An Interview with Lama Palden, by Jane Brunette
Editor’s Note: Lama Palden has met and learned from many highly revered masters from the last generation, whose profound realization affected her deeply. In this interview, she spoke with me about the felt sense of their presence and provides a glimpse into the very human experience of the awakened awareness of living bodhisattvas. Perhaps they will inspire you to take the Bodhisattva Vow yourself.
– Jane Brunette
Featured photo: Kalu Rinpoche and the 16 Karmapa
Q: What do you find especially inspiring about the Tibetan masters you’ve met and studied with?
Lama Palden: The incredible love for all sentient beings in general and humans in particular that these greatly realized yogis and yoginis have. They come again and again into this world as service. They aren’t forced through causes and conditions to come back here – they’ve achieved a level of liberation that means it becomes their choice.
When an awakened being goes through the birth process, they take on the karma of the mother, the father. They willingly take on the darkness and suffering of unawakened ignorance in particular for that time and place, and then growing up, whatever their circumstance, they take in the suffering of the whole situation. I’ve become over the years so humbled by this offering of love and sacrifice that these bodhisattvas have made.
Q: Tell me a little about the presence of your specific teachers. How were they different from each other, and how did it impact you?
I feel incredibly fortunate to have met starting in my 20s many of the great old masters who came out of Tibet beginning in the 50s, who had trained really extensively in the traditional way – both in monasteries and in mountain cave retreats. It’s almost inexpressible to relate in words the impact that their presence had on me. With Kalu Rinpoche, his energy field had an immediate and profound effect before I even heard any of the teachings. In feeling the flavor of his presence, I connected beyond a shadow of a doubt – I felt a profound familiarity with him and knew that he was my teacher.
The other great lamas and rinpoches I was able to meet all had their individual, particular presence. There was an underlying similarity in that in their presence, I felt the unmistakable field of reality as it is – of ultimate truth being actualized, simultaneous with tremendous love. They all exhibited an extraordinary lovingkindness that was not operating from ego consciousness and was incredibly clear. At the same time, I found them to be humble, ordinary – extraordinary in their ordinaryness. The 16th Karmapa had the pure power of an emperor, but with loving kindness that he extended to everyone who came into contact with him. At the same time, there was a very real humanness – laughing, loving to tell jokes. The high lamas love to tell jokes more than any grown ups I’ve ever met. they’re very playful. They’ll do these serious meditation practices and then at tea they’ll be joking and laughing.All of them could also be fierce – Kalu Rinpoche, the 16th Karmapa, Bokar Rinpoche, Jamgon Komtrul the 3rd, Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Kyentze Rinpoche, Dezchung Rinpoche (who was head of the Sakya lineage), Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso Rinpoche. But they were only ever fierce if you were a very close student, or a monk in their monasteries. They wouldn’t show their wrathful side with people who were casually their student. To see it was a sign of closeness.
Kalu Rinpoche told us that it is a sign of our degenerationg times that the lamas can’t use fierce energy with their disciples because people don’t have enough trust. 1000 years ago, Tilopa could suggest all these terrible things and hit Naropa with his sandal, which allowed him to reach full awakening. Kalu Rinpoche said he couldn’t use any of those methods because people nowadays could easily misunderstand it. The only reason to use fierce energy is for the student’s benefit, but because people are quite fractured nowadays, they really need the balm of loving kindness.
I felt strongly in their presence how all of these great masters were able to see the pure being of the student, and through love, help the healing inside the person. This transmission of love was really a felt experience – it wasn’t something in my head. I experienced it viscerally in my physical body and emotional body. At the same time, whether or not they spoke of it directly, there was a transmission of the nature of mind and reality as it is, and how those are inseperable. The transmission of the illusory nature of phenomena I also found viscerally very strong in their presence, while at the same time they had incredible attention to detail in the illusion, because of course, it’s illusion and primordial purity at the same time.
For such transmission to occur, the master must be authentic. There is a big distinction between the presence I am describing here and ordinary forms of charisma. Some people can have a strong field of presence through the ego. It can be difficult for people in the modern world to discern between a powerful field generated through ego versus through a realized being. I think it’s easier for those in India and Tibet, where they have a rich tradition of spirituality and guru-disciple relationship. In those cultures, they are more savvy. Westerners can’t tell as easily if someone is posing.
