Book Review: Amrita of Eloquence: A Biography of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche – by Lama Karma Drodul-translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso, KTD Publications (2009)
For me, this is the story of my guru, or the closest interaction with an authentic teacher I have encountered. Lama Karma as author is knowledgeable and capable as is Lama Yeshe as translator.
The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, wrote in the forward that he rejoices in its publication since Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche is worthy of praise and his biography will be a source of goodness. In the first preface by the late Ninth Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, he notes the three traditional qualities of a teacher: extensive learning, impeccable moral character, and a kindly disposition and says that Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche possesses all three in abundance. He tells of Rinpoche’s great learning and his care for his students around the world. He tells of his commitment as a fully ordained Buddhist monk for most of his life. He tells of his great humility and patience. He praises the biography as a source of inspiration. In the second preface by the Ninth Thrangu Rinpoche, it is noted that Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and Thrangu Rinpoche knew each other as young monks at Thrangu Monastery in Tibet and fled Tibet together in 1959. He notes that Rinpoche “has consistently demonstrated his reliability and his goodness, The characteristics of a genuine spiritual friend.”
Lama Karma also expresses happiness for the opportunity to write a namtar (spiritual biography) of his guru and dedicates the merit to all beings. Translator Lama Yeshe Gyamtso notes that the Tibetan version, written in 2005 is titled: Amrita of Eloquence, Medicine for Our Faith: A Brief Biography of Our Great Holy Guide, the Learned and Accomplished Khenpo Karma Tarchin. He notes that Lama Karma’s account of the value of a namtar is that studying the life of a guru brings devotion and devotion brings awakening. He also gives a short account of Lama Karma’s life thus far: born in 1974, became a monk at 13, fully ordained at 20, came to America in 1997 and became Rinpoche’s attendant. Rinpoche is his uncle. He also notes Lama Karma’s traditional Tibetan habit of denigrating his own importance compared to the teacher. Lama Yeshe notes this habit as a reminder toward humility. He also thinks this work is a good example of how to practice devotion to the guru in the tradition of the three yanas. Thanks to the efforts of Lama Karma and Lama Yeshe we are able to have the opportunity to study the life of our guru. The publisher notes that Lama Karma wrote the biography at the request of Lama Nyima Rinpoche (it is customary to do such actions by request) of Thrangu Monastery in East Tibet.
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche passed away on Oct. 6, 2019 at age 96. He was cremated in a traditional ceremony a few weeks later. As the death of one’s teacher is said to be a good time to do practices, in order to mix one’s mind with the mind of the guru, I thought it would also be good to become re-inspired by his virtuous life and awakened qualities.
The book is full of pictures, old and new, from Tibet, America, Taiwan, Bhutan, India, etc. Rinpoche was one of the foremost teachers of dharma in the “West” over the last 43 years of his life. The book is a traditional namtar, or spiritual biography. It is structured around the analogy of the twelve deeds of the Buddha with twelve chapters explaining the “greatnesses” of the guru. The book includes some splendid lyrical dharma poetry and lots of anecdotes and stories of Rinpoche’s life. Lama Karma also includes explanatory verses from various sutras and tantras.
The first part is called Virtue in the Beginning and gives veneration, the writer’s promise to write, and an introduction. First given are the traditional attributes of a guru or a ‘spiritual friend:’ He should be very leaned in the Mahayana path and very disciplined in practice are two of the main requirements. One thing Lama Karma notes is that the 16th Karmapa conferred upon him the title “Lord of Dharma” before sending him to America in 1976. Such a title being conferred by the Gyalwang Karmapa shows that the lord of the Karma Kagyu lineage has confidence in Rinpoche’s qualities as a teacher of dharma. Lama Karma also gives the meaning and qualities of a namtar: it means “complete liberation” and is the story of the guru’s liberation through practice. It has the quality to inspire, to stir others to attention and practice. It inspires devotion to the guru as well. He notes that devotion is a special quality of the Dakpo Kagyu, the Kagyu schools that come through the teacher Gampopa. Transference of the lineage blessing from the guru is a key feature and devotion enables such transmission.
