El·e·na [el-uh-nuh, uh-ley-nuh; It. e-le-nah] /ˈɛlənə, əˈleɪnə; It. ɛˈlɛnɑ/ –noun a female given name, form of Helen // A proud student of His Eminence Tsem Rinpoche // Personal assistant with a BSc (Hons) Psych from Uni of Warwick // These are snapshots of my life, in words and pictures

Inspired in the woods

January 28, 2014 4

It’s no secret that I’m a softie. Though I can be a cynical loud mouth, I’m also very susceptible to a good sob story, will cry at the drop of a hat and (if your story is good enough! Hehe) give you the shirt off my back. But there are some people who move me beyond words, through their deeds, their devotion, and their thoughts and actions. No sob story necessary!

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting two such women today. Anne, who is in her mid-60s and Danielle, who is in her mid-80s have been students of Domo Geshe Rinpoche for the last 40 years. As they spoke about their experiences with Rinpoche and how he would train them, I could not stop tearing. If you saw them on the street, you would not think they were anything remarkable. Yes yes, they are highly educated women who are so elegant, you know both have led exciting lives filled with travel, luxury and culture. But there are plenty of other women like that; those aren’t defining characteristics.

So what made two unremarkable women give up such pampered lives, to live in the woods with a Tibetan lama?

(and when I say woods, I MEAN woods – they have free-roaming deer on their property, bears are a regular feature on their land, and *shock horror* they don’t have cellphone reception there!)

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A beautiful lake on the property. Picture made clickable so you can download it for your computer!

In the 1970s, Danielle was the wife of a French culture attache, who met Domo Geshe Rinpoche when her husband was posted in New Delhi, India. At the time, Rinpoche was her neighbour and her son’s friend. She had always wanted to meet Rinpoche, and would often drive by his home hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but it never happened.

It came to pass that Danielle would find herself in Kopan Monastery, Nepal. This was in the early days when the facilities in Kopan were still (in her words) primitive. Everyone was cold, there wasn’t a lot of space, but people were happy and excited because Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa were constantly teaching. Zong Rinpoche was also there and in fact, one of Danielle’s funniest memories was Zong Rinpoche’s response to a student. A student requested Zong Rinpoche to teach him the Tibetan technique of travelling great distances very quickly. Zong Rinpoche looked at the student, bemused by his request and said, “Why would you want to learn that for? You have planes!”

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In the same way Tsem Rinpoche teases us all the time, Domo Geshe Rinpoche would use the same methods on his students

Anyway, after one such teaching by Kopan’s great founders, the crowd were discussing amongst themselves who they wanted as their teacher: Lama Yeshe or Lama Zopa. Some people said they had greater affinity with Lama Yeshe; others felt closer and more connected with Lama Zopa.

Listening to all of this, Danielle realised she did not feel an affinity to either teacher. It was not because they were wrong or not good enough, but because she could not stop thinking about the lama in New Delhi whom she had never met, but knew was her root guru. Immediately, she resolved to meet him somehow.

Little did she know how many obstacles she would face in coming to meet him. Around the same time, she received news that her son (in boarding school) was extremely ill, her father (in France) was very ill, and her driver (in India) had run into some personal problems. All three situations required her attention; all three situations would prevent her from meeting Rinpoche as quickly as she could.

Still, she returned to India and asked her oldest son to arrange for her to meet Domo Geshe Rinpoche. Upon seeing Rinpoche, Danielle fell to her knees. She said she does not know what happened, that as a logical, intelligent person she does not get overwhelmed like that but she knew instantly that Rinpoche was her root teacher. In the conversation, Rinpoche gave her advice that she followed (and that worked out) and she has been following him ever since.

Many years later, Danielle experienced some personal problems herself. On a visit to Rinpoche’s Ladrang, she asked him what she should do. Rinpoche remained silent but this time, his silence did not bother Danielle. She had come to understand Rinpoche; she knew when the time was right, she would receive her answer. True enough, on the morning of her departure back to Mexico (where her husband was posted at the time), as the car was outside with its engine running, Danielle got her answer.

A short while later, she moved into Domo Geshe’s Ladrang.

