Khandro Rinpoche’s Tough Love

She is demanding of her students and uncompromising about the dharma, and she is a rarity—a prominent Tibetan teacher who is a woman. Trish Deitch Rohrer experiences the provocative and challenging Khandro Rinpoche. You took your twelve-year-old daughter to a children’s blessing the Venerable Khandro Rinpoche was presiding over a few years ago while on…

Trish Deitch Rohrer
1 July 2004

She is demanding of her students and uncompromising about the dharma, and she is a rarity—a prominent Tibetan teacher who is a woman. Trish Deitch Rohrer experiences the provocative and challenging Khandro Rinpoche.

You took your twelve-year-old daughter to a children’s blessing the Venerable Khandro Rinpoche was presiding over a few years ago while on a visit to New York from India. When it was your daughter’s turn, the two of you went up and knelt at Rinpoche’s feet. She offered you both hard candy from a white glass bowl and looked into your daughter’s face.

“Do you meditate?” she said to your daughter, who was holding the candy, still wrapped, in her hand.

“Yes,” the girl said. She was nervous. She didn’t meditate much.

“Do you know what practice your mother is doing?” Rinpoche didn’t take her eyes from your daughter’s. She had a little, crooked smile on her face.

“Yes,” your daughter said.

“What is it?” Khandro Rinpoche asked bluntly. She has a reputation for being tough.

Your daughter named the practice. Then at Rinpoche’s prompting, she gave a brief and surprisingly knowledgeable description of what the practice was.

“Good,” Khandro Rinpoche said, satisfied. “Do you practice with your mother?”

“No,” your daughter said. She slipped the candy into the pocket of her jeans. Clearly this was not going to be a candy-sucking occasion.

“You should practice every day,” Khandro Rinpoche said. “And practice with your mother.”

“O.K.,” your daughter said, and bowed, and left the children’s blessing a bit irked. She was twelve—she didn’t want to practice with or without her mother. But there it was, planted unequivocally in her mind by Khandro Rinpoche: Practice. Practice every day.

In most Buddhist cultures throughout history, women have been seen as lesser beings. The dominant view has been that they’re not capable of achieving enlightenment, and that their births are lower ones. There are nunneries in Tibet and in exile in India, but the religious education offered to the nuns has generally been poor. With the help of the Dalai Lama and others, this is changing now. Still, with the exception of Jetsun Khusola, who lives in Vancouver and doesn’t teach much anymore, Khandro Rinpoche is the only female Tibetan teacher to have come to the West. It’s not that there aren’t any excellent female practitioners and teachers in Tibet and India—there are—but they have chosen, for a variety of reasons, to remain under the radar, to have few students, or no students at all. They don’t want to teach publicly to large groups, they don’t want a name. Khandro Rinpoche, on the other hand, understands her responsibility: it is, in part, to encourage and inspire women, particularly Tibetan women, to take their seats as teachers of the dharma. This trailblazing is bold, for obvious reasons, and it’s brave.

“Women in patriarchal systems are haunted by lack of confidence and fear of being leaders,” says Judith Simmer-Brown, author of Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. “But Khandro Rinpoche has unfailingly challenged women to take a risk in their practice and their lives, even while she has cautioned them about excessive emotionality or a merely political response.  She is deeply committed to practice and realization as the key to empowerment for women.”

This is what Khandro Rinpoche is working on in her own life: the simplicity of resting. That’s what she says to you, though it’s almost eleven o’clock at night, four years after the children’s blessing, and she’s at it again—seeing people, one by one, in a back office at that same New York City dharma center after a long evening teaching on the preciousness of our human birth. She is only here in New York for one night this time, before moving on to another teaching in another state. Tonight she is sitting up straight in the corner of a large couch that is draped in thick brocades. She is a very short woman in maroon and saffron robes. Her head is shaved, she has dark, round eyes like a bird’s, and a small, slightly pursed mouth. The whole time you are with her she keeps her attention on you. Her gaze is not unfriendly—sometimes it is neutral, most times pleasant, waiting.