The second part is called Virtue in the Middle and contains the actual biography. The first part is about his birth and childhood. Rinpoche was born in Kham, a region of East Tibet. It is a region of steppe-like valleys and high mountains. There are grazing herbivore animals like gazelles and yaks, water birds like geese and swans, and grasses and flowers. Nomadic Tibetans there keep goats, sheep, cows, and horses as well. As is customary Lama Karma gives some details of Rinpoche’s birth and potentially auspicious signs associated with it. One is that he was born at sunrise, indicating his wisdom. Another was his birth on a Dharmapala day, indicating his strength. Some dharma activities of Rinpoche’s parents are recounted, including his father’s carving of the Amitayus Sutra and a stupa on a large flat rock sticking out of a mountain. His father studied under a Great Perfection teacher, Drimay Ozer the yogin, and practiced daily recitations including the names of Manjusri. Rinpoche played old cymbals as a child during family Guru Rinpoche practices. The yogin also taught Rinpoche’s parents the Powa, or ejection of consciousness practice. His father was said to be heard reciting the mantra Phat!, from the Powa practice when he died. Several of Rinpoche’s brothers are/were also lamas of some distinction.
Rinpoche became a novice monk when he was 12 and lived at Thrangu Monastery. When he was 15 the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa stayed for a month at Thrangu Monastery bestowing empowerments and teachings, Including numerous black crown ceremonies. Rinpoche was able to attend all of these events. When he was 16 he went on pilgrimage to Lhasa on foot as was customary for monks. When he was 20 Rinpoche received the bhikshu vows of full ordination. In Lama Karma’s poetic words:
You saw sacred places and the Black Crown that Liberates upon Sight.
Your past aspirations and virtuous habits were awakened.
You properly received the precious moral discipline pleasing to the victors
And are magnificent amidst the saffron-adorned.
Rinpoche did a one-year retreat soon thereafter and then his three year retreat on the six dharmas of Naropa at Thrangu Monastery. Inspired by teachings from Jamgon Rinpoche he decided to spend the rest of his life in retreat but after a few months Traleg Rinpoche insisted that he would be of more benefit if he attended the college so at age 26 he attended the college for the next 5 years. He received more teachings from the Karmapa and traveled for the next 5 years with Thrangu Rinpoche doing ceremonies and teachings. He was also manager of Thrangu Rinpoche’s residence. He was inspired when Khenpo Gangshar visited Thrangu Monastery and gave teachings on guidance of the mind. In 1958, due to politics and war Rinpoche fled Tibet with Thrangu Rinpoche, Traleg Rinpoche, Zuru Tulku, and Rinpoche’s brother Lama Sonam Chodar. A few weeks into their journey they were fired upon by the Chinese, but no one was hit. Rinpoche recounted that he visualized the Gyalwa Karmapa on his back like a shield of protection as he ran. In 1959 they reached the refugee camp in Buxa, India. Rinpoche spent 9 years there studying with lamas of all traditions. In 1967 Rinpoche went to Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim and taught monks there. He was there for a year and a half then went to Tilokpur nunnery where he stayed and taught for another year and a half. Then Karmapa sent Rinpoche to be rainy season abbot at Dungkar Tashi Choling, a monastery in Bhutan. He stayed there with some others from Thrangu monastery for the rainy season then went to Khamtrul Rinpoche’s monastery in Tashi Jong, also in Bhutan, to receive four months of teachings and empowerments from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Throughout these narratives Rinpoche has various dreams which he interprets. One recurring theme is that of the Thrangu Upasaka (a non-monastic Buddhist with liberation vows), a kind of spirit who helps protect Thrangu monastics and practitioners. Rinpoche credits the Karmapa’s compassion and the Thrangu Upasaka’s guidance as keys to his own success at serving the dharma. At this time Rinpoche has begun suffering from tuberculosis. He suffered for five years finally being hospitalized for 11 months. He felt he was close to death and began to prepare. He began to improve, especially after he made it to America in 1976 to become the Gyalwa Karmapa’s representative. Karmapa believed Rinpoche would have died had he not received treatment in America.
