Jetsun Kushok Chimey Luding is one of the most respected female teachers of Tibetan Buddhism. Born in 1938, she is the elder sister of the current head of the Sakya lineage, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Jetsun Kushok Chimey Luding has travelled around the world bringing both students and interested individuals the words of the Buddha, while embodying the very meaning of those words in her practice and daily life.
Jetsunma, being considered an emanation of Vajrayogini, started her training at six, began teaching at eleven, became a fully empowered Sakya lineage holder at eighteen, and has spent the rest of her life unselfishly working towards the full realisation of her legacy. I this interview Jetsun Kushok Chimey Luding tells in a simple manner about her life and family, as well as her years of study and practice and becoming a teacher herself.
Your Eminence Jetsun Kushok, we are very happy to be doing this interview and I would like to begin by asking if you can tell us where you were born and on what day?
I was born in Tibet in a place called Sakya. Our religion has also name Sakya but place is also called Sakya. I was born there in 1938.
Please can you tell us your father’s and mother’s name?
My father’s name is Khon Ngawang Kunga Rinchen. My mother’s name is Dagmo Kushok and Sonam Dolkar.
How many children were born in the family of your parents?
They had four children, two of them survived and the other two passed away. I was the oldest one. Then second son passed away when he was 4 years old. After that a little girl was born, who also passed away when was 8 years old. Then after that His Holiness Sakya Trizin [traditional title of the head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism] was born. He’s the youngest one and I’m the oldest one. Two middle ones passed away.
I see. How did the children pass away?
My brother who died had measles and diarrhea and a kind of fever. It was very difficult to live with that during that time and my sister also had a kind of pneumonia. She was 8 years old when she passed away.
So people, families did lose children very frequently.
Actually Tibetans have short lives. When my father passed away, he was 49 and my mother was 29.
Do you have any memories of your mother?
Not really much because my mother passed away when I was 10 years old.
Who took care of you after your mother?
My mother’s sister. Her name was also Dagmo, Dagmo Tinlay Sangmo. My father married my aunt first, but she never had children. But we belong to the Sakya Khon family, so we have to have children, especially have to have a boy. So that’s why my aunt requested my father to remarry. And then they found her younger sister and he married her. So that’s why my aunt, Tinlay Sangmo, raised us.
Can you tell me something about her? What was she like?
Oh, she was a very good lady and she was a good practitioner. She was a very, very good practitioner and her root lamas were my father and my grandfather. So she had these two lamas. She never thought about my father as a husband. She always thought he was her guru, she respected him like a guru, not for the household things. My aunt usually went to bed at nights, but after I was born, being the first child, my mother had to take care of her body. So my aunt helped her. I was a funny child, I cried at night and slept at daytime. So my aunt looked after me the whole night and let her sleep. So after a month I became quiet and did not cry anymore. So then she tried to sleep, but she couldn’t. She had a pain in the waist when laying down. Then she decided not to sleep until I was 3-4 years old. So she didn’t sleep. During daytime she took care of His Holiness Sakya Trizin, who was very young. He was appointed to be Sakya Trizin at 8 years old. So my aunt took care of the Sakya government things and at nighttime she did her practice. She was a very genius lady. She was a very, very kind lady. And she also took care of the other 2 children, but they died earlier and my mother also died when His Holiness the Sakya Trizin was only 2 years old. So my aunt took care of him also. Later she brought us to India where she passed away in 1975.
Do you have any memories of your brother Sakya Trizin being born or seeing him as a baby?
When His Holiness Sakya Trizin was born, they did special ceremonies during which I had to hold things. I saw him born and then they were doing things to people who touched him. They were putting so many things. I was holding those things and they put them. They washed everything. I don’t know how to explain in English, but they used some special methods because our children die at young time. So they put something to protect him.
What kind of a little girl were you? Were you quiet or shy?
Oh no, I was not quiet. Actually I was quite naughty. Jumping around, climbing around, this kind of things.
You were very lucky, very healthy. You know, for people who don’t understand the Sakya tradition, can you describe a little bit like the house where you grew up? What was it like?
It was an ordinary, big rich people’s house, not really different. They call it a palace. Yeah, you can call it like that, but it was as same as other Lhasa government service noble family houses. Similar to them, but they did not paint them. They painted it only in white and Sakya lamas’ houses are always painted in red. Maroon color. That’s the only difference, but normally everything is the same. There were rooms painted in color. On the top there were symbolic things of golden color. Those are not typical for the Lhasa noble family houses.
How many generations or centuries does the Khon family go back?
