Letter to My Teacher, the Lama of the Many Lifetimes
An Introduction to Garchen Rinpoche’s
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In the afternoon on the 4th day of the month of February in 2003, I arrived at the
Garchen Buddhist Institute in Chino Valley, Arizona, to begin my first series of
interviews with you for your biography. Rinpoche, do you remember, that evening
during our meal, when I shared with you and the lamas the dream that I had less than
a year ago?
I found myself in a very spacious teaching hall, as I recalled to you. There were
many large stone steps leading to this room and I saw rows and rows of people sitting
in the dark, silently moving like silken waves from one side to the other. The teaching
session had just come to an end. The space was completely sealed with darkness outside,
and inside, it was dimly lit only by a row of flickering butter lamps. Your throne
chair was set to one side of the altar in the room, and I remember asking myself,
“Why is Rinpoche’s throne chair set to one side of the altar?” I had never seen this
Suddenly, as you began to walk out of the hall with Lama Bu Nima and another man
by your side, I saw myself rushing toward you. As I stopped in front of you, I reached
out my right hand and pressed my palm against your chest almost instantaneously,
and said, “Rinpoche, I know this is where your heart is… and I am touching it right
That was what I said to you. That was what I heard myself saying. My voice almost
cracked, like a little child, so amazed by what she had just discovered!
I remember myself thinking, “But this is the right-hand side! The right-hand side!
Hearts usually don’t lie on the right-hand side!” Even though, I still held my palm
firmly on your chest, and it felt as if what I had just said a second ago spontaneously
radiated out from my own heart again.
A moment flashed by.
And when you placed your right hand on the back of my hand against your chest, there
was total silence. I began to sense the warmth radiating from your hand with your
face so close to mine. You just looked at me in the eyes, and then simply said, “You
are right. This is where my heart is. And you are touching it.”
Dawn was fast approaching, and a crisp, new day was being ushered in. I leapt out
from that dream, feeling your presence in the palm of my hand!
There was nothing in this palm of mine yet I kept staring at it, feeling that something
was there, actually there. Outside in the woods, the light was gently shining through,
and a moment later, the morning sun quietly entered my room...
Still, it felt as if there was something so tiny and so precious wanting to jump
out from the palm of my hand! I was almost certain that something was there, electrifying,
palpitating! This tiny and precious something was so vibrant and seemed to be carrying
an indescribable, powerful, vast energy, an energy of compassion, that suddenly pervaded
my whole body and all of my senses. I had to use my left hand to rub the inside of
my right palm, thinking that perhaps there would be something tangible that I could
catch a hold of, feeling completely overwhelmed, yet completely blissful.
I called out to you, “Rinpoche ơi!”, and cried in silence...
That was in the spring of the year 2002.
A month later, you arrived at our house in Maryland for your annual visit and teaching
tour on the East Coast. One day, Lee came and took Lama Bu Nima, Lama A Bo and our
Tibetan translator, Tashi, out on an errand, and left us alone for lunch. The house
was unusually quiet; there was no one else around, just the two of us having a meal
together. I served you your thukpa as usual, and sat and ate with you in the sunlit
At one point, I looked at the cloth bag which you always carried with you around
your chest – just like your prayer wheel, it was something that you rarely parted
with! Since I don’t speak Tibetan and you don’t speak English, I pointed to the bag,
making playful gestures and asking you what was in there. To my great surprise, you
laid down your prayer wheel and began to search the bag, and then, slowly pulled
out something that was wrapped in a piece of silk-like cloth that was old and worn
out. I watched in awe as you took the time to unwrap the many layers of cloth, one
by one, to reveal a tiny, miniature red notebook, about 1 x 2 inches in size. The
veils of time were being slowly removed... The pages of a hidden treasure book began
to open, and they whispered into my ears their little long lost secrets... An unfamiliar
yet surprisingly intimate world began to dance in front of my eyes.
Without saying a word, you reached for my right hand, opened up my palm, and placed
that miniature notebook in the middle of the palm.
The notebook was so… tiny, so very tiny!
I almost felt like crying the moment it touched my hand. Suddenly, I remembered your
face in the fleeting dream, the dark hall, the feeling of bliss, the indescribably
vast energy of compassion, your heart, the blush of dawn… I stared at that tiny little
red notebook, speechless, not knowing what to say to you.
Do you remember, Rinpoche, how you continued to repeat many Tibetan words to me,
trying to explain what that tiny little notebook was all about? The language that
you spoke, the Eastern Tibetan dialect that seemed both embracing and exotic – none
of what you said was comprehensible to my ordinary ears. But somehow, through your
facial expressions and hand gestures, I understood, and later, was able to verify
the details with our Tibetan translator.
