Photo and story republished courtesy Michael Erlewine, from his Facebook Blog
I am going to tell a story I believe I have never told in writing before. It is about Lama Karma, who as a young monk managed to get out of Tibet and into Nepal. This is how my family and I helped to get Lama Karma out of Nepal and into the United States. It was high drama, and there was a time when I felt that I had to keep the following story about Lama Karma’s exodus from Nepal quiet, but since he is now a U.S. citizen, there is no reason that I can think of not to tell it, and it is an exciting tale.
Lama Karma was born and raised in Tibet. I have been to his home in the high Tibetan plateau and met his wonderful family. Their simple house is at the end of a road that turns into what here in Michigan we call a two-track, which two-track then becomes just slick grass with a little wear, hardly a road at all. When you finally get to their home, you see a small cinder-block style house and a large herd of yaks. I will write more on that trip another time.
The year was 1997 and Margaret, myself, and three of our kids were in Kathmandu, Nepal on our way home from our first pilgrimage to Tibet, the trip where we met His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa (Orgen Trinley Dorje) at Tsurphu Monastery, his ancestral home in Tibet, at some 15,000 feet of altitude. That too would be another story.
I had heard about Lama Karma sometime before I ever met him. We were staying in Boudenath, a section of Kathmandu where there is the large Bouda Stupa (perhaps a block wide), a Buddhist monument around which pilgrims and practitioners would circumambulate. Folks said that there was this young monk who would appear early in the morning and prostrate himself (a body-length at a time) around the stupa, even in the rain. The monk was obviously a very dedicated practitioner, because if you have ever been to Kathmandu, the streets and sidewalks are covered with everything you would not want to lie down on, to put it mildly. Back then there was no such thing as trash pick-up in that city, and at street corners you could find six-foot high mounds of garbage. Need I say more?
As it turned out, this dedicated monk who was doing the prostrations turned out to be Lama Karma, only back then he was not a lama, but just a monk, and his name was Karma Drodhul.
Anyway, my family and I were back in Kathmandu, wrapping up our Tibet trip after an additional week spent in Sikkim, India visiting monasteries and rinpoches. We were staying in the Happy Valley Guest House right across from Thrangu Rinpoche’s school for orphans when I received a note from my dharma teacher (Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche) asking would we please escort his nephew Karma Drodhul (a Tibetan Buddhist monk) from Kathmandu back to the United States. And sure enough, before we knew it there was this young monk waiting for us outside our hotel. He was perhaps twenty-years old and all smiles. Karma Drodhul and our kids bonded at once. But there is more to this story.
Karma Drodhul had escaped or somehow gotten across the border from Tibet into Nepal. He was an illegal and had a fake Nepalese passport that indicated he had been born in Nepal. The problem was that he spoke hardly a word of Nepalese, not what you might expect from someone born and bred in Nepal.
And the trick was to get him through customs and onto the plane to the U.S. It was certain that the officials would inspect his passport, grill him in Nepalese, and expect him to respond in what was supposed to be his native language. Hmmm. How could he do that when he knew no Nepalese?
If I remember right, there was some talk of his claiming he was born in “Namo Buddha” near Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery, a sacred pilgrimage spot and home to some 250 Tibetan monks. It might be plausible that he grew up there speaking only Tibetan and never learned Nepalese. Well, it might be…. and again, it might not be plausible. Our blue-sky wishes started to fade.
As the day for our departure drew nearer, we got more and more nervous about getting Karma Drodhul through customs and out of the country. All of our more ethereal hopes about his passing for Nepalese had kind of evaporated as we faced the reality of passing this monk off as a native-born Nepalese citizen to the authorities. It appeared that there was no simple way out.
When the day to fly out of Kathmandu finally arrived, I went to the local airport with Karma Drodhul and my family, followed by a considerable entourage of the monk’s friends and well-wishers who tried to stay out of sight so as not to draw undue attention to our guise. And at the airport we waited.
When it finally came time to board the plane, there were two lines, one for locals (like Karma Drodhul), and one for (I guess) VIPs and westerners. My family checked through customs and boarded the plane via the VIP line, but I chose to accompany the young monk in the “local” line, where I stood out like a sore thumb, an older Caucasian in a line of Asians.
Meanwhile, standing behind and peering through a nearby iron gate were all of the friends who had come to see Karma Drodhul off, and who wondered if he would actually be allowed to leave the country. They kept a low profile, to be sure, a bevy of faces peering through holes in the grating.
The line of locals moved slowly, but finally there we were, the young monk and I standing before several officials. And of course, the first thing they did was to address Karma Drodhul in Nepalese. I sure didn’t know a word of Nepalese and the officials must have known that, because they spoke directly to Lama Karma, pretty much ignoring me, but probably wondering what on earth I was doing in this line.
And that was my chance to play the “Ugly American.” Every time they spoke to Karma Drodhul (and before he could answer), I opened my mouth and started speaking. I would reach into my travel vest and pull out all the papers of invitation by our monastery in New York requesting the monk to visit, and lay them out on the table before me. The officials (one who understood some English) did their best to be polite to this loud American, but obviously they were trying to bypass me and access Karma Drodhul directly.
Meanwhile, out on the tarmac, the plane had been boarded and the propellers were running. There was no jetway, but just a plane sitting out there in the sun, some distance from the terminal. We were the last two passengers booked for that plane.
And so it went. Every time the custom officials would address Karma Drodhul, I would answer. And I would drag out all my papers and loudly announce that I was here to take this monk to visit America. And each time the officials would try to be polite, but my welcome was wearing thin and the plane was already delayed. Meanwhile, the crowd of friends behind the iron gate holding their breath, were wide-eyed, waiting. This was the deciding moment.
Finally, the senior official had enough of me. He just raised his hand and with a single motion waved us off. “Go, just go” he said, and so we went, hurrying across the tarmac, daring not to look back lest they change their mind. And we did not breathe easily until we were on the plane and the hatch was sealed.
And then we were airborne, hugging and laughing with one another. Later, on another and larger plane, we headed for the U.S., everyone looking at the strange young monk who put his robes over his head while he tried to get some sleep. When we finally arrived in the San Francisco Airport, the first words out of Karma Drodhul’s mouth were “Where are the monks?” He was used to being in a society where everywhere there were monks in maroon robes, and here there were was only one, himself.
We flew on to Big Rapids, Michigan and Karma Drodhul stayed with us for some days, getting used to America. Certainly his eyes were opened the first time we walked him through a large supermarket. He had never seen anything like what even a small town like ours has. He has forever since been like a son to me and a “brother from another mother” to the kids, just family. From Big Rapids he flew to New York and the rest is history.
Karma Drodhul went on to do two traditional 3-year closed retreats (back-to-back), emerging as Lama Karma, actually two times a lama, and has since travelled the world teaching and giving empowerments. This will be his third appearance at the annual Harvest Gathering near Lake City, Michigan, and if you want to attend the gathering and meet him in person, as well as say hello to me, here is the link.
The information for the 2013 Harvest Gathering is here: