Three foreigners, dressed in various combinations of monastic robes, made steady headway out of Sikkim’s Capital and towards a long sought after rare chance appointment. One intrepid traveller in the group was a strapping New Zealander, one an Scottish ex-nun, the other a soon to de-vow monastic (i.e. me), all trudging steadily up the steep hills out of Gangtok and towards the old royal Sikkimese compound.
The weather was fine and clear, and the beautiful Himalayan countryside almost leaped out of the thin blue sky as we walked. All of us shared the same thought- would we be able to get past the guards and into the main compound to visit Khandro Tsering Chodron, once consort of the great Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro and renowned real life yogini…
Khandro became Jamyang Khyentse’s spiritual wife in 1948, at a time when he was in poor health and many of his disciples were urging him to take a consort to prolong his life. For the next eleven years she served as his attendant and devoted companion, receiving countless teachings and transmissions, requesting practices and prayers and travelling with him all over Tibet and following him to Sikkim on his escape.*
We had all heard of numerous failed attempts by other western devotees to get in to see her, with the gatekeepers more often than not turning everyone away in order to keep the premises secure. So, we decided to walk up to the Tsuklakhang compound rather than jump in a taxi, and do our best invisibility attempts to get past the main gate and find her.
The cool Himalayan air was no obstacle whatsoever, we chatted as we walked, taking in the countryside around us. finally we breasted the last rise and saw the gate clearly ahead of us. Walking on the side of the road farthest away from the guard house, we made ourselves appear as monastic as possible, and walked at a steady pace forwards. As we breached the gates the guard looked up for a moment, we nodded to him briefly, and just kept on going. Without so much as a glint of recognition, he was back to the pages of his book in an instant.
I remember clearly the grassy hill in 1998 that the temple sits upon, and the huge wave of elation as we started to approach. Finally, to meet a spiritual practitioner of such high regard and link to the Tibet that once was. We knocked on one of the temple doors politely and an attendant came out. With our best Tibetan, we explained our reason for the visit and the desire we had to meet Khandro.
If you ever get a chance to visit this temple, it is an incredibly beautiful sight. Imagine the high Himalayan peaks wrapping around you as you stand on a grassy hill, with a panoramic view of the countryside around you. Steeping through the tall doorway, you are struck with the feeling of antiquity of the place and that you stand upon very hallowed grounds, as Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro’s Stupa and relics are stored there. I was struck by the quiet feeling of vastness as we walked quietly down the hall towards a closed door, which we knocked on gingerly, and then were ushered through. Inside was a vast shrine room, dimly lit, empty of all furniture with a highly polished wooden floor, like dark glass. At the far end of this room, sitting on a cushion and appearing so diminutive, was Khandro herself, looking quizzically at the arrival of these three foreign guests.
At that point, the three of us lost any composure we had managed to have up till then, and fell over ourselves to offer prostrations of respect to her and offer silk khata. A smile appeared on her face as she sensed our discomfort, and with a smile beckoned us to sit. We sat there for a short interview, our nun doing her best to translate our thoughts into Tibetan, as she looked at us and smiled a deep, loving smile. I think having finally achieved our goal we were all at a loss as to what to do or say, and feeling too overwhelmed at the energy of sitting close to this woman, we got up and sat a little distant , in order to just remain in the space with her for as long as we could.
All three of us were lost in thoughts and practice, but the energy in the room belied a sense of power much greater than this kind little woman sitting before us. I first tried to do my mantra practice, but my mind was completely restless, so I just settled for shamatha/vipassyana, and allowed myself to gradually tune in to the room around me. It was cavernous, with a high ceiling, with the walls covered in various tangkhas and other religious paintings and artwork. Khandro just immediately returned to her practices, which in many ways encouraged us to do the same. We must have stayed in there with her for an hour or two, and through the whole time I was struck by how this woman just radiated energy.
At one point as my vipassana gradually expanded out further and further into the darkened space around me, I felt as if the highly polished wooden floor beneath me became instead a sheet of glass, and below that the darkened planks in fact a vast and empty space. Literally, I felt the world as I was accustomed to it fall away into nothingness, which struck me with a sense of awe.
My feelings of being overwhelmed with the situation were not alone; my two companions at some point signalling that they too felt profoundly affected by being in her presence. An attendant came in to see her, and we took our leave, leaving her, as I remember, still quietly sitting on her cushion, smiling and chanting some mantra.
Emerging outside into the still bright sun, we stumbled onto a grassy patch and sat down, knocked out by being in her presence and needing time to recover. I dont remember the contents of the conversation, but we all had felt an incredible power surge just by being near her. We made our way down the winding road and out the gates, proceeding to walk back down the hill from whence we came.
Suddenly, one in our party started laughing. I dont rememer who it was, but it soon infected the three of us with the same effect. Within moments, without any knowledge of why we were doing so, we were all laughing and completely out of control, laughing and stumbling, howling at the energy release that had just occurred.This lasted a good fifteen minutes or so and would not be controlled no matter what we tried. A site we must have been for all who passed us, their eyes curious as to what had struck us as so funny, where in fact there was no cause that any of us knew of.
Khandro was a living example of how important women practitioners are to the Buddhist faith, and that her attainment as a practitioner was unparallelled. I will never forget her.