Until one has some experience of who we are outside of ego consciousness, it’s very hard to understand that some people can be operating from another place – from awake awareness. A lot of us can imagine there was Jesus or Buddha. We can imagine holy people out there somewhere, but when we actually come in contact with such people, unless one lets go of concepts and opens to energetically feel the difference between the presence of charisma and power that is ego-based, or the power and charisma of awakened being, it is hard for many to discern.
In any case, being in the presence of a master is not enough. It is the union of being with our teacher and receiving the transmission of mirroring of our true nature, along with doing the practices and listening to their teachings, that brings us to full awakening.
Q: You were among the first westerners to be taught by Tibetan masters. What was it like at the start?Kalu Rinpoche was so delightful. In Darjeeling in his monastery, there was usually only a small group of us, but he would teach us two or three times a week. For the first 45 minutes or so, he gave a serious teaching and over the time I was there it penetrated me more and more. It felt like there was almost a fog at first, but as I practiced and took teachings, it felt like light was shining through the fog and it dissipated. At the end of two years, my mind was much more lucid and I would hear him more clearly – the salient points would stick. So initially, just by listening, I experienced a purification and the obscurations were melting.
In the second 45 minutes of each teaching session, he would tell outrageous stories. It was all completely interwoven with his teaching, but very playful and funny. It was his personality style at that time in his life. I heard from people who had known him earlier that when he was in his 50s, he was stern and fierce, and he mellowed as he got older. I met him when he was 72.
What was extraordinary about him was how much he believed in us. Kalu Rinpoche was the first to give westerners in-depth yogic teachings and put them in 3-year retreat. When people graduated from the first 3-year retreat and he made westerners into lamas, it was a radical move. He never micro-managed or was controlling. He trusted us. He said, “We Tibetan Lamas can give the transmissions and teachings and provide the seeds, but it is you who will figure out how to plant the Dharma in the west.”
Q: What about cultural differences? And being a woman?
Sure, we’re all products of our culture, but in the big picture of what’s really important, I didn’t see or experience bias. I never for an instant felt anything different about being a woman or a westerner. All my teachers were completely openhearted and giving to me. Sometimes I saw people come in contact with them and not receive fully the love and blessing that was being offered — there just wasn’t a connection. Yet there was still always this unstinting generosity, whether male or female, and whatever race. As an example, traditionally women weren’t supposed to go into the Mahakala shrines or sleep overnight in the monasteries. But these high Lamas said it was okay and welcomed us warmly.
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso Rinpoche often said about certain kinds of things that it was just Tibetan superstition. Once in the mid-90s, I asked him why when he first came out of Tibet did he start nunneries and not monasteries. He said, “when something is wrong with your culture, you just have to change it.” This demonstrates the capacity of awakened mind to transcend cultural bondage and limited ideas. With all my lamas, I felt this transcendence of their cultural origins when it came down to important issues like race, gender and homosexuality.
Q: Because of ignorance all around the world, these are dark times. Given this, what might these lamas say is most essential right now?
As we’re doing this interview, the latest terrorist activity in France just happened. We were already feeling the plight of all the migrants, and people everywhere suffering at the hands of other people. Years ago, both the previous Kalu Rinpoche and Karmapa, when I was with them privately, talked to me about the darkening times that were coming, and how it was absolutely essential that we continue to incarnate as humans in the next few lifetimes to help in whatever way we can. When I asked what was most important, Kalu Rinpoche said that the most important thing for sentient beings would be whether their hearts are open or not. For those whose hearts are open, even though we will go through very challenging times, we are on the path to liberation — or as a Christian would language it, on the path toward Divine Union. The open-heartedness that Kalu Rinpoche was talking about goes beyond all religious boundaries.
This is why the Dalai Lama said, “my religion is kindness.” That’s what is most essential right now for the masses. Not an idiot kindness, but the kindness of wisdom. Can humanity learn to cooperate together as one family? Can we learn to honor each other as valuable human beings, whoever we are, whatever race or creed, and cooperate together? In that, I think these teachers have given us a profound example of being open and seeing and feeling the equality of all sentient beings.