A long time ago. I don’t know which century exactly, but very, very long time ago, way before the 5th Dalai Lama, a few generations before. I think somebody said that it was 6th or 7th century. Our first founder lama was the Sakya Sachen Kunga Nyingpo. He was the father of the family. Before that Sakyapa belonged to Nyingmapa. Then during that time it changed and they became Sakyapa.
What distinguishes the Sakya tradition? What are you noted for compared to other schools?
Actually, there’s not really something to compare, because all teachings come from the Buddha. The Buddhist tradition comes from India, but then different lineages developed inside Tibet. That’s why they have different setup, but generally sutras come from India. So they are all the same and their meaning is the same. Mind training is the same. There are different titles of books, but the basic root is the same. So there is no difference, only a little bit different traditions and setup. There are different lamas, and we follow their tradition. We have to keep up.
So tell us what are some ways that your spiritual development evolve?
In the Sakya tradition we have two Khon families. One is in Seattle and one is the family of my brother. In those families girls cannot get married, so automatically they all become nuns. Before the Chinese revolution began we were all nuns. Now it changed and there is new generation. But at that time when we came to India, there was no monastery and we were very lost, there was no place for us. So we didn’t know what to do. We had a situation like that and then we had to give up [our vows]. We tried to go to a Western school and I studied in a missionary school. Now you have a choice. New generation has a kind of freedom and can choose to marry or not to marry.
What kind of training did you have?
We never went to school, we got a tutor coming home. The tutor was also a monk, he couldn’t be a lay person. He taught us meditation and at the same time taught us how to read and write. He din’t tell us too much history, we were mostly writing, reading and memorizing rituals. We had a lot of rituals that we had to memorize. Rituals are important. You have to do rituals in order to make merits. We, Tibetan Buddhist people, believe in good and bad karma. So you have to respect that and you have to make merits. Rituals can help in accumulating merits. There were all kind of rituals: longevity rituals, purification rituals, good life rituals, and equanimity growing rituals. So I had to memorize them all. At that time we were very young, we were kids, but we knew only wisdom deity’s meditation which we did.
We started our classes in the morning at 9 o’clock when the teacher came, and studied until 3 o’clock. We had a break for lunch, but we also had to eat with the teacher. We never had breaks for any other things like kids here, who 10 minutes listen to the teacher and the other 10 minutes have rest. We did not have anything like that. We were taught meditation.
So they started very young teaching meditation.
Oh yeah, of course. I started to learn meditation when I was 6 years old. The teacher told us to focus our mind on something. That’s how they teach young kids. Otherwise, they are a little bit difficult to handle. Some kids can’t concentrate. Some do very well. I was okay. Not very good, not very bad.
When you were starting with your teacher, were you the only person studying?
Oh yeah, we studied with my little sister. We two were having classes together until she passed away.
Your brother comes after you and then were you trained alongside of him or was it different teachers?
Different teachers. He had his own teachers.
Were you ever invited to become a teacher when you were younger?
Oh, no. It was my father and our root lama who made decisions. They decided, “You can teach. You can do this. You can do that.” Before I started to teach I had to do a retreat. I was in my first retreat when I was 11 years old, I did one month’ retreat with my tutor. We had a boundary and we could not go outside. We had two rooms, and I couldn’t go beyond the second room. I couldn’t go out, so I always stayed inside. And then there was a retreat rule to get up very early, at 3 o’clock morning. We went to bed at 11. So we did four sessions of practice during which we meditated and recited mantras. We had to recite one million mantras and 400,000 for longer mantras.
How did you count that you did one million? How would you know?
Of course, we used 100 malas or ‘rosary beads’. One hundred mala is 100, 10 times is 1,000. Then we have a different count. You guys have 100,000 something but one million is our ten hundred thousand.
What effect do you think that has on the mind when you do that kind of repetition?
You calm down. Also you have to meditate on the deity’s name and mantra and train the mind.
Did your teacher try to educate you in the Buddhist teachings as you got a little older?
Oh yes, of course. First we studied the famous Sakyapa teaching called Lamdre, ‘Path and its Fruit’. Lamdre is a big teaching. Its very beginning is dedicated to the mind training. Then you go a little bit deeper and deeper, and then arrive at the tantric meditation on the deities. There are different stages, same deity but different stages.
At 11 years old, you finished your first retreat. Did you do anything after that that’s spiritual? Did you go anywhere?
After that my father sent me to nomad places to help them in summertime. So I gave empowerments there. At that time I was 12 years old. We had to travel to different areas. I don’t know how far, but we went there. Nomads do not have houses, they’re all staying in black tents. And we had a white cloth tent which we carried with us, so that we can go around. I left my house on the first day of the 4th month of the Tibetan calendar and went around until the first day of the 10th month, the first day when I came home. I remember that very well.