I understood that, while in Chinese prison, you secretly took these notes and hid
this notebook with you. I heard you whisper the words Milarepa, Tara, Mahamudra,
and then, the name Khenpo Munsel. Inside the book, there was a tiny black and white
photo of your root teacher, Khenpo Munsel, your beloved heart Lama. All the scripts
written in there were no bigger than the size of a leg of an ant!
Rinpoche, since then, I have learned that you had spent the prime of your youth being
imprisoned by the Chinese Communists for close to twenty years. You were then a young
reincarnated lama, barely twenty years old, with the fierce temper of a warrior.
It was in prison that you met your karmic teacher, Khenpo Munsel, and it was Khenpo
Munsel who taught you what true love was all about.
There, in prison, you went on practicing under Khenpo Munsel’s guidance, and there,
you were able to purify your mindstream, dispel your hatred and aversion toward your
enemies, and transform your mental afflictions into a mind of pristine, selfless
love for all beings without exception! You have actualized the wisdom mind of your
Lama, and forever since, have always dwelled in remembrance of your Lama...
When I finished examining each page of the notebook in amazement, do you remember,
Rinpoche, the moment I looked up and exclaimed, “Rinpoche ơi, one day, I will write
about this little red book of yours…” ?
I am sure you did not understand my words, nor the strange language that I spoke,
but in your heart, I have no doubt that you already knew.
The day after, during my private audience with you, I made the request, and you gracefully
accepted to allow me to record your life stories in writing. You told me, “Come to
Arizona, and I will tell you all about my life, and then you can write about it,
the good as well as the bad.”
So I left for Chino Valley, Arizona to spend time interviewing you for the book in
the winter of 2003.
Rinpoche, that first evening in Arizona at the dining table, when I finished re-telling
my dream to you and the lamas, Traga Rinpoche asked me if I knew about the story
of Milarepa’s disciple, Rechungpa, and the auspicious dream in which he visited a
dakini’s land? This dream was a premonition for him to later write about the life
stories of his lama. Traga Rinpoche’s question took me by surprise, and at that moment,
I could not recall all the details about the yogi Milarepa and his moon-like disciple,
Rechungpa. I was very much a beginning student who just entered the gate of Tibetan
Buddhism only a very short time ago, and even though I had read the stories of Milarepa
before, things were not very clear in my mind.
Thus, Traga Rinpoche began to tell me about the wonderful tale of Rechungpa in which
he dreamed that he was invited by the celestial beings – the dakinis, to visit a
pure land. There, he listened to Buddha Akshobya giving teachings about the life
stories of many sublime masters, such as Tilopa, Naropa and Marpa. At the end of
the teaching, the Buddha announced to everyone in the assembly that the next day,
there would be yet an even more profound teaching about the life stories of another
great master of unparallel qualities, and that the stories of this master, Milarepa,
would overshadow what everyone had just heard that day.
Rechungpa woke up and understood that the dream was a hint that he had to request
his teacher to tell him about his extraordinary life. Following that, in a second
dream, Rechungpa saw the dakinis again in their pure land, and they encouraged him
to do so. The next morning, with a heart all set on the quest of recording Milarepa’s
stories for the benefit of future generations, Rechungpa went to see his teacher
and made the request, again and again.
When I came back home to Maryland, after ten days of intense interviews with you,
the first thing I did was to pull out from my booksheves a copy of Milarepa's biography,
Tibet’s greatest yogi-saint and poet. I began to read it over and over. At the beginning
of his life, Milarepa was just an ordinary person, just like we all are, and under
the influence of his mother and her cry for vengeance, Milarepa had committed very
negative deeds. However, due to his remorse, due to his conviction in the law of
cause and effects, and due to his renunciation and unceasing efforts to free himself
from cyclic existence, Milarepa went through unimaginable hardships to sincerely
practice what his teacher had taught him. Under the most severe circumstances and
trials, Milarepa purified himself of his delusions, the seed of all suffering. It
is said that Milarepa attained enlightenment in one single lifetime.
Rinpoche, not long ago, I only saw Tara in you.
Now, in you, I could also see Milarepa.
After re-reading his biography, everything began to unfold so vividly and clearly
in my mind, as if each and every word in Milarepa’s life stories radiated out like
golden rays of sunlight, chasing away layers of thick, dark clouds!