In Danielle’s words, Domo Geshe welcomed her into his household, “with a banner and everything. And that was nice and good. But the honeymoon period lasted three days”. After that, the training began and Danielle said Rinpoche had unusual ways of training them. As a person, he was not very chatty but he always said just enough and could be very fierce. For example, Danielle had a personal interest in Genghis Khan and one of the items that fascinated her was the Mongol shield. Woven out of silk, it was light but impenetrable. When Domo Geshe Rinpoche attacked their egos by teasing, scolding or teaching them, and she would get defensive, Rinpoche would say, “Genghis Khan shield” and Danielle knew what it meant. She had raised her defences and refused to accept what Rinpoche was saying about her, or trying to teach her.

Rinpoche would ask her all the time, “Do you want to transform?” to remind her of the reason why she was really training under him. And when his students’ moods were going up and down, and they were considering quitting, Domo Geshe would call them “B-52s” (as in the bombers) hehehe

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Danielle said whilst Rinpoche could be fierce and loud, what troubled her the most was when Rinpoche was silent. That’s when she knew she had disappointed him so much, he could not speak. Once, when Danielle went through a particularly rough patch, she went to see Rinpoche after two to three days of silence from him. She told him since her presence in the Ladrang was causing so much disruption, she would leave so everyone could be happy again.

Rinpoche took one look at her and said very nicely, “Are you sure? If you are sure, then go but if you go, you are never coming back.” It was not a threat on Rinpoche’s part, but a matter of fact – if Danielle left, her connection would be broken and it would be impossible for her to return. As soon as she heard those words, Danielle realised her lama was truly without ego. If he wanted to exploit his students, he would not want to lose them, he would not risk his reputation by turning them away, and he would do anything to get them to stay…well, he certainly would not tell them to leave! Danielle saw what she was doing to her teacher – in threatening to quit, she was in fact looking for attention, and looking for her lama to beg her to stay and to stroke her ego. Instead of falling for that mind game, her lama was making her take responsibility and decide for herself if she should stay or go.

She said that was the last time she ever threatened to leave.

When Rinpoche entered clear light (a lama’s controlled passing by dissolving his winds), Danielle said she was completely heartbroken. She spent days in her room crying, feeling lost and wondering what they should do. But Danielle realised that they had to keep going; they had to preserve their lama’s Ladrang so that his reincarnation would have a place to go back to. So after many days of feeling sorry for herself, Danielle said she went upstairs to see Anne, gave her a huge hug and told her, “I am never leaving you.”

To this day, so many years later, Danielle and Anne are still in Rinpoche’s Ladrang, keeping the place pristine for his return.

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The view outside, I kid you not. This window forms one of the walls of their office, and in the summer bears wander about the property, peering in through the window!

We asked if there were signs when Rinpoche was passing. She said Rinpoche never told them or gave any indications. However, a few months before his passing, she was in the car with Rinpoche and another student. They were all silent when suddenly Rinpoche said, “Oh they’re doing it again.” Danielle said instead of asking “who”, she asked “what” and Rinpoche told her, “They’re pulling my finger again. It is time for me to go.” She also said that many years prior to that, Rinpoche had told her that when he passes into clear light, his Ladrang will be managed by four women and a man…and it came true. Their foundation today is managed by four women and a man and she kept her promise, staying with Anne and the other members to protect Rinpoche’s Ladrang and foundation.

And Buddha help the person who tries to do anything to the Ladrang and foundation! Though Danielle and Anne may look old, docile and weak, their passion for following their Rinpoche’s instructions is positively palpable and because of that, you gain respect for Domo Geshe Rinpoche’s qualities and accomplishments…he must have been one heck of a lama to have students like these close to him. So seriously, if you’re thinking of messing with them, don’t because Danielle and Anne will readily give up their lives to protect their lama.

Are they indentured slaves? Have they been brainwashed into thinking this way?

In short, no. Why? From a secular perspective, Danielle and Anne are both highly intelligent, discerning women. They are not easily tricked and in fact, now their lama has left, why have they not gone too, if it was a cult focused on a personality?

From a more esoteric perspective, the result of such loyalty and devotion has not turned them into raving, incoherent, babbling fools. On the contrary, unlike many others who are the same age as them, Danielle and Anne are extremely healthy, sharp, independent and witty. So clearly they have done something right.

