Building a White Tara Shrine for Khenpo Rinpoche: A Sacred Adventure

Since its inception this spring, the story of the White Tara Shrine for Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s 90th birthday has captured the imagination of (and inspired) many people. But how did this project come to be? We interviewed May Lein Ho, who recounted the amazing, funny, and heart-warming details of her experience ordering the statues for the White Tara shrine.

Part I. Difficult Beginnings

This story begins with a tragically sad event: the untimely early death of the great master Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche at age 59 on July 24th, 2012. After Traleg Rinpoche passed away, KTD held a special puja to request his return. In late August, 2012, May Lein, together with other Chinese students of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, went to Karme Ling retreat center for a week-long retreat, during which time Rinpoche taught on the lives of the Karmapas. The students practiced each day with the Karme Ling lamas, including Khenpo Rinpoche’s nephew Lama Karma Drodhul, and at every session, they recited the prayer for Traleg Rinpoche’s swift return.

The late Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche and Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

One day, Lama Karma commented that they should diligently recite the prayer “Because our guru is very sad. Traleg Rinpoche is like his son. Rinpoche carried him on his back when they fled Tibet. He raised him like a son, and now in his 89th year, Traleg Rinpoche is gone.”  Lama Karma told them, “If you pray hard, Rinpoche will be comforted.”

Something struck May Lein in that moment. The years of working to benefit Karma Triyana Dharmachakra had tired her out, and she’d gone to Karme Ling that week intending to tell Rinpoche that she was finished with volunteering. She wanted to rest, and didn’t want to do anything anymore. But as she thought of Traleg Rinpoche’s students, bereft without their teacher, she realized that her own guru, at age 89, was still here, supporting her and all of us. In that moment, appreciation welled up, her heart shifted, and she suddenly wanted to do something to thank him, to show her appreciation. She thought, “I’m not enlightened.  What can I do?” Then she remembered that twice before, she had built an Amitabha shrine of precious statues for the annual KTD Amitabha retreat.  She had done this for the first retreat in the year 2000, and again for the 10th.

Part II. Rinpoche Changes the Plan

May Lein knew that the 15th Amitabha retreat was coming up in December, 2014. It was a perfect occasion for her new project. It would give her two years, just the right amount of time to order the statues and find sponsors for them. Hoping she’d still be alive then, and mindful of impermanence, she took her idea to Rinpoche.  But to her surprise, Rinpoche responded instantly that if she really wanted to do it, she shouldn’t wait so long; the shrine should be built for his 90th birthday in August 2013, just one year away, and it should be built of White Tara statues. In May Lein’s words: “So I said, ‘No, it is too soon, Rinpoche, I cannot do that.’ And he said, ‘Yes, you can, and that is what you have to do!'”

The finished 24 inch White Tara Statue

Next they discussed what statues to order. Rinpoche wanted 6″ statues for those who needed to travel or had small houses, 8″ statues for those with a standard size shrine in their home, and 12″ statues for the various dharma centers that might want one. When asked what Rinpoche would like for his own statue, at the top of the shrine, Rinpoche answered that it should be exactly 24″, no more or less. All told, May Lein calculated that she needed 155 statues. She doesn’t know why she chose that number; it just seemed right.

Last, Rinpoche gave three requirements for the project: the quality of the statues needed to be the very best, the base cost should be the lowest possible, and most importantly, Rinpoche directed that May Lein should not go out and try to promote or sell the statues. He felt that the owners of the statues should be very happy to have them; it should all occur naturally, without a big fundraising campaign.

Part III. The Mysterious Statue Maker and the Very Kind Lama

So May Lein began looking around for someone who could make so many statues of such high quality so quickly. She calculated that she had about five months; the statues should ship from Nepal (where most Tibetan dharma materials are now made) in February and arrive in March, in order to leave Rinpoche enough time to fill them with mantras and prayers before the August teaching. First she asked Peter (the manager of the KTD bookstore), but he said that for 155 statues in such a short timeframe, it would require at least three different statue makers. May Lein turned down that idea because she felt all the faces should be the same.  Out of ideas, she turned to friends and asked around.

