Lama Shenpen Hookham
Lama Shenpen Hookham was born Susan Kathryn Rowan in Essex, England, in 1946. She first encountered Buddhism while studying Geography and Sociology at Reading University, where she became secretary of the University Buddhist Society and had early encounters with Sangharakshita and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, amongst others.
In the early 1970s, on the advice of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Lama Shenpen went to India where she lived as a nun for six years, ordained by the 16th Karmapa. There she studied and meditated in retreat under the guidance of Tibetan teachers such as Karma Thinley Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche and Kalu Rinpoche. Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa and head of the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, subsequently instructed her to return to the West to teach Mahamudra.
She met her main teacher, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, in Europe, and he encouraged her to teach and transmit Mahamudra, the innermost teachings of the Kagyu tradition. On her later return to England, she met and married Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche (Michael Hookham), an early pupil of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Dharma Director of the Longchen Foundation (formerly the Chöd Group) since its inception in 1975.
Lama Shenpen is fluent in Tibetan and has translated a number of Tibetan texts into English for her students. On Khenpo Rinpoche’s instructions she produced a seminal study of the profound Buddha Nature doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism, published as The Buddha Within, and gained a doctorate in this from Oxford University. She is also the author of ‘There’s More to Dying than Death’, and translated, edited and published Khenpo Rinpoche’s important teaching: ‘The Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness.’
Lama Shenpen is now the Spiritual Director of the Awakened Heart Sangha, and spends most of her time in semi-retreat at the Hermitage of the Awakened Heart in North Wales, United Kingdom. Under Lama Shenpen’s guidance, in 2011 the Awakened Heart Sangha built an Enlightenment stupa at the Fortress of Enlightenment (Changchub Dzong), the Hermitage at Ynys Graianog, Criccieth, Gwynedd, in North Wales containing a small stupa consecrated by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. Lama Phuntsok from Nepal directed the construction and came to consecrate it formally in October of that year.
Khenpo Rinpoche and Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche have subsequently encouraged Lama Shenpen to develop her teaching activity further, and she is the author and principal teacher of the distance learning programme Living the Awakened Heart Training, a comprehensive training in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight, bringing the most profound teachings of the Mahamudra and Dzogchen traditions to Western students in an accessible, experiential way.
“In a funny way, one is looking at something that is plainly obvious. Maybe it’s like trying to get a fish to understand water. How do you introduce a fish to water? It’s all it knows. It knows it so well, it cannot distinguish it from the very fabric or essence of its experience. Maybe it’s a fish always wanting something else, never satisfied, always trying to cling on to a particular patch of water as if its life depended on it. So it is never trusting the river to just be and carry it along. It has heard of the river and longs for the river, but it cannot understand that it is already in the river and all it needs to do is relax and just let the river be as it is. Of course, the example doesn’t quite match here since the river isn’t the true nature of the fish. My point isn’t that we have to learn to go with the flow, which of course is often a pretty good thing to do. My point is that we are training to discover and be able to know something that is so close to us and so simple that we can’t really believe that that is it somehow.”
~ From an interview with Lama Shenpen Hookham