“The simplicity of resting. . .” she says. She speaks fast, and her delivery has an offhand quality, as if she has thought so much about what she’s saying that it’s now part of her, cruising through her veins with her blood, gliding out on the breath. She looks at you and tilts her head. “The simplicity of resting—there is so much profoundness in that.” Then she says, “It is, I think, what really needs to be worked with at all times.”

Many lamas came to India as refugees around the time Khandro Rinpoche was born in 1967, and settled in the areas close to the borders of Tibet. Her father, His Holiness the Eleventh Mindrolling Trichen, settled in Kalimpong after he escaped Tibet in 1959. He was, at the time of his eldest daughter’s birth, beginning to understand the importance of establishing a monastery in India, because, as Khandro Rinpoche puts it, “the situation of going back to Tibet wasn’t going to happen.”

Imagine the lack of simplicity at that time, the lack of rest.

When Khandro Rinpoche was ten months old, her father, the head of the Nyingma lineage (the oldest of the four principal schools of Tibetan Buddhism), went to Sikkim to visit the (now deceased) Sixteenth Karmapa, then the head of the Kagyü lineage. It was during that visit that the Karmapa recognized Mindrolling Rinpoche’s first child as the incarnation of the female Kagyü master Khandro Urgyen Tsomo, said to be the consort to the Fifteenth Karmapa, and, after his death, a great teacher and retreatant herself. Both Khandro Rinpoches were emanations of Yeshe Tsogyal, consort of Padmasambhava, the great guru who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century.

The Mindrolling lineage was no stranger to female tulkus (reincarnations of important teachers): Mindrolling is one of the few lineages that is continued through a bloodline, and many generations of Mindrolling women, including Khandro Rinpoche, have been dharma heirs. But the fact that a Nyingma child, female or male, was the incarnation of a Kagyu master was seen by both the Karmapa and Mindrolling Rinpoche to be “a delicate situation.” The two men decided to wait to announce the news. It wasn’t until three years later that the announcement was made and she was enthroned.

Not long after, the child became, she says now, “difficult to work with, difficult to tame—a wild child.” So even though the Karmapa and Mindrolling Rinpoche—along with His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the revered Nyingma master—had agreed that Khandro Rinpoche was to have a spiritual education as well as a Western one, her parents sent her from her father’s monastery to a British-style convent school in India, where she learned to be, she says, “far from everyone.”

When you bring up her reputation for being tough, Khandro Rinpoche tells a story about living at the Mindrolling monastery in Dehra Dun, where she, her younger sister, Jetsun-la, and her mother were the only women among 400 monks. “I remember when we were young and in the monastery,” she says, “as I was walking by, everyone would get up and bow.” Being His Holiness Mindrolling Trichen’s daughters, Khandro and Jetsun-la were both treated with a tremendous amount of respect. “But the moment I would pass, I’d look back quietly, and they would all be doing the pose of Hitler.” Here Rinpoche puts the index finger of her left hand across her upper lip like a little mustache, and then raises her right arm in a Nazi salute. Suddenly you can imagine her at ten—wild, probably funny.

“It partly has to do with growing up with so many men,” she says. “It required that you take a certain degree of responsibility as a woman. If you were a woman, you could do a hundred things that were good, and it would be appreciated. But if you made one mistake, that would not only affect your path, but it would affect the confidence people had in the capabilities of women altogether. I’ve always had a strong sense of this: I’ve always thought that what I say and do will probably have some influence on the women of Tibet.”

“I think Rinpoche isn’t really ‘tough,’” says Judith Simmer-Brown, “as much as very direct and sharp in a precise and accurate way. There really isn’t any aggression behind it. However, she never seems to miss anything, and has the ability to put you on the spot so quickly, so candidly. That’s what is meant in the Tibetan tradition by ‘the feminine principle.’”

One of Rinpoche’s longtime students, Mark Beckstrom, says that he was surprised the first time he witnessed Rinpoche giving refuge vows, which is when the student formally acknowledges becoming a Buddhist. Instead of performing a ceremony where the refugees are somewhat anonymous, she went up to each person and, putting him or her in the spotlight, asked them to answer the question, “Why are you becoming a Buddhist?”

“On some level, she challenges people,” says Beckstrom, “because she takes the dharma very seriously and she wants people to take it as seriously as she does. But there’s a softness to it, too: if the person starts to flounder, she helps them. She’s not ruthless, particularly.”

Not always ruthless. One time she came to the annual retreat she’s been leading in Baltimore since 1996, and asked Beckstrom what the 37 practices of a bodhisattva were (she’d taught the 37 practices the year before, and expected Beckstrom to know them). Beckstrom said to her, “Well, I can’t actually name them all, but the gist of it is . . .” and Rinpoche said, “I don’t want the gist—what are the 37 practices of a bodhisattva?” she paused and then moved on, “Next!”

Khandro Rinpoche’s “directness” worked out in terms of the refuge ceremony, at least. “In terms of the example of the refuge vows,” Beckstrom says, “it made the whole experience more moving for everyone: people do share, people do open their hearts.”

Whenever you meet Khandro Rinpoche, she’s with an entourage of women. The group includes her sister, Jetsun-la, and two or three young nuns. Having an entourage is not unusual for a Tibetan teacher, but Khandro Rinpoche’s entourage is striking for an odd reason: the women who travel with her are all very beautiful to look at. Jetsun-la, unlike her older sister, is very tall and thin with shoulder-length, shiny hair, stylishly cut. You might find her, while Khandro Rinpoche is meeting with a student, sitting on a step laughing into a cellphone, wearing a pair of form-fitting cropped pants and flats with no socks. The nuns, too, are tall and very thin, like Calvin Klein models, only bald and in robes. The sight of these women together—one short, the rest tall—is as arresting as the bright orange of a shrineroom, the sweet, sudden smell of incense upon entering a place of practice, or the first, loud crash of a gong.

As a result of her sense of responsibility to women in particular, at a young age Khandro Rinpoche became what she describes as “distant and very strict.” Other tulkus began to feel that she was arrogant and rigid—“fixed on doing things in the right way.” One day when she was a girl, she went to Khyentse Rinpoche, upset, and said to him, “People are calling me arrogant. But I don’t think I’m arrogant—I think I’m trying to keep myself away from problems.”

She remembers Khyentse Rinpoche saying, “Of the hundred problems you could make, being arrogant is the better one—better because that problem is keeping you away from the other ninety-nine.” He paused. “But being proud is not good.”

Rinpoche laughs at this memory and then goes back to the subject at hand: “If ‘discipline’ and ‘strict’ and ‘tough’ mean that you have to practice what you’re learning and studying,” she says, “then that’s good, isn’t it?” She holds her tiny hands out, palms up. She doesn’t need to ask this question, though: she obviously has confidence in her view of things. She says, “I always think that if I can do it, anyone can.”

But, in fact, Rinpoche was born with a leg up in the karma department. “I think if you are born into a family like I was,” she says, “you are always steeped in that—the sacredness and profoundness of the path of the practices. As they say, you may not be a sandalwood tree, but if you are an ordinary tree, some scent still carries on.”

But she was not an ordinary tree. The fact is that she loved the dharma from the first, and though she studied journalism, business management, homeopathy and the sciences at the convent schools she attended while living at the monastery, that love for the dharma grew stronger as she got older. The example she uses to describe how her commitment to the dharma grew gradually but steadily is the story of how she ended up with no hair.

“I used to have long hair,” she says, smiling. “Gradually it got shorter and shorter. In the Mindrolling family, you’re not supposed to shave your head. The oldest child especially is not allowed to cut their hair.” Apparently, there was an instance in the family generations before when someone shaved his head and died young. “My mother was always very worried,” she says.

“So,” she continues, “the hair went from waist level to neck level to high”—she holds her hand just under her chin to show how short her hair was—“and then higher”—she moves her hand a little higher—“until it was a bob cut and then even shorter. And then one day the barber who used to do the hair of the monks made a slip and used an electric razor instead of the scissors. He just forgot about me because, turn by turn, monks sat down.” The barber shaved off all of Khandro Rinpoche’s hair.

“How did your mother feel when she saw you?” you ask.

“There was some commotion in the household,” she says. “But people got used to it.”

“And then did Jetsun-la cut her hair?” you ask.

She smiles. “No, Jetsun-la has tried to keep my mother happy. We need one in the family.”

Though on the one hand, Khandro Rinpoche says that the fact that she’s a woman is a non-issue, on the other she says that sometimes people make it an issue. When she was a girl and living at her father’s monastery, she was, as she puts it, “sheltered.” But the first time, at 17, she went to a teaching and didn’t identify herself as the daughter of His Holiness Mindrolling Trichen—or as Khandro Rinpoche—she was asked to leave.

Again, they were teaching on the 37 practices of a bodhisattva. She says, “It was a simple and universal teaching. The khenpo teaching it said, ‘I don’t think women can do this practice—why waste so much time and effort?’” Khandro Rinpoche looks taken aback, the way she must have twenty years before. “How can one talk about the 37 practices of the bodhisattva and still have that attitude in one’s mind?” she asks.

But she knows how. “I have always felt great concern for people who have had to work around situations they have not been prepared for,” she says. “And when you do a little bit to change a system—when you start to do things differently—it heightens the neurosis. I’m still watching that carefully.”

“Rinpoche has always been careful,” Judith Simmer-Brown says, “not to cast herself as a feminist in the Western sense. One could think that she has been careful in this way for political reasons, but I think it’s more than that. I think she understands something very deep about her Western students: we need to go more deeply, egolessly, into our own gender issues so as not to be ensnared by gender. Then we could embrace our gender and act without the kind of confusion and resentment that usually haunts us. I really learned that from her.”

Beckstrom says, “It has been interesting to hear her talk in audiences when ‘feminist issues’ come up. People ask, ‘Why aren’t there more female rinpoches?’ and that kind of thing. But she’s very traditional. She says it doesn’t matter, the sex of your teacher: everyone’s limitations are what they put on themselves—their concepts. That’s what she stresses more than anything. If you’re focusing on the issue of women, you’re missing the point.”

On the issue of practice, no one will deny that Khandro Rinpoche is not just direct, but tough: she makes it clear that you’re wasting your time unless you practice and study a lot. “The requirement,” Rinpoche says, her hands folded neatly in her lap, “is not changing from an imperfect state to a perfect state; it’s about being willing to work and gradually progress. Gradually a transformation should be apparent in a person if this person has met with dharma. That is, I think, absolutely essential: each year there has to be a sign of the mind becoming simpler, kinder, more flexible. If you don’t see much happening—if you don’t see much of the old habits disintegrating—then there is something definitely wrong.”

“She expects us to all believe that we can be enlightened in a lifetime,” says Mary Pat Brynner, the administrator of Khandro Rinpoche’s annual Baltimore retreat, and one of the founders of the new Lotus Gardens retreat center in Virginia, “and she works with people toward that goal. So I suppose some might call it ‘tough.’ But in a lot of ways it’s really stronger encouragement and higher expectations of our abilities to stay on the path and be committed to it.”

Beckstrom adds, “She’ll ask, ‘How many of you think you’ll become enlightened in this lifetime?’ And at first a couple of hands will go up, tentatively. And she works with that—she talks about confidence: you have to have confidence—real confidence—in this path.”

“It’s the whole of idea of ‘Practice like your hair’s on fire,’” says Jann Jackson, another longtime student of Khandro Rinpoche’s. “She’s continually setting our hair on fire with a sense of urgency. And so there are two things: tremendous demand, within a context of having absolute confidence that we can do this because of the power and the blessings and the profundity of the teachings.”

The fact is, though, that most of the people Rinpoche is teaching in the West are householders—they have jobs and families and lives that don’t, for the most part, allow them to devote themselves to the kind of practice and study that will necessarily show significant changes every year.

So what do people with families and jobs do? you ask her.

Her answer is so matter of fact that it feels crushing in its simplicity: when your children are grown and your marriage is over, you give it all up to practice. “You have to orient your life towards more intensive practices as you go through life,” she says. “The mistake comes when we try to continue the same thing over and over—to spin circles around one’s own habitual tendencies. Most people seem to think that what they did thirty years ago they can still do now. That’s going around in circles.”