Karma Lekshey Ling Institute, Kathmandu, Nepal. From the Institute’s website.

Finally, an auspicious connection occurred. One dear friend, Amy Wu, happened to meet three nuns at Kagyu Monlam a while ago.  They are from the Karma Lekshey Ling Shedra located at Kathmandu, Nepal.  They introduced Amy to their teacher, a lama at the Shedra who teaches courses on statue-making.  So that is how the kind lama heard that someone from the US was looking for a statue maker who could make 155 White Tara statues for a high lama who would be 90 years old in 2013, and who is from the Karmapa’s Kagyu lineage. This lama knew a great statue maker — so great that he had moved several times and preferred to work anonymously in order to avoid too much attention and impossible numbers of orders. To this day, May Lein still doesn’t know his name and has no way to reach him directly. May Lein later learned that this statue maker is no ordinary statue maker.  His craftsmanship has been highly praised and he is considered a “national treasure” in the profession.

Photo of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche by Anitra Brown.

Although he had never heard of Rinpoche before, the kind lama at Lekshey Ling developed great faith and enthusiasm for the project. He approached his friend the statue maker with a request for 155 White Tara statues of the very best materials in 5 months’ time, and with no initial down payment. The statue maker reportedly laughed out loud and told the lama that someone was playing a joke on him and he should go back and check his facts. He also said nobody made White Tara shrines full of statues. The lama countered that the statues were to mark the 90th birthday of a very great teacher in His Holiness Karmapa’s lineage.  Apparently, that information changed the statue maker’s heart.

Eventually they settled down to negotiate, and the statue maker asked about Rinpoche’s statue. The Lama came back to May Lein and conveyed his request: could she choose another size? He did not have a 24″ White Tara statue.  May Lein stood firm; the statue must be 24″. Amazingly, the statue maker agreed to make Rinpoche’s statue entirely from scratch. He said this process would take the full five months. He also said that for such an auspicious occasion, all the materials for the statues should be purchased new — nothing recycled from his workshop stockpiles. A new pot of gold powder also was purchased to add the final touch to the fine statues.

May Lein soon received sample photos via email, and Rinpoche approved them and told her to go ahead with the plan. She and Rinpoche both liked the faces very much, as they were quite full and beautiful. She still had no idea how she would pay for the statues, since she felt she shouldn’t start fundraising due to Rinpoche’s instructions, but she had some funds left over in the Friends of KTD account after the Friends of KTD helped retire the first of three KTD construction loans. Maybe she could use those?  She asked her guru, and Khenpo Rinpoche gave her a “go ahead” to proceed.

Part IV. Timing is Everything

Lekshey Ling Monks to the rescue!

It is difficult to send money to Nepal, especially a lot of money, and everything had to be done very quickly. Time was essential, for the government of Nepal had recently announced that on September 1, 2012, all pricing throughout the country would go up by 1/3.  It is indeed hard to believe, in retrospect, that the kind lama at Lekshey Ling could go so far out of his way to help get the project off the ground, without ever having met May Lein or anyone else from KTD — but that is exactly what happened. Somehow the money arrived, and he drove the two and a half hours to the statue maker’s workshop. Together, they bought everything needed before September 1st.  The statue maker asked his workmen to put all other projects on hold in order to meet the February deadline, and they all agreed to devote themselves to Rinpoche’s White Tara statues exclusively.

The monks affixed the precious stones to the statues.

The next issue was the precious stones. The statue maker said he usually only placed those on large statues, but May Lein wanted them placed on all the statues. Since the price had already been agreed to, the September 1 deadline had now passed, and the materials had been purchased, the statue maker decided to add the precious stones at no additional charge, provided he could get some help from the Lekshey Ling Shedra monks for the labor. So the lama asked his friends and colleagues at Lekshey Ling to help, and they agreed. The monastery crew handled everything that needed to be done.  They affixed the precious stones to the statues, they wrapped the faces as is traditionally done, and they packed the statues for shipping.  Rather than chatting while doing this work, they recited prayers and mantras with focus and concentration.

