Ani Lama Sherab Zangmo was a resident nun and meditation teacher at Gebchak Gonpa. Often referred to as “The Great Yogini of Gebchak Gonpa”, Sherab Zangmo was famed among the lamas in Eastern Tibet for her high realization. She passed away in the autumn of 2008 with many signs of an accomplished practitioner.
She spent 70 years in unbroken meditation practice since first coming to Gebchak Gonpa when she was 16 years old. She was the last remaining from the earliest generation of nuns at Gebchak Gonpa, and was integral in rebuilding the Nunnery in the late 1980′s and in the revival of its unique system of Buddhist practice for women. Sherab Zangmo was extraordinary in many ways: for the spontaneous enlightenment she gained through devotion to her guru, Tsang-yang Gyamtso; the profound simplicity of her teachings; and her flexibility in the face of challenging conditions.
Sherab Zangmo guided the younger nuns of Gebchak Gonpa in their practice right up until the moment of her passing. As she neared the moment of her death she laughed as she encouraged the nuns, and narrated the clear visions of buddhas that were appearing before her.
Lama Sherab Zangmo’s repeated teaching was this: “Knowing one thing, everything is liberated” – by knowing the mind through practice, everything is liberated.
An interview with Ani Lama Sherab Zangmo & Wangdrak Rinpoche
[Wangdrak Rinpoche requests Sherab Zangmo for mind-teaching and meditation instructions. She was 85 years old at the time of the interview.]
Sherab Zangmo: What can I say? I don’t know, Rinpoche!
Wangdrak Rinpoche: Please, it will benefit practitioners.
Sherab Zangmo: [She recites a verse.]
From the very beginning the mind’s nature is empty,
Practice naturally, free from fabrications.
Pray strongly to one’s lama, keeping one’s mind at all times in an undistracted state of devotion, faith, and pure perception.
Wangdrak Rinpoche: What is the antidote when a lot of conceptual thoughts arise? How should we meditate?
Sherab Zangmo: Do not try to stop conceptual thoughts, but let them arise. Know their nature by praying to the lama, understanding that the lama’s mind and one’s own mind are inseparable. Rest in the nature of the thoughts and in this way they are transformed.
It’s impossible to stop conceptual thoughts that arise, and if you try to stop them they will only increase. See the very nature of the thoughts as they arise, pray to the lama, and rest in meditation.
[Throughout the whole interview Sherab Zangmo is continuously chanting a prayer to Tsang-Yang Gyamtso while spinning her prayer wheel.]
Sherab Zangmo: I was 16 or 17 when I first came to Gechak. At that time the Nunnery and all of the nuns were under the care of the first Wangdrak Dorje. The first Tsang-Yang Gyamtso and Tsogyal Rinpoche had both passed away by then and I never got to see them.
In the beginning of the Cultural Revolution the remaining nuns and local nomads in the area were forced to live together in tight communes. During those days I would sit in meditation up on the mountain in the daytime and return to the camp to sleep at night. After our local commune broke up I lived in my brother’s home and pretended as though I had no legs and couldn’t walk. In this way nobody forced me to work and I was able to continue my practice quietly within my mind. In 1988 when some religious freedom was regained I got up out of bed and surprised everyone by doing circumambulations around Dzong-go Ling! From then on I continued my meditation practice in a cave near the Nunnery.
Wangdrak Rinpoche: Really she is someone who has spent her entire life in meditation practice. Even though she is in her 80’s now, her intelligence and clarity of mind have not degenerated. She experiences no suffering or discomfort in her mind whatsoever, even though her body has some sickness. She is extraordinary!
She doesn’t give lengthy teachings; just a few essential words are enough. If the meaning was elaborated vast amounts could be explained. As it is taught, “Knowing one thing, everything is liberated”. By knowing the mind through practice, everything is liberated.
[Sherab Zangmo recites a verse of supplication to Wangdrak Rinpoche.]
Outwardly a master of all tantras, statements and instructions,
Inwardly accomplished in the channels, winds and essences,
He who has attained the realization of Samantabhadra,
At the feet of Wangdrak Dorje, I pray.
Wangdrak Rinpoche: In the old days did the nuns at Gebchak have shaven heads? I heard that it was a pure vision of Tsang-Yang Gyamtso that the nuns wear their hair slightly grown out, because they were practitioners of Secret Mantrayana.
Sherab Zangmo: Yes, the nuns all wore their hair slightly grown out. But I don’t think this tradition is written down anywhere.
Wangdrak Rinpoche: Gebchak Nunnery has an exceptional system of practice, unlike other nunneries, and the practice of the Gebchak nuns themselves is exceptional. Adeu Rinpoche has praised Gebchak Nunnery and said that it is difficult to find other nunneries with the same caliber of practice.
Sherab Zangmo is now the last nun remaining from the early generation of nuns at Gebchak. We are very fortunate to have this chance to visit her and receive her teaching.
Sherab Zangmo: Before when I meditated I thought that I was practicing samantha. When I discussed my meditation experience with my lamas they told me that it wasn’t samantha, but spontaneous recognition of the nature of mind.
[She recites another verse.]
Maintain the original natural state,
Practice free from conceptualizations.
Wangdrak Rinpoche: All Dharma is included within these two lines.
Sherab Zangmo declines to teach any Dharma. She says she has nothing to explain about what is or isn’t the true nature of mind. When we understand the true nature without stopping what arises in the mind, praying wholeheartedly to the lama whose mind is inseparable from our own, while constantly developing love and compassion for all beings… this is the Dharma.
These instructions are the same as what she taught last year.
Keep one’s independence through one’s own practice of maintaining the natural state of the mind,
Protect the wishes of others through the practice of love and compassion.
Wangdrak Rinpoche: When it comes to practice, besides these two lines nothing else needs to be said. There are many stories of beings who realized spontaneously, for example that of King Indrabhuti who was liberated simply through receiving an empowerment, or Aryadeva’s realization when Nagarjuna hit him on the head with a shoe. For them, besides these simple introductions nothing else needed to be explained. When put into words there are many texts of the Buddha’s teachings, but all of these are not needed in order to realize. “Knowing one thing, everything is liberated”.
 Tsang-Yang Gyamtso: the founder of Gebchak Nunnery. The first Tsang-Yang Gyamtso was a heart disciple of the first Drubwang Tsoknyi Rinpoche.
 samantha: calm-abiding meditation.
Note: This interview was conducted in July, 2006, at Gebchak Gonpa, and translated by Tenzin Chozom.
Photograph by James Gritz.