Jamyang Wangmo, The Lawudo Lama: Stories of Reincarnation from the Mount Everest Region. Boston: Wisdom. 2004.
Summary by Scarlett Bach
The Lawudo Lama: Stories of Reincarnation from the Mount Everest Region captures the lives of two Lawudo Lamas: Kunzang Yeshe, born in approximately 1865, and his successor, Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, born in 1946, both in the northeastern region of Upper Khumbu, which is on the Nepalese side of Mount Everest bordering Tibet. The text opens with an introduction to Buddhist beliefs regarding reincarnation, as well as the tulku system. It then offers a geographical, social, and cultural account of the Sherpa people, the community nestled in the Khumbu region where Lawudo is located. The first part of the work encompasses the Lawudo Lama Kunzang Yeshe’s biography written by Lama Ngawang Chöphel and is bifurcated into three sections: The Birthplace of the Lawudo Lama, How the Lawudo Lama Kunzang Yeshe Relied Upon Different Masters and Performed His Dharma Practice, and How the Lawudo Lama Dissolved His Body into the Dharmadhatu. Meanwhile, the second part, predominately narrated in first-person, details the story of Lawudo Lama Kunzang Yeshe’s reincarnation, Lawudo Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, from his early life to Lawudo and the Sherpas, to his founding of the Kopan Gompa Monastery in the Kathmandu Valley, to his meditation courses designed for Westerners. The epilogue features the author’s own take on the present and future of Khumbu, accompanied by a “visual journey,” which comprises images of relevant sites and figures. The backdrop of the Khumbu region is particularly significant given its trying conditions – such as food scarcity, extreme weather, lack of access to education, among others – which render ordinary life fraught with adversity and hardship, and Kunzang Yeshe’s initial pursuit of the Dharma all the more notable and impressive. Finally, in juxtaposing the two Lamas’ stories, Wangmo aims to demonstrate that biographies of Tibetan or Sherpa lamas tend to idealize the subjects to foster belief and devotion, whereas autobiographies written by true masters are typically humbler in nature, focusing on ordinary and commonplace aspects of life more so than their gifts and accomplishments. In so doing, the author conveys the import of studying the lives of these fulfilled spiritual beings as a source of inspiration to learn how to emulate and apply the Buddha’s teachings to one’s own life, and to carry forth the traditions of the region. The text was originally published in 2005, 59 years after the death of the Lawudo Lama Kunzang Yeshe.
Jamyang Wangmo’s The Lawudo Lama: Stories of Reincarnation from the Mount Everest Region details the lives of two Lawudo Lamas: Kunzang Yeshe, and his successor, Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. Nestled on the Nepalese side of Mount Everest bordering Tibet, Upper Khumbu is the birthplace of both Lamas. The text opens with an introduction to the Buddhist notions of reincarnation and the tradition of reincarnate lamas (tulkus). According to this system of belief, we all have past and future lives, but it is the mind, rather than the physical form of the body, which is passed on. Likewise, Tulkus, a concept exclusive to Tibetan Buddhism that literally translates to “emanation bodies,” refers to beings who have achieved a certain degree of spiritual enlightenment and have chosen to take rebirth for the benefit of other beings. These reincarnated lamas undergo an intensive education and training process, possessing and imparting the teachings of their predecessors, a contextualization which is relevant to the text given that Thubten Zopa Rinpoche is believed to be the reincarnation of Kunzang Yeshe.
Wangmo then provides the geographical, social, and cultural background of the Sherpa People and the Khumbu Valley, where Lawudo is located. According to the tradition, Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) hid precious goods and texts in inaccessible valleys across Nepal, sealing them with a mental barrier such that they were transformed into sites of refuge for future beneficiaries. But, the tradition tells that they can only be reached by certain beings at certain moments in time, dictated by the texts’ prophecies. Khumbu is believed to be the western door of Beyul Khenpalung, one of these hidden valleys, in turn a sacred site that was blessed by the Guru. Wangmo goes on to outline geographical features and various spiritual resonances of the region, before delving into the history and culture – as conveyed via oral tradition and folklore – of the Sherpa people who comprise it.
