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What Is the Relationship Between Emptiness and Beautiful Nails?

An interview with Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo
by Andrew Cohen



I first heard about Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, the first Western woman to be recognized and enthroned by a Tibetan rinpoche 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 six years ago. Touched and inspired by what I had read, I knew that one day I wanted to meet the remarkable woman who was miraculously discovered by H.H. Penor Rinpoche, the current head of the Nyingma sect, the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Born to a Jewish mother and an Italian father in a blue-collar neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1949, Alyce Louise Zeoli 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.

Her spiritual depth began to reveal itself when she was nineteen, living on an isolated farm in North Carolina with her first husband and young child. She had a series of prophetic dreams in which she was "told" what to do, and, constantly praying for and receiving guidance, she systematically practiced different kinds of contemplation that she would ultimately discover were Tibetan Buddhist in form. "I didn't have the words for it," she explained to Mackenzie, "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 a number of 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. One day, her group was introduced to a Tibetan lama who was selling carpets to raise money to support young monks in his monastery in southern India. Even though Jetsunma and her students knew nothing about Tibet and little about Buddhism, they decided to raise money for the monastery, 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, was making his first 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.

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 hardheaded 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 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." In 1988, Penor Rinpoche returned to Washington and conducted an official enthronement of Jetsunma, which received widespread media attention. Since that time, she has maintained a Buddhist temple of her Tibetan lineage in Poolesville, Maryland and, in recent years, has established a new center in Sedona, Arizona.

I had wanted an excuse to interview Jetsunma for a long time, and finally I had one. What could be more perfect than to speak with a Western woman tulku about the relationship between gender and enlightenment? In the following dialogue, I asked this "American dakini" [feminine embodiment of Buddhahood]—who is known for her unapologetic adherence to maintaining her feminine appearance and the great attention she gives to her clothing, hair, and nails—some very challenging questions about this very challenging subject. She didn't disappoint me.


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