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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 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.”

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