1: Khandro Rinpoche
a needle compassionately sticking out of a cushion
A young Tibetan uses her unique status to empower women in the East and West
To condense more energy in five feet two is impossible. Like a high- powered, nimble, compact car, Khandro Rinpoche glides through the Verizon Center in Washington DC at top speed. With the resolute gestures of a seasoned choirmaster, she directs 175 volunteers, shepherding them into a smiling army of ushers. For almost a week they have been working around the clock to make the Dalai Lama’s ground-breaking visit to the capital a smooth success. Lack of sleep never slows Khandro Rinpoche down. “Being available; helping whenever, wherever, whomever” is how she defines Buddhism in action. Without a sign of hesitation the sturdy nun jumps to relieve a fatigued volunteer by grabbing a cookie box out of his hands, quickly dispensing the blessed wafers herself.“You can do fifteen thousand people in eleven minutes,” she assures her troops, pats a bleary- eyed helper on the back, and comfortingly strokes the cheek of a panicked student.
Why is Khandro Rinpoche then taking her place in the back of the arena, framed by a flock of nuns, and not installing herself on the brightly illuminated stage next to His Holiness and the dozens of other high- ranking Tibetan masters in their best robes? “The stage is where all the well- behaved people sit,” she explains with a twinkle. “I like to observe people and interact. In the back, you hear and learn a lot about what’s really going on.” Besides, she needs to be able to wield her iPhone and dash off to rescue the complex maneuver of distributing fifteen thousand red protection cords. Her alert, dark eyes monitor the scene with a laser- focused yet spacious awareness.
The rearmost benches at the Verizon Center provide a fitting snapshot of what Khandro Rinpoche is all about: making a difference without making a fuss; being of service while escaping the limelight. “Service” might be the word she uses most, and rather than just preaching, she lives it. “She used to be like an AK47, just boom boom boom, getting things done,” her sister Jetsun Dechen Paldron quips. “She thinks she has mellowed out, but while she might have become more focused, she is still just so much energy one person almost cannot contain it.”
Khandro Rinpoche jetsets tirelessly between her late father’s monastery and her own two nunneries in India, her American headquarters in the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia, and an ever- increasing number of Buddhist communities who are keen to benefit from her sharp acumen. As if that weren’t enough, she also spearheads an unusually large count of social projects—from taking care of abandoned lepers, seniors, and stray dogs in India to planting trees in Virginia.“You cannot benefit beings by being an island on your own,” she said in a radio interview. “It is an uphill task getting out of a society so preoccupied with self- cherishing.” Trailblazer under scrutiny
Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche is one of the very few fully trained female rinpoches in the Tibetan tradition. This unique position grants her more freedom and impact than some of the male teachers. Women, especially, are drawn to her strong warrior- like presence. “It is unusual to see a woman who is so at ease with power,” one American nun observes, “and who uses it, but with kindness, never falling into the traps of a power trip.”
Yet Khandro Rinpoche’s unmatched stature comes with a heightened sense of scrutiny. Aware that she was closely watched from a young age onward, she decided early on not to shy away from the role of a trailblazer but to march ahead boldly. “If I mess up, I could mess it up for a lot of women,” she admits frankly, echoing the sentiments of many female CEOs. “As a woman, you can accomplish a hundred things perfectly, and then you make one mistake and everybody goes, ‘See, she can’t do it.’ That would affect not only my path but the confidence in Tibetan women.” There is no need to worry, for the opposite is true. Her undaunted pioneering work has ensured a ripple effect for women, especially nuns, throughout Asia and the West.
Khandro Rinpoche has learned the craft of developing and sharing Buddhist wisdom almost from the crib. She was born in 1968 as Tsering Paldron (The Lamp of Glory and Long Life), the daughter of Sangyum Kusho Sonam Paldron and the Eleventh Kyabjé Mindrolling Trichen, who was the head of the Ancient School of Tibetan Buddhism. At the age of twenty- nine, her father had escaped the Chinese grip in 1959 by fleeing to Kalimpong, a sleepy former British hill station in the Lower Indian Himalayas. By the time his first daughter was born, he was immersed in the immense task of reestablishing the eminent Mind-rolling monastery in exile. Khandro Rinpoche’s upbringing exemplifies the fate of the second generation of Tibetan refugees: she has never been to Tibet, has never seen the elegant brown stone monastery that used to be the ancient home of her lineage. “I have applied many times, been denied many times,” she says matter of factly.