Rinpoche gave his first teaching in America in New York City in 1977. The Karmapa was there and was pleased. Land was found to begin construction of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD) near Woodstock, New York. There was trouble hitting water with a water well as after drilling 500ft no water was found. Karmapa suggested they offer a golden drink, an offering to the ‘golden guardian of the earth,’ who Karmapa said was a great protector of the USA. Soon thereafter water was secured. The 16th Gyalwa Karmapa died in America in the fall of 1981. Karmapa gave two vials of his blood to Rinpoche for use in rituals and formulations of dharma pills. During this time – late 70’s, early 80’s – many Karma Kagyu centers were established in America. Rinpoche first taught tranquility meditation but as disciples matured he also began to confer empowerments and other ritual practices.
Rinpoche was known for his hard work. He filled many statues with dharana rolls and precious stones, was renowned at sowing thankas, brocades, and other fabrics, built drums, was an expert in geomancy (he taught some geomancy from Karma Chakme’s teachings when I was in attendance once), and painted and gilded statues. He gathered gifts and practice aids for dharma practitioners at the various centers.
Rinpoche had a very strong dharma practice that began as he awoke early in the day. He often kept his back erect throughout the day (a yogic practice) and sat with his hands touching the ground in front of his knees in the manner of Lord Marpa.
Rinpoche was known to offer blessing by touching the top of his head to those of his disciples. I was fortunate to receive some of these, usually during empowerments, but once when I asked him to introduce me to the nature of mind. Of course, the blessing went right through me as I was not so aware. Rinpoche was devoted to the Kagyu masters of the past, especially Gampopa. Some of his students even consider him as an emanation of Gampopa. He was also very devoted to the 16th and 17th Gyalwa Karmapas.
Rinpoche also travelled to Taiwan a few times, where he had disciples. There he helped heal a woman who had had a stroke. He visited ill disciples when he could and helped the dead by performing Powa. With Lama Norlha he was able to attend the enthronement the 17th Karmapa at Tsurphu in Tibet and on his return he saw a certain yak which he identified as an emanation of the Thrangu Upasaka. In 2004 when he visited Tibet again he identified a butterfly that followed them a long way as an emanation of the Thrangu Upasaka. Interpretation of dreams, events, and appearances of beings has long been a feature of Karma Kagyu Buddhism, especially among the more dedicated practitioners.
Rinpoche, along with Bardor Tulku Rinpoche and Tenzin Chonyi made KTD an inspiring place to practice and receive teachings. They also helped establish and sustain many meditation centers which continue today. There are daily ritual practices at KTD including Green Tara, Chenrezik, and Mahakala sadhana practices. Every new year there are long practices of the three principle Kagyu yidams – Vajravarahi, Chakrasamvara, and Jinasagara. There is also a long Amitabha practice performed. When Rinpoche first met the 17th Karmapa he was addressed as “Agama” just as the 16th Karmapa addressed him – as a term of endearment.
In 1990 the groundbreaking for Karme Ling was blessed during a visit by Jamgon Rinpoche. He died later that year in a car accident in India. This was to be the first three-year retreat (actually three years, three months, and three days) set up in America. The retreat begins with the mahamudra preliminaries (ngondro) according to Jamgon Lodro Thaye’s Torch of Certainty. Next comes the three guruyogas of Marpa, Milarepa, or Gampopa. Then the six dharmas of Naropa are practiced. Then the practice of Chakrasamvara is done. Other daily practices such as torma offerings, chod or severance, burnt offerings, smoke offerings, and physical practices are done as well. Elaborate practices and fire offerings are done at the conclusion of retreat. Rinpoche sowed all the garments for the retreatants.
Lama Karma notes that Rinpoche’s foremost disciple was Lama Yeshe Losal. He spent four years in retreat performing one million prostrations among other practices. He now(?) lives at Samye Ling in Scotland. Another is the American woman Lama Karma Wangmo, who practiced Vajrayogini for twelve years after preliminaries that included a hundred Nyung Ne practices. She is said to wander without a fixed location. Others are the American man Lama Tsultrim who has completed three three-year retreats and the Taiwanese woman Ani Lodro, who also completed three three-year retreats. Another Taiwanese woman Ani Karma Puntsok continued to practice after three-year retreat, not leaving at all but entering the next retreat, practicing Jinasagara. Other three-year retreatant veterans including Lama Kathy Wesley, or Jigmay Chotso, continue to teach at affiliate centers. Lama Kathy has been the most active teacher to tour the other centers and give teachings. Those who do not do three-year retreat are encouraged to practice the four hundred thousand preliminaries, or ngondro, which may take some years, followed by the Karma Pakshi Gurusadhana.
