Meet a Teacher: Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön

In this conversation with Buddhadharma’s deputy editor, Mariana Restrepo, Lama Karma Yeshe Chodron discusses the interconnectedness of her personal experience, her role as a dharma teacher and translator, and how these different facets are integrated into her dharma practice.

By Mariana Restrepo

Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön
Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön

Buddhadharma: Tell us about your background.

Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön: I am a first-generation Latinx-American. My mother and father are from Cuba and Spain. They left Cuba and came to the US in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. My preferred pronouns are she, ella, and they, and I identify as a person of color in the Latinx community with light-skinned, cis-gendered, heterosexual privilege.

The immigrant experience has had a big impact on my life. Language was an issue for me early on, because my parents moved from the US to Venezuela shortly after I was born. We lived there for five years before returning to the US, so I knew no English until that age. 

When I look at the way I engage dharma as a practitioner and as a teacher, to this day language, wording, and translation are central to my practice. In many ways, transmitting meaning between cultures, individual experiences, and different inclinations is the common thread.

Watch Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön explain Tibetan Buddhist visualization practice, and why and how to do it. Includes a visualization practice of the bodhisattva of compassion, Chenrezig, also known as Avalokitesvara.

What was it like growing up in an immigrant family and how has that experience informed your understanding of the dharma?

Like many convert Buddhists, I came to the dharma because of dukkha. Things were not going as expected: I was told things would go well if I studied hard, went to the right schools, got the right diplomas, found the right job, the right salary, the right this and that, everything would be great.  But that is not how it went.

That perspective was heavily influenced by my immigrant experience, which emphasized striving, success, and achieving the American dream. But it did not pan out that way. I was not miserable, but there was always the sense of something missing, something not quite right. What more do I have to do? What does this cultural milieu need from me for me to feel like I belong? 

When I started going to Tibetan Buddhist centers, it felt somewhat like a release. But it was not until I went to Nepal and studied at the Rigpe Dorje Institute of Pullahari Monastery in Kathmandu that I felt a deep sense of belonging. That made all the difference. 

Experiencing for myself a Buddhist lineage alive in the monasteries, nunneries, and lay communities of Nepal and India was eye-opening. I had a similar experience in other Buddhist heritage countries of Asia I have visited. It made an enormous difference to me to meet the dharma when it is embedded in the cultural fabric, as opposed to laid atop unexamined cultural assumptions. 

Can you talk more about how you found the dharma and what drew you to it?

When I was in law school, I became interested in yoga. Moving my body instead of always being in my head and buried in books was a great stress reliever. Still, I needed more, something having to do with embodiment, peace of mind, and a comfort with my own mind and emotions. 

While there was a lot of talk about meditation in my yoga classes, at the time there was not much actual meditation practice offered . The more I tried meditation instruction, the more I gravitated toward Buddhism. I tried Zen, Insight, and Thai Buddhist centers, but it was not until I went to a Tibetan Buddhist center that the dharma clicked for me. This is not about one lineage being superior to others, just a good fit for me individually.

You could say it was happenstance or coincidence, or you could say that there was something leading me forward by the time I met the dharma and became very interested in learning more about the philosophy and the practice. I was working long hours in a Silicon Valley law firm. The intense schedule did not leave much time to stabilize a formal sitting practice. I wanted to find ways that I could incorporate what I was learning in the dharma center into my workday at the law firm. 

The lojong, or mind training, practices, became a mainstay of my life from then forward. They allowed me to work in daily life with whatever came up and fold that into my practice. I found that by doing that, I gained a measure of familiarity with my mind, less brittleness. Instead of the mind being tense from overwork, meditation went more smoothly when I did have time to practice formally, on the cushion. More importantly, I felt a continuous thread of joyful purpose running through my days.

I left my professional life behind because of the synchronicity of many conditions coming together. I met Kagyu lineage Tibetan teachers in the Bay Area who were really influential to me. I wanted to study and practice more, but I did not know how in the world I was going to do that with my work schedule. When the tech bubble burst, I accepted a severance package from my law firm and went to Nepal to study buddhadharma more intensively. I thought I would be gone for a year or two, but it was soon apparent that I wanted to dedicate myself to dharma as much as possible.

You went on to complete a traditional three-year retreat in the Tibetan tradition. Why did you decide to participate in the three-year retreat? 

About ten years into my studies at Pullahari Monastery, the opportunity to enter a three-year retreat came. Up until then, by recommendation of my root guru, Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, I had studied Tibetan and trained as a translator while doing retreats in groups and individually. This was a time of emphasizing philosophical theory while also incorporating practice.

When Kyabje Thrangu Rinpoche announced the start of a three-year retreat at his Vajra Vidya Center in Colorado, to be led by a retreat master trained in philosophy, I was intrigued. I could continue to study and translate while diving deep into experiential practice. Retreat shifted the emphasis to practicing while incorporating theory. Overall, I experienced a convergence of the twin streams of theory and practice. 

