a theistic view. We pay our respects in worship to that idea.”

Lama said he would not consider living permanently in the United States because he would miss Nepal too much; everyone here knows him, and this is the place of his birth. Also, there are so many beautiful places in Nepal. He is going to America to teach his son and other Sherpa people who are staying there.

Without knowing what to expect, I asked Lama Rangdul a typical Japanese Buddhist riddle, or, “Zen Koan”. His response did not leave me disappointed.

JR: Lama, who is the master that makes the grass green?

(Lama flashed a charismatic grin and issued the following answer):

LR: Gye Tso! In Tibetan Buddhism, we have teachings that describe the world existing long ago in balance and harmony between humans and all the animals. There was one mass of earth surrounded by a great ocean. Gye Tso is also one of the Dalai Lama’s names; it means “ocean of wisdom”.

JR: In East Asian Mahayana traditions (Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, etc.), there is the concept of Mofo. Mofo is the period of decline in the teaching of the Dharma when Maitreya Buddha will take a human birth as the next historical Buddha. It is written that during Mofo, there will not be enough qualified teachers of the Dharma. Do you think Buddhism is in a period of decline in the world at present?

LR: I don’t have sufficient information about those countries or traditions; I am only familiar with this tradition. I read terrible things in one Tibetan text about the three divisions of Buddhism―Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. In Hinayana, Siddhartha Gautama ascended to heaven, “para nirvana”. In Mahayana and Vajrayana, he hasn’t gone to heaven yet. He is still available to us here on earth. Many years ago, the Buddha gave knowledge that religion will come to an end one day. Those people say that the Buddha will ascend to heaven at that time. Those who practice Vajrayana say that “if the sky dies, Buddha will no longer be available on earth. For this reason people should concentrate on Dharma practice in the world today”.

JR: Can you tell me about this most recent puja, “the Homa puja”, in which the village people and lamas offered grain and other items to a great bonfire?

LR: Yes. It’s called Jin Sek. There is the Light God, “Sangey Utsen”, and the Fire God, “Me Lha”. It comes from Sanskrit―“Zho La Ram”.

JR: Yes, I know about it from the Vedas. But why do Vajrayana Buddhists practice it?

LR: To make the Fire God happy of course. After a Shetu Puja, “funeral ceremony”, the Homa puja is done one month later on the day of the full moon. This practice has been carried on in Nyingma tradition since the time of Padmasambhava.

JR: I see… there were more than 500 local village people here for the puja. Why did you give away so much money to them?

LR: Giving is one of the six perfections in Buddhist practice. Besides, it’s just money.

JR: If you keep giving your money away, the local people might want you to go into politics. Have you ever thought about it?

LR: Ha, Ha! No. I’m not interested in politics. I just want to make the local people happy.

In closing, I asked Lama if he had any message for the Nepali people.

LR: I think it’s important that the Nepali people maintain some spiritual practice to promote peaceful living, praying to God Ishvara, or practicing Buddhism, either or… Buddha also said like that. If they don’t want to read or study, they can just chant mantras like the Chenrezig mantra, “Om Mani Padmé Hum”, or Amitabha mantra, “Om Ah Ami Dewa Rhi”, or Padmasambhava mantra, “Om Ah Om Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum”, or Tara mantra, “Om Taré Tu Taré Ture So Ha”.

Lama Rangdul is a remarkable person with a heart of gold. Time and again, I witnessed his humbleness, generosity and compassion. Here is a man who is always on the go, constantly teaching, working for and giving to his devoted brethren. Lama Rangdul “Rinpoche” is testimony to the fact that Nepal’s greatest resources are its great spiritual leaders, some of whom live in remote obscurity. Many contemporary global spiritual leaders of late have been spreading a message of interfaith dialogue and religious pluralism. Lama Rangdul’s message is consistent with this trend. Lama has dedicated his entire life to helping the good people of Nepal, and I feel very blessed to have had a role in helping his message reach the public. I am grateful to have met him, and I thank him with all of my heart for giving me a wonderful life-changing experience.