The Sherpas were originally members of the tribes inhabiting the Zalmogang area of Kham in eastern Tibet. The leader of the Chagpa clan, Dongkha Ringmo’s youngest son, Sangye Paljor, became a teacher of Dzogchen (the Great Completion System) after receiving religious education from the terton Ratna Lingpa in Central Tibet, and consequently shared some of these teachings with his father. As the situation in Kham declined due to increasing aggression and attacks from powerful neighboring tribes and communities, Dongkha Ringmo and Sangye Paljor fled to Central Tibet, joined by the Khampa chieftains and their families. However, once they arrived in Latö, they discovered that pacific, devout life would again be disrupted by political instability and turmoil and the threat of Nepali or Muslim armed incursions, undermining the hope for peaceful coexistence. Sangye Paljor, remembering a prophecy of Guru Padmasambhava foretelling that Beyul Khenpalung would be opened when the world became overcome by violence and war, sent his son and main disciple, along with their families, to Khumbu. They eventually made their way to Shorong, the Lower Valleys, settling in uninhabited areas and building temples and hermitages. With time, many more Khampas also settled in Khumbu, where they cultivated the land, herded yaks, cows, and sheep, and traded, living according to a social structure based on the original clans and subclans, as well as new ones. The early history of the gompa built above Thangme is unclear, but it is believed that sometime in the eighteenth century, Tenpa Sangye of the Lhugpa clan settled in Thangme or Thangtend. His grandson, who assumed leadership following his father’s death, built a secluded hermitage across the Nagpe Tsangpo before moving to a cave further down the mountain and establishing a new hermitage known as Gaphuga (“Joyful Cave”). His descendants became known as the Charog lamas and sustained leadership of the Thangme Gompa after his death in approximately 1865.
Central to life in Khumba is the sacredness of nature and its interconnection with humanity, reflecting and informing the psychology of living beings. Aspects of the physical landscape are believed to be at the will of spirits or forces which can ease or impede human life activities, and in turn, must be appeased through rituals and offerings. The majority of the Sherpa population practice the Nyingma school of Buddhism, based upon early translations of Sanskrit texts. They believe in karma and past and future lives, but religious practice of lay Sherpas is typically limited to activities such as recitation of mantras, turning prayer wheels, and ambulating around temples, prayer wheels, carved stones and other objects of this nature. They also perform offerings to local gods, and donate food, tea, and money to lamas and monks as efforts to prevent or allay bad karma and promote good karma. More complicated dimensions of the faith are reserved for lamas and monks, who are masters in performing rituals, partake in meditation retreats, and read scriptures.
Following this background on Buddhist teachings of reincarnation, the region, and the Sherpa people, Wangmo delves into part one of the text, the biography of Kunzang Yeshe (1865-1946). Kunzang Yeshe’s ancestors descended from a gompa of married lamas near Sakya Monastery in Tibet. In the late 18th or early 19th century, they moved to Khumbu, where they became known to the Sherpas as Sakya Khampas. After settling in Thangme, one of them married a Sherpa woman who gave birth to three sons, the youngest of whom inherited the family home in Mende and became the father of a girl and a son, Kunzang Yeshe. While a child, Kunzang Yeshe’s father introduced him to the Tibetan alphabet, and with this literacy, he learned some prayers and assigned them to memory. His father also brought him to the Sherpa lamas, from whom he received a religious education.
Given the challenges which come with Sherpa life, along with the unpredictability of their survival, throughout his childhood, Kunzang Yeshe was expected to contribute to chores and activities of the home and society, tending to animals and potato fields, collecting water and procuring fuel, tilling the fields, and generally procuring resources from long distances. Indeed, the soil at Thangme only allowed for the production potatoes and buckwheat, so essentially every other material had to be obtained from elsewhere. In his travels, he observed the cruel potential of men motivated by jealousy and greed, having fallen prey to entrapments of the material realm. He observed how hubris could transform men into brutal tyrants, and how gluttonous activities, such as gambling and drinking, not only wasted money, but led to corruption and depravity. He also observed the abuse of animals and wives and children, abundant suffering, as well as the death of the young and old, having fallen ill or endured agonizing accidents.
