Sonam Dekyi (or Lama Rinzang) was born in Bhutan to a very devoted Buddhist family. When she was very young, her grandmother encouraged her to read aloud and learn by heart some Buddhist texts. She took this advice to heart and memorised many prayers and sutras.
Later in 1983, when she was only fifteen years old, she went with her grandmother to the monastery in Sonada, India, to receive the entire Rinchen Terdzo empowerments from Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche over the course of six months. This very important event was attended by many great lamas, such as Tai Situ Rinpoche, Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and many other eminent teachers. During that time, Kalu Rinpoche was bestowing monastic ordination every month. Sonam Dekyi, feeling deeply inspired, took ordination during this wondrous occasion. After becoming a nun, she went to Karma Shedrub Chokor Ling, the nunnery of Rumtek monastery, under His Holiness Karmapa’s supervision. She stayed there for a few years, working hard while building rooms for the nuns.
In 1988, her uncle Lama Orgyen, one of the resident lamas of Kalu Rinpoche’s center, Kagyu Ling, in France, visited the nunnery and invited Sonam Dekyi to come to France for a holiday as she had been working very hard for the last few years. She accepted and went to Kagyu Ling with the mere intention of visiting her uncle for just three months. However, while there, she learned that they were about to start a traditional three-year retreat in the Shangpa Kagyü tradition, and there happened to be an empty space in the women’s retreat group. Sonam Dekyi sincerely wished to join the retreat, and the lamas in charge of the center did their best to get a long-term visa and a sponsor for her. Luckily, they were able to arrange everything before the retreat began.
The retreat began on November 10, 1988, when she was only twenty years old, and it finished on January 19, 1992. Not only was she the sole eastern woman in that particular group, but she was likely the first eastern woman to complete the traditional three-year retreat in the Shangpa Kagyü lineage.
According to leading Shangpa teachers, there were no opportunities for women for the practices solely transmitted in the context of traditional Shangpa three-year retreat within the Himalayan region prior. As such, there has yet to be found any account of any other eastern woman doing retreat in this particular lineage before Sonam Dekyi.
After completing her retreat, she continued to serve at Kagyü Ling and was particularly helpful to her uncle, Lama Orgyen. Afterwards, around 1999, she met Lama Drubgyu Tenpa, the spiritual director of Kalu Rinpoche’s center in Spain, Dag Shang Kagyü. They married and had two daughters. Since then, she has been living and working at Dag Shang Kagyü, supporting the various activities of the center.
What makes Sonam Dekyi’s story so remarkable is that she, as a Bhutanese woman, was able to have the exceptional opportunity to complete this retreat due to Venerable Kalu Rinpoche historically making the three-year Shangpa retreat available for women in Europe and the US. In monasteries of the Himalayan region during those times, as noted above, the Shangpa retreat was exclusively available for monks. Even if Sonam-la and those like her had wanted to do the Shangpa retreat in Bhutan, India or Nepal, she simply would not have been able to. It was the conflux of positive conditions thanks to having travelled to France and Kalu Rinpoche having facilitated this opportunity, that she was able to do so.
In Tibet the traditional three-year Shangpa retreat started in the 19th century with Jamgon Kontrul Lodro Thaye. At the beginning it was only available for monks. Nevertheless, these retreats for women have also started in Tibet in the 21st century and nowadays, about 21 nuns are participating in the third Shangpa retreat in Tibet. This is excellent news regarding the opportunities given to Tibetan nuns to participate in the traditional retreat devoted to the Five Golden Doctrines of Niguma.
* Text by Sonam Dekyi and Maite Mentxaka. Images from Sonam Dekyi’s three-year retreat at Kagyu Ling.