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What's the Relationship Between Emptiness and Beautiful Nails?

An interview with Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, the First Female Tulku Reborn in the West
by Andrew Cohen


Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

I first heard about Jetsunma Ahkön Norbu Lhamo, the first Western woman to be recognized and enthroned by Tibetan lamas as a tulku (an enlightened teacher who reincarnates in whatever form can most benefit all beings), when I read about her in Vicki Mackenzie's book Reborn in the West four years ago. Touched and inspired by what I had read, I knew that one day I wanted to meet the remarkable woman miraculously discovered by Penor Rinpoche, the current head of the Nyingma sect, the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Jetsunma was born to a Jewish mother who was a grocery store cashier. Her stepfather was an Italian truck driver who drank too much. Both parents beat the kids. She was baptized a Catholic and went to a Catholic school. Even though she experienced an inexplicable attraction to Buddha statues, she claims to have known absolutely nothing about Buddhism until her destined meeting with Penor Rinpoche when she was thirty-six. "There was no one who put me in touch with Buddhism," she told Mackenzie. "The only thing that could have connected me, but didn't, was that my mother took me to Coney Island, and a palm reader there told me I was an old Tibetan. That was all. I had no idea about Tibet. Not a clue. When I thought about Tibetans, I thought of smelly old men on rugs!" At seventeen, she ran away from home and went to Florida, where she got married and had a child. She and her family then moved to an isolated farm in North Carolina.

It was there that her spiritual depth began to reveal itself. First she had a series of prophetic dreams in which she was "told" what to do. Eventually she was instructed to begin her meditation practice. "I knew that if I prayed for guidance, I would get to learn how to meditate, as the dream instructed. That was the start of my real spiritual training." Constantly praying for and receiving guidance, she systematically practiced different kinds of contemplation that she would ultimately discover were Tibetan Buddhist in form. Finally, after a relentless questioning of the meaning and significance of human life, she lost all fascination with mundane existence and turned her back on worldly pursuits. Her contemplations continued to deepen and she began to meditate on the absolute nature of reality. "I didn't have the words for it, but I knew it wasn't like God, the old-man-on-the-throne idea. What I was meditating on was a nondual, all-pervasive essence—that is, form and formless, united, indistinguishable from one another. I saw that it was the only validity—that and the compassionate activity that was an expression of it." She continued to meditate intensively for several years, during which time she lived a householder's life. When she was thirty, she had a spiritual experience that made clear to her that her personal life was over, and that she had been born solely to be of benefit to others. "After that," she said, "people started coming to me."

Jetsunma moved with her family to Washington, D.C., in 1981, where a group of new age seekers soon discovered her. In order to support her teaching work, they formed an organization called the "Center for Discovery and New Life." One day, her group was introduced to a Tibetan lama who was selling carpets to raise money for his monastery in southern India. The money was mainly for young monks who needed clothing, books and food. Even though Jetsunma and her students knew nothing about Tibet and little about Buddhism, they decided to raise money for the monastery. They managed to sponsor seventy-five Tibetan children in southern India, and a correspondence followed. A year later they received a letter from the monk who had sold them the carpets, informing them that His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, the abbot of the monastery that they had been helping to support, was making his first-ever teaching trip to the United States, and he wanted to visit Washington to meet and thank the people who had sponsored so many of his young monks. Also apparently, ever since he was a young man, Penor Rinpoche had prayed to meet the reincarnation of Ahkön Lhamo, the Tibetan yogini who with her brother had founded his own lineage, the Palyul sect, back in 1652. He had already met the reincarnation of Ahkön Lhamo's brother, a Tibetan who was teaching in Oregon.

