Currently, I have the amazing good fortune of a six-month leave from my job as a history teacher in New Hampshire. I’ve been traveling in Nepal and India, going to holy places and teachings and the Kagyu Monlam, meeting wonderful teachers and fellow practitioners, and practicing more than I can in my usual busy life at home.
When I planned this trip, little did I know that the great 19th century master, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, would come along. But thank goodness he has.
The Ten-Day Teaching with Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra last August initiated my journey with Lodro Thaye. Not only did Rinpoche choose to teach from Lodro Thaye’s classic work, “The Torch of Certainty,” but Lama Kathy Wesley also recommended that I purchase and read Lodro Thaye’s “Great Path of Awakening,” a teaching on Lojong (Mind Training) that has since become the root text for most subsequent commentaries.
It had dawned on me during the Question and Answer period one afternoon during the Ten-Day that I needed to emphasize Lojong more in my practice, and Lama Kathy responded enthusiastically to my request for help, going over her notes and highlighting some key passages in the book despite her ridiculously busy schedule. I gratefully brought the book with me on the trip, with the aspiration to use it every day.
Bakhtapur – First Encounter
On arrival in Nepal, I got busy and somehow didn’t find the time for “Great Path” until a one-week retreat in Thrangu Rinpoche’s retreat center in Bhaktapur, Nepal in late October.
It was Dashain holiday, and I was free from my volunteer responsibilities at Thrangu Rinpoche’s boarding school in Boudhanath. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) for me, the rest of Nepal also was free that week, and what seemed to me like a sizable portion of the small nation’s population showed up at the retreat center.
Artisans were working feverishly to put the finishing touches on a magnificent Milarepa tower that Thrangu Rinpoche was planning to consecrate just after his 80th birthday in late November. I learned later that the only way Lama Sangye, the monk responsible for completing the project, could entice all the workers to stay and work through Dashain was to allow their families to join them for the week.
I went into retreat with grand aspirations, sincere effort and devotion, and a large helping of self-importance. The building for Western retreatants was full, and since I was a short-term retreatant, I stayed in the lama house. My room fronted the only strip of green lawn on the grounds that was not otherwise occupied by the Milarepa tower’s construction. It held the only clothesline. It was the main play space for the workers’ children, as well as the main picnic spot for the workers during their lunch break.
Even Lama Sangye’s declaration that I was extremely fortunate to be staying in the great Khenpo Lhaibhu’s room while he was traveling in Europe could not quell my initial frustration and annoyance at the constant stream of people, noise, and interruption going on outside my screen door.
Then I opened “Great Path.” I devoured the entire book, cover to cover, in a couple of days. Then I reread it. Wow! I could not understand how I had never encountered it before. I had read 2 or 3 Lojong books, but why hadn’t I ever read this? It was lucid, pithy, deep, and terrifying. I felt I could never possibly reach the ideal that Lodro Thaye was describing, and yet in an odd way it was comforting and inspiring, not to mention funny, and touched me deeply as other Lojong books had not. For instance, here are a couple pithy statements that I underlined:
“If your efforts in dharma do not counteract ego-clinging, your practice is meaningless.”
“As soon as disturbing emotions arise, jump on them, round them up, isolate and crush them.”
My retreat became meaningful. I struggled with self-righteousness, indignation, and annoyance, and I bested them for the most part. In the end I was able to sincerely wish all the workers and their families a wonderful Dashain holiday, while also rejoicing at Thrangu Rinpoche’s vast activity and beautiful new tower. I saw that my needs were not so critical, that my practice was not the most important thing going on – and, more importantly, that I didn’t need ideal conditions in order to practice. I learned to practice with distraction, to apply patience, and to accept the fact that I wasn’t perfect, and neither was my retreat.
Namo Buddha – Second Encounter
My next encounter with Lodro Thaye came when I moved to Namo Buddha, Thrangu Rinpoche’s beautiful mountaintop monastery in Nepal, for the teachings, pujas, and birthday celebration that took up most of the month of November.
