KHENSUR RINPOCHE LAMA LHUNDRUP RIGSEL
Jo Hathaway, a palliative care nurse from New Zealand and a student of Lama Lhundrup, has been staying at Kopan since January 2011 to help take care of his medical needs. She wrote the following reflection on her experiences with Lama Lhundrup in late July 2011.
I was extremely fortunate to meet Lama Lhundrup in 2001, after attending the Kopan November course. Right from the first time I met him, his smile, humor and profound wisdom generated a deep fondness in my heart. I was overjoyed and filled with gratitude when he later accepted me as one of his students, knowing that he was the perfect guide to help me tackle and transform my powerfully stubborn and delusional mind.
Over the years I have returned to Kopan numerous times to seek Lama Lhundrup’s guidance and each time he manifests exactly what I need. When I’m open to change, he gives me direct and clear advice; when I’m dragging my heals, his scolding motivates me; when I’m overwhelmed and exhausted, he speaks only kindness; when I’m ready to quit, he says stay with it; when I’m clinging, he says let go; when I’m relaxed, we laugh; when I’m running on emotions, he is dismissive; but when I’m ready and willing, he spends hours explaining the details. What a miracle to be guided so skillfully and perfectly. It scares me to think of the mess I would have created without his unbelievable kindness and care.
Lama Lhundrup’s guidance over the years has impacted my life in so many different ways that it’s hard to isolate any one incident in particular. However, one of the many lessons he taught me came at the end of the Kopan November course in 2004. I was rewarding myself for my month of virtue by joining the throngs of partygoers in Thamel. Of course, party hours don’t mix with monastery hours, so when the music stopped a friend and I got a room to await the opening of the monastery gates. When we made it back up the hill in the morning, heads still swimming, bodies and clothes still smelling like a brewery floor, I kept my eyes lowered and made a dash for my room. As I scuttled past the side of the main gompa, a voice from above called out, “Good morning! How are you? Come and see me!” I was well and truly busted by my guru.
When I made it up the stairs to Lama Lhundrup’s room (cold-showered, clean-clothed and apologies rehearsed in advance), his actions and words were few, but they cut straight through my hefty hangover fog and spoke to the barest part of my being.
He began by imitating the behavior of drunkards; swaying about and acting deranged. “How does this benefit you?” Lama Lhundrup demanded. I had no good answer.
He then “fell over” with robes flying everywhere in an exact replica (if you substitute the robes for a dress) of the recent behavior of one of my drinking buddies back home. The horror of knowing that my guru was with me even in the bars and clubs of New Zealand and knew everything sobered me in an instant. “Stay away from crazy ladies!” he commanded.
Seeking to make some amends for my stupidity I weakly suggested that maybe I could take the “no intoxicants” lay vow for six months. Again his words were forceful and directive:
“Sure, it’s good to take [the vow] for one week, one month, one year. But for you – you take for your whole life!”
Before my brain had a chance to process the ramifications of this instruction, my heart and mouth had already agreed and Lama Lhundrup was checking his astrological calendar for an appropriate date.
Later, as I was walking back to my room, an unexpected feeling of great relief washed over me; no more would I have to join in on the bravado of drunken conversations, no more need to be woken by the cringe-inducing memories of my previous night’s behavior, my most harmful habits would finally be starved of their greatest fuel and become susceptible to self-scrutiny. And let’s face it, I’d been-there-done-that (countless times!) and it was time to move on. Suddenly, as a direct result of the kindness of the guru’s wrath, a mist of delusion had cleared and sure enough, a few days later, I found myself at his feet, willingly and happily taking the vow.
Right from the first day that Lama Lhundrup came home to Kopan from the hospital in Singapore, his approach to illness was different from any other “patient” I have cared for. As we began discussing new routines for feeding, Lama Lhundrup sat swinging the end of his recently inserted stomach-feeding tube around in the air, laughing as he exclaimed, “Look, my new mouth!”
No matter what the situation, Dharma is always the first thing on Lama Lhundrup’s mind. At Losar, many people came to see him and made extensive offerings. After weeks of not eating anything by mouth, he was surrounded by mountains of the most delicious foods and drinks. He commented on his karma to have all his favorite treats while not being able to eat any of it. I suggested that he could chew the things he liked, just to get the taste. He replied woefully, “Then some danger coming.” I reassured him that it would be very safe as long as he spat out the food rather than swallow it. “Danger of more desire coming,” was Lama Lhundrup’s reply.
