KHENSUR RINPOCHE LAMA LHUNDRUP RIGSEL
Khensur Rinpoche Lama Lhundrup Rigsel tirelessly offered his service to accomplishing the wishes of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche for almost 40 years at Kopan Monastery in Nepal. Lama Lhundrup came to Kopan in 1972 upon the request of Lama Yeshe, who wrote to Lama Lhundrup simply, “I have some monks, can you teach them? If so, please come.” Since then, Lama Lhundrup has touched the lives of thousands of students, taking care of the monks and nuns of Kopan as well as international Dharma students, who traveled to Kopan from places like Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Europe and the Americas. Lama Lhundrup received the title Abbot of Kopan Monastery officially in 2001, although he had unofficially held the position since the time of Lama Yeshe’s death in 1984. Lama Lhundrup stepped down as abbot in July 2011 due to advanced stomach cancer, a diagnosis he received in January 2011.
On September 7, 2011 at 11:10 p.m., after a lifetime of Dharma study, practice and selfless service to countless sentient beings, Lama Lhundrup stopped breathing and passed into clear light meditation. On September 9, 2011, at 5 p.m., Ven. Thubten Kunkyen observed signs that Lama Lhundrup’s consciousness had left his body.
(We are honored to also share a selection of photos taken in the days leading up to his passing and during the activities that followed.)
By Jo Hathaway
There had been few of the usual physical signs of impending death. We knew Lama Lhundrup was manifesting serious illness, the scan results and physical examinations showed that the cancer was rapidly growing and we could see the tumors in his stomach had made their way to the skin surface. Yet he was still having the equivalent of three meals a day through his feeding tube – or “new mouth” as he called it – and was able to walk and remained as alert and uncomplaining as ever. The signs were subtle. He talked about impermanence and death with visitors more frequently and his goodbyes were somehow more final. Many of his treasured possessions were being gifted to others. Two weeks before he died, Lama Lhundrup asked Ven. Kunkyen, his devoted attendant for over 15 years, to arrange pujas for him at Sera Monastery in South India; the date for the pujas was to be September 7. The week before he died, he announced it was time for him to move from his room above the main gompa to his retreat apartment above the Chenrezig Gompa; the date he set was September 4. And in the final week, Lama Lhundrup began answering questions about his health – “How are you feeling today, Khensur Rinpoche?” – with sparkling eyes, a wide grin and cryptic replies like “feeling is feeling” or “feeling doesn’t exist.”
When the time came for Lama Lhundrup to leave his room, he instructed Ven. Kunkhen to make offerings on all the remaining altars then, with khata and offering in hand, he spoke quietly to Ven. Sangpo with a message for Lama Zopa Rinpoche:
Please inform Rinpoche that day and night there is unbearable suffering, but I pray that this will purify my negativities. Please request Rinpoche to bless me, that I may generate unshakable respect and devotion to Rinpoche. May whatever broken samayas I have with Lama Rinpoche since beginningless rebirth up until now, be purified. May I be freed from the suffering, I offer my body, speech and mind to Lama and whatever obstacles Guru’s holy body has, may they ripen upon me.1
Teary eyed, the monks carefully helped Lama Lhundrup to dress in his full robes before slowly wheeling him from the room. First, they circumambulated the Yamantaka mandala before Lama Lhundrup said goodbye to a tearful Geshe Tsering (Lama Yeshe’s brother). Before leaving the building, they made offerings to the thrones and statues in the main gompa. On arrival at the apartment, Lama Lhundrup raised his hands in prostration and said a quiet prayer as he was wheeled through the door. There was time for prayers before each altar before he settled, exhausted, into his chair in his meditation room.