Amidst all of these trials and tribulations, Kunzang Yeshe also observed lamas and ordinary people alike devoting their lives to the Dharma. Most of these enlightened beings resided in remote hermitages far from villages, unfettered by the material world, and the greed, hatred, ignorance, jealousy, and pride, which comes with it. He was inspired by how they appeared to be at ease with their existence and embody love and kindness toward all beings and creatures.
As part of his religious education, Kunzang Yeshe and his companions embarked on various spiritual journeys, such as when they offered respect to Kagyu Chokyi Lodro, who taught them about the three essential points of Dzogchen, the great perfection: view, meditation and conduct. View pertains to the belief that the mind is primordially pure and free, and is the essence of tathagatas, those who have “gone beyond,” attained enlightenment. Meditation pertains to sustaining this view, while emulating love and compassion toward all beings. Conduct pertains to embodying altruism and engaging in the deeds of a bodhisattva, giving to others whatever they need, never stealing, cheating or harming others, abstaining from indulgence or retaliation, and consistently sustaining the blissful purity of the primordial mind. It wasn’t until this experience that Kunzang Yeshe truly felt his calling, though, and crystallized the path that had been laid out for him, making a commitment to become a bodhisattva in that lifetime. Kunzang Yeshe then went into retreat to complete the mental and physical exercises of preliminary practice, to begin the process of purification of negative deeds and accumulation of merit necessary for advanced practice.
In his early twenties, Kunzang Yeshe was arranged to marry a girl from Namche named Tsamchi based on consultation of Sherpa lamas versed in astrological calculations. Given the worldly responsibilities which came with supporting his family, Kunzang Yeshe became a trader, but did not cast aside his spiritual practices, combining them with his earthly ones – for instance, by performing religious rituals in his dealings. His primary focus unwaveringly remained the Dharma, and he regularly journeyed to Tibet, visited holy sites, and engaged with renowned religious masters.
Around the age of 50, Kunzang Yeshe felt that he had already accumulated sufficient material wealth to support his family and had learned the teachings necessary for his own practice. And so, he decided to establish a hermitage and go into a retreat to pass on his teachings to his disciples. He built a shrine room adjacent to his home where he could practice meditation, with the location chosen specifically based on astrological and geomantic conditions.
In the early 1900s, with the rise of economic development, the Sherpa population underwent a kind of identity crisis with regard to societal structure and religion. They began to adopt features of Tibetan Buddhism such as the tulku system and celibate monasteries. Although married lamas recognized leadership of ordained tulkus, social dynamics rendered the community fraught with tension and division, and Kunzang Yeshe, though respected as a lama, became at odds with monk Kusho Tulku, who became head of the Thangme Gompa in 1915. Given the ways in which he felt these conflicts encumbered his meditation and practice of the dharma, Kunzang Yeshe decided to seek a hermitage elsewhere and eventually found the Lawudo Cave, resettling there.
One morning, Lawudo Lama Yeshe, as he came to be known, awoke to realize that his body was paralyzed and he was unable to speak. This paralysis and inability to speak lasted six months, during which he entered a state of meditative primordial awareness. Overtime, Kunzang Yeshe did regain the ability to make small movements and speak, but he still was unable to walk, so for approximately 13 years, he did not leave Lawudo. While this condition was commiserated by some, Kunzang Yeshe was unbothered by his circumstances. In fact, he was grateful for the opportunity to engage his spirituality and meditate without disruption, and believed that it was a sign of the protectors supporting his spiritual practice. Throughout those 13 years, he meditated all day and all night, never even lying down to sleep.
By his late seventies, the Lawudo Lama Yeshe was universally respected and people from across the region would come to Lawudo in pursuit of his teachings and divination. Although at this stage of his life he rarely left Lawudo, on some occasions, he would preside over the Dumche ceremonies at Thangteng and perform the torgyab, the throwing away of the ritual cake, symbolic of the valley’s negative energies. This ritual can only be performed by a person with enough power and enlightenment to commune with and control the local spirits, and hence was a testament to Kunzang Yeshe’s attainment and reverence as a Lama. Kunzang Yeshe also had a habit of high alcohol consumption, a practice critiqued by his grandson. But, Wangmo writes that the alcohol helped to enhance his spiritual practice and perception of reality, something that lay people could not understand.
