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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.