Although the move had left Lama Lhundrup’s body drained of energy, his condition appeared to return to usual on September 5. I gave him his regular foods and medications throughout the day and returned to my room at 7 p.m. Just before 11 p.m., my phone rang. It was Ven. Kunkyen requesting that I return to the retreat apartment. Lama Lhundrup had announced to his two attendants – Ven. Kunkyen and Ven. Thardoe – that he was dying. The time had come to start the preparations for his death. Ven. Kunkyen had already contacted Dagri Rinpoche to send a prayer request to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and then gone to inform Lama Zopa Rinpoche. I went in to see Lama Lhundrup. Somehow his condition had dramatically changed over the last four hours. He was now very gaunt, pale and showing physical signs of advanced bowel obstruction and intense pain, but still sitting in his chair, smiling calmly. Every word took great effort for him to say yet he continued to guide us through what needed to be done.
There had been times in the previous months when the thought of Lama Lhundrup’s death had invoked a sudden sense of panic in my heart. Yet now that the time had come, it seemed like the calmness and clarity of his energy pervaded his entire surroundings. Both Lama Lhundrup and Lama Zopa Rinpoche had prepared us so perfectly. There was no panic or despair, just the wish to do our best to fulfill our Guru’s wishes at such an important time.
I gave Lama Lhundrup a small injection of morphine for pain. Above all else, he wanted to be as alert as possible at the time of death, so we had been experimenting with pain medicines in the previous weeks to find what worked best with the least side effects. Although morphine reduced the pain effectively, he didn’t like the sleepiness it caused and therefore only ever accepted the smallest of doses.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche soon arrived at the apartment with his second attendant Ven. Sangpo and Geshe Jangchub. Many of the Kopan monks had been woken and were now reciting Medicine Buddha puja in the main gompa. Over the next two and a half hours Rinpoche recited preparation for death texts and prayers beside Lama Lhundrup before placing blessed cords around his neck and mantra against his heart. Softly and slowly Lama Lhundrup made the following request:
I, from the bottom of my heart, single pointedly pray to you, Lama Rinpoche. Please joyfully guide me from now until buddhahood is achieved. Until then may my three doors fully engage with the holy Mahayana Dharma. May I be able to practice complete Dharma of sutra and tantra in a fully qualified way. May I be able to do this and may I gain such abilities for this to happen. I pray to you, Lama Rinpoche, please bless me to become like this, and whatever Rinpoche has to do, from Rinpoche’s side, please compassionately bless this to happen. I make supplication to you. If there happened to be any mistake and if I have disturbed your holy mind, please forgive me. This is what I have to request of you, Rinpoche. Sorry this may be a bit too much to ask for and disrespectful, but there is no one other than Lama that I can seek guidance and help from. 1
Lama Zopa Rinpoche assured Lama Lhundrup that there was no need to worry. Due to their strong karmic connection, whatever Lama Lhundrup wished and prayed for would undoubtedly come true. As Rinpoche left, Lama Lhundrup prayed:
In case I am going to be reborn and tortured in hell, may the sufferings of all beings in that hell and the sufferings of those who are going to be reborn in that hell in the future, ripen upon me. Please bless me.1
Ven. Kunkhen, Ven. Thardoe and I sat quietly at Lama Lhundrup’s feet. He thanked us for our service and gave instructions for future practice. They recited the King of Prayers together. As night passed into morning, Vens. Kunkhen and Thardoe tirelessly cared for their Guru, giving him sips of fluids, helping him to the toilet, adjusting his pillows and massaging his stomach and legs, often for hours on end, seemingly knowing exactly what Lama Lhundrup needed. As the sun rose over the mountains casting its golden glow across the room, we helped Lama Lhundrup to settle into bed.
On September 6, Dr. Bishnu, a local oncologist experienced in palliative care, visited. Lama Lhundrup welcomed him warmly as usual. Although he wasn’t interested in further food or medicines, he agreed to have more of the excess fluid accumulating in his abdomen drained to ease his discomfort. Before Dr. Bishnu left, Lama Lhundrup thanked him intently, offered a final khata and prayed for his health and continued ability to ease the suffering of all those who were sick. Even so close to his own death, Lama Lhundrup’s thoughts remained steadfastly centered on the comfort and welfare of others, not once wanting to draw attention to the sufferings of his own body.