Part V. Auspicious Endings

May Lein Ho, finding White Tara Statue sponsors.

Now it was time to find donors for the statues. May Lein knew she could count on about 30 loyal students who always supported Rinpoche’s projects. Beyond that, she had no clue whether people would want them, and she told her husband, Lama Wu Fang: “We’d better make some shelves in our shrine room! If people don’t adopt these statues, we will work hard and adopt them, one by one, even if it kills us.” He agreed to this plan.

Meanwhile, in Nepal, a huge snowstorm had struck the statue maker’s village, closing the roads and trapping the Lekshey Ling lamas there. May Lein took her worries to Rinpoche, who laughed and said, “Don’t worry! You will get the statues!”

Peter van Deurzen, manager of Namse Bangdzo Bookstore.

Peter the KTD Bookstore Manager was an immense help. The statues were shipped through his regular shipper in Nepal. They arrived at KTD in March and were driven to Karme Ling for Rinpoche to fill. May Lein wanted to inventory them, but she wasn’t free for a couple of weeks. When she finally got to Karme Ling, she found out that Rinpoche had filled all of the smaller statues in just ten days, and they were already back up at KTD!  His hands were dark and discolored from all of the work, and she said he had done nothing but eat, sleep, and work, morning until night. Rinpoche had beaten the calendar carefully set out by May Lein — not by weeks, but by months.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche in his workshop, working on one of his White Tara Statues.

May Lein still hasn’t seen the finished statues, nor been able to inventory them.  At this point, she won’t see them much before the rest of us do!

The 2013 Graduating Class of Lekshey Ling Shedra, from the Institute website.

As for the kind lamas at Lekshey Ling Shedra, May Lein recently heard that they finished their coursework this past year and have become Khenpos! This means that our statues were built by an impossibly great statue maker, and adorned, finished, wrapped, and prepared for shipping by the most knowledgeable and accomplished lamas and teachers in our tradition.

In finding sponsors for the statues, May Lein has made about 130 new friends, many of whom have recounted their stories to her, telling her how they met Rinpoche and got involved in the dharma. Some of the stories moved her deeply.

May Lein finishes her story with her own conclusion: “Thanks to the generous support from our statue donors, 154 fine statues have all found their home to go to. We’ve got donors from many states in the USA, donors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, China, and London. A couple of Karma Thegsum Choling centers and Lama Karma Drodhul’s Ngondro Group have pitched in. Individual statues have been obtained by students to pray for the longevity of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, and the precious lineage teachers such as the Twelfth Tai Situpa, the Fourth Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, the Twelfth Goshir Gyaltsap Rinpoche, the Ninth Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Garchen Rinpoche, and also for the swift return of our late Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche.

“Our sincere and special thanks go to Khenpo Raju from Karma Lekshey Ling Shedra who arranged everything for us to make the project a reality, Khenpo Loten who helped to put precious stones on the statues, and all the other lamas and students who helped the entire packaging and shipping process and got stuck at the statue maker’s shop for the unexpected snow storm this year in the area.

“However, our deepest gratitude and appreciation goes to our beloved guru, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche – the driving force and everlasting support behind this entire project.  May our guru live long and continue to turn his Dharma wheel for many years to come.”

— Amy Schwartz

Photo of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche by Michael Erlewine; poster, Beth Keenan.

2 thoughts on “Building a White Tara Shrine for Khenpo Rinpoche: A Sacred Adventure

  1. A comment about the White Tara Sadhana being done for the Long Life of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: This particular White Tara sadhana was composed more than a century ago by the 14th Karmapa, based on an earlier text written in the 16th century by the 5th Shamar Rinpoche. The shrine is one of the most elaborate ever made at KTD. Many thanks to Lama Tashi Dondup and all the lamas of KTD and Karme Ling, for working so hard to make this incredible shrine! — from Lama Kathy Wesley

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