How did the nomads receive you?
Most of them wanted to receive long life empowerments. They were so worried about their dying. They wanted to receive a long life empowerment and also phowa purification practice in which the consciousness is transferred to a pure land. Long life empowerment makes the span of your life longer. Phowa meditation is useful because after you die you don’t want to go into the lower realms. You want to go to the higher realms and you perform this kind of practice. If you have a good mind at the moment of death, then you know what time you are dying. At that time you have to practice phowa meditation. Then your consciousness mind goes through the up [indicates head] to the pure lands. That’s what the nomads wanted to do. Some of them were good, others were bad, who knows… They had individual karma… but that’s what they wished for.
I know it depends on karma but if people practice that, does that give them more opportunity?
Yes, it does, but another thing is that mind at the moment of death need to be very peaceful. Whoever surrounds you when you are dying, they sould not disturb your mind. Tell them that you are practicing phowa, let them remind you the phowa things, good things. They should not talk about any negative things and make you angry, upset or something like that. They shouldn’t talk about this kind of negative things. They should always talk about the practice which you did during your life and then remind you that it’s your time to go now and that you have to do your practice now. Don’t do anything else, then you will go to good places. However good your practice was, if somebody is disturbing your mind, it won’t work and then you will go to wrong places, the worst places. That’s very important. Whether you are a Buddhist or not, the dying time requires a very peaceful mind. That’s very important. If you want to talk about something, talk nicely. If a person is a Christian, you can say “You are going to heaven. Your family, everybody is up there. You’re going to be okay, so you should not worry. Concentrate your mind on that, you should go” something like that.
Have you helped people who are dying? Have you been with them?
Not too much but I’ve been with a couple of people, yes. Recently in Canada I’ve been with one man dying in hospital. They called me and I went there.
So the nomads were very grateful that you were teaching them this.
Yes, and then they wanted me to do a ritual for removing obstacles and another ritual to have more money. Something like that, yeah, that’s what we did. I was not alone, my tutor was with me, too. But when I was giving empowerments and phowa practices, I did them alone. He was beside me, but he didn’t do anything. But there were some rituals which required to have spent time in retreat. In those cases, if my tutor did the necessary retreat which I did not do, then he helped me.
Was that unusual for there to be a Tibetan woman teacher among the nomads?
All our two Sakya families ussually did like this. As for others, I don’t know.
In those two families, the women became teachers.
Oh yes, if they wanted. Some of them didn’t want to become teachers. My father has five sisters. They don’t teach. So, as for me, it was my aunt who trained me like that.
So when you came back you were 12 and now your brother was about 6?
Yes, he’s seven years younger than me. He was 5 years old.
Did you go anywhere after that trip to the nomads and teaching them?
Next time I didn’t teach, we stayed at home and we ourselves needed to receive teachings. So we went with my brother to the Ngor Monastery in Tibet. We stayed there for almost two years and received a lot of teachings. Maybe few times we went back to Sakya for some reason but mostly we stayed there receiving teachings. It takes two days on a horseback to get from Sakya to Ngor, a place called Ngor Monastery.
Can you tell us the name of some of your root teachers?
Our root teacher’s name was Ngawang Lodro Shengphen Nyingpo, Ngor Khangsar Ladang’s khenpo (abbot). We were receiving teachings together. We had a lot of monks too, other people too.
This teaching took place from the time you were like 12 or 13?
I was 13 years old when my father passed away. So after my father passed away we received these teachings, yeah. Because father never had time to give teachings. After he passed away, we were always receiving teachings everywhere, here, there. So for a few years we received teachings first and then practiced them. Such small things like long life empowerment for us was a very basic thing, small one. You can give it at a young age also, but other things you can’t do. First you have to receive teachings, then you have to do a retreat, that deity’s retreat. When you finish the retreat, then you can teach other people. If you didn’t finish your retreat, you cannot teach others. No matter how good you are, you can’t do it. After that two years’ teaching, I spent seven months retreat dedicated to that deity, Hevajra. I was 16 years old at that time. I did the retreat at my father’s palace with my other tutor, not alone. I had my quarter—retreat room and sitting room—then there was also servant’s quarter. There were three rooms like that. So I couldn’t go out from the servant’s room. If I went out of the servant’s room, then I would come to the hallway and I couldn’t go there. I was fine and had no problem. Two servants were coming and I could talk to them. Then once in a while my aunt was checking us, bringing some goodies, and that time I could talk to her.
Was the teacher able to give you instructions about your meditation and what was happening in your mind?