We asked Danielle why she stayed all of those years, when she could’ve so easily upped sticks and moved on. She said Rinpoche attacked the idols on her altar, smashing them one by one. Her idols were her preconceptions of the world; Danielle said she had always been intelligent, did well in school without much effort and she “was not ugly” when she was younger. The world was her oyster and she had always been able to get her way, down to marrying the man she wanted (against her family’s wishes). Thus when she joined Domo Geshe Rinpoche’s Ladrang, she thought she knew best…and why not? After all, she was exposed, well-travelled, cultured and intelligent so OF COURSE her way was the right way.

But one by one, Rinpoche smashed her preconceptions of how things should be done, how a lama should act, how people should behave – all preconceptions which, when disappointed, left her feeling angry and frustrated. In smashing these, her lama helped Danielle to feel free and happy. In the end, she stayed because Domo Geshe Rinpoche showed her how to be happy.

I was so moved by this elderly lady speaking with so much love and affection for her lama. She wasn’t talking about guru devotion from an intellectual point-of-view, but from something she had realised through experience and loyalty, and her sincerity was so obvious. These kinds of practitioners are so rare nowadays; they are the kind you hear about in the stories of old, who would move mountains to serve their teachers and, in turn, gain masses of realisations and attainments. They are real legends, the original Dharma students of the West who were there at the very beginning in the 1970s when Tibet’s luminaries were still with us to turn the wheel of Dharma.

What did I take away from this meeting? So much but my immediate thoughts are this:

  1. You don’t need to be Tibetan, ordained or a tantric practitioner to be an inspiration and to enjoy the results of spiritual practice. One woman is French, the other is American. Both do very simple practices everyday. Yet, at their advanced age, neither suffer from physical ailments, have dementia or trouble caring for themselves. They are witty, independent and sharp as a tack. They are very different to the majority of old people we see today; I want to be like them when I’m old, not 80 and stuck in a nursing home full of regrets, with saliva dribbling down my chin as I sit in a chair watching TV and waiting to die. Okay, so maybe that was a slight exaggeration but you know what I mean!
  2. Keeping an institution alive is not about the lama, but about our karma. The teacher himself is not bound to a body or limited to a place; he goes wherever beings have the merits to receive the Dharma. Therefore keeping the Lama’s Ladrang going in his absence is actually our practice and in doing so, you are generating the merits to bring him back there
  3. Don’t make permanent decisions from temporary emotions. Domo Geshe Rinpoche used to tease them about being B-52s – volatile, with ups and downs. However, had Danielle allowed herself to be swept away by her emotions, she would not have remained for as long as she did in the Ladrang, and she would not have experienced the benefits of being committed to her practice
  4. Harmony is so important in keeping things together. The pivotal moment in Danielle and Anne’s relationship was just after Rinpoche’s passing, when Danielle told Anne she would never leave her. Danielle and Anne also admitted that they do have their differences, but they respect one another greatly. Thus despite their differing opinions, they stick together because they know keeping Domo Geshe Rinpoche’s Ladrang open is more important than any personal differences
  5. Their clean samaya (relationship) with Rinpoche will bring him back to them. They are so devoted to his instructions and his teachings, and follow it down to the letter even though Rinpoche has not personally instructed them for many years now
  6. The common misconception is that one needs to be next to their lama in order to feel close, but Danielle and Anne prove this is not the case. Though their lama is no longer with them, they still feel close to him because they embody his teachings and wishes. Thus through their actions they continue to inspire others to practise and remain steadfast

As they say, the only certainty in life is death. I write this here in the hopes that students feeling lost without their lama find inspiration in these women because one day, our merits will run out and our teachers will have to enter clear light. And when that day comes, are we ready for it, in our individual practices and as an organisation? It’s a reality all Dharma centres and Dharma students should not be afraid to face up to because sooner rather than later, it will be our turn.

Reflections and Teachings

4 Comments → “Inspired in the woods”

  1. Lars 5 years ago   Reply

    Very inspiring post, great “twist” at the end.. What do you do when the “fun” is over and you’re all alone again? Do you practice.. or do you get yourself 68 movies & a whole lot of ice cream?

  2. David Lai 5 years ago   Reply

    Thank you Pastor Jean Ai. Danielle’s story is very touching and amazingly similar to our own experience with Rinpoche. It moved me to tears because of how universally kind our lamas are when it comes to training us. We at Kechara are indeed very blessed to have a lama like rinpoche.

  3. Wah Ying 4 years ago   Reply

    Thank you Pastor Jean Ai for sharing, this story is touching.

  4. me 4 years ago   Reply

    Thank you Pastor Jean Ai.

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