In 1943, Kunzang Yeshe’s wife Ama Tsamchi died at Lawudo. Kunzang Yeshe cremated her body on a flat ridge above the cave, and her ashes were mixed with clay to be meld into small Buddha figures that were then placed in a small cave east of Lawudo. After her death, the Lawudo Lama Yeshe continued practices, and the Lawudo Hermitage was always flooded with visitors, and the Lama especially enjoyed the company of young people, one of whom was named Ngawang Chophel Gyatso. Kunzang Yeshe became particularly fond of Ngawang Chophel. Ngawang Chophel Gyatso became an attendant to Kunzang Yeshe
In his final years, Kunzang Yeshe dedicated himself to the practice of thogal, the Dzogchen mediations which result in the highest level of enlightenment. He dug a hole east of the cave dedicated to this practice, and planted himself there until he attained the first of the four visions of thogal, the realization of the manifestation of the absolute nature. By the end of his life, he completed all four visions. Ngawang Chophel also practiced these meditations in a cave just below the one sheltering Kunzang Yeshe, who spent the last days of his life practicing alongside his attendant.
On the twelfth day of the first month of the fire dog year (1946), Kunzang Yeshe returned to Lawudo with Ngawang Chophel, having visited Thangme Gompa for the cremation and ritual ceremonies of Thangme Lama Dondrub’s eldest son who had just died. Upon their return to Lawudo, Kunzang Yeshe had difficulty walking, and appeared to be in deteriorating health. Kunzang Yeshe recognized this imminence of his death and accepted that his life was coming to a close, having experienced a visionary dream of a few month old boy in a house at Thangme. According to this vision, this boy, son of Puthar and Nyima Yanchen, would become his yangsi, his reincarnation. The following day, on the fourteenth of the month, his cousin came to visit him at Lawudo with an offering of a bag of rice, but when he found Kunzang Yeshe, the lama looked tired and could barely breathe, and refused to eat. After his cousin left the cave, Kunzang Yeshe, in the company of Ngawang Chophel, arose from his seat of meditation and adopted the postures of the three bodies of the Buddha, before reciting prayers with his hands at his heart. Following this recitation, the Lawudo Lama laid down in the lion posture and then sat upright, ostensibly entering a state of mediation. However, he instead recited “ah, ah, ah” and left his body. It was on that full-moon day of the month at midnight (Friday, February 15, 1946) that the Lawudo Lama passed away.
Kunzang Yeshe was mourned across Khumbu, and many people flocked to Lawudo to pay their respects. However, in accordance with his wishes, Ngawang Chophel did not allow visitors inside the cave. His body was cremated five days after his death and one day after his mind had left his body and entered a primordial ground. As part of the cremation process, he was seated in meditation posture, wrapped in his white and red shawl, face covered with a scarf, and crowned, as well as adorned with flowers and other offerings from his disciples and friends. At the moment of Kunzang Yeshe’s cremation, a rather spectacular natural phenomenon occurred: clouds and rainbows encircled the sun, while snowflakes fell from the sky, despite the sky having been completely clear, while music resounded. Although the Lawudo Lama Yeshe had been revered and well-respected during his lifetime, he did not externally convey signs of his accomplishments, such that simple Sherpa people did not grasp the degree of his enlightenment. To them, he was a typical lama. However, Wangmo writes that when the music reverberated through the valleys, the rainbows emerged, and the snowflakes descended from the sky, they took these marvels as a sign and manifestation of his true attainment, imbuing their hearts and minds with fervent devotion to the late Lawudo Lama.