“Our practice makes the mind supple, workable, and responsive to the dharma and to life.”

This was important because both of these elements of buddhadharma were vital for me from the start. My family is not Buddhist. Especially early on, it would have alarmed them if they saw this change in my life as alien. Instead, what they noticed was that I had changed. I was engaging things differently. This made them curious to learn about what I was doing, rather than being put off or guarded.

Philosophy and practice being complementary is also one of the things I love about Mahamudra, the signal practice of the Kagyu lineage. Meditation and everyday life practices alike are immediately relevant to our individual situations and integrate seamlessly. For me, this is a robust way of living the dharma, with practice on and off the cushion reinforcing one another. 

How did having those two trainings, the intellectual and experiential, change and transform your practice and the way that you understand and relate to the dharma?

In the practice of Listening, Contemplating, and Meditating, the approach for putting theory into experience in Tibetan Buddhism, the focus is on bringing an understanding from the words to our intellect then into our heart. An embodied aspect is built into that. The three-year retreat allowed for the time and space to become intimate with the heart practices of the lineage in an experiential way that was founded in and enlivened my intellectual understanding. 

Bringing the two together ignited a perspective shift; a lived understanding of dharma as not a tangible thing you can put on a library shelf. It lives in our heart-minds. There is something vital, beyond individual experience, to have the opportunity to hold dharma in our own mind, to be a container for it, however imperfectly.

I feel this is a genuine privilege and honor. Personally, I could not have developed that outside of the strict boundaries and conditions of the cloister. Rather than restrain, cloister boundaries freed me to accept the challenge to befriend my mind in situations that I would instead have sought an escape hatch to avoid.

In the Kagyu Mahamudra tradition, there is a real emphasis on three-year retreat. From the very beginning, I remember asking my retreat master, what is the main purpose of retreat? I was expecting some great mystical answer, but what he said was, “It makes your mind more flexible.” Our practice makes the mind supple, workable, and responsive to the dharma and to life. I do not think it would have been easy for me to do that without the structure of the three-year retreat. 

And yet, in cloister, I also realized that I could do this all the time, that I did not need the cloister to do the practice, despite needing cloister to understand that in my bones. That is the paradox that I have carried with me since: However much I personally value and need cloistered retreat periodically to go deeply into my practice and replenish it, I also realize how vital it is to bring the fruits of practice into my life in ways that are responsive to the myriad experiences that arise to mind. 

As a translator, how different is it to be able to relate to the dharma in its original language as opposed to a translation?

For me, it is  a massive difference. I believe that is the case not only for Tibetan, but any of the source languages of Buddhist heritage in Asia. 

There is a saying in Italian, “Traduttore traditore,” literally “translator, traitor,” referring to the inevitable imprecision involved in carrying over all of the nuance, texture, and context implicit in one language to life in another language. For me, there always is a slight tinge of betrayal involved in the process.  Nevertheless, translation is invaluable, so I strive to harness that creative tension.

Knowing the immediacy of relating to dharma in Tibetan makes me yearn for accuracy. Seeing how often translation misses the mark tempers that longing with practicality. Both inspire me to hone my craft and my knowledge of the source and target languages that form my raw material, yet not to expect perfection even as I aim to minimize the betrayal.  

What I call “wording the Dharma” is central to how I practice and teach. Many of us may still receive teachings through a translator. It is only recently that Tibetan Buddhist masters are teaching directly in English, for example.  In other lineages where teachings are given in local languages, there is an invisible, pre-existing layer of translation we may not even notice, given the delivery in a language familiar to our ears. 

The words that are used to describe the dharma in our language, however, may have associations specific to our culture and time, which might not align with the source languages of dharma. In some ways, this can create a distancing between the intended meaning and our experience of the word in our own language. 

For me, engaging with the Tibetan language calls forward the creativity and elasticity of mind needed to convey the dharma to others in a way that honors the source language even as it is sings in the target language, evoking the meaning to which the source language is pointing.

As a teacher, how do you bridge the gap between language and meaning for your students? 

When teaching, I take particular care to flag words that have a charged quality to them in the target language—for me, usually English or Spanish. That applies particularly when that quality differs considerably from Sanskrit or Tibetan, the source languages of buddhadharma in my lineage.

“Wording the dharma” is a way of working with dharma terminology that I developed out of my translation practice and teaching to empower dharma students when listening to the dharma. The practice centers on acknowledging and letting go of our own biases and assumptions, making space for connecting with the dharma more directly and exploring the source languages. We can then identify words that both resonate with the source meanings and speak to our hearts.

We may not all be interested in translating or have the ability to train to become translators ourselves. Yet, we can still do a deep dive into select words that entice or even repel us and come to a deeper understanding.