All but eight of the once- flourishing six thousand Tibetan temples and monasteries were reduced to rubble during the so- called Cultural Revolution in the sixties. Though some have been rebuilt since, Communist China tightly restricts the number of monks and nuns who once made up a sixth of the entire population. Even just possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama can provoke imprisonment in one of the forced labor camps. With the massive transportation of millions of Han Chinese into the Tibetan areas, the remaining five to six million Tibetans are now a minority on their own turf. While the traditional practices of circumambulating holy shrines and reciting powerful mantras are largely being suppressed in the land of their origin, these ancient rites are being revived and taught anew to an eager generation of young students in the West. Inadvertently, the Chinese have instigated the worldwide spread of Tibetan Buddhism, ensuring a much more vigorous global revival than the Tibetans ever imagined. Right here, right now
In addition to shouldering responsibilities at the Mindrolling monastery in India, Khandro Rinpoche is also nurturing this shoot of Buddhism in the West. This afternoon, after the Dalai Lama ends his program in Washington, the volunteers grab salads on the run and rush to hear her teach. The conference hall at the Hilton that had originally been booked for her talk quickly turns out to be too small for the two thousand- plus attendees who want to meet her in person, so the organizers relocate her to the back end of the massive Verizon Center. She arrives with an impressive all- female entourage, including her younger sister, several of her nuns, and a cloud of volunteers. Khandro Rinpoche is the shortest, yet she is clearly the driving force, the center of the typhoon.
“Isn’t it wonderful to see a female rinpoche, for a change?” asks one of the organizers, American nun Tenzin Lhamo. In response, the entire audience erupts in cheers and applause. Khandro Rinpoche’s topic is bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is a Sanskrit term that means “awakened heart,” the altruistic wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Khandro Rinpoche immediately pulls the idea from the realm of theory into the heart. “We are not working with a Sanskrit or Tibetan term here, we’re working with ourselves, and not in the future, but right here! Ask yourself,” she demands, “as a human being, am I living a life that is dedicated to increasing happiness for myself and others?”
For an hour and a half, Khandro Rinpoche shines her brilliant knowledge, in eloquent flawless English. She never glances at any notes. What the historical Buddha taught could not have been more straightforward, she says: “If you want something, simply create the causes. If you don’t want something, don’t create the ground for it.” Yet, she jokes, it only took 2,500 years to turn this easy recipe for happiness into “the most complicated philosophy on earth.” Why? Because, for the life of us, we don’t want to give up our self- cherishing. Our constant attempts to exempt ourselves from this simple logic of altruism necessitated the later explosion of practices, mantras, a colorful pantheon of deities, philosophies, and texts. Each was designed to convince us that our particular style of self- cherishing will not lead to happiness for ourselves or others. A “spiritual” flash mob
Khandro Rinpoche distills the rich, intellectual philosophy into a down- to- earth call for action. Starting with loving- kindness for oneself, one expands one’s heart with the very vast vision of fostering ultimate happiness for all sentient beings. She throws in resonating, full belly laughs and jokes to make the phenomenal task of enlightening all sentient beings more appetizing. “You’ll never understand genuine compassion if you’re not joyful,” she admonishes her audience. “Some people mistake loving- kindness for posing as a doormat. Joyfulness is the ability to appreciate something good in the day, in yourself, in others, in your home, in your work. That makes you more open.”
What Khandro Rinpoche has observed from her vantage point behind the scenes is fuel for her dharma talk. Just the evening before, the serene crowd suddenly morphed into a mob trampling over one another in a frenzied effort to grab the last of the remaining empowerment substances. “It’s very nice that you like the idea of loving- kindness,” she softens the forthcoming blow, “but I’d love it if your fondness for loving- kindness wasn’t restricted to reading about it.”
