Khandro Lhamo

By all accounts, Khandro Lhamo was a remarkable woman. The longtime wife of His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Khandro-la was also an accomplished practitioner, a skilled doctor of Tibetan medicine, and the revered matriarch of Shechen, a “mother monastery” of the Nyingma lineage where Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche undertook much of his training.  The circumstances of her birth, in Eastern Tibet to a farming family of modest means, did not augur the extraordinary life she would lead. Women such as she could have expected to endure closely circumscribed existences, marked by hard labor and perhaps by early death in childbirth or by disease. Khandro-la’s dramatic shift of fortune began with an admonition rendered in verse:

“The young yogi with an A on his forehead/From the virtuous family of Sakar mansion,/To prolong his life, should wed the maiden born/in the Wood Tiger year.”

Khyentse Rinpoche, the yogi to which the verse was understood to refer, had become seriously ill. As a terton (a person who finds hidden teachings) he was expected to take a consort, and one of his main gurus, the illustrious Rimé leader Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, believed that if he didn’t take one soon he would die. Arrangements were made to locate an appropriate girl. Khandro-la would later learn that the above verse, drawn from a religious text, was a decisive factor in her selection.

A party of lamas appeared at her home and led her through a dense forest to the small wooden hut that served as Khyentse Rinpoche’s hermitage. Fearing she would not agree to be his consort, they did not tell her the reason for the trip. She would later joke that had she known the role she was to fill, “at least I would have been able to get ready and put on something nice.”

When she encountered him for the first time, he appeared to be near death and not at all enthusiastic about the prospect of married life. As she recalled, “Rinpoche himself did not seem the slightest bit interested in having a wife. He did not care whether he died or not, he said; he only got married because his teacher had told him to. But after my arrival his health seemed to improve. One day he was up and about … and he asked me to come and eat with him.”

Khandro-la would thereafter see her husband most often during meals, joined by his brother. Otherwise, he spent nearly all of his time in silent meditation sessions. Rinpoche spoke little—only between lunch and dinner—and slept sitting up in a wooden box, in a retreat hut near the family house. The hut was too small to store texts or hold a shrine so Khandro-la fetched his texts and maintained the potted flowers that adorned a shrine on the veranda.  Khyentse Rinpoche and Khandro Lhamo were together for many years in Tibet, in retreat and traveling through out the country. She remembered seeing Rinpoche perform many miracles, and received every empowerment he gave and many that he received. They had two daughters together.

When the Chinese invaded Tibet in the late 1950s, Khandro-la played a crucial role in Rinpoche’s escape.  Khandro-la was able to forward him a secret warning directing him to flee Kham to Lhasa. Then she made a daring escape of her own to join him. When, a few months later, the authorities were closing in on them again, Khandro-la skillfully deceived them, buying enough time for the family to flee once more.

The family settled first in India, where their youngest daughter died not long after their arrival. The family later moved to Bhutan, at the request of the royal family, where Khyentse Rinpoche became a school teacher. Their eldest daughter, Chime Wangmo, gave birth to a son in 1966. The Sixteenth Karmapa recognized him as the Seventh Shechen Rabjam, successor to the founder of Shechen monastery. From the age of three, he was raised by Khyentse Rinpoche and received every empowerment his grandfather gave during their more than twenty years together.

The first monastic center that Khyentse Rinpoche founded was a nunnery, Shechen Orgyen Chozong in Bhutan. In 1980 Khandro-la and Trulshik Rinpoche, Khyentse Rinpoche’s main disciple, proposed construction of a small monastery in Nepal as the future seat of Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche. Khyentse Rinpoche liked the idea and decided to build a grand, new Shechen monastery, which eventually became one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the diaspora. Khandro-la took an active role in its construction and maintenance. She also served as a medical doctor to close students and visiting teachers.

Khyentse Rinpoche died in 1991, and Khandro-la thereafter concentrated her energy on Shechen Orgyen Chozong Nunnery. She passed away at the age of ninety, after a brief illness, in March 2003, in Nepal, with her daughter, her grandson, and other lamas by her side. Her death was accompanied by signs of accomplishment befitting a practitioner as distinguished as she was.

Coming Home – The Cremation of Khandro Lhamo

Source:  Greg Zwhalen, Autumn 2006