But what about the Vajrayana notion of living in the world as practice? you ask, because the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet directs a student’s attention to the ordinary world as the place where ultimate understanding occurs.

“The Vajrayana,” she says somewhat sharply, “talks about skillful means and wisdom. At no point does it talk about increasing attachments. If you have no attachments, you can probably enjoy the splendor of everything and yet not be caught up in it. But I think if there are traces of attachment, then I would be worried.”

You shift in your seat. You’re not ready to give up your attachments, and you’re getting older by the minute. Rinpoche notices your discomfort.

“At some point renunciation is going to be important,” she says, kindly now. “Renunciation doesn’t have to be physically distancing yourself from a certain place. Renunciation is decreasing the number of things you have to care for. The fewer the things—the fewer the diversions of attention—the better it is for a good foundation of practice.”

Mark Beckstrom has a stepson he has to help put through college, and he’s not in a position to stop working. “And I know Rinpoche knows this,” he says. “But she does keep saying, ‘Life retreat, life retreat.’”

Meaning? you say.

“Meaning that at some point you should be willing to go into retreat for a very long time.”

Beckstrom says that he and a bunch of other students grumble and chafe sometimes when Khandro Rinpoche says, “Life retreat.” Rinpoche, he says, will take a step back at that point and say to her students, “O.K., well—how about three weeks?’”

“I think she’s holding up a high standard and seeing what we do,” says Beckstrom, smiling.

Some Tibetan teachers will tell you that a moderate amount of practice is better than nothing if that’s all you can do. Khandro Rinpoche, however, is not one of those teachers. As Jann Jackson says, “She is completely uncompromising about the dharma.” But Khandro Rinpoche understands how hard it is to juggle responsibilities. She has two children herself—two adopted daughters—both under ten. She has students all over the world whom she travels to teach every year (about 500 in North America), and who come to see her on a regular basis. She takes care of her father’s monastery in Dehra Dun, and she runs the Karma Chokhor Dechen nunnery in Rumtek and the Samten Tse retreat center for nuns in Mussoorie.

When you ask her what the most enjoyable part of her “job” is, she tilts her head and looks at you uncomprehendingly. “Do you enjoy teaching?” you ask, and she says, “I wouldn’t say ‘enjoy’ or ‘not enjoy.’ It’s what I seem to be doing lately.”

“It’s hard work,” you offer.

“No,” she says, “it’s not. It’s the easier part. Back home it is harder work: It’s always harder work when you reach home base because there you have all the different responsibilities, right down to the plumbing, the flat tires, the bills, the electricity—everything. That’s tiring.”

And that brings you back full circle: What is it, you ask, that she is working on now in terms of her own practice and her own life? and she says, “the simplicity of resting.”

But what is that? you ask her. What is “simplicity” in this crazy world? What is “resting”?

“I think it is not being so worried about things,” she says, looking you in the eye. Then she points to a flower arrangement—a spare assortment of roses and tulips in a shallow dish—and says, “It is a beautiful ikebana.” She leans forward and looks more closely at the flowers. Then she says, “If I were alone in this room with nothing to do, I would probably rearrange it a little bit.” She sits back and looks at you again. “But it doesn’t need rearranging.” She folds her hands. Her nails are long and clean. “It’s just that there’s a certain quality of unnecessary restlessness, sitting here with that flower.”

She stands up. “The restlessness is just something to keep you preoccupied, and then you lose simplicity.” She holds out her hand. “O.K.?” she says. You give her your hand, and she shakes it. Then she adjusts her robe across her shoulder and heads out, maybe to rest, maybe not.

Trish Deitch Rohrer is the former executive editor of the Shambhala Sun. Her previous stories for the Sun included profiles of Richard Gere and Sharon Salzberg.

Khandro Rinpoche’s Tough Love, Trish Deitch Rohrer, Shambhala Sun, July 2004.

Trish Deitch Rohrer

Trish Deitch Rohrer

Trish Deitch Rohrer is the former Executive Editor of Shambhala Sun.