While I monitored the abdominal drain, Vens. Kunkhen and Thardoe continued to make arrangements for the various pujas and rituals that needed to be performed. We took turns sitting quietly in the room with Lama Lhundrup as he did his prayers, complete with hand mudras. At 2:45 p.m., Lama Lhundrup asked Kunkhen to wash his arms, hands, face, mouth and tongue. Now, covered with his gold zen, lam-rim text at his head, he asked to be placed on his side in the Reclining Buddha position before thanking and dismissing his two faithful attendants.
The three of us sat outside his room and waited. I asked Ven. Kunkhen what we should do now. “Be as quiet as possible and do not disturb him,” he answered. “But if we don’t go in, how will we know when he is dying? He may die on his own!” was my perplexed response. Very gently Ven. Kunkhen explained that this was the intended plan. It had never occurred to me that Lama Lhundrup would be alone at the time of his death. We had taken turns accompanying him day and night since he became ill, and like many Westerners, I guess I regarded leaving someone to die alone akin to abandonment. I had unconsciously assumed that out of respect, someone would be with Lama Lhundrup up to and including the moments of his final breaths. But of course it made perfect sense that an accomplished Dharma practitioner, who had been preparing for this moment his whole life, would be best left undisturbed.
But we still needed to make sure Lama Lhundrup had everything he needed so Ven. Kunkhen quietly checked on him regularly throughout the afternoon. Lama Lhundrup continued to stay alert, reciting prayers and preparing for death, occasionally smiling at him or waving him away as he peaked around the door.
At 7:45 that evening, the senior Kopan monks were set up and ready to begin the puja vigils in the apartment that would ultimately continue throughout the process of Lama Lhundrup’s physical death, clear light meditation and the following forty-nine days. Often, groups of monks and nuns would set up in two rooms in the apartment and the pujas would continue seamlessly, day and night, alternating from one group to the next without a break. Now I could see why he had moved to the apartment: it had the space and privacy to accommodate everyone comfortably without disrupting the day-to-day workings of the monastery.
I watched as the community gathered in and around the apartment. Like a perfectly choreographed dance, senior Kopan Sangha intuitively knew what needed to be done. With few words spoken, everything manifested at just the right times, be it flowers for the table, a vegetarian noodle feast at 3:30 a.m., offerings for the pujas or a steaming coffee just as energy levels began fading.
In a quiet moment late that night, I began to worry that Lama Lhundrup had been lying in the same position for more than seven hours. My training told me this could cause discomfort and bed sores, although admittedly I was pleased to realize that it had taken this long before my Western obsession with the welfare of the body had resurfaced! I asked Ven. Kunkhen if we should be worrying about such things. “Lama Lhundrup’s mind is already out of range of his body so these things have no effect on his mind now,” he reassured me.
Lama Lhundrup’s prayers and meditations continued throughout the night as Sangha offered pujas on the other side of the wall. By the morning of September 7, the effects of not taking his regular foods and medicines started to show: Lama Lhundrup’s abdomen was swelling again, his bowel was cramping and esophageal secretions were pooling in his throat. Not that he noticed; he was completely immersed in his meditations. When Ven. Kunkhen, followed shortly by Ven. Thardoe, entered his room at 8:45 a.m. to inform him that Lama Zopa Rinpoche was on his way, Lama Lhundrup emphatically greeted them with “You don’t exist! And you don’t exist either!” When Rinpoche arrived shortly after, he was met with the same proclamation.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche sat with Lama Lhundrup and recited prayers. When they had finished, Lama Lhundrup lay with his hands in prostration, slowly and softly repeating “Thank you Rinpoche, thank you so much, thank you for everything, thank you, thank you, thank you” as Rinpoche made his way to the door. On leaving the room, Rinpoche again did mos, re-checking all of Lama Lhundrup’s symptoms. He gave guidance on which medications (Western, Tibetan and Nepali) to use and advised us to help Lama Lhundrup live as long as possible as every hour, every minute, every second more was infinitely precious.
