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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.”