People might have expected a more saintly, gentle talk from a young nun, but Khandro Rinpoche pulls no punches. “Let’s put aside attaining enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings for a moment,” she quips. “Let’s get down to it: Can we at least for one week behave like people who are receiving the most profound teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama?”
Silence. The crowd now shifts uneasily. Busted.
Tenzin Lhamo, who practiced psychotherapy for almost thirty years, likens Khandro Rinpoche to a skilled doctor who intuitively finds the raw spot, “presses on the point where it hurts until you feel the healing, and then let’s go. She’s just nailing it.” The most powerful antidote
Khandro Rinpoche often laughs, but she rarely smiles. Her gaze is not unkind, but it is uncompromising. Her voice is not cutting, but it invites no objections. What she demands of her students is not impossible but surely challenging: mindfulness in action, all the time. “She watches with laser- sharp attention,” one of her students says, “and if she catches you being unkind, she will be on it.” She might point out a slip by teasing a student in front of the group. “I’m strict,” she admits. “If you want to break through the layers and layers of students’ stubbornness, the antidote has to be much more powerful.” Yet a profound compassion shines through her vivacity. “A lot of people are intimidated by me,” she admits. “There is a decorum, a hierarchy.” She keeps a little distance too. Unlike other teachers, she never socializes with students. “The teacher- student relationship requires a very delicate handling. As a teacher, you have to carry the confidence and the trust.” She likens herself to “a needle in the cushion, someone who always keeps things uncomfortable, so that complacency does not creep in.”
A hothouse for women masters
At a recent teaching in Pittsburgh someone asked why her tradition was called “mind rolling.” Khandro Rinpoche picked up an incense box produced by the monks of her monastery. Indeed, the label sported a gap between “Mind” and “rolling.” She got a good laugh out of this misunderstanding. “They are three different words, where min means ‘ripening,’ drol means ‘liberating,’ and ling means ‘place,’” she clarifies the Tibetan. “The literal translation would be ‘the garden of ripening and liberation.’”
This spiritual nursery has proven to be a hothouse for women masters. The Mindrolling lineage, one of the six great traditions of the Ancient School, is one of the rare Tibetan traditions that do not distinguish between male and female heirs. Right from the beginning in the sixteenth century, lineage founder Terdak Lingpa emphasized the need for women to train as practitioners and teachers, not the least because he admired his own mother as an exceptionally realized meditator. Consequently he empowered his daughter, Jetsun Mingyur Paldron, along with his two sons, as lineage holders. His daughter ended up rebuilding Mindrolling Monastery after the Dzungar Mongols’ invasion, hence saving the lineage with its texts and treasuries from early extinction. Her inspiration has continued, emboldening many women to practice and teach within this lineage. Thus Khandro Rinpoche arrived into this life with an open invitation to follow their example.
“As the firstborn, there was some pressure,” Khandro Rinpoche admits. “You always have that thought of belonging to this unbroken line of great teachers. In the shrine room, I look at the murals, and not only do I see the buddhas and bodhisattvas, but there is my aunt, my great- aunt, my grandfather, and so on, all looking at me.” Embodying thirteen hundred years of wisdom
When she was ten months old, her father took her to see his close friend, the Sixteenth Karmapa, in Sikkim. The Karmapa recognized the baby as an incarnation of Khandro Urgyen Tsomo, better known as the Great Dakini of Tsurphu. Despite her widespread fame, only fragments of her biography have survived. She was the consort of the Fifteenth Karmapa, Khakyab Dorje (1871–1922), and is credited with extending his life for several years through her mastery of practice. After the Karmapa’s passing, she remained at Tsurphu Monastery in retreat, widely revered as an awe- inspiring hermitess. “She was loving and compassionate, full of devotion, and with an unfathomable spiritual depth,” wrote Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920–1996), who met her in Tibet.“She was a very special being, a true dakini. She spent almost all her time in retreat practicing and reciting mantra, and reached a profound level of experience and realization. This is not hearsay; I can bear witness to it myself.”
While she was dying, she indicated to her students that she would be reborn in the northeast of India. Her description fit Khandro Rinpoche’s birthplace in Kalimpong. The Great Dakini was even deemed to be an incarnation of Yeshe Tsogyal, the consort of Padmasambhava, the wild trailblazer of Tibetan Buddhism. This would make the present Khandro Rinpoche a direct offshoot of the earliest Buddhist pioneers in Tibet. Thus her students revere her not only as a forty- three- year- old nun but as the embodiment of thirteen hundred years of wisdom.
The first time I attended a teaching with Khandro Rinpoche, sixteen years ago in France, the resident master introduced her as an emanation of Yeshe Tsogyal, the female buddha Tara, and Vajrayogini. Khandro Rinpoche laughs off these grand labels: “Oh yes, they name every female deity they can find. It is very kind of them, very kind, maybe too kind.”
What does it mean to Khandro Rinpoche to be regarded as the scion of these great women masters? “These titles can be deceptive,” she cautions. “People are overly preoccupied with titles, being more fascinated with the packaging than the content. This is dangerous.” Khandro Rinpoche sighs. “Every time they find a nice woman, they call her a dakini. It depends on your realization whether you deserve that title or not.”
Khandro Rinpoche prefers to resort to logic: in Tibetan Buddhism, realized masters are believed to have the choice to reincarnate in a form and place where they can be most helpful. “Buddhist philosophy is completely founded on the law of causality and interdependence,” Khandro Rinpoche explains. “In the case of reincarnations, or tulkus, they generate the aspiration to continually benefit sentient beings, and this aspiration controls their rebirth. Therefore the tulkus have always been regarded with great veneration, because absolute compassion brings them back to benefit sentient beings constantly.” When she questioned her late father, himself a recognized tulku, she learned that an authentic reincarnation “has less obscurations, so you have less homework to do in terms of purifying obscurations. The mind is clearer, more refined; learning comes easier and faster; their knowledge is greater.”
The recognition was especially tricky in her case, because several distinct lineages in Tibetan Buddhism follow slightly different practices. She was born into a Nyingma family but recognized as a Kagyü dakini. “Mindrolling is a family blood line; they get a bit possessive about the eldest in the family,” she says, albeit with a smile. “There was some hesitation: We’re not gonna give the firstborn to the Kagyüpas!” Yet according to Khandro Rinpoche the Kagyü nuns are “very headstrong, very stubborn women.” They would proclaim it far and wide that the Mindrolling daughter belonged to them, repeatedly pressuring the Sixteenth Karmapa to recognize the child. So, at the age of three, the Karmapa formally enthroned Khandro Rinpoche, personally supervising her education up to the time of his death in 1981. He suggested she should learn English, foreseeing her genius for spreading the dharma in the West. A naughty tomboy
From the age of three Khandro Rinpoche was clad in brocade, seated on thrones, and offered prostrations. “Because I was the eldest, my father really loved me, some would say he spoiled me,” Khandro Rinpoche admits. The rambunctious tomboy took advantage of her liberties, knowing full well that there was hardly anything she could not get away with. “I was a very, very naughty girl, pampered, a troublemaker.” She would skip school, roam the village streets with her gang, brush up against other kids in brawls. She playfully clenches her fists, mimicking what her miniature self must have looked like: wild, angry, mischievous.
“My mother always thought I didn’t appear like the elegant, dignified Jetsunma kind.” Khandro Rinpoche’s mother grew so worried her little rebel would become uncontrollable that she packed her off to a strict British- style boarding school, run by Catholic missionaries. “Everything I am today I owe to my mother,” Khandro Rinpoche says. Unabashed emotional gratefulness rings in her voice. “I find in her and in my sister my greatest critics, because they would never let the tulku syndrome get into my head.”
Excerpted from Dakini Power by Michaela Haas. Copyright © 2013 by Michaela Haas. Excerpted by permission of Snow Lion, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.