We formulated a new plan for giving food and essential medicines and the three of us went into Lama Lhundrup’s room. He had other ideas. Everything we tried to give him was met with a dismissive wave of his hand, except the blessed water which had been sent by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and miraculously arrived just in time. His body may have had the appearance of failing and being near death, but his mind remained as clear, focused and fully in control as ever. He even refused morphine, instead preferring to hit his fist against the floor as a way of managing the pain, which for an ordinary being would have been unbearably excruciating by now. For the next couple of hours I watched a most remarkable display of guru devotion. Bent over his bed at angles difficult to tolerate, Vens. Kunkhen and Thardoe took turns trying to halt the blows or cushion Lama Lhundrup’s fist as it hit the floor time and time again. A silent game of wits they were unlikely to win, though they calmly and lovingly tried everything. When they held his arm, he overpowered them; when they covered the floor in cushions, he threw these across the room; when they put their hands in one place on the floor, Lama Lhundrup hit out in a different direction; and when they put their bodies between his fist and the floor, Lama Lhundrup hit harder.
At 2:15 p.m. Lama Zopa Rinpoche requested to see me. I hurried up to his room and confessed our lack of success. Rinpoche laughed as I explained we were no match for Lama Lhundrup’s powerful will. He sent me back to the apartment with a direct message for Lama Lhundrup:
“Khensur Rinpoche Lama Lhundrup, Lama Zopa Rinpoche says that death will happen when it happens. In the meantime we need to take care of your body as best as possible with food and medicines.”
Instantly Lama Lhundrup agreed, even adjusting his body to make it easier for us to access his feeding tube and arm. Now he completely accepted our presence and our medical care – although we still tried to keep our interruptions to a minimum.
By early evening, Lama Lhundrup was resting comfortably although his breathing was starting to change, a sign that death was approaching. After giving Lama Lhundrup his evening medicines and a small amount of food, I left his room at 11 p.m. His condition was much the same with no obvious signs of the death absorptions. He had been aware of my presence, half opening his eyes and moving his right hand away from the feeding tube as I quietly approached his bedside, replacing it over the tube when I had finished. I had never before seen someone so close to death remain so aware and yet so calm and in control. Before I left, he allowed me to gently lift his right hand and lay it at his side; I was concerned that the weight of it on the tube would become painful in the hours ahead.
Minutes later Ven. Sangpo arrived at the apartment, out of the blue, khata in hand. Before taking him into Lama Lhundrup’s room (so he could see how peaceful Lama Lhundrup was and report back to Lama Zopa Rinpoche), I did a quick check. Lama Lhundrup was lying peacefully, not breathing, his face now emitting a soft glow. The air in the room was absolutely still. It seemed like nothing had moved since I left, except Lama Lhundrup had once again placed his hand back over the feeding tube – or more accurately, as I now realized – over the mantras Rinpoche had placed at his heart. Ven. Kunkyen joined me as Lama Lhundrup took one last, small breath. It was 11:10 p.m., 48 hours since he had announced he was dying.
As Vens. Kunkyen, Thardoe, Sangpo and Geshe Jangchub spent a few minutes with Lama Lhundrup, I sat outside the door. Never had I imagined that his room would be filled with such peace, calm and tranquility that it would be impossible to feel anything but these things. The tears that gathered in the corners of my eyes were tears of gratitude, that I had been able to witness such a remarkable and profound event: the passing into clear light meditation of our precious Guru, the passing of a great Buddhist master.
Jo Hathaway is a palliative care nurse from New Zealand and a student of Khensur Rinpoche Lama Lhundrup. She wrote for Mandala this account of Lama Lhundrup’s passing in November 2011. She wishes to express, “deep gratitude and heartfelt thanks to Khensur Rinpoche Lama Lhundrup, Ven. Kunkyen, Ven. Thardoe and the Kopan community for opening their hearts and home to me for eight-and-a-half months. Also, limitless thanks to the many others who supported us in so many ways, enabling us to care for our Guru his way and in his own home.”
Jo’s story, “Caring for Lama Lhundrup,” was published in Mandala’s October-December 2011 issue.
Mandala has posted online more articles and reflections on the life and death of Lama Lhundrup, including a PDF of the prayer for his quick return.