You come from a heavily monastic tradition and lineage. However, you teach in tandem with your husband, Lama Zopa Jigme. Is being in a relationship central to your dharma practice? 

Personally, I do not see how to be in relationship without entering my dharma practice. We are always in relationship. Latinx families are highly relational, prioritizing immediate as well as extended relationships.  That personal history has automatically led me to interact with the dharma within a dimension of relationship awareness. 

“There is something vital, beyond individual experience, to have the opportunity to hold dharma in our own mind, to be a container for it, however imperfectly.”

Whether you’re Buddhist or not, or not even spiritual, relationship has amazing potential for holding up a mirror to things that are hard for us to see for ourselves. Relationships of every kind—romantic, parental, familial, friendship, professional—can forge a container of commitment, love, and care that serves as a safe space for our vulnerability and supporting spiritual development. In turn, that development refines our roles in relationship. 

What are some challenges that you have encountered as a household practitioner within a monastic tradition?

The first challenge is a systemic one. As the dharma moves out of Asia and into the Americas, Europe, and other countries, it does not encounter a living context for monastic life. I do not see that changing. So how do we sustain the advantages of the monastic ideal, with its stability, legitimacy, and continuity, without that structural support? Moreover, how do we do so with transparency, mindful of the harms that individual and institutional power have caused historically in religious and other societal contexts?

Another paradox. So much of what I have learned through the Mahamudra teachings concerns engaging life as the practice of holding paradox—not trying to quell tensions, yet not rejecting or whitewashing them. The energy of holding seeming opposites at once encourages an ethos for engaging the buddhadharma actively, neither diminishing it nor casting it in a light that I find more favorable to me individually. 

Nowadays, there is a good deal of talk about changing the dharma for our society. Personally, I do not think the dharma needs my help to adapt. Nor am I so uniformly enamored of our culture that I want to stamp its image onto the dharma. 

My feeling is that the challenge is even more demanding: to be stewards of dharma, preserving its efficacy for realization while recognizing that it responds to conditions on the ground. We see that throughout time across Asia. To me, the process is akin to evolution: incremental changes occurring without an identifiable active agent that nevertheless manifests decisively in time. 

In my case, this view has shaped a lay contemplative ethic to act as a conservatory for buddhadharma as I have received it, to the best of my ability. The rough contours involve nourishing the conditions for dharma to grow organically while rooting out impediments to its flourishing. In this way, we can sidestep hubris and participate in the responsiveness intrinsic to the dharma, bringing the teachings into our lives in a way that honors both their integrity and the diversity of beings across time and culture.  We are free to watch with wonder how dharma unfolds.

For our readers who are unable to go on a long-term retreat, what advice do you have for bringing dharma practice into everyday life?

The practice of Listening, Contemplating, and Meditating, mentioned above, is absolutely transformative. (I wrote about the practice for Buddhadharma, and it is also available in Spanish.) I cannot recommend that enough, incorporating this practice into our lives. 

For example, in American culture, we are accustomed to going to a lecture, taking notes, perhaps thinking or talking about the topic a bit before putting our notes away. We may or may not engage further. When encountering buddhadharma, the same habit may recur. If so, the teachings remain flat and two-dimensional.

The Buddha presents a contemplative technology which the Tibetans refer to as tӧ sam gom sum, “the triad of listening, contemplating, and meditating.” It is a methodology for digging deeper, going further, allowing for a rich inner dialogue between the Buddha’s teachings and our own experience to animate our practice. It is how we “realize with the body the supreme truth” as the Buddha describes in it the Canki Sutta (Bhikkhu Bodhi trans.)  

Simply put, this is how we integrate the dharma into our lives, right within the living context of our experience. We listen, we contemplate, we meditate. These steps sound very simple, but each is complex, and a dynamic interplay exists between them as well. 

Together with that, it is important to refine ways of engaging the dharma that inspire us individually. I find that developing a one-on-one connection with a teacher in regular private sessions catalyzes this process. This was a cherished part of my long retreat practice, and I continue to work with students in that vein. It brings an immediate connection to a lineage that is empowering and grounding at the same time. 

Mariana Restrepo

Mariana Restrepo is deputy editor of Buddhadharma, Lion’s Roar’s online source for committed Buddhists. She is Colombian with a Nyingma-Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist background, has an MA in Religious Studies, and currently lives in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina with her husband and two children.
Lama Karma Yeshe Chodron

Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön

Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön is a scholar, teacher, and translator in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. She divides her time between the Rigpe Dorje Institute at Pullahari Monastery, Kathmandu, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Before studying Buddhism, she completed graduate degrees in biology and law and worked as a litigator in Miami and Silicon Valley. With her husband, Lama Karma Zopa Jigme, she cofounded Prajna Fire and the Prajna Sparks podcast. She also co-hosts the Opening Dharma Access: Listening to BIPOC teachers podcast.