The text then shifts to the life of Kunzang Yeshe’s reincarnation, Thubten Zopa Rinpoche (December 3, 1945-present). It is believed that even before his cremation, Kunzang Yeshe’s mind had already emanated into another physical form, entering the body of his successor. Indeed, Thubten Zopa Rinpoche was born to Nyima Yangchen and Khampa Pasang Puthar as Dawa Chötar, a few months before the Lawudo Lama Yeshe’s death. In his autobiographical account, this Lawudo Lama opens with discussion of his parents. He claims to have no recollection of his father, with his only impressions gleaned from stories he has been told. And yet, he attributes his ability to exist in the human body and attain happiness to the karma his father had needed to create. Thubten Zopa Rinpoche also emphasizes the kindness, compassion and generosity embodied by his mother. Despite her total illiteracy, she was devoted to the lamas and the Three Jewels, and attended teachings of the Rongphu Sangye to receive blessings, even though she was unable to comprehend the actual teachings. By Sherpa standards, their family was considered well-off, in possession of domestic animals and a few fields.
When his mother was five months pregnant with Dawa Chötar, who would become the Lawudo Lama, she had a dream in which she saw two caves on the mountainside. Although she wanted to enter the small cave, she instead entered the larger one. After she awoke, she interpreted the dream to suggest perhaps the child she was carrying was special, but she did not share this feeling with anyone. In addition to this auspicious premonition, as he was coming out of his mother’s womb, a large black raven landed on the roof of their house, cawing, an emblem of good luck given that black birds are considered to be symbols of the Dharma protector Mahakala, the Great Black One.
Shortly following his birth, Dawa Chötar’s father was poisoned by the lady of a house where had stayed while journeying home from a trading trip. He took remedies crafted by lamas to counteract the poison and did achieve slight recovery, but was never restored to total health. Consequently, he was no longer able to embark upon trading journeys, and, as a result, the family’s economic situation quickly declined. Two years later, while his mother was pregnant, she returned home to find that her husband had passed away in his usual seat next to the fireplace. She was pregnant with her sixth child. The Lawudo Lama believes that his father was cremated too soon, before he had completed his meditation and the subtle mind had left his body.
Following this death, the hardships plaguing their family only continued to accrue. Most of their animals died of disease, leaving only four or five cows, most whom were old or injured. In order to sustain the family, Nyima Yangchen had to work in other people’s fields or carry their heavy loads, the lowest type of work in the Sherpa community. She also traded and spun wool, scraping together financial means in any way she could. Practically overnight, they had descended into extreme poverty, but thankfully, they still had a roof over their heads. He goes on to detail the great lengths to which his mother went and the suffering she endured in order to provide for their family.
In his early years, Dawa Chötar often made proclamations about Lawudo as his home or his “grandchildren” Karma Tenzin and Karzang, neither of whom he had ever met, signs of his emanation of the mind of Kunzang Yeshe. He also frequently mentioned names of individuals he did not know, but who had been disciples of the Lawudo Lama Yeshe, further crystallizing to his mother and the locals that he could be the reincarnation of the Lawudo Lama. Meanwhile, Ngawang Chöphel had heard of these declarations and visited Dawa Chötar, who immediately referred to him by name. Ngawang Chöphel was took this reaction as confirmation that he had indeed found the Lawudo Lama’s reincarnation. Although he became generally accepted as the reincarnated Lawudo Lama, it was years before Kunzang Yeshe’s descendants publicly acknowledged it. Thubten Zopa Rinpoche humbly accepts that he is not a high lama, for he cannot clearly remember his past lives. Instead, he asserts, his proof of reincarnation is derived from his meditation experiences and his abilities which suggest he had practiced meditation in previous lives.
Dawa Chötar studied in Thangme Gompa and then in Rolwaling with his uncle. It is in this chapter that he tells stories of his mischief, bullying younger boys, playing tricks and throwing stones at people, and generally misbehaving. When his uncle wasn’t watching, he would drop the façade of pretending to be engaged in his studies and amuse himself by doing things like braiding the threads of the cloth texts. He was only interested in childlike play, not reading and memorizing all day. He also points out, though, that this is the case for many young tulkus, who grow out of this naughtiness once they learn to control this energy and channel their intelligence toward the benefit of others, rather than inciting trouble. He also appears to have reached a turning point when he went to study with Gelong Pasang, the most learned teacher in Rolwaling and the only one who did not drink alcohol. Inspired by his teacher, he aspired to perform important deeds in adulthood.