Oh yeah, he taught me what I basically needed for that retreat. And also he disciplined me. If my mind was a little bit astray, he would beat me with some of his small sticks to keep me disciplined, to keep my mind wake up.
Did you find that level of concentrated effort and solitude; did you find that helpful to deepen your understanding of Buddhism?
Yes and no. Sometimes mind goes off, you know. Mind is very tricky, never stays in one place at all. You understand that. Mind never stays at one place. Actually discipline is very good, mind stays better. Yeah, mind goes little bit here and there, but then you have to bring it in and put in your meditation. You have to focus your mind.
How would you focus? Would you think about a mantra or a word?
There were different meditations. So I had to switch around. Otherwise, if you concentrate on one focus, then you feel boring and become sleepy. Yeah, and mind also becomes sleepy. So you have to switch around and then you won’t be sleepy and won’t feel boring. It’s like training a little dog. I can’t talk too much because if there are people who don’t have deity’s empowerment, we are not allowed to talk about it.
Yes, I understand. Thank you for reminding me. I knew that here but I’m happy to hear that you had a good experience at 16.
Oh yes, I got good experience.
That was wonderful and then after, what happened? When you were 16, were you thinking of being a nun?
I stayed as a nun. I took the ordination when I was 8 years old.
And then when you finish the retreat, does your life change? Did you go anywhere?
No, it was the same thing. [Laughs] In the West people’s life always changes. But I think life never changes, it remains the same, but it’s people’s mind what is changing. [Laughs] But the big change was the Revolution. Afther that we moved to India. [Laughs] That was really a change. Yeah, the Chinese came to central Tibet in the early 50’s, when my father died. He passed away in 1950, and in 1952 or 3, I don’t know, around that time, the Chinese came. They came very late to Sakya. They came, stayed only one year and then they moved back. When we were leaving from Tibet, Sakya, no Chinese were in town.
Jetsun Kushok-la, when did you go? When did you leave Tibet? What year?
In 1959. Same year as Dalai Lama. Actually that is an interesting story. Since the Chinese stayed one year in Tibet, they sold their furniture. So I bought their radio set. We had to put in a battery. So we bought it, and I always listened to the sounds that came from this radio. His Holiness had another radio that the Chinese people gave him as a present. They listened only to the Chinese news from Lhasa and I was always doing round [moves fingers] listening to different things. Then one night I heard the voice of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, previous Khyentse Rinpoche Choekyi Lodro who lived in Gangtok, resounding from the radio. Then I marked there. I don’t know the numbers, whatever the stations, I marked there. That was All India Radio. Yeah, I heard it for the first time. Then I told that to my aunt and His Holiness. They found it in their radio and we listened all the time to All India Radio. And once that radio said that Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet. Then we left. The first place the Dalai Lama went was the south part of Tibet. We didn’t know where he was. The second day they said that Dalai Lama was facing to the Indian side. Then third one said that he arrived to the Indian border, in India. Then we left.
Why did you leave?
My aunt always said, “If Dalai Lama is not in Tibet, we have to go.” So she said, “If Dalai Lama is in China, then we have no place and need to go. There will be no benefit here. If Dalai Lama is not in China or in Tibet, then we have to escape.” We were very close to Sikkim border so we came to Sikkim. From my house to Sikkim border is only two days of travel. No Chinese there, so it was very easy to go. Yeah, if there was no snow, then it wouldn’t be very easy.
Do you remember the trip? Who went with you?
All of us: my brother, His Holiness Sakya Trizin, my aunt and nine servants.
So how old were you on that journey?
I was 22 and His Holiness was 15.
Was that the first time you’ve been to India?
No, I’ve been in India before. Once we went for Buddha’s two thousandth year or something. We stayed around. Then tried to learn English. [Laughs] Everybody said, “You have to learn English. It is good for you”. Some said, “Tibetans will freed very quick.” Some said no. At that time everybody did that, so I followed whatever they were doing.
So where did the family go when they got to…They went to Sikkim?
Yes, Sikkim. Actually Sikkim kings are our relatives. Sikkim king’s mother was from my father’s grandmother’s house. They were from the same family. That’s it. Not for the religion but for the family reasons. We stayed maybe a few months there. Then we moved to Darjeeling where we rented a place. Then our family’s friend, a rich Tibetan, offered to us a house until we needed to move back if Tibetans receive their freedom. But later we went all together to Dehradun. So then I went to a Christian school in Kalimpong. Not really Christian, but Protestant. They were missionaries who set up a school for Tibetan adults. We were only 12 students: four monks, four ladies, four laymen. We went there from Monday through Friday, but Monday through Thursday they would teach and on Friday the whole day they were talking about Jesus Christ, Mary, Joseph, this kind of things. I learned all this, they were teaching very nicely. I appreciate that but I also studied in another church too. That time they teach us all. We don’t know any English. So we studied alphabet, a, b, c, d and simple words like, c-a-t, cat something like that.