When Jetsunma first saw the five-foot-three-inch Tibetan master, she burst into tears. "Now I'm not the sort of person who usually does this sort of thing, you understand. I'm a hard-headed lady. I'm from Brooklyn, for heaven's sake! But I just could not pull myself together. I cried and cried. I just looked at him and thought, 'That's my heart . . . That's my mind . . . That's everything.'" Penor Rinpoche then went with Jetsunma back to her house where he interviewed all of her students in great depth, probing to find out exactly what she had been teaching them. When Jetsunma herself asked the lama where her teaching was coming from, he said, "In the past you were a great bodhisattva, a person who works throughout all time to liberate sentient beings. You have attained your practice to the degree that in every future lifetime you will not forget it. You will always know it; it will always come back to you. It is in your mind and will not be forgotten." He then proceeded to tell her that she had to buy a center. "You're going to think you can't afford it," he said to her, "but you will find a way. Have faith. It will be all right eventually. . . . Buy the one with the white pillars in the front." After he left, they looked for property and, remarkably, the center they found had six white pillars all along the front. A year later, Jetsunma went to visit Penor Rinpoche at his monastery in southern India, where he officially gave her her new name, Ahkön Lhamo, saying, "I now recognize you as the sister of Kunzang Sherab. Her name was Ahkön Lhamo. In that life she and Kunzang Sherab cofounded the Palyul tradition. I recognize you as her incarnation." He also handed her another certificate, authorizing her to teach. "This is important," he said. "People will say you haven't been studying the dharma, that they have never heard of you. They will not understand. With this paper no one will doubt that you are capable of teaching the dharma."

When she returned to America, she formally assumed her new identity and began to teach Buddhism. Some of her followers found the change disconcerting and left, but most survived the transition. In 1988, Penor Rinpoche returned to Washington and conducted an official enthronement of Jetsunma. It received wide media attention, covered by newspaper reporters and television crews, and was featured in the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post and People magazine.

In 1994 Jetsunma was further recognized by Lama Orgyen Kusum Lingpa as an incarnation of Lhacham Mandarawa, the Indian spiritual consort of Padmasambhava, the tantric master who established the Buddha's teaching in Tibet. While still maintaining her main temple in Poolesville, Maryland, Jetsunma now lives in Sedona, Arizona, where she spent the last year on "semi-retreat." I interviewed her there last April.

I had wanted an excuse to interview Jetsunma for a long time now, and finally I had one: What could be more compelling than to ask an "American dakini" about the relationship between gender and enlightenment? After asking her organization innumerable times to send us a video of Jetsunma teaching, we began to wonder why it was that her always friendly students never seemed to get around to actually putting it in the mail! In the meantime, a little research revealed that Jetsunma seems to be quite a controversial figure in Western Buddhist circles. First, a highly respected Buddhist journalist told us that the American Buddhist establishment, which is largely comprised of well-educated, upper-middle-class white people, considers Jetsunma to be "white trash" because of her blue-collar roots! This rather bizarre comment really piqued our curiosity. Then we found a Buddhist scholar who called her "a new age bimbo cashing in on a lucrative trend." Amidst the swirl of our ever growing confusion, her video finally arrived. Upon watching it, it soon became clear that Jetsunma was an unusually passionate and inspired teacher who seemed to be appealing to the listeners' very soul. I watched her video several times, trying to make sense out of why it was that she had attracted so much criticism. And yet, no matter how much I tried to see her as the opportunistic prima donna she was accused of being, time and again all I could see was bodhicitta, a deep and powerful compassion that was literally heart-wrenching. Still, as I traveled to Sedona, I couldn't help but be troubled by the echo of her critics' protestations.

The woman I met there was disarmingly free from pretense. Not only that, she was radiant, clear, simple and unwavering in her strong vulnerability. Ironically, for a woman who has been condemned for her vanity because of her unapologetic adherence to maintaining her feminine appearance—she is known for the great care she gives to her hair and nails—what she emanates powerfully transcends any notion of gender. At the end of the interview, when I asked her point-blank about her critics' accusations, she never lost her composure and seemed genuinely surprised that there was so much controversy, while at the same time making it clear that the only thing she cared about was her students' liberation. Indeed, she said, "I feel that knowing that I would die for them, knowing that I care for them to the nth degree, empowers me to do whatever is necessary, and that's the basis of the agreement I have with my students."

I don't know all the facts of Jetsunma's story, but it is intriguing that even though world-famous, highly revered, master lamas of the modern era have been accused of far greater detours from the straight-and-narrow than this Jewish-Italian bodhisattva, many in the Buddhist community seem much less forgiving of her. Is it because she is a woman? This is one of the questions I wanted to ask her. And in the following interview, I did my best to give this American dakini a hard time, for I really did want to know the answers to some very tough questions. She didn't disappoint me.


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