In 1957, the Lawudo Lama traveled to Tibet with his uncles. While there, he became a Gelug monk, and came to see their education as superior to that of the Nyingma monks of his country. He also respected that they were pure, abstaining from alcohol and not deviating from their vows. Greatly moved and inspired by the Gelug monks, he resolved not to return to Khumbu or Rolwaling.
Two years later, during the Chinese occupation of Tibet, they received word that the Chinese were only two days out from Pema Chöling, where they lived, and that monks were being targeted. To avoid being taken captive by the Chinese and subjected to torture sessions during which these “enemies of the people” were beaten, tortured, and sometimes even killed publicly, they fled surreptitiously in the middle of the night. Although the monks were afraid of being attacked while on their journey, the Lawudo Lama describes not feeling fear, but actually experiencing a sense of peace. On their way to India, they sought refuge in Bhutan, where they were welcomed once people discovered he was a tulku. After seven days, they reached the Indian border, just over two months before his fourteenth birthday. There, he was able to continue his studies in the Buxa Refugee Camp.
In 1968, as the Lawudo Lama neared his twenty-third birthday, he returned to Nepal, accompanied by Lama Yeshe and Zina Rachevsky, for whom he had become a teacher (during the hippy era of the sixties, many young people came to India in exploration of the Buddhist path; one of these truth-seekers was Zina, whose family had fled the Russian Communist revolution, settling in France). Reunited with his family after having been gone for twelve years, it was there that Karma Tenzin, the grandson of Kunzang Yeshe offered his possessions and the Lawudo Cave to him with the imploration to build a monastery at Lawudo for young Sherpas to be properly educated.
In 1971, Lama Yeshe, the Lawudo Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, and Zina went to Bodh Gaya where they attended a meditation course from a zen master named Zengo. Zima implored Lama Yeshe to teach his own meditation course at Kopan, but he refused, after which she turned to Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, who agreed. He led his first 10-day Meditation Course for westerners in March 1971 in Kopan of the Kathmandu Valley. And so, he became a teacher. He then returned to the Lawudo, Gompa, while Zina and Lama Yeshe traveled, instituting outposts across the region. Throughout all of his leadership and instruction, though, Lama Zopa Rinpoche credits his teachings to the mind of his predecessor, the original Lawudo Lama.
In retrospect, Lama Zopa Rinpoche reflects that his early days of teaching primarily focused on the theme of suffering, perhaps as a result of his own experiences of hardship as a child, and the primitive nature of life at the Kopan during this time. He is now at the helm of an organization comprised of upwards of 130 Dharma centers, including teaching and retreat centers, monasteries, nunneries, hospices, clinics, and schools, in different countries. To this day, he continues to travel worldwide, teaching courses and guiding retreats, but this international presence does not spare much time for him to visit Lawudo. That said, he relishes the moments he is able to relax in his cave, eat Sherpa food, and take in the local gossip. While Kunzang Yeshe’s account is entirely biographical, Thubten Zopa Rinpoche’s is predominately autobiographical. This juxtaposition sheds light on the ways in which life-writings of Tibetan and Sherpa lamas written by their disciples tend to glorify the figures, for they can only see their teacher as Buddha. By contrast, Wangmo exemplifies the fact that autobiographies tend to capture a more pragmatic, realistic lens, focusing to a greater degree on aspects of ordinary life as opposed to only gifts or accomplishments. For instance, Lama Zopa Rinpoche does not shy away from disclosing his childhood misconduct and maintains a very humble tone, always crediting Kunzang Yeshe as the true source from which all of his teachings and wisdom is derived. That said, by presenting these accounts in conjunction with one another, Wangmo demonstrates that despite their differing narrative perspectives, they both serve to honor their subjects, inspire commitment to the faith, and in this case, specifically, sustain and pass on the traditions of the Sherpa and Tibetan lamas.