Soon after that, I came across the following verses by Francesca Fremantle in “Luminous
Emptiness: A Guide to the Tibetan Book of the Dead:”
Understanding very little of my guru’s teachings,
Even that little not put into practice,
How can I write as though it has entered my heart,
Like a dewdrop dreaming that it can hold the sun?
That was some time in September of 2003.
It was the beginning of autumn, where I lived. One day, early in the morning, I stood
in “your” room upstairs – Rinpoche’s room, as our family would have called it – gazing
at the back of the woods through a large-sized window, and watched dewdrops after
dewdrops starting to melt on the dark branches... The sun rays kissed them all –
the leaves, the boughs, the stones, the stepped terrain, the forgotten bird nest
– gently and sweetly, for autumn mornings are gentle and sweet, and I beheld the
soft, cotton-like floating clouds... In the midst of this silent performance of mother
nature, one dewdrop after another continued to vanish in the blink of an eye.
I left the room with Fremantle’s verses lingering on... For many days and nights,
I heard them inside me. My heart ached a little each and every time I thought of
Slowly and ever so slowly, as the years passed by, I have come to realize that the
dewdrops have not melted by themselves, while the sun remained elsewhere, chasing
after the billowing clouds… But that the sunlight had already dissolved into those
dewdrops! They had become one, and together, they dissolved...
In each dewdrop, the presence of the sun!
Do you remember, Rinpoche, when I asked you what preparation or practice I would
need to engage in, to successfully complete this writing project so that others could
benefit from it? And your answer to my question?
“Pray to Tara, but don’t pray in the sense of asking for her blessings or for help,
but pray until you can feel Tara’s compassion enter your heart. When your heart becomes
one with Tara’s, you will then understand, and can write about me from your heart...”
That first night in Arizona, after listening to your humbling advice, I took a walk
from the Lama house to the main temple. It was very cold outside, and I could hear
the winds rushing across the empty valleys. Traga Rinpoche was doing prostrations
alone in the temple, his body stretched out on the wooden floor so gracefully. Quietly,
I sat down with my back against a small wall, facing the altar.
That was the first time that I ever sat down in that spacious hall at night. Then,
all of a sudden, I began to recognize everything. There were many large steps leading
to the main temple, looking out at the red-rock valleys in the far distance. Outside,
it was completely dark, but if one looked up, one could see a sea of bright, bright
stars in the desert sky! Inside, there was no other light, except for a row of small
lotus lamps of different colors on the altar, with your throne chair set to one side.
The lotus lamps casted very dimmed lights and soft shadows in the room and they reminded
me of the flickering butter lamps in my dream.
I held my palms together and began to pray to Tara...
Rinpoche, I knew then that it was in that teaching hall that I had touched your heart
in that passing dream...
The morning before I left Arizona after the first series of interviews, you told
me not to worry about how long it was going to take to complete the work. You blessed
my head and assured me that “the longer it takes, the better.”
I have come back to Chino Valley many times sine then to spend time doing follow-up
interviews with you and the lamas, and to work on my writing. The leaves of time
continued to change colors, along with the seasons of life, falling on the ground
ceaselessly, one after another...
Throughout the years and the many obstacles that I have encountered along the way,
it seemed that I had spent only a little bit of time writing your stories, but a
lot of time searching for the right drops of meaning and transformation of truth
in my own heart. Oftentimes, as I reflected on this whole development, on my myriad
delusions against the sacred journey to my own spiritual maturity and to your heart
– Tara’s heart, I could not help but become convinced that I would never be able
to complete this quest in this lifetime!
I realized now how deeply kind you were to tell me to take my time...
It is meant for my own heart to mature...
And so I pray and pray, that through the pure intention and unfaltering efforts coming
from the depth of our hearts, your stories will manifest, and that they will inspire
and liberate many…
May the extraordinary life and biography of Kyabje Triptrul Garchen Rinpoche benefit
all beings for all life to come.
May the hearts of all those who come across this writing in the future, be touched
by his suffering and transformation, so that tears will dwell in their eyes, and they
too will aspire to follow in his footsteps and generate limitless Bodhicitta like
that of Tara.
May his life stories and blessings help grow the seed of Dharma, radiate a sun of
wisdom, and never cease to fulfill an ocean of loving-kindness and compassion for
all wayfaring beings without exception.
And may all of Garchen Rinpoche’s disciples, throughout lifetimes, become a tsa-tsa
of their guru, in body, speech and mind, with the kind of love as vast as his!
with the indestructible drop
in your living heart,
On the 4th day
of the month of February
in the year of 2009
in North Potomac, Maryland