Rinpoche has taught many teachings over the years, including teaching Powa to many Chinese students who accumulated six million Amitabha mantras. Rinpoche would teach at KTD, occasionally visit affiliate centers (we were very lucky to host him three times in Athens, Ohio), and teach at Karme Ling. Since 1991 Rinpoche taught a 10-day teaching at KTD in the summer. At the request of the 16th Karmapa, Rinpoche taught over the course of a few years the Mountain Dharma of Karma Chakme. These teachings are available in book form. He taught many different teachings like those from Atisha and the Bodhicharyavatara of Shantideva, and many books were published of his teachings and instructions. When Rinpoche visited Tibet he again served as rainy season abbot as he did once in Bhutan. As a fully ordained monk he encouraged the other monks to keep their moral discipline, stating that:
A bhikshu with moral discipline is luminous
In 2001 Rinpoche visited the 17th Karmapa in India and attended the Kagyu Monlam, or prayer festival. While there Rinpoche and Bardor Tulku Rinpoche offered a traditional mandala to the Karmapa and many other offerings to those present. Lama Karma praises his teaching thus:
Through the current of empowerment, transmission, and instruction.
You ripen and free beings, placing each appropriately on the three yana’s path,
Your activity is tremendously vast, including direct and indirect disciples,
You free your mothers born in foreign lands from the ocean of becoming.
In 1996 Rinpoche attended the stupa consecrations in Crestone, Colorado. Rinpoche visited Thrangu Monastery in Tibet in 2004. He was met with a great procession at that place where he first studied and practiced dharma intently. He taught there for as long as he could then returned to the U.S. and resumed his regular duties as primary teacher and retreat master. He was delighted by news of his brother Lama Sonam who was doing life-long retreat and had completed 100 million mani recitations and his sister who had completed 200 million mani recitations. His disciple Bhikshuni Karuna Lodro Dronma completed 108 Nyung Ne practices. Rinpoche offered a mandala at the first teaching of Khenpo Ugyen Tendzin, who had recently arrived from Rumtek Monastery to be a teacher at KTD. Khenpo Ugyen is still there and now travels to teach at affiliate centers. Many great lamas have visited KTD and gave teachings and consecrations including Garchen Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, Thangu Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche, Jamgon Rinpoche, Traleg Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and others. During this time period a columbarium, to store ashes of deceased dharma practitioners was built at Karme Ling with statues of the five Buddha families and the Eight Mahabodhisattvas.
Guru devotion is considered a special teaching of the Dakpo Kagyu lineages. Devotion to one’s guru is considered the key to attainment through the blessing powers of the lineage. According to the sutras the guru is Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Since we do not have the fortune and karma to meet the Buddhas and bodhisattvas directly our meeting with an authentic guru is most important. It is the guru who shows us the two bodhicittas and points out mahamudra. In the tantras it is noted:
It is better to briefly recollect the guru
Than to meditate on a deity with marks and signs
For a hundred thousand kalpas.
The merit of remembering the guru is infinite.
It is also said that all deities are indistinguishable from our guru. Through such devotion all attainments and understanding are possible. There are four requirements for authentic devotion: Never examine the guru’s faults, know that whatever he or she does is good, one must resolve to eliminate hope and fear, and one must think of the guru as a parent. One will receive blessings from the guru according to how one perceives the guru, ie. as a Buddha, bodhisattva, siddha, or ordinary spiritual friend. Many sutras, tantras, and teachers have taught the great value of guru devotion. Lama Karma gives many examples.
Lama Karma also says that Rinpoche did not dictate any stories about his life and did not expect a biography to be written but told him it was up to him whether he would write it. Many of the stories and facts therein Lama Karma remembered from conversations and his own observations. His goal is/was to increase the devotion of himself and others. This biography was completed in late November 2005 while Lama Karma was in his second three-year retreat.
The last chapter includes several longevity supplications for Khenpo Rinpoche’s long life. It was great for many of us that he got to live and teach until he died at age 96. I remember the last few words of instruction from him I read on a Facebook post:
In practice, be courageous. Do not be timid. (paraphrased but I think that is right)
It is no small matter in one’s life to meet an authentic being and I and many others have been fortunate enough to do just that and learn from his example and his teachings.