Physical needs just don’t rank as highly for Lama Lhundrup as they do for most ordinary beings and he doesn’t seem to pay much attention to any changes in his body. This can make our job of trying to keep a handle on what’s happening a little tricky because, unlike most seriously ill people, he never complains of anything. Ever. Once, when trialing a new medicine for nausea I tried to ask if he felt any different, better or worse than the previous day. He gave me a very puzzled look; yesterday was yesterday, there was no point dwelling on yesterday’s troubles today, and besides, what does it matter if the body is good one day or not so good the next? (So much for all my fancy symptom assessment training!) Even when the manifestation of Lama Lhundrup’s illness is very obvious, like when his body needs to vomit, he just grins at those around him and exclaims, “Samsara! Are you renouncing yet?”
Lama Lhundrup’s wish to make others happy also takes precedence over his own welfare. When we became concerned that physiological changes in his body may indicate that he was experiencing pain, I tried to ask him about it. The conversation started out well:
“Do you have any pain?”
“Can you show me where the pain is?”
Then I fell into concerned-nurse mode while asking the next list of questions. Instead of answering, Lama Lhundrup said to me with a relaxed smile, “You don’t like pain?”
“No, of course not Khenrinpoche,” was my perplexed reply. (Nobody likes pain, right?)
Lama Lhundrup simply responded, “Then I don’t have pain.” And with that, turned back to his text and continued his evening prayers. End of conversation, end of my reason to be worried.
Another time when we were again discussing pain I asked him how he would like us to treat it. He replied, “It’s better to experience it, for the sake of all sentient beings.” Lama Lhundrup uses the manifestation of illness to practice tonglen for others and he often tells people to send all their worries and sicknesses to him so they can be free from suffering. These days, I suspect out of compassion for us and to ease our worry, Lama Lhundrup accepts a small amount of pain relief medication, just enough to enable him to concentrate well when doing his prayers and practices but without the need for, or intention of, stopping the experience of pain completely. His views on illness are definitely extra-ordinary!
Lama Lhundrup is my perfect teacher who never wastes any opportunity to challenge my thinking and behavior, whether as his student, his nurse or both. Even the most seemingly ordinary situations can become profound teachings in his presence. For example, several months ago I became concerned that he had developed an infection in his mouth and throat (a very common occurrence with the illness he is manifesting). When I explained my concerns to him and asked if I could look inside his mouth, he just simply said “no.”
ARGH! What to do!?
It later dawned on me that as a nurse I expected a level of compliance from patients. Embarrassingly, the subtext to that assumption went something like: “After all, they need my help!”Even though we always asked permission before carrying out physical examinations of patients, I wasn’t actually prepared for someone to just simply say “no.”
I was completely stumped. The nurse in me knew it was important to identify and deal with any possible source of infection as quickly as possible but the student in me didn’t want to second-guess my guru’s very clear reply. But which role should take priority? After a couple of minutes of silent mental anguish I plucked up the courage to try again. I re-explained my concerns, this time adding that if there was infection, we could give him some medicine which would help him to feel better.
Well, that really did it. Lama Lhundrup looked straight at me, eyes wide with surprise and incredulity and said, “You think you can make samsara better!” There it was like a bolt of lightning, one of the fundamental differences between me and my guru; all my concerns were solely based on the wish to make this life more comfortable (coupled with the delusion that this was actually possible) while his focus was solely on getting us out of samsara altogether!
Fortunately for me, Lama Lhundrup did show me the tip of his tongue later on, the infection was confirmed and we were able to treat it quickly and effectively. (Although I doubt he felt “better” as the infection had hardly bothered him in the first place!)
Caring for Lama Lhundrup has been the steepest learning curve of my life. It has been more intense and confounding than any retreat, study or work I have ever undertaken. It is also more meaningful, rewarding and precious. I hope that whatever I am able to learn from witnessing first-hand a great Dharma master’s way of life and manifestation of illness, I will be able to make use of to be a better Dharma student, nurse, wife, daughter, friend and human being. In this way, I hope to repay at least a fraction of my guru’s kindness.Tags: kopan monastery, lama lhundrup