How long did you stay in India?
I stayed there until 1971. Eleven years only. I already live 43 years in Canada now.
Was there a reason why you left India?
Because at that time the Canadian Government and the Dalai Lama Government talked and invited Tibetan refugees to Canada. At that time the Canadian ambassador practiced Buddhism. His name was Jim George and he received teachings from the four schools’ head lamas. Once he came to my brother. He said, “Your sister has too many children, so life is difficult. We are inviting Tibetan refugees.” So they wrote down my name, our family name. Then we came like that. At that time I had five children, my daughter died and my son was a rinpoche, ‘reincarnated lama,’ so I left him. So I took three children with me to Canada.
How did you survive? What did you do for a living?
The Canadian Government was very kind and gave us a job. My husband worked on a cattle farm. At that time I didn’t work because our children were very small. The elder one was 6; the others were 2 years old and 10 months old.
When did you become a teacher again?
That is American woman’s fault. [Laughs] His Holiness Sakya Trizin came on a second visit to New York. Then he talked in public. I don’t know what he taught, but one woman said to him, “Tibetan Buddhism has only men teachers. Why don’t we have a woman teacher?” Then His Holiness Sakya Trizin told them, “We have a woman teacher but she is quiet.” After that he came to Vancouver and he told me to teach. Then I said that in Tibet if you’re not a nun, you can’t teach because the students are all monks and nuns, and lay person and top persons not really good for that and it doesn’t work that way. So I never taught. Maybe in private for one or two people, yes, but not for the crowd of people, you know, gathering together, no. So His Holiness Sakya Trizin told me three reasons. First thing is, “Westerners practitioners are not nuns and monks. They are all lay people.” Second thing is, “You can teach being a kind of a role model for them because you’re a householder.” And “You have a position of a working lady. So you are a lay person. You have to teach.” Sakya Trizin is my root guru. I can’t say no to him. Whatever guru says, yes, I have to do it. Otherwise, my real wish is that I don’t want to teach at all. His Holiness told me to do it, so I have to.
When you were a housewife and mother, were you trying to practice at all?
Yes, and that’s one reason I’m telling the practitioners, good practitioners, “Give up the sleep.” I got up at 3:30 or 4 o’clock and did my practice. Still I’m doing it. Still I’m a mother.
So your brother said, “You are a good model because you are a householder.” So when did you start? What year?
It was in 1979, I guess. So I went to teach in Australia. Before that I taught a little bit in New York, a little bit in Los Angeles. We have small Sakya centers in both sides.
Can you remember what was it like the first time to be back teaching publicly?
The cultures are so different between Tibet and the United States.
Yes, I know. But if people want to learn, they learn the teachings. They don’t need to learn the culture. Ther’s no difference, that’s in your mind actually.
What teachings do you think have been the most useful for the American people?
I think the most useful for them is mind training and concentration of the mind, because in America and Canada people’s minds are too busy. You know, sometimes your kids are visiting you, sometimes everybody’s busy. We [Tibetans] don’t do the visiting things but we also have a habit of being busy. Yeah, mind training is the best for everybody. Concentrating and calming down the mind are very helpful when you feel depressed. Also to calm down the mind training is needed. Then you feel less depressed and less sad or upset. Of course, you should also read what they’re saying in the books. Then you will understand. After that you have to think about it and then do practice. You should try. If you get it, then you will be able to relax your mind. But don’t try too much, it’s not good for the mind. Learn slowly. Then rest. Then learn. Then rest. Then you will understand. It’s not like “Ok, now I got it.” But you have to slowly enter your mind.
So you have been teaching now for a long time and you have a center here?
I have retreat centers here and in San Juan Island, and another one in Frankfurt, Germany. I have a small center in Berkeley. I go to the other Sakya centers too. Yeah, I usually need a translator. For interviews my English is ok, but generally my English is not so good.
Do you get a lot of—because you had a family, married, children—do you find yourself giving advice to couples a lot in this country?
Sometimes if people ask me I do. I try to make their minds better so that Boddhichitta arises in them.
What are your wishes for Tibet since that’s the country of your origin? What do you wish?
I wish that everybody can be more happy.
Well, we are very grateful for your time, for your teaching!
Interview for Tibet Oral History Project, edidted by The Yogini Project.