The place was packed with the reunion of the sangha, including our own Lama Karma Drodhul and Lama Zopa Borodin. Soon the high lamas of Thrangu monastery, including Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, joined us with their attendants and followers. It was very tough to find accommodation there, and I felt lucky to be offered a mattress on the floor in the computer lab with two other women.
However, it turned out that one of these women was quite unhappy, and she made things pretty tough for us – so much so that the other young woman quickly bailed out when another option presented itself, leaving me to manage with Difficult Person on my own. I spent a day feeling angry, frustrated, and resentful. What was Difficult Person doing there, spoiling a joyous event I had looked forward to for so many months?
Luckily, Lodro Thaye stepped in. I realized that I was putting myself at risk to waste the precious opportunity of this time in this holy place with my two beloved gurus. This chance was never going to come again, and I had do more than just savor it – I had to try to repay the favor of their love and kindness, their teaching and practice. I had to find a way not just to tolerate Difficult Person, but to actually be kind and loving toward her.
I spent the remaining time at Namo Buddha working on this challenge. It wasn’t perfect, but it was far better than it might have been. I was able, at the end, to be thankful to her for the patience she forced me to develop. I was able to sincerely pray that she be happy and well.
Bodhgaya – Third Encounter
My third Lodro Thaye encounter came at the Kagyu Monlam. This was no surprise, since His Holiness Karmapa had dedicated this year’s monlam to the Jamgon Kongtrul lineage. I was so happy to meet His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche! The KTD group had a wonderful visit with him; at Lama Zopa’s request, he gave us the transmission for Lodro Thaye’s White Tara practice. He also taught at the monlam on Lodro Thaye’s prayer, “Calling the Lama From Afar,” which we then sang. This was all fantastic, and I felt incredibly fortunate.
Nonetheless, as His Holiness Karmapa likes to remind us, it’s not all joy in the dharma – it’s work! I had just completed two weeks’ worth of challenging pilgrimage travel, surprising myself by showing patience and good humor in most situations. But my tolerance for discomforts generated by the realities of Indian life and culture quickly evaporated when the annoyances came from my fellow practitioners. (Here I must clarify that it was never my fellow KTD’ers who annoyed me – I adored being in their company!) At the monlam I spent the first week alternating between feelings of joy, devotion, and irritation. People pushed and cut lines, stood and blocked others’ views, moved others’ seats, talked on their cellphones in the shrine room, and in general behaved in ways I felt were beyond the pale.
Fortunately, thanks to “Great Path,” I became more irritated at my own irritation than at the irritants, and I began to write my own personal Lojong slogans to cope with the significant challenges posed by my mind. I eventually decided (admittedly a bit late in the monlam) that no matter what happened, I simply would not get irritated. And I was even able to carry this out for the remainder of the monlam, realizing that I do indeed have the ability to gain control of my mind.
Still, I seemed to need to learn this lesson again and again. By the time I reached Sarnath, India and queued for His Holiness Dalai Lama’s teaching on Shantideva’s “The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,” I had forgotten my resolve at the monlam. Luckily, I was with a dharma friend who possesses considerably more bodhicitta than I. When I pointed to a couple of people behaving in a problematic manner and asked him, “What can they possibly be thinking?” He responded, “That’s not a very useful question. A better one is, ‘How can I help?'” Ah yes.
Now I have the deep comfort of knowing that when I return to the USA in mid-March, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye will still be traveling with me, helping me face the inevitable irritants of transitioning back to my normal life. And I look forward eagerly to this coming year’s Ten-Day Teaching, when Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche will continue “The Torch of Certainty.”
In the meantime, may I and all other practitioners develop our qualities of patience, good conduct, and bodhicitta! May we put others in front of ourselves. May we sincerely practice the precious teachings of the great masters, and may we swiftly follow in their footsteps.
Here are a few of my personal Lojong slogans, written at the monlam:
Don’t direct, don’t correct. Connect!
Nobody elected you.
Don’t be surprised.